Pasar al contenido principal

The Question of Minority Identity and Indigeneity in Post-Colonial China

China's indigenous peoples are generally referred to as "minority nationalities" given their official status in the Chinese administrative structure. This rubric does them a disservice, obscuring not only their own indigenous identities, but also the nature of multiculturalism and multiethnicity in China. It also fails to recognize the dramatic revitalization of ethnic culture taking place in China today, both among the "minorities" living along the country's borders, and within the many peoples comprising the so-called Han majority. As China seeks to reintegrate Hong Kong into a post-colonial Chinese society, this will become an even more important issue for China's increasingly diverse population.

China is now seeing a resurgence of pride in local history and culture, most notably among southerners such as the Cantonese and Hakka who are now classified as Han. These cultural differences may increase under inflation, the growing gap between rich and poor, the migration of millions of people from poorer provinces to provinces with higher employment rates, and from the officially recognized indigenous peoples such as Uyghurs and Tibetans.

Ethnic Identity and Indigeneity in China

Officially, China is made up of 56 nationalities: one majority nationality, the Han, and 55 minority groups. The peoples identified as Han comprise 91% of the population from Beijing in the north, to Canton in the south and include the Hakka, Fujianese, Cantonese, and other groups. 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 and superficial. The rest of the population is divided into 55 official "minority" nationalities that are mostly concentrated along the borders. The Mongolians and Uyghurs are in the north and the Zhuang, Yi, and Bai are in southern China near southeast Asia. Other groups, such as the Hui and Manchus are scattered throughout the nation. There are minorities in every province, region, and county.

An active state-sponsored program assists these official minority cultures and promotes their economic development (with mixed results). The outcome, according to China's preeminent sociologist, Fei Xiaotong, is a "unified multinational" state. But even this recognition of diversity understates the divisions within the Chinese population, especially the wide variety of culturally and ethnically diverse groups within the Han population. These groups have recently begun to rediscover and reassert their different cultures, languages, and history.

One of the difficult issues facing minority peoples of China is the official position that the Han majority is also an indigenous people with roots in the Wei River valley. Discussion about China's minority nationalities often fails to make this important point about government policy regarding Han indigeneity. The notion of a Han person or Han ren dates back centuries and refers to descendants of the Han dynasty that flourished around the same time as the Roman Empire. The concept of Han nationality or Han minzu, however, is an entirely modern phenomenon that arose with the shift from the Chinese empire to the modern nation-state. Prasenjit Duara recently noted that since the early part of this century, Chinese reformers have been concerned that the Chinese people lacked a sense of nationhood, unlike Westerners and China's minority groups. Chinese reformers believe that Chinese unity stopped at the clan or community level rather than extending to the nation as a whole. Sun Yat-Sen, leader of the republican movement that toppled the last imperial dynasty of China (the Qing) in 1911, popularized the idea that there were "Five Peoples of China"-the Han, Manchus, Mongolian, Tibetan, and Hui (a term that included all Muslims in China).

Sun was not a likely leader of a single Chinese nation. He was Cantonese, educated in Hawaii, Hong Kong, and Japan, and feared arousing traditional northern suspicions of southern radical movements. He wanted to unite and mobilize the Han and all other non-Manchu groups in China (including Mongols, Tibetans, and Muslims) into a modern, multiethnic, nationalist movement against the Manchu Qing state and foreign imperialists. The Han were seen as a unified group, distinct from the "internal foreigners" within their borders: the Manchus, Tibetans, Mongols, and Hui, as well as the "external foreigners" on their frontiers, namely the Western and Japanese imperialists.

The Communists later expanded the number of "peoples" from five to 56 but kept the idea of a unified Han group. The Communists were disposed to accommodate these internal minority groups for several reasons. In 1934-35, the Communists' Long March (a 6,000-mile trek across China from the southwest to the northwest to escape the threat of annihilation by Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang (KMT) forces), took the Communists through some of the most heavily populated minority areas. To escape extermination by the KMT forces, the Communists promised special treatment to minorities-especially the Miao, Yi (Lolo), Tibetans, Mongols, and Hui-should the party ever win national power. The Communists even offered the possibility of true independence for minorities. Chairman Mao frequently referred to Article 14 of the 1931 Chinese Communist Party (CCP) constitution, which "recognizes the right of self-determination of the national minorities in China, their right to complete separation from China, and to the formation of an independent state for each minority." This commitment was not kept after the People's Republic was founded. Instead, the party stressed maintaining the unity of the new nation at all costs.

The Communists incorporated the idea of Hah unity into a Marxist ideology of progress with the Han in the forefront of development and civilization-the vanguard of the people's revolution. The more "backward" or "primitive" the minorities were, the more "advanced" and "civilized" the Han seemed, and the greater the need for a unified national identity. Cultural diversity within the Han has not been addressed because of a deep (and well-founded) fear of China returning to the feuding warlord-run kingdoms of the 1910s and 1920s.

A strong, centralizing Chinese government (whether of foreign or internal origin) has often tried to impose ritualistic, linguistic, and political uniformity throughout its borders. The modern state has tried to unite its various peoples with transportation and communications networks and an extensive civil service. In recent years, these efforts have continued through the controlled infusion of capitalistic investment and market manipulation. Yet even in the modern era, these integrative mechanisms have not produced cultural uniformity or a cohesive national identity.

Ethnic Diversity Among the Han Majority

Although presented as a unified culture -- an idea also accepted by many Western researchers -- Han peoples differ in many ways, most obviously in their languages. The supposedly homogenous Han speak eight mutually unintelligible languages: Mandarin, Wu, Yue, Xiang, Hakka, Gan, Southern Min, and Northern Min. Chinese linguist Y.R. Chao has shown that the incompatability of Cantonese and Mandarin is as great as that of Dutch and English or French and Italian. Mandarin was imposed as the national language early in the 20th century and has become the lingua franca: it must be learned in school, but is rarely used in everyday life in many areas.

Cultural perceptions among the Han often involve broad stereotypical contrasts between north and south. Northerners tend to be thought of as larger, broader-faced, and lighter-skinned, while southerners are depicted as smaller and darker. Cultural practices involving birth, marriage, and burial widely differ. Fujianese, for example, are known for vibrant folk religious practices, while Cantonese have a strong lineage tradition. Even recent DNA studies conducted by Chinese academics such as Du Ruofu suggest that China's linguistic and regional differences reflect genetic variations, particularly dramatic north-south differences. Hence, we should begin to regard the Han not as one indigenous people, but as a national category representing several radically different indigenous groups.

Indigenous Politics in China

China's policy toward minorities involves official recognition, limited autonomy, and unofficial efforts at control. The official minorities are important for China's long-term development in a way that is disproportionate to their population. Although totaling only 8.04% of the population, they are concentrated in resource-rich areas spanning nearly 60% of the country's landmass and exceed 90% of the population in counties and villages along many border areas of Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Yunnan. Although China has sent representatives to the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations and participated in the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues since 1983, it generally does not allow its minorities to participate in these international fora as indigenous peoples. This has much to do with the way the official ethnic peoples were recognized beginning in the second half of this century.

Shortly after taking power, Communist leaders sent teams of researchers, social scientists, and party cadres to the border regions to "identify" groups as official nationalities. Only 41, of the more than 400 groups that applied, were recognized and that number reached 56 in 1982. Most of the nearly 350 other groups were identified as Hah or lumped together with other minorities who shared similar features. Some are still applying for recognition and the 1990 census listed almost 750,000 people as still "unidentified" and awaiting recognition (meaning they were regarded as ethnically different but did not fit into any of the recognized categories).

In recognition of minorities' official status, as well as their strategic importance, various levels of nominally autonomous administration were created-five regions, 31 prefectures, 96 counties, and countless villages. Such "autonomous" areas do not have true political control although they may have increased local control over the administration of resources, taxes, family planning, education, legal jurisdiction, and religious expression. These areas have minority government leaders, but the real source of power is still the Han-dominated Communist Party.

While autonomy is not all it implies, it is still apparently a desirable achievement for minorities in China. Between the 1982 and 1990 censuses, 18 new autonomous counties were established. Although the government is clearly trying to limit the recognition of new nationalities, there seems to be an avalanche of new autonomous administrative districts. Besides the 18 new counties and many villages whose total numbers have never been published, at least eight new autonomous counties are being established. Five will go to the Tujia, a group widely dispersed throughout the southwest that doubled in population from 2.8 to 5.8 million from 1982 to 1990.

The increase in the number of groups seeking minority status reflects what may be described as an explosion of ethnicity in contemporary China. Indeed, it has now become popular, especially in Beijing, for people to "come out" as Manchus or other ethnic groups, admitting they were not Hah all along. While the Han population grew a total of 10% between 1982 and 1990, the minority population grew 35% overall from 67 million to 91 million. The Manchus, a group long thought to have been assimilated into the Hah majority, added three autonomous districts and increased their population by 128% from 4.3 to 9.8 million, while the population of the Gelao people in Guizhou shot up an incredible 714% in just eight years. Clearly these rates reflect more than a high birthrate, they also indicate "category-shifting" as people redefine their nationality from Han to minority or from one minority to another (in interethnic marriages, parents can decide the nationality of their children, and the children themselves can choose their nationality at age 18). China recently began to limit births among minorities, especially in urban areas, but it is doubtful that authorities will be able to limit the avalanche of applications for redefinition and the hundreds of groups applying for recognition as minorities.

Why has it become popular to be "officially" ethnic in 1990s' China? One explanation may be that in 1982, there were still lingering doubts about the government's true intent in registering the nationalities during the census. The Cultural Revolution, a ten-year period during which any kind of difference, ethnic, religious, cultural, or political, was ruthlessly suppressed, had just ended. China's assimilationist practices toward minorities, what Stevan Harrell and others have called its "civilizing project" to make minorities more like the "advanced" Han Chinese, were only officially criticized in the late 1970s.

By the mid-1980s, it became clear that those groups identified as official minorities were beginning to receive real benefits from the implementation of several affirmative action programs. The most significant privileges included permission to have more children (except in urban areas, minorities are generally not bound by the one-child policy), pay fewer taxes, obtain better (albeit Chinese) education for their children, have greater access to public office, speak and learn their native languages, worship and practice their religion (often including practices such as shamanism that are still officially banned among the Hah), and express their cultural differences through the arts and popular culture. Indeed, one might even say it has become popular to be "ethnic" in today's China.

Indigenous Peoples and International Relations

Foreign policy considerations have also encouraged changes in China's treatment of minority groups. China has one of the world's largest Muslim populations-nearly 20 million, more than the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Libya, or Syria-and has increasing contacts with trade partners in the Middle East and new Muslim nations created on its borders. China provides the Middle East and Central Asia with cheap labor, consumer goods, weaponry, and increasing numbers of Muslim pilgrims to Mecca. These relations will be jeopardized if Muslim, especially Uyghur, discontent continues over such issues as limitations on mosque building, restrictions on childbearing, uncontrolled mineral and energy development, and the results of past nuclear testing in the Xinjiang region.

Another factor in China's policies towards minorities has been the development of international tourism to minority areas like the Silk Road. Perhaps due to continuing international criticism of China for its treatment of ethnic Tibetans, economic and political considerations have allowed tourists and even fact-finding missions to travel to Tibet.

The creation of several new nations on China's Central Asian frontier with the same ethnic population on both sides of the border also makes ethnic separatism a major concern. The newly independent status of the Central Asian states allows separatist groups in Xinjiang to locate outside sources of support. This has led to over 30 reported bombing incidents in the Xinjiang Region in the late 1990s, claimed by groups supporting an "Independent Turkestan." At the same time, freer travel across the Central Asian borders has made China's Muslims well aware of the ethnic and political conflicts in Azerbaijan and Tajikistan, many of them are realizing that they are better off economically than their fellow Muslims across the border.

The marginalization of minorities in border areas have led to increased participation in the illicit cross-border trade of drugs and other contraband. Beijing's challenge is to convince China's Muslims that they will benefit more from cooperation with their national government than from resistance. In the South, a dramatic increase in cross-border relations between Chinese minority groups and Burma, Cambodia, and Thailand has led to an increase in drug smuggling. Beijing also wants to help settle disputes in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Burma because of the danger of ethnic wars spilling over the border into China. Uyghurs and Tibetans living in the diaspora outside of their homelands have begun to press China for greater sovereignty, human rights, and other freedoms in international fora such as the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) based in the Hague. Originally established by Tibetan activists, the organization recently elected Erkin Alptekin, an Uyghur, as president.

Ethnic Separatism and Chinese Nationalism

China's economic vitality in the last ten years has the potential to fuel ethnic and linguistic divisions, rather than further integrating the country. Minorities now frequently travel across recently opened borders in Central and Southeast Asia and gain international, moral, and material support for their causes. This globalization of China's local ethnic issues may have dramatic effects on China's future relations with its bordering countries.

As southern and coastal areas get richer, much of central, northern, and northwestern China is unlikely to keep up, increasing competition and contributing to age-old resentments across ethnic, linguistic, and cultural lines. Southern ethnic economic ties link wealthy Cantonese, Shanghainese, and Fujianese (also the majority people in Taiwan) more closely to their relatives in Hong Kong and abroad, than to their political overlords in Beijing. Already provincial governments in Canton and elsewhere not only resist paying taxes to Beijing, but also restrict the shipment of goods coming across provincial (often the same as cultural) lines.

Dislocations from a rapidly growing economy may also fuel ethnic divisions. Huge migrations of "floating populations," estimated at over 100 million nationally, now move across China seeking employment in wealthier areas, often engendering stigmatized identities and stereotypical fears of the "outsiders" or wai di ren within China. These floating populations threaten the access of local indigenous peoples to the market and new jobs.

As a result of these changes, China is becoming increasingly decentered. This decentering has led to a resurging interest in locality and indigenous roots among all ethnic groups, not just the official minorities. This may have an important ripple effect in the Chinese political process, similar to the aboriginal movement in Taiwan which had an important impact on activism in the electoral process. This is a fearsome prospect for those holding the reins in Beijing, particularly as efforts to integrate Hong Kong will exacerbate rural-urban and economic disparities and unrest.

While ethnic separatism will never be a serious threat to a strong China, a China weakened by internal strife, inflation, uneven economic growth, or the struggle for succession after Deng's death could become further divided along cultural and linguistic lines. It was a southerner, born and educated abroad, who led the revolution that ended China's last dynasty; and when that empire fell, competing warlords (often supported by foreign powers) fought for local turf occupied by culturally distinct peoples. The Taiping Rebellion, which nearly brought down the Qing dynasty, also had its origins in the southern border region of Guangxi among so-called marginal Yao and Hakka peoples. These events are being remembered as the generally well-hidden and overlooked "others" within Chinese society begin to reassert their own identities. At the same time, China's leaders are moving away from the homogenizing policies that alienated minority and non-northern groups. Recent moves to allow and even encourage the expression of cultural diversity while preserving political unity indicate a growing awareness of the need to accommodate cultural diversity. The attempt to preserve a separate Hong Kong identity in the "one country, two systems" process may have an important effect on China's national integration. Certainly, people in China are rapidly rediscovering their ethnic and indigenous roots, perhaps as a way to preserve cultural identity in the face of expanding globalization and market economics.

For Further Reading:

Blake, Fred C. 1981. Ethnic Groups and Social Change in a Chinese Market Town. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Duara, Prasenjit. 1995. Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Gladney, Dru C. 1996. Muslim Chinese: Ethnic Nationalism in the People's Republic 1st edition, 1991. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

_______. 1994. "Representing Nationality in China: Refiguring Majority/Minority Identities" The Journal of Asian Studies. Vol. 53, No. 1:92-123. Special issue on Ethnic and Cultural Nationalism in Asia, published with six full color reproductions (pp. 108-109).

Harrell, Stevan. 1995. "Civilizing Projects and Reaction to Them" in Cultural Encounters on China' s Ethnic Frontiers. Stevan Hartell, ed. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 3-36.

Mackerras, Colin 1994. China's Minorities: Integration and Modernization in the Twentieth Century Hong Kong, Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Moser, Leo J. 1985. The Chinese Mosaic: the Peoples and Provinces of China. Boulder: Westview Press.

Rossabi, Morris. 1988. Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times Berkeley: University of California Press.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.