In a once-popular commercial for Calgon detergent in the 1970s, a curious housewife probes the Chinese owner of the local laundry for the answer to one of the world’s eternal mysteries: “How do you get shirts so clean, Mr. Lee?” After peering over his shoulder (so as to be sure that his not-so-discreet wife isn’t standing near) the man turns back around, raises a finger to his lips and says through a smile, “Ancient Chinese secret!”
While the answer to the question posed to the laundry owner by the woman was a closely guarded secret — one that his sweet, no-nonsense wife happily ruined — it was neither ancient nor even Chinese in origin. But the TV spot famously tapped into one of the most enduring legends about the country whose Ming Dynasty rulers had a 16-to-26 foot wall built around it: the age-old traditions of secrecy.
And, like Vegas, what happened in China very often stayed in China.
Take the black Chinese who once made up a portion of the population before China’s modern era, for example. The fact that you’ve never heard of them proves the point. But don’t worry. You’re not alone. China has some 1.3 billion people and nearly all are just as in the dark about them. Well, either that or a billion people all swore to never-ever-never air any [ahem] ‘dirty laundry’ about black folks formerly having a place in China’s allegedly homogeneous society.
Frankly, even an ancient culture with the bragging rights to the “longest continually recorded history” is bound to miss a few things. The former presence — up until sometime in the 20th century — of black people in pre-modern China is one of them. Fortunately, though, old photos taken throughout China around the advent of photography can help us to fill in today some of what the historians missed.
Manchu Ladies in Black & White
China’s Qing Dynasty, established by the Manchu people who ruled from 1644–1912, is…