Saturday, November 24, 2012

Who Are the “中华民族/Chinese Nation”?

These are some preliminary thoughts from my efforts to understand why Xi Jinping referred to the “/Chinese nation” and not to “中国/Chinese” “国民/people” in his first public statement after the November takeover. I’m sure this is well-trodden territory for China specialists, and these are really baby steps. I’ll be thankful for any leads, online or hardcopy, in Japanese or English.

People have taken note of the fact that the new Chinese Communist Party leader and head of state Xi Jinping made repeated references to the “Chinese nation” and simply “nation”—five and nine times respectively for a total of 14—in his “full remarks to the press.” at the 18th CCP National Congress. By comparison, his predecessor Hu Jintao mentioned the “Chinese nation” just once in his farewell report. Why was this notable? Because the word used for the “nation” is , which is far more commonly used for ethnic groups. Now, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) officially recognizes 55 ethnic groups, but Xi used that Chinese term just once in that sense if the Japanese version is to be believed, and otherwise referred to them as 各族, and in both cases were translated into English as “ethnic groups”*.

And what is this “Chinese nation”? In Xi’s own words, “ [it] is a great nation. Throughout five thousand years and more of evolution as a civilization, the Chinese nation has made indelible contribution to the progress of human civilization. In modern times, however, China endured untold hardships and sufferings, and its very survival hung in the balance. Countless Chinese patriots rose up one after another and fought for the renewal of the Chinese nation, but all ended in failure.” And so on. It is essentially the people who have taken part in the 5000 years old-and-counting sinic civilization.

This cannot be a pleasing thought to the Uighurs, Tibetans and the rest of the other “nations” certainly don’t appreciate that** since it’s essentially the Han “nation” lording it over the rest.***. Their rulers may have pledged allegiance to the sovereignty of the hegemons of the Zhongyuan back in the day—heck, the Mongols actually ruled the place for almost a hundred years and the Jurchids did the same for 267—but that was before nationalism became the norm and ripped up empires old and new.

This may have been less of a problem back in the day when all that those local rulers had to do was to pledge allegiance to the Chinese emperor, adopt the Chinese calendar, and send regular tributes to the Chinese emperor (and receive equal value in return). Other than that, they were mostly left alone. This was a good deal for the rulers and their entourages. There was a cost, sure, but you got legitimacy in return, and swag to boot. As for the plebes, I’m sure that they hardly noticed. So the Ming Dynasty and its Han emperors were replaced by the Qing Dynasty and its Jurchik emperors; same old, same old.

Now this is where the West came in, trying to do what it did to empires everywhere. And now that there was a convenient local model available in Japan, two existential struggles were going on at the same time: one, the Chinese empire’s resistance against the Western imperialists; and the other, the Han nation’s rebellion against the Jurchik rulers. Xi’s narrative conflates the two, for who were those “Chinese patriots” but the patriots of the Han nation? And what else can he do but to do so to maintain the myth of the Chinese nation; to do otherwise would require acknowledging the national identities of the other 55 officially recognized “ethnic groups.” Indeed, the demographics are moving in the opposite direction. The ethnic provinces and regions are fast becoming the domain of the Han nation.

* The care with which the terms “nation” and “ethnic groups” are distinguished suggests that the single instance of the use of 民族 in the Japanese translation for “ethnic groups” was a translation error. This is somewhat beside the point so I’m not going to the trouble of wading through the Chinese home page to figure it out on my own. But simply out of curiosity, I’d like to hear from anyone who has a good working knowledge of written Chinese on that point.
** If you don’t believe me, get to know a non-Han taxi driver or restaurant manager, anyone, really, who doesn’t have a public career to worry about.
*** If you don’t believe me, look at the Congress photos, where they made all the other “ethnic groups” dress up in their ethnic fineries.


Graham Webster said...

I spent a few months reading on this theme. The basic addition I would have is that the term emerged during concerted efforts to come up with an ethnic and national unifying identity during the era of people like Sun Yat-sen. In that period, and I believe in current usage, the 中华民族 is supposed to be inclusive of non-Han ethnic groups, perhaps most critically the four other broad ethnicities of the Qing: the Manchus, Mongols, Muslims, and Tibetans. The use of 中华 conjures a broader historical "China" than simply 中国. I believe it also predates the usage of 漢 to mean things like "Chinese." (According to one of my professors, people stopped calling Chinese "Han" shortly after the Han dynasty, and it came back centuries later before stabilizing in the Ming.)

Also worth noting: One of Xi's lines using the term is a quote from the PRC national anthem: 中华民族到了最危险的时候, translated at BBC as "The Chinese nation reached the most dangerous period."

Some debates over the term are covered in James Leibold's Reconfiguring Chinese Nationalism. Prasenjit Duara's Rescuing History from the Nation is also a great volume on this kind of question in Northeast Asia. Mark Elliott on the Han "ethnogenesis":

Jun Okumura said...

Thanks, Graham. Hey, you're in law school now! Lot's of luck.