ASSIMILATION AND MINORITIES IN CHINA
Dong girl Over the centuries a great many peoples who were originally not Chinese have been assimilated into Chinese society. Entry into Han society has not demanded religious conversion or formal initiation. It has depended on command of the Chinese written language and evidence of adherence to Chinese values and customs. For the most part, what has distinguished those groups that have been assimilated from those that have not has been the suitability of their environment for Han agriculture. People living in areas where Chinese-style agriculture is feasible have either been displaced or assimilated. The consequence is that most of China's minorities inhabit extensive tracts of land unsuited for Han-style agriculture; they are not usually found as long-term inhabitants of Chinese cities or in close proximity to most Han villages. Those living on steppes, near desert oases, or in high mountains, and dependent on pastoral nomadism or shifting cultivation, have retained their ethnic distinctiveness outside Han society. The sharpest ethnic boundary has been between the Han and the steppe pastoralists, a boundary sharpened by centuries of conflict and cycles of conquest and subjugation. Reminders of these differences are the absence of dairy products from the otherwise extensive repertoire of Han cuisine and the distaste most Chinese feel for such typical steppe specialties as tea laced with butter. [Source: Library of Congress]
Official policy recognizes the multiethnic nature of the Chinese state, within which all "nationalities" are formally equal. On the one hand, it is not state policy to force the assimilation of minority nationalities, and such nonpolitical expressions of ethnicity as native costumes and folk dances are encouraged. On the other hand, China's government is a highly centralized one that recognizes no legitimate limits to its authority, and minority peoples in far western Xinjiang-Uygur Autonomous Region, for example, are considered Chinese citizens just as much as Han farmers on the outskirts of Beijing are.
Official attitudes toward minority peoples are inconsistent, if not contradictory. Since 1949 policies toward minorities have fluctuated between tolerance and coercive attempts to impose Han standards. Tolerant periods have been marked by subsidized material benefits intended to win loyalty, while coercive periods such as the Cultural Revolution have attempted to eradicate "superstition" and to overthrow insufficiently radical or insufficiently nationalistic local leaders.
What has not varied has been the assumption that it is the central government that decides what is best for minority peoples and that national citizenship takes precedence over ethnic identity. In fact, minority nationality is a legal status in China. The government reserves for itself the right to determine whether or not a group is a minority nationality, and the list has been revised several times since the 1950s. Most Han Chinese have no contact with members of minority groups. But in areas such as the Tibet or Xinjiang autonomous regions, where large numbers of Han have settled since the assertion of Chinese central government authority over them in the 1950s, there is clearly some ethnic tension. The tension stems from Han dominance over such previously independent or semi-autonomous peoples as the Tibetans and Uygurs, from Cultural Revolution attacks on religious observances, and from Han disdain for and lack of sensitivity to minority cultures. In the autonomous areas the ethnic groups appear to lead largely separate lives.
See Separate Articles: ETHNIC MINORITIES IN CHINA factsanddetails.com ; PROBLEMS FACED BY MINORITIES IN CHINA factsanddetails.com; CHINESE DIALECTS AND LANGUAGES factsanddetails.com; PUSHING MANDARIN AND TRYING TO PRESERVE OTHER CHINESE DIALECTS AND LANGUAGES factsanddetails.com; MINORITIES AND THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT factsanddetails.com ; PEOPLE OF CHINA factsanddetails.com; HAN CHINESE factsanddetails.com
Identity and Assimilation among Chinese and Minorities
Eleanor Stanford wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: The vast majority of Chinese people are of Han descent. They identify with the dominant national culture and have a sense of history and tradition that dates back over one thousand years and includes many artistic, cultural, and scientific accomplishments. When the communists took over in 1949, they worked to create a sense of national identity based on the ideals of equality and hard work. [Source: Eleanor Stanford, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]
“Some minority groups, such as the Manchu, have assimilated almost entirely. While they maintain their own languages and religions, they identify with the nation as well as with their own groups. Other minority ethnic groups tend to identify more with their individual cultures than with the Han. For example, the Mongolians and Kazakhs of the north and northwest, the Tibetans and the Zhuangs in the southwest, and the inhabitants of Hainan Island to the southeast are all linguistically, culturally, and historically distinct from one another and from the dominant tradition. For some minority groups, the Tibetans and Uigurs of Xinjiang in particular, the issue of independence has been an acrimonious one and has led those groups to identify themselves deliberately in opposition to the central culture and its government.
Over the centuries a great many peoples who were originally not Chinese have been assimilated into Chinese society. Entry into Han society has not demanded religious conversion or formal initiation. It has depended on command of the Chinese written language and evidence of adherence to Chinese values and customs. For the most part, what has distinguished those groups that have been assimilated from those that have not has been the suitability of their environment for Han agriculture. People living in areas where Chinese-style agriculture is feasible have either been displaced or assimilated. The consequence is that most of China's minorities inhabit extensive tracts of land unsuited for Han-style agriculture; they are not usually found as long-term inhabitants of Chinese cities or in close proximity to most Han villages. Those living on steppes, near desert oases, or in high mountains, and dependent on pastoral nomadism or shifting cultivation, have retained their ethnic distinctiveness outside Han society. The sharpest ethnic boundary has been between the Han and the steppe pastoralists, a boundary sharpened by centuries of conflict and cycles of conquest and subjugation. Reminders of these differences are the absence of dairy products from the otherwise extensive repertoire of Han cuisine and the distaste most Chinese feel for such typical steppe specialties as tea laced with butter.
Cultural Diversity Within the Han Chinese
The peoples identified as Han comprise 91 percent of the population, from Beijing in the north to Canton in the south, and include the Hakka, Fujianese, Cantonese and others. These Han are thought to be united by a common history, culture and written language; differences in language, dress, diet and customs are regarded as minor. An active, state-sponsored program assists the official minority cultures and promotes their economic development (with mixed results). [Source: By Dru C. Gladney, Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2009. Gladney was the president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College]
Cultural diversity within the Han has not been officially recognized because of a deep (and well-founded) fear of the country breaking up into feuding kingdoms, as happened in the 1910s and 1920s. China has historically been divided along north-south lines, into Five Kingdoms, Warring States or local satrapies, as often as it has been united. Indeed, China as it currently exists, including large pieces of territory occupied by Mongols, Turkic peoples, Tibetans, etc., is three times as large as it was under the last Chinese dynasty, the Ming, which fell in 1644. A strong, centralizing government (whether of foreign or internal origin) has often tried to impose ritualistic, linguistic, economic and political uniformity throughout its borders.
See Cultural Diversity Within the Han Chinese Under HAN CHINESE factsanddetails.com
History of Relations Between of Han Chinese and Other Groups
Stevan Harrell wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Both preimperial and imperial China developed in interaction with surrounding cultures. In addition to the advanced civilization in northern China, by the end of the first millennium B.C. there were other centers of advanced technology in southwestern China; these were linked with more distant centers in what is now Southeast Asia. The earliest historical accounts, probably written around 800 B.C., already refer to non-Chinese peoples inhabiting the four directions surrounding the Chinese center. Since that period, proto-Chinese and then Han culture has expanded, mainly southward and southwestward, to its present extent, through intermarriage, conquest, assimilation, and cultural interchange. It is certain that the Han people of central and southern China are partially descended from the non-Han peoples displaced and assimilated by the Han expansion. The cultural interchange, however, has not been entirely one-way, and southern and particularly southwestern Chinese languages, customs, religion, and other cultural elements show strong signs of influence from the non-Han inhabitants either completely displaced, as in most of the Yangzi valley, or still living in contact with the Han, as in most of the southwest. [Source: Stevan Harrell, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia - Eurasia / China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994 |~|]
“Cultural interaction on China's northern frontiers, by contrast, has involved the ecological boundary between agriculture and herding—pastoral peoples of Central Asia have not been easily displaced or assimilated into Han society and culture. Several times in Chinese history, tribal confederations to the north or northeast of China have adopted some of the bureaucratic features of the Chinese state and used these along with their considerable military skills to conquer all or part of China and establish their own imperial dynasties. The most prominent of these have been the Toba, who established the Wei dynasty (386-534 CE) ; the Khitan, who established the Liao (907-1125); the Jurchen, who established the Jin (1115-1260), the Mongols, who established the Yuan (1234-1368); and the Manchu, descendants of the Jurchen, who ruled the Qing, the last imperial dynasty, which lasted from 1644-1911. In all of these regimes, Han people played a prominent part, but in many cases the tension between an imperial ideology, which was universalistic, and a more particular ethnic ideology of Han difference contributed to the ultimate breakup of the regime. |~|
“In both the Republic and People's Republic governments, Han leaders and officials have been overwhelmingly predominant. Leaders of the Republic, although recognizing the existence of non-Han peoples within China's political borders, based much of their legitimacy on the continuing superiority of Han civilization along with the adoption of modern technology and limited modern social forms from the West. In the People's Republic, by contrast, the multiethnic nature of China is celebrated in state ritual and protected in law. Han culture is not seen as intrinsically superior, but Han people in general are considered more advanced, because they were already moving from feudalism to capitalism at the beginning of the People's Republic, whereas many non-Han minorities were still in early feudalism or even earlier stages of the historical progression of modes of production. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), this meant the imposition of modern, Socialist (in reality, Han) cultural forms on non-Han peoples; since the Reforms, Han cultural hegemony has been less emphasized, but certain aspects of assimilation continue through the education system and through various schemes for economic and social development and modernization. |~|
“In Overseas Chinese communities this process is somewhat reversed; Han people who migrate undergo various degrees of cultural assimilation to the host country. In Thailand, for example, many people of Chinese origin simply become Thai after a few generations; they remember their Chinese heritage but cease to identify with Chinese as an ethnic group. In North America, where ethnic distinctions are often based on racial distinctiveness and Chinese are easily distinguishable from Euro-Americans by sight, people usually lose most of their Chinese language and culture after a few generations but retain the emotional and cognitive group ties of ethnic identity.”
Han Chinese and the Minorities of China
The Han Chinese created present day China in many cases by conquering territory and overpowering local tribes by sheer numbers through mass migrations. Tribal kingdoms in Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan have a long history of battling the Han Chinese for control of their homelands. Some of these were driven by the Han Chinese from fertile valleys into the hills and mountains where they now live.
Eleanor Stanford wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: “China is for the most part an extremely homogeneous society composed of a people who share one language, culture, and history. The government recognizes fifty-five minority groups that have their own distinct cultures and traditions. Most of those groups live in Outer China, because the Han have, over the centuries, forced them into those harsh, generally less desirable lands. [Source: Eleanor Stanford, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]
According to The Economist: The conflation of Han and national identity underlies the uneasy relationship between that majority and China’s ethnic-minority citizens. Officialdom theoretically treats minorities as equal and even grants them certain privileges. Yet in practice ethnic groups, particularly those from China’s borderlands, who are visually distinctive, are discriminated against and increasingly marginalised as ethnic Han have moved into their home regions. Through state-sponsored resettlement the Han population of Xinjiang rose from 4 percent in 1949 to 42 percent today; Mongols now make up only 17 percent of Inner Mongolia (see map). [Source: The Economist, November 19, 2016]
At best non-Han groups within China are patronised as “charming and colourful” curiosities. Yunnan province has built a thriving tourist industry around its minority cultures. Minorities are routinely presented as delighting in folkish customs in contrast with the technologically superior Han. In an exhibition of “Xinjiang’s nationalities” in a museum in Urumqi, the provincial capital, the only person in modern clothes is Han; signs note that Chinese Uzbeks “have a special liking for all kinds of little caps” and Chinese Kazakh life is “full of songs and rhythms”.
China risks turning cultural insensitivity into ethnic clashes. Ordinary manifestations of local culture in border regions have been criminalised. In Xinjiang, Uyghur men may not grow long beards and Muslims are sometimes prevented from fasting during Ramadan. Inner Mongolian and Tibetan nomads have been forcibly settled. In Tibet and Xinjiang, many schools teach mostly in Mandarin, even if they lack enough Mandarin-speakers.
How Ethnic Minorities Firm Up Han Chinese Identity
Norma Diamond wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The majority category of"Han" glosses over regional differences in language, economy, and local cultures. One reason is that the various Chinese languages, no matter how divergent, are historically related and share a common writing system. Thus, they are officially seen as “dialects" and all native speakers within the Chinese branch of Sino-Tibetan are classed as Han. The main exception to this rule are the Hui, who are Muslim and believed to be descendants of Arabs, Persians, or Central Asians. Among some other Sinicized ethnic groups, such as the Manchu or the Zhuang, there are large numbers whose first and only language is Chinese, but there is historical evidence of a non-Chinese language in wider currency several generations ago. Linguistic unity is not a criterion for identifying the minorities: some groups include speakers of two or more different languages, and almost all contain speakers ofmutually unintelligible dialects, as our entries indicate. There have been similar problems in drawing boundaries in terms of common territory, economy, sentiment, and psychology (i.e., culture).[Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994]
The attention to ethnic diversity works in part to strengthen the unity of the Han. Even if Cantonese differ in many ways from Shandong people and mutually joke about the other's strange language and life-style, they see themselves as far more similar to each other than to Tibetans, Mongols, Miao, or Dai. In the researches of the 1950s investigative teams, the one group that was not studied was the Han. Part ofwhat defines the Han is the mirror of"otherness" provided by the shaoshu minzu. Minority life-styles, to Han eyes, are often exotic and sometimes appear backward and im-~ moral.
What also defines Han is the official interpretation of minority diversity as leftovers from earlier historical forms. State and scholars alike regard the minorities as representative of earlier stages of society as outlined by Lewis Henry Morgan and Engels: the primitive commune, slavery, feudalism, and early capitalism. In contrast, the Han represent the next stage of the progressive advance ofhistory, having established the foundations of socialism. In addition, the Han see themselves as the carriers of science, rational thinking, and modern technology, standing in the position of teachers and protectors of the minorities.
Melting Pot China?
Norma Diamond wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: The Han areas of inner China are relatively homogeneous if we also leave aside regional economic and cultural variations that stem from ecology and history. But areas with sizable concentrations of the national minorities today are ethnically mixed. In many of these areas it is only at the village level that we can talk about shared territory, economy, and culture. The villages of two or more different ethnic groups (including Han) are interspersed and are linked locally through economic exchanges within the marketing area and by a variety of social and political contacts. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994]
Festivals particular to one local ethnic group may be attended by others in the area. Over time, there has been borrowing of language, dress, foods, technology, songs and stories, and even customs. Moreover, geographically separated segments ofa given minority group sometimes show marked differences in economic activities and in cultural practices, as well as language. Some intermarriages occur. Undercurrent policy, children of such marriages declare their ethnic preference when they reach the age of 18. China's ethnologists recognize that language, territory, economy, and culture are not always clear criteria for distinguishing one group from another or identifying a particular individual.
Dru C. Gladney wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Indeed, one might even say it has become popular to be “ethnic” in today’s China. Mongolian hot pot, Muslim noodle and Korean barbecue restaurants proliferate in every city, while minority clothing, artistic motifs and cultural styles adorn Chinese private homes. In Beijing, one of the most popular restaurants is the Tibetan chain Makye-ame. There, the nouveau riche of Beijing eat exotic foods such as yak kabobs served by beautiful waitresses in Tibetan clothing during Tibetan music and dance performances.” [Source: By Dru C. Gladney, Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2009]
“With the dramatic economic explosion in South China, southerners and others have begun to assert cultural and political differences. Whereas comedians used to make fun of southern ways and accents, southerners (especially Shanghainese) now scorn northerners for their lack of sophistication and business acumen. As any Mandarin-speaking Beijing resident will tell you, bargaining for vegetables or cellular telephones in Guangzhou or Shanghai markets is becoming more difficult for them due to growing pride in the local languages: Non-native speakers always pay a higher price. Rising self-awareness among the Cantonese is paralleled by the reassertion of identity among the Hakka, the southern Fujianese Min, the Swatow and other peoples now empowered by economic success and embittered by age-old restraints from the north.
“To support their policies the he Chinese have argued they are justly proud of the ethnic diversity of China. Why should nationality be defined by language or ethnicity? If Tibetans should be allowed to break away from China, why not the Welsh from Britain, the Basques from Spain, the Kurds from Turkey, or the Kashmiris from India?” [Source:Ian Buruma, The Guardian, April 10, 2009]
Melting Pot China, And the Potential for Trouble
Gladney wrote in the Wall Street Journal.“China’s very economic vitality has the potential to fuel ethnic and linguistic division, rather than further integrating the country. As southern and coastal areas get richer, much of central, northern and northwestern China hasn’t kept up, increasing competition and contributing to age-old resentments across ethnic, linguistic and cultural lines. Uneven distribution of wealth has fueled deep resentment in the poorer, often ethnic regions of China.
“The result of all these changes is that China is becoming increasingly de-centered. This is a fearsome prospect for those holding the reins in Beijing and perhaps was a factor in the decisions to crack down on the June 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, keep a tight rein on the Olympics and respond swiftly and harshly to riots in Tibet and Xinjiang. Last year the government admitted to more than 100,000 mass incidents of civil unrest.
“A China weakened by internal strife, inflation, uneven economic growth or the struggle for political succession could become further divided along cultural and linguistic lines. China’s threats will most likely come from civil unrest, and perhaps internal ethnic unrest from within the so-called Han majority. We should recall that it was a southerner, born and educated abroad, who led the revolution that ended China’s last dynasty. When that empire fell, competing warlords — often supported by foreign powers — fought for turf.
Tensions Between Ethnic Minorities in China
Sometimes there is animosity and even violence between ethnic minorities. In mid March 2008, a major Tibetan uprising erupted in Lhasa and spread to other Tibetan regions of China. Chinese authorities said 22 people were killed, most of them Chinese killed by "separatist followers of the Dalai Lama.” since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. The Tibet-in-exile government says 220 monks, nuns and other Tibetans died, More than 600 people were injured. The violence was more serious than the unrest in 1989, which was primarily confined to Lhasa, and was arguably the worst outbreak of violence in China since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.
Tibetans who rioted directed their anger first at Chinese and then at Muslim Huis. An American who witnessed the events told the New York Times, “This wasn’t organized, but it was very clear that they wanted the Chinese out.”Rioters first attacked Chinese shops and businesses and then attacked businesses in the Muslim Hui quarter. There mobs attacked a mosque but were unable to get inside. Some groups moved on and punched holes through metal shop gates and poured gasoline in the shops and set them on fire. I wasn't until evening that Chinese authorities dared to set foot in central Lhasa. Muslim shopkeepers and their families were badly hurt and some were killed when fires set in their shops spread to upstairs apartments.
The riots seem to have been a spontaneous reaction to increased oppression in Tibet. One Tibetan exile in India told the Washington Post, “Our blood is very hot right now, We have waited so many years for China to change its mind. Six rounds of peaceful talks, and we have nothing to show, But now, we are in no mood to spare China.” James Miles of the Economist, the only Western reporter on the scene with permission to be in Lhasa, wrote: “The rioting seemed primarily an eruption of ethnic hatred. Immigrants have been flocking into Lhasa in recent years from the rest of China and run many of its shops, small businesses and tourist facilities....There is a great deal of resentment over sharp increases in the prices of food and consumer goods from the rest of China. Many residents are suspicious of the new train service, which they felt might encourage immigration.”
Dru C. Gladney on Ethnic Tensions in China
Dru C. Gladney wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “The myth of a monolithic China was shattered by [the riots in Xinjiang and Tibet]. Running barelybeneath the surface of what the government has sought to portray as a harmonious society, the fracture created by the Urumqi and Lhasa riots threatens to shake the country.” [Source: By Dru C. Gladney, Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2009]
“Foreigners and the Chinese themselves typically picture China’s population as a vast Han majority with a sprinkling of exotic minorities living along the country’s borders. This understates China’s tremendous cultural, geographic, and linguistic diversity — in particular the important cultural differences within the Han population. Across the country, China is experiencing a resurgence of local ethnicity and culture, most notably among southerners such as the Cantonese and Hakka, who are now classified as Han.
“Cultural and linguistic cleavages could worsen in a China weakened by internal strife, an economic downturn, uneven growth, or a struggle over future political succession. The initial brawl between workers in a Guangdong toy factory, which left at least two Uighur dead on June 25, prompted the mass unrest in Xinjiang on July 5 that ended with 156 dead, thousands injured and 1,500 arrested, with ongoing violence spreading throughout the region.
“China is also concerned about the Kosovo effect, accusing its Muslim and other ethnic minorities of seeking outside international (read Western) support for separatist goals. But ethnic problems in President Hu Jintao’s China go far deeper than the official minorities. Sichuanese, Cantonese, Shanghainese, and Hunanese are avidly advocating increased cultural nationalism and resistance to Beijing central control. Ethnic strife did not dismantle the former Soviet Union, but it did come apart along boundaries defined in large part by ethnic and national difference.
“The unprecedented early departure of President Hu from the G-8 meetings in Italy to attend to the ethnic problems in Xinjiang is an indication of the seriousness with which China regards this issue. The National Day celebrations scheduled for October 2009 seek to highlight 60 years of the harmonious leadership of the Communist Party in China, and like the 2008 Olympics, its enormous success. The rioting threatens to derail these celebrations. [Source: By Dru C. Gladney, Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2009. Gladney was president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College]
You’ll Never be Chinese: Why I'm Leaving the Country I Loved
Mark Kitto wrote in Prospect Magazine, “You’ll never become Chinese, no matter how hard you try, or want to, or think you ought to. I wanted to be Chinese, once. I don’t mean I wanted to wear a silk jacket and cotton slippers, or a Mao suit and cap and dye my hair black and proclaim that blowing your nose in a handkerchief is disgusting. I wanted China to be the place where I made a career and lived my life. For the past 16 years it has been precisely that. But now I will be leaving. [Source: Mark Kitto, Prospect Magazine, August 8, 2012]
When I returned to China in 1996, to begin the life and career I had long dreamed about, I found the familiar air of optimism, but there was a subtle difference: a distinct whiff of commerce in place of community. The excitement was more like the eager anticipation I felt once I had signed a deal (I began my China career as a metals trader), sure that I was going to bank a profit, rather than the thrill that something truly big was about to happen. A deal had been struck. Deng had promised the Chinese people material wealth they hadn’t known for centuries on the condition that they never again asked for political change. The Party said: “Trust us and everything will be all right.”
Twenty years later, everything is not all right. During the course of my magazine business, my state-owned competitor (enemy is more accurate) told me in private that they studied every issue I produced so they could learn from me. They appreciated my contribution to Chinese media. They proceeded to do everything in their power to destroy me. In Moganshan our local government masters send messages of private thanks for my contribution to the resurrection of the village as a tourist destination, but also clearly state that I am an exception to their unwritten rule that foreigners (who originally built the village in the early 1900s) are not welcome back to live in it, and are only allowed to stay for weekends. But this article is not personal. I want to give you my opinion of the state of China, based on my time living here, in the three biggest cities and one tiny rural community, and explain why I am leaving it.
Fear of violent revolution or domestic upheaval, with a significant proportion of that violence sure to be directed at foreigners, is not the main reason I am leaving China, though I shan’t deny it is one of them. Apart from what I hope is a justifiable human desire to be part of a community and no longer be treated as an outsider, to run my own business in a regulated environment and not live in fear of it being taken away from me, and not to concern myself unduly that the air my family breathes and the food we eat is doing us physical harm, there is one overriding reason I must leave China. I want to give my children a decent education.
Image Sources: 1) Wiki Commons; 2) Nolls China website; 3) Bao Xishun blog
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated October 2022