Skip to 0 minutes and 1 secondWelcome. My name is David O'Brien from the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at University of Nottingham. This short presentation aims to give a broad overview of ethnic identity in China. It explores how the People's Republic of China is both a multi-ethnic, heterogeneous sum of its parts, and also how these ethnic identities are deeply politicised and controlled by the state, which at times present a challenge to the concept of China as a unified whole. Slide one. For both Chinese and foreigner alike, the idea of 1.3 billion people is perhaps impossible to fully appreciate. Nor is it possible to conceptualise the complexity involved when talking about these 1,363,950,000 souls. And with about [?
Skip to 0 minutes and 49 seconds30 ?] babies born in China every minute, this means that more than 300 Chinese people have been born by the end of this presentation. But what does that mean to be Chinese, to be a citizen of the People's Republic? It is perhaps more complicated than you may imagine. For one thing, the Chinese are far from a homogeneous group. In fact, the population of the People's Republic of China is composed of 56 officially recognised ethnic groups, who together make up what is known in Chinese as the Zhonghua Minzu, or Chinese Nation. Historically the idea of who was Chinese and who was not Chinese was a cultural boundary rather than a racial or a national one.
Skip to 1 minute and 31 secondsIn the Confucian tradition, ethnic identity rested on the idea of being civilised, of hua, that is those that follow Confucian beliefs, as opposed to the yi, those who did not, and were thus considered barbarians. This division was not exclusive. That it was possible to move across the divide, and become civilised by adopting Chinese beliefs, language, and cultural practises. Slide two. But like so much in China, what had been in place for thousands of years changed dramatically when the Communist party came to power following their victory over the nationalists in 1949. China under Chairman Mao would view ethnic identity through communist ideology rather than Confucian tradition. This was an ideology which stressed self determination of self categorization.
Skip to 2 minutes and 25 secondsWith this came the promise of ethno national equality, which entailed a commitment to recognising the existence of ethno national diversity to a greater extent than their predecessors had ever been willing to do. Like much of the early work of the Chinese Communist Party in power, the guide was the USSR. Under Stalin the USSR had defined its ethnic groups, or narod, as historically formed, stable communities of language, territory, economic life, and psychological formation, manifested true through common culture. Using this concept people across the nation were encouraged to ethnically self define. However, the result was a disaster, with thousands of groups coming forward, some numbering no more than one person, all of whom had to be represented in the new system.
Skip to 3 minutes and 16 secondsClearly this situation was not viable. So over the next few years teams of social scientists were dispatched across China studying these claims, resulting in the number being eventually whittled down to 56.
Skip to 3 minutes and 32 secondsSlide Three. In China today, ethnicity is therefore state rather than self defined. The vast majority, or just under 92% of citizens of the People's Republic of China are of the Han ethnicity. 8.49% of the population belong to one of the 55 recognised ethnic minorities, or shaoshu minzu. It may be a small fraction, but in a country of 1.3 billion, they number over 100 million people. Or to put it into another perspective, China's ethnic minorities alone would be the 12th largest country in the world in terms of population. In China today the ethnic group in which you belong to is one of the key ways the state identifies you.
Skip to 4 minutes and 19 secondsOn the ID card that all Chinese citizens must carry, it appears alongside age, date of birth, and place of residence. And unlike in Europe or America, there are no blurred lines. When it comes to ethnicity you are not two thirds this on your mother's side or one part that on your father's side. In China you can only belong to one ethnic group, and it is the state which decides which one you belong to. Slide Four. The largest of China's ethnic minority groups number in the millions. Groups such as the Zhuang, the Hui, the Uyghur, Mongolian, and Tibetan have their own autonomous regions where their language, cultures, and traditions are legally protected, and where they are supposedly in political control.
Skip to 5 minutes and 7 secondsHowever, in reality there is much contestation and disagreement over who really runs China's autonomous regions. Sometimes, as in Tibet or the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, these disputes have resulted in violence conflict. The smallest groups, such as the Derung, Lhoba, and [? Orogen ?] number just in the thousands. Some groups, such as Kazaks, Russians, Koreans, and Thai, have strong ethnic, cultural, and historical links with countries outside the borders of the People's Republic. Slide Five. While the PRC adopted many of the ethnic policies of the USSR, one of the key differences was that instead of establishing Soviet socialist republics, each of which had the theoretical right of succession such as Kazakhstan or Estonia, China adopted a system of autonomous regions.
Skip to 6 minutes and 4 secondsUnder the Chinese constitution there are five autonomous regions, namely the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Mongolian Autonomous Region, Tibetan Autonomous Region, and Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. There are also 30 autonomous prefectures and 120 autonomous counties, totalling 64% of China's territory. Slide six. Due to the historical expansion of China, many of these ethnic minorities live in China's border regions, which are [INAUDIBLE] mineral and resources [INAUDIBLE]. As Chairman Mao himself said, "We say China is a country vast in territory, rich in resources, and large in population; as a matter of fact it is the Han whose population is large, and the minority nationalities whose territory is vast and whose resources are rich."
Skip to 6 minutes and 56 secondsThis, of course, is one of the reasons why the question of ethnicity and belonging is such a sensitive one in China today. Slide seven. Had the nationalists won the civil war, ideologically the question of who is Chinese may have been quite different. Republican China had recognised just five ethnic groups, in the Han, Manchu, Mongolian, Tibetan, and Muslim Hui. Historians have argued that this ethnic policy was very much designed to encourage a sense of difference of the majority of China's people from the ruling Qing dynasty, who were Manchu.
Skip to 7 minutes and 33 secondsAs the Chinese scholar [INAUDIBLE] has pointed out, in the late 19th century, towards the end of the Qing dynasty, nationalism emerged among the Chinese elite, who had supported the Qing for over two centuries, mainly because of the failures of the Qing in the wars against imperious invaders. The call was to expel the barbarian Manchu and restore China. Although once the Manchu had been overthrown, it was imperative they remained inside rather than outside, and they were quickly welcomed back into the new nation, but this time as a minority rather than as rulers.
Skip to 8 minutes and 10 secondsThis can be seen from the five-colored flag, which was used as the national flag from the inception of the Republic in 1912 until 1928, which emphasised the harmony of the five ethnic groups. The Han in red. The yellow is Manchu. Blue Mongolians. White Hui. And black for Tibetans. Slide eight. Our identity is, of course, as much, if not more, defined by who we are not as by who we are. This is a key factor in Chinese ethnic identity today in a country where 92% of people belong to one group. In a relational sense, the rest very much become the other.
Skip to 8 minutes and 52 secondsFor Dru Gladney the Han minzu is a modern phenomenon which did not exist before Sun Yat Sen tried to bring the various peoples of China together in opposition to the Manchu Qing dynasty. Gladney argues that the ethnic signifier of being Han was fashioned in 'relational alterity,' or through identifying 'Otherness' in the none Han peoples of China. In doing so the assigning of ethnic identities embodied the colourful, backward, exotic/erotic national minorities through a process of internal orientalism. This brings to mind Edward Said's thesis of orientalism, which is that there exists subtle and persistent Euro-centric prejudice against Arab-Islamic people, and their culture, which derives from images that essentialise the Orient.
Skip to 9 minutes and 40 secondsMax Weber defined ethnicity as a subjectively felt sense of belonging based on the belief in shared culture and common ancestry. Ideas on ethnic identity usually fall into either a constructionist view, in which we rationalise our identities by creating a social model of the world and how it works, or a primordialist view, which underlines that ethnic membership is acquired through birth, and thus represented a given characteristic of the social world. One of the most influential theories on ethnicity is that [? of Fredric ?] [? Barrows, ?] who emphasises that it is the ethnic boundary that defines a group. [?
Skip to 10 minutes and 17 secondsBarrow ?] maintained that ethnic identities do not derive from intrinsic features, but emerge from and are reasserted in encounters, transactions, and oppositions between groups. Slide nine. This wall mural, which I photographed recently in the departure lounge of Tibet's Lhasa Airport, illustrates what Gladney is talking about. For in China today, the official discourse on ethnic identity is one in which the unity of the people is stressed, but also the idea of one group, the Han, being more economically developed, and therefore having a responsibility to aid those less developed.
Skip to 10 minutes and 55 secondsEthnic minorities are usually depicted dancing and singing, and living a simpler, more primitive, perhaps even more erotic live, or in the case of those who reject the state hegemony, as dangerous and threatening. This demonstrates the blending of Confucianism and Marxist-Lenin ideologies present in China today. I would suggest that it also indicates a fundamental contradiction at the heart of Chinese identity, stressing as it does in equal parts ethnic separateness and national sameness. This raises some very significant questions. Firstly, is a system which both emphasises unity but also ethnic separateness fundamentally undermined in its contradiction? Does the emphasis on ethnic otherness lead to discriminatory views among the majority?
Skip to 11 minutes and 49 secondsAnd if ethnic identity is defined by the state, does it take on a different meaning for the people being defined?
Ethnic identity in China: separation and belonging
In this presentation David O’Brien, based at the University of Nottingham’s China campus, discusses the issue of China’s ethnic minorities and how they are conceived of within China.
As you watch this presentation, think about: how does this compare to the forms of ethnic politics in your own country? How do different states and cultures think about and treat their ethnic minorities and what effects does this have? If ethnic identity is defined by the state, as David suggests that it is in China, does it take on a different meaning for the people being defined?
© The University of Nottingham and The British Library