Being Chinese: Historically a Multiethnic Identity?

This is a continuation of what I’ve been discussing in my previous post China and Tibet

The popular argument of being Chinese as being a multi ethnic identity that encompasses the 56 ethnic minorities of China is used by largely advocates of a “One China”. I agree with this use of this argument in the modern context where it is no different from the view of being American or Canadian. Therefore in this context the identity is one of a political nature where those who hold Chinese citizenship are therefore “Chinese”.

However the argument being used doesn’t only stop in the modern context, they argue that these various ethnic groups have always, or at least prior to the modern age, always been considered Chinese.

This is something I am not sold on.

Prior to modern times we didn’t have nationalism where people from whatever background are brought together under one national identity through the concept of a shared goal, struggle, or quality.

Therefore, prior to the modern age we don’t really see nationalism since the nationalist ideologies or sentiments are spread through modern inventions like mass media and modern communications. Instead, pre-modern people usually associated themselves under one title, group, or nation by means of a common language, ethnic identity, culture, or religion.

In China’s case the various ethnic groups never commonly shared any of these.

So if this argument of historical Chinese multi ethnic identity is true, then what was it about China that allowed it to be different in this aspect?

What was it that bound all these different ethnic groups together to view themselves as ‘Chinese’ or whatever other name they used to group themselves all together in?

I recognize that there could also be some political motivation behind the arguing of this view of China or being Chinese as encompassing those periphery peoples of China that many people don’t consider as “traditional China”. Then again, the same could be said about the opposite argument.


10 thoughts on “Being Chinese: Historically a Multiethnic Identity?

  1. Dava

    Speaking of modern times, wouldn’t you have to distinguish the 5 or so Chinese terms for ‘Chinese’ that all have different usages, that have themselves been invented or modified in meaning in recent times?

    I hardly know any Chinese language, but I imagine just about every Chinese speaker will have something interesting to say on this issue. And I think they’re likely to say different things depending on their location and educational background. That would seem to happen with every ethnonym. These things are a little slippery to begin with, but then they can be stretched at will when political circumstances call for it, as for instance when it would appear important to absorb another nation into ones own.

    The PRC has often thrown around the idea of imperialism, of which only other peoples can be guilty. But the only useful meaning of empire is the situation when one nation extends its state power over other nations together with their real estate. The Chinese nation is as empire-building and imperialistic as they come. At least that’s my point of view.

  2. Delwin

    The thing that makes China different is that every land China conquered, the Han Chinese intermarried peacefully with. Therefore, all 56 different Chinese are part Han Chinese. I am supposed to be Han Chinese, but no one knows for sure. That is how stupid trying to seperate China is.

  3. So the 56 ethnic minorities of China historically viewed themselves as Chinese because they are part Han Chinese through intermarriage?

    I don’t agree with that at all. For one, using the argument’s logic you could say that the intermarriage could mean that the Chinese viewed themselves as Tibetan, Mongolian or whatever other ethnic minority was involved in this intermarriage.

    This intermarriage your talking about was from the Chinese dynastic ruling families who sent off their princesses to marry kings of the bordering areas in order to create favorable ties with them and as an act of appeasement. Europeans practiced the same practice as well, in fact the current Queen of England’s ancestry is German. So does this mean that British people see themselves as German? or vice versa?

    By the way I’m not presenting some sort of separatist counter-argument in critiquing this argument used by many Chinese. I’m just trying to explain why I think this argument is false or illogical so that maybe the truth of the matter can be found.

  4. Oliver

    @ Jigme 14 Reference to Earlier Thread

    The concept of multi-culturalism is purely a modern device that have only come into popular usage in the last ten years or so. It has no application to the analysis of what held dynastic China together and its many reunifications.

    While I agree that today the concept of multi-culturalism can undeniably be used to assert geographical and political borders, this argument in relation to China has the unfortunate effect of placing the cart before the horse for “China” has been multi-ethnic long before the PRC was established.

    Whereas say Russia has only been multi-ethnic in the last two hundreds years or so due to Tsarist Russia’s eastward colonial expansion that occurred simultaneously with other European powers’ colonial adventures. Consequently, China has a far longer claim to being multi-ethnic, with the only difference being that the various ethnicities of imperial China are perhaps less racially distinguishable from each other to your typical Westerner than say between white Europeans and Indians, Africans or American Indians. You need to set aside the racial bias/obsession of your Western education and look beyond race and skin colours to determine ethnicity.

    Furthermore, if you were to look at the ebb and flow of the estimated borders of China’s various dynasties one cannot deny that it has always encompassed other ethnic peoples other than the “Han”, who have historically limited themselves more or less to the Yangtse and Yellow Rivers’ flood plains. Other historical evidence included the well documented Tang dynasty’s employment of Turkic soldiers drawn from within and around its borders in wars against the Mongols as well as the myriad of religions that have been practised within China over the centuries.

  5. Oliver

    @ Jigme 13 Reference to Earlier Thread

    Emigration took place long before the advent of the Qing dynasty. The earliest surviving records of emigration date to the Ming dynasty. There are also records of conferences held between emperor and court officials regarding the jurisdictional status of Ming citizens who emigrated overseas. According to the records, the Ming emperor had no intention of colonisation and decreed that all Ming citizens who emigrate from Ming China are to be subjected to the laws of those lands in which they ultimately settle, which stands in mark contrast to later European settlers and colonists in Asia and elsewhere.

    Ming dynasty emigrants refer to themselves as the Tang people in order not to be viewed as colonists from what was a powerful Ming Empire. It was so as not to alienate the SE Asian host Kingdoms and its peoples nor jeopardised the long existing close trading relationship and the reference was much used well into the 1980’s, but has slowly been replaced with Chinese or (Zhong Guo Ren).

    The question of what holds “China” together as an enduring political entity is indeed one that have long perplexed many Western historians and social scientists. Many have at one time posited language, culture or religion among others as the binding force, when in reality none of them alone or combined is sufficient to wholly explain China‘s continuance in the face of its disparities.

    The fundamental flaw in many traditional Western approaches as also evident in your Western educational background, is that all too often, Western historians have placed too much reliance and emphasis on concepts derived from Western philosophy and the social sciences to interpret and define what is essentially an Asian polity with its own historical experience, values and norms.

    So Jigme, if you and other Overseas Tibetans who were born, grew up and educated outside of Tibet or even Asia wants to understands the “Chinese” people, whether within China or outside of China, whether these Chinese are recent emigrants or 4th/5th generation descendants, you need to temporarily set aside not only your hatred, anger and prejudice, but also your Western preconceptions about China and its peoples.

    Consequently, sometimes I feel that it is necessary to “go native” in order to gain a greater understanding of the problems historical sociology. Hence, the theory that I personally find most compelling is as follows:

    What Holds China Together: Very Briefly:

    On Language
    Apart from the languages of the recognised ethnic groups of today’s China, there are hundreds more other “Han” dialects spoken in China. This is not just variations of Mandarin or Cantonese etc. but for all intent and purposes a totally different sounding language from one valley to another within the same province. An example is the fact that phonetically Xiamen Fujianese have more in common with Japanese than Mandarin, in particular the pronunciation of numbers, while Cantonese spoken in Hong Kong also have a totally different intonation system from Mandarin.

    Linguistic historians suspect that these different dialects/languages are actually holdouts from the various languages originally spoken during the warring states period, prior to unification by the First Emperor, who as we all know unified the Chinese writing system among other measures.

    On Culture & Religion
    As for culture and religion, this too varies from region to region. Apart from Buddhism, Islam, Judaism (Wiki Jews and China) and ancestral worship, the “Han” Chinese also traditionally pray to different gods from a whole pantheon of deities and each deity’s popularity also vary from region to region. Separate from organised religion there is also the quasi-religious spiritualism of Taoist philosophy and belief system of how the world and the universe are organised.

    While some emperors have at one time or another promoted one religion or a school of religion over another, this was more in the form of patronage rather than state sponsored forced conversion of the masses. Nor were there any state sponsored crusades as you would find in European or Islamic cultures, so that in reality many religions and belief systems have long existed and were practised together in China without any contradiction.

    On Multi-Culturalism/Ethnicity
    When I said China has always been multi-ethnic, I simply applied a modern term retrospectively to make a point. Likewise, ethnic identity and culture are very much modern Western concepts. Ancient China was multi-ethnic in actuality, while from historical writings/records its peoples, although conscious of superficial aspects such as skin colour, cultural practices, and clothing, its peoples were not as politically or ideologically conscious of it like we are today, particularly in relation to the Western concept of statehood.

    What really held the peoples of China together and enabled them to survive and prosper is therefore not wholly one religion, one culture or one language, which individually would not be sufficient to maintain such a vast and disparate political entity together down the centuries. The real foundation for China’s continuance is simply ethics, the Hobbesian idea of good governance/mandate of Heaven and history.

    On Ethics & Values
    It is in particular the Confucian ethics of tolerance, humanity and respect for your fellow man, irrespective of tribe or creed and the idea of meritocracy as embodied by the system of imperial examinations. This Confucian tolerance is not the political or ideological concepts of modern multi-culturalism, but the fundamental and primeval idea of live and let live. However, in balance to this basic tolerance is the idea of duty and people’s relationship with one another and within the family, the relationship and obligation between Emperor, officials and subjects and the practically Socratean ideal of the “virtuous” man/person.

    Unlike the illusory sexiness/allure of freedom and democracy with its connotation of absolution from duty and responsibility, but which is in reality restrain by the rule of law and social custom, Confucian ethics is all about duty, responsibility, one’s role within society and social order. Consequently, the social need for tolerance is internalised within the individual rather than externalised or regulated by the rule of law, so that a person’s freedom is not proscribed or sanctioned by external laws, but by the individual’s virtue and conscience. However, Confucian ethics have also often been used to lessen the impact of the harshness of the legalist tradition that has often resurfaced during one dynasty or another.

    As a result, while you will often encounter stereotyping prejudice among and between the peoples of China, particularly cultural and regional chauvinism and competition, there has to my knowledge never been political, ideological or eugenic racism as those born out of European cultures and the resulting state sponsored racial pogroms.

    On History
    China’s peoples did not yearn to be united as “Chinese” or Tang or Han or even Communist per se, but that after each period of war and chaos what they yearn for is simply the fundamental need for a return to stability, good governance and security, both from crimes, internal civil wars and external threats. History has taught China’s peoples that when they are divided, they become susceptible to chaos and foreign invasions, so that like many other nations, China too has defined itself vis-à-vis “The Other”, being primarily the nomadic tribes to the north and west.

    Although nationalism and patriotism are modern concepts, it has nevertheless always existed in one form or another, so that at its most basic and primeval it is expressed as “Us v Them”, especially if “Them” are the ones who would harm “Me and Mine”. With relation to Confucianism, this is once against expressed as the duty that an individual owes to his/her parents, ancestors, the community and the Empire as personified by the Emperor.

    The expression of this sense of duty is often more prevalent and greater in a polity with agrarian roots where an individual often have stronger and wider ranging ties than one that is nomadic, whose ties are often limited to that of related family and tribal members. Such ties are simply born out of the greater dependency that individuals within agrarian communities have upon one another because of increased specialisation of skills and production, so that there is a greater sense of community and the need to act as one is more keenly felt, for the survival of the individual depends of the survival of the whole. (So ends Anthropology 101)

    Thus, the Manchurians succeeded in ruling China not because they were sinified, but because they adopted Confucian ethics, tolerance, efficiency and meritocracy in its governance of the Empire from the onset, irrespective of tribal prejudices. By contrast, the Mongols, who initially were allied to the Song dynasty against the Jin, failed because they were unwilling to give up their nomadic tradition of conquests, despite having “Han” Chinese and other administrators and officials.

    In short the Mongols wanted to remain conquerors rather than becoming rulers. And since the only common interest that the different Mongol tribes shared was conquest, the Mongol Empire ultimately split into various Kahnate where infighting led to its dissolution and absorption by its conquered peoples. The Qing dynasty failed not because they were non-Han, but because it became corrupt, inefficient and inward looking, thereby rendering it unable to resist foreign imperialism and its ultimate failure of protecting the Empire and its peoples.

    Likewise, the Japanese invasion of China and Korea failed not just because they were foreign at a time of growing resentment against foreign aggression. While Japan was and still remain very much a Confucian society, it failed to conquer China because after modernisation Japan became intolerant after having also adopted the Western ideology of racism and political eugenics in order to reinforce its own identity while undergoing modernisation (see UN report on racism in Japan). Japanese intolerance extends not only to race but also to cultural practices as can be seen in its attempts to eradicate the Korean language and cultural identity.

    On Governance
    The Confucian ideal of good governance harks back to the role, duty and responsibility of the Emperor as the Son of Heaven and the paternalism of a virtuous and just official. The concept of the virtuous official is closely linked to the belief in meritocracy and the system of imperial examinations for both civil and military positions such that only the most capable, irrespective of tribe or creed, should be promoted to positions of responsibility (see Confucianism and Ru Jia/Rujia). Examples of this meritocratic system in practice and by necessity are the many prominent roles played by individuals of non-Han origin in the history of various dynasties such as the Ming Muslim admiral Zheng He and Jewish official Zhao Yingcheng or the many Turkic generals during the Tang dynasty.

    As a result China never developed a caste system founded on religion such as that in India, nor was economic poverty and the lottery of birth regarded as hindrance or barriers to success in life. In Chinese literature there are abundant stories of rag to riches stories. Typical of these is the poor, suffering scholar passing the Imperial Examinations and returning home in glory to honour the dutiful wife, his parents, his ancestors and the ancestral village or the hero from humble origins taking up arms to defend the country against invaders to become general.

    As a result the Confucian concept of meritocracy have also enabled the dynasties to by and large integrate different peoples, but especially the most capable of the tribes, into a single polity. Thus, the long held view is that what ultimately matters most was and still is ability and hard work, hence the eternal Chinese obsession with studying and to excel in order to fulfil one’s duty and obligations firstly to one’s parents, then ancestors and finally one’s country. A contemporary equivalent is perhaps the ideal of the “American Dream”.

    In conclusion, although religions, culture and language (as in a common writing system) do play its part, they alone or together were never sufficient in explaining the endurance of “China” as a political entity. Although many Western historians have difficulty in accepting the role of ethics, good governance and history, many Western historians equally failed to explain the propagation of Confucianism and its system of governance beyond China to the rest of Asia and endure in these societies to this day.

    It is also the Confucian concept of tolerance and the fact that Confucianism have very little to do with religion that has not only allowed the existence of different religion in China over the centuries, but has allowed its disparate groups of peoples to co-exist. Consequently, imperial bureaucracies seldom interfere in the peoples’ religious practices. Unless it is perceived as endangering the existing social and political order or challenges imperial authority, such as the Yellow Turban Rebellion at the end of the Han dynasty or the Taiping Rebellion at the end of the Qing dynasty.

    What little religious aspects there are to Confucianism can be found in teachings on rites and rituals that were intended more as political ceremonies to affirm and legitimise the relationship between the Emperor, officials and the peoples, as well as between familial and social relationships.

    However, also understand that in ancient times this “multi-culturalism” was also easier to achieve simply because of the lack of communication and transportation technology available to us in this age of globalisation, which coincidentally also witness the greatest conflicts between different races and ethnicity.

    While Confucianism was not formally taught in Communist China, its ethics were long disseminated in one form or another down the centuries in classes as well as at home, from generations to generations. It has become ingrained in the “Chinese” psyche and has gone beyond the realm of culture and custom, so that even a 5th generation American born Chinese would still identify himself as Chinese or at least Chinese American.

    It is also the Confucian concept of tolerance that has enabled the Chinese peoples to endure centuries of dynastic upheavals and foreign invasions. It is also what enables Overseas Chinese to overcome discrimination and prejudice yet succeed in foreign cultures, while maintaining their “Chinese” core identity down the generations, particular as they grow old and becomes more conservative, thus giving rise to a yearning to re-affirm or return to their roots and their identity.

    Ethics and good governance, encompassed by the concepts of virtue, meritocracy, tolerance and humanity are therefore what enable the different peoples of China to become a political unit down the centuries, while history and experience is the perpetuator of the idea of “China”, whether Han, Tang, Yuan or Qing, whether Nationalist or Communist.

  6. Oliver

    Btw, just so that this forum keep up a certain degree of intelligent discussion and don’t descend into racist or xenophobic tit-for-tats like over at Phayul, I am categorically NOT a CCP agent provacateur.

    I am actually German and 4th generation Overseas Chinese with Manchurian ancestry. I have a Lutherian/Buddhist/Taoist upbringing, but am now agnostic. I speak German, French, English as well as Mandarin, Cantonese and Fujianese and can understand Hainanese and Hakka.

    So please don’t accuse me of being racist or a Han chauvinist. Nor am I responsible for what happened in Tibet.

    What I wrote above is simply my personal views as i tried over the years to discover and to gain a better understanding of my Chinese heritage.

    What I said above about Confucianism are the ideals as according to Confucian teachings and as we all know the reality are often very different despite people’s best intentions and especially so when such intentions have to be balanced by necesary compromises.

  7. No I don’t have any reason to think that your “a CCP agent”, I think its dumb to make such accusations anyways, especially over the internet. You don’t have to worry about any racist comments or insulting comments. I’ve been moderating and deleting those types of comments from both sides.

    I agree with most of what your saying but I think your somewhat missing what I’m trying to get at. I’m not asking what was it that allowed the different peoples of China to co-exist under one nation. The argument I’m critical about, says that the different peoples of China today historically always saw themselves as “Chinese”

    “The real foundation for China’s continuance is simply ethics, the Hobbesian idea of good governance/mandate of Heaven and history.”

    So would you say that this is what made the different ethnic groups of China to view themselves as one “Chinese” people?

  8. Oliver

    Jigme @ 7

    While I am all for free speech, I am not in favour of mindlessly unthinking and abusive free speech (especially when its directed at my person  ) and nor am I masochistic enough to pour through entries of unintelligent comments that contribute nothing to greater understanding between people, so I thank you for your consideration and discretion.

    The answer to your question @ 7 is ultimately a big unsatisfactory partial yes.

    If I understand you correctly, what you are looking for is that one essential “Chinese” component that compel/entice a person who is of non-“Han” origin to give his allegiance and loyalty to and to identify himself with the polity that is China.

    Without questioning your motive for wanting to know  LOL, I am afraid that as in the typical Western philosophical and educational tradition you are looking for a magic bullet that does not really exists, particularly when it comes to questions about the human condition and psyche.

    What I mentioned previously about Confucian ethics being the basis on which China has always been multi-ethnic is I feel a large part of why China has continued and endured when other multi-ethnic empires/society disintegrated, the most comparable perhaps being the Persian and the British Empire.

    As for the other answers, I am afraid you personally, other overseas Tibetans and even Chinese readers, whether from China or Overseas, will have to honestly ask yourselves the following perhaps uncomfortable questions:

    1. What is it that makes you Tibetan or Chinese? What is it that also makes you American or Canadian?

    2. If you were born in America or Canada and are Tibetan or Chinese American/Canadian, would you defend/die for America/Canada? And why or why not?

    3. If America/Canada was to go to war with either Tibet (say as an independent country) or China, whom would you join/support and why?

    4. For Tibetans: When the Communists entered Tibet:

    a. Why did some Tibetans join the Communists?

    b. Why did some Tibetans participate in the Cultural Revolution in destroying the monasteries?

    c. Why are there Tibetan Chinese policemen and women?

    d. Why is there Tibetan Communist Party members?

    e. Apart from the DL are you convinced of ALL the motivations of ALL the leaders of the Tibetan government in Exile?

    f. If Tibetan were to be independent tomorrow, would you return to Tibet and if yes, why? If not, why not?

    5. For Chinese, both Overseas and from China:

    a. Why did some Chinese join the Japanese or the colonial powers before and during WWII?

    b. Why did some Chinese join the Communist while others join the Nationalist? And why did some simply emigrated?

    c. After the Communist Revolution, why did majority of Overseas Chinese refused to participate in an American sponsored Chinese version of a Bays of Pigs type invasion of China despite the disdain for the Communist? (Yes, just like the CIA’s Tibetan operations this too was attempted among the Overseas Chinese by the CIA/British Secret Service)

    d. Despite all you know about the Chinese Communists why do you still support the Communist leadership in the latest events?

    e. What has changed in China over the past decades for you to continue to support the leadership? And has anything really fundamentally changed?

    To many of the above questions the simple answer of “Traitors” or “Brainwashing” or censorship is intellectual laziness and is simply not worthy, not to mention being dishonest with yourself and on the facts.

    Jigeme, where relevant those are questions that I have already asked myself many times and to be honest with you, I still haven’t answered all of them fully yet to my personal satisfaction and I am still looking.

    And if you want to know more, I suggest you look at books on psychology, psychoanalysis, on people’s motivations, rationalisation and books on social and political allegiance but do not forget the Asian perspective.

    Finally, like Patrick French, the former director of the Free Tibet Campaign, I too believe that a free or fully autonomous Tibet has little meaning or prospect without a free China.

    And having been to China many times in the past and visited parts of Tibet, I can’t somehow quite shake the feeling that what recently happened in Tibet has fundamentally very little to do with the pro-independence as advocated by Tibetan groups outside of China. Although having visited the former DDR (Communist East Germany) I see some of the same oppressive and paranoid police state atmosphere in Lhasa and other Tibetan towns.

    I also regard the recent riots in Tibet and the publicity overseas as having done more harm to China’s social and political reforms and ultimately the Tibetan cause so as to outweigh any possible short term political gain. The irony and tragedy is that just prior to the recent events China have actually held talks with the Vatican on resumption of diplomatic ties.

    However, I am optimistic that China will eventually have democracy, but not as people in the West might imagine or are used to. Equally, as a 4th generation Overseas German-Chinese, the first time I visited China many years ago, it and the Chinese people there were most definitely NOT what I imagined or expected. Consequently, I think the reality of Tibet too will be very different from what overseas born Tibetans might imagine it to be from the stories told by your parents or grandparents and it will be all too tempting and easy to blame it all on the Communists as I initially did. Everybody, me included, have a tendency to romanticise the past.

    Last time I was in the UK, the BBC did an excellent series on Tibet entitled “One year in Tibet” which I highly recommend, both for the modern Tibet it portrayed and also for a lot that was left unsaid about the good and the bad about both Tibet and the Communist government. Well worth watching.

  9. Ken

    You’re right, the term “Chinese” is more of a citizenship that includes various ethnic groups, just like the term “Americans”. However, the specific term “Chinese” is also a relatively modern creation, largely during the late Qing dynasty period in the 19th century as a result of the transformation to Westphalian-style nation state. It is oversimplified to use modern European constructed concepts of the nation-state to describe imperial China. Ancient East Asia world order was defined as Tian Xia or “All under Heaven”. Imperial China was a classical empire, when unified, it included various ethnic groups such as the Hans, Manchus, Mongols, etc. It was ruled by various ethnic groups depending on the era. The term “Chinese” was not used. Classification was very regional or at best between Hans, Manchus, Mongols, etc. In fact, there was no country officially named “China”, the name of the state or empire was the dynastic name such as Great Yuan empire, Great Ming empire, Great Qing empire, etc. “China” was at best a geopolitical concept meaning the center of the world or “middle kingdom.” This system began its transformation into a Westphalian-style nation state when the Qing Dynasty was defeated by the Europeans in the mid-19th century. Intellectuals and revolutionaries redefined the word China and used it as the name of the new nation state. Similarly the term “Chinese” (Zhong Hua Min Zu) was used to refer to all major ethnic groups at the time. All these creations were based on the political and territorial reality of the late 19th century.

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