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May 29, 2008

Zhonghua Minzu (中華民族): a primer

Note: most of the background information in this article comes from properly cited Chinese and English Wikipedia pages. The related articles in both languages are quite spotty, so citations were key in deciding what could be included. I've added some other information based on my understanding of current events.

The term Zhonghua Minzu, (中華民族), literally the "Chinese ethnic group," has been a politically loaded term since it was coined in 1899 by reformist and constitutional monarchist Liang Qichao (梁啟超). It's first uses were rather vague, but by 1903 Liang defined the term to include the Han, Manchurians, Uyghurs Muslims, Mongolians, Hmong and Tibetans ("合漢合滿合蒙合回合苗合藏,組成一大民族"). Such an inclusive definition was a break from a long Han Chinese tradition that viewed non-Han people as barbarians (though such sentiments were obviously punishable when non-Han people, such as the Qing dynasty of his time, ran the government).

The term became an important theme for the early Chinese Nationalist Party. This is reflected in their first flag, which bore five stripes of different colors representing these groups banding together to form one country. A popular (but unofficial) interpretation of the PRC flag is that the five stars represent the five major nationalities, with the largest being the Han.

Sun Yat-sen, who used the term heavily himself, may well have considered the Chinese nation and the Zhonghua Minzu to be synonymous. Political divisions in China during the early years of the Republic made arguing for a "united" China depend on something other than political reality on the ground.

The PRC adopted the term, widening the definition to refer to all of it's fifty-odd officially recognized ethnic groups.

Zhonghua Minzu became widely used in the KMT-directed education in Taiwan to help ingrain the idea that Taiwan and China are one country with one future. Such a line was especially necessary for the regime given the efforts to mobilize Taiwanese to "retake" China and the complete lack of political relations between the two sides of the strait, not to mention ethnic conflicts between the post-1949 immigrants, the Holo, the Hakka and the aborigines.

Zhonghua Minzu is now being embraced by both the PRC government and the KMT administration to avoid discussing sovereignty issues as the two sides prepare to re-enter talks using the "92 consensus," largely because both sides have a different definition of that key term. Thus, to avoid mentioning either the KMT's "One China, two interpretations" or China's "One China principle," both sides have largely decided to leave definitions of "92 consensus" off the table while embracing Zhonghua Minzu as a common denominator, since populations in both countries are familiar with the term.

Chinese media rarely uses
Zhonghua Minzu when discussing overseas Chinese or ethnic Chinese in Singapore, Malaysia or other diaspora areas, instead preferring "the Chinese people of the world" (全球華人) or "the sons and daughters of Chinese people throughout the world" (全球中華兒女). There is occasionally some overlap between these three terms, but Zhonghua Minzu is fundamentally -- though not explicitly -- political and territorial while the later two terms include ethnic Chinese around the world; you find very few references to "the Zhonghua Minzu of the world" (全球中華民族) when doing a search of the internet, and where you do the context tends to be extraordinarily nationalist in tone.

Feel free to comment on this post!


Eli said...

Very interesting post! I like to see more of this, since I am now doing research on Chinese nationalities, specifically Yao. Are you sure Hui refers to Uygur in Liang Qichao's formulation? At least in contemporary parlance, Hui does not include Uygur, but only Muslims in places like Xi'an all the way down to Guilin and Guangzhou. Also, Miao includes more groups than just Hmong. It is an umbrella term like Yao. I was traveling to Yao areas in Guangxi the past month, and had an interesting conversation with two anthropologists from Guangxi Normal University in Guilin--one who is Zhuang and the other Hui. They were both critical of a book, Creating the Zhuang: Ethnic Politics in China, by Katherine Palmer Kaup (it might be interesting for you in light of this post), basically because they are not comfortable with the idea that ethic groups are simply constructed, especially by the state, and that there is no reality to "Zhuang" prior to the 1950s. They were very curious about my views on this. The Hui anthropologist also said that the government originally used the term "Hui" to refer to everyone in China who is Muslim, but now Hui are an ethnic group that need not practice Islam. At one point the conversation shifted dramatically to the question of identity in Taiwan. The Zhuang anthropologist made a very interesting statement about the KMT. He said that if the KMT had controlled China all these years, there would only be 5 nationalities in China, and there would be no Zhuang or Yao or the other 50 nationalities that are currently recognized by the PRC.

阿牛 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
阿牛 said...

Very interesting comment! I appreciate the comment and clarification on Hui and Miao terminology.

What kind of questions did those anthropologists ask about identity in Taiwan?

Eli said...

Thanks. I should mention that up until that point, I had been open about the fact that I live in Taiwan, but kept my views about Taiwan fairly quiet. Most people didn't have too much to say about Taiwan actually. One woman in a pharmacy asked me if there are a lot of snacks (xiaochi) in Taipei and got excited when I said, "yes!"

I also want to point out that I met a lot of wonderful people in Guangxi, and there were clearly many things on their minds other than Taiwan. The earthquake was a bigger issue at the time. For others, finding a job was. I also noticed this time in China how much the flow of information is controlled. In the progressive blogosphere in the US, there is often discussion about low information voters, those who believe a candidate (like Lieberman) is against the war even though he has supported it all along, or those who believe Saddam Hussein was connected to Al Qaeda. Well, that's in the US, where there are generally multiple options for absorbing information. In China, the news is still pretty much what the government wants the people to know. During the first two weeks I was there, the only news on the several channels (every province and county has its own channel) was about the earthquake. Not one other story. Even on Phoenix (owned partly by Murdock), which while being much more polished, still broadcasts the news the government sees it fit to print. Add to that the fact that many people in the countryside have little awareness of the world outside, have never been to a MacDonalds or other western fast food restaurant, have never been far away from their village. That's not a negative comment--just a statement about what I saw and who I met. A few people, even a bank manager, said to me: "I can't even imagine having a chance in this lifetime to go to America."

There are also questions of local and national pride as well, just as there are in Taiwan and the US and other parts of the world.

The Zhuang professor was particularly interested in the question of identity in Taiwan. While there were certainly limits to his personal views on the subject and an acceptance of the government's position, particularly on the DPP, he was also quite open to what I said. For instance, he thought that the whole independence issue was just a result of Chen Shui-bian's propadanda. I tried to explain a little of Taiwan's history that I know, that identity is very much contested here, that Mainlanders in Taiwan have a much more strictly defined sense of themselves as Chinese, while identity for many local Taiwanese is much more fluid. I told him about the man who once told me: "When I was born I was Japanese. Then I became Chinese. I'm Taiwanese." And he listened. Of course, while it is impossible to know how he was affected by the conversation, he did seem to be genuinely interested in engaging with other viewpoints about the issue. But I also didn't really stick up for Chen nor did I come right out and demand that Taiwan become independent. I was careful but also tried to express something of what I have learned, and also listened to what he had to say.

Another issue that I find interesting: I have often thought about Taiwan as an historical issue, and have considered the different powers that have controlled Taiwan, going back to the Dutch. But there were many parts of contemporary China that were no more parts of China than was Taiwan, but they are totally China now, or there are other areas, such as Northern Vietnam, that once were, but since the Song Dynasty have not been. The Dayao Mountains in Jinxiu Yao Autonomous County, where I stayed for a week, were pretty much completely inaccessible to the forces of the state prior to the Republican period. Now there is little question about their status.

阿牛 said...

Fascinating. Thank you so much for the clarifications. It sounds like your trip there and your research was really very interesting.

I hope you can post or provide information on the results, if you've written a paper on it?

Eli said...

I haven't written about the trip yet, though I'm sure it will end up in future work; perhaps I should also get my blog back into gear. I'd like to express another point that I thought about during this trip: the reality that you witness and experience within China tends not to match the rhetoric that you hear without, either by governments or by media. But isn't that true everywhere?