Renewal of the race / nation

« previous post | next post »

Jamil Anderlini in the Financial Times (6/21/17), "The dark side of China’s national renewal", writes:

To an English-speaking ear, rejuvenation has positive connotations and all nations have the right to rejuvenate themselves through peaceful efforts.

But the official translation of this crucial slogan is deeply misleading. In Chinese it is “Zhonghua minzu weida fuxing” and the important part of the phrase is “Zhonghua minzu” — the “Chinese nation” according to party propaganda. A more accurate, although not perfect, translation would be the “Chinese race”.

That is certainly how it is interpreted in China. The concept technically includes all 56 official ethnicities, including Tibetans, Muslim Uighurs and ethnic Koreans, but is almost universally understood to mean the majority Han ethnic group, who make up more than 90 per cent of the population.

The most interesting thing about Zhonghua minzu is that it very deliberately and specifically incorporates anyone with Chinese blood anywhere in the world, no matter how long ago their ancestors left the Chinese mainland.

“The Chinese race is a big family and feelings of love for the motherland, passion for the homeland, are infused in the blood of every single person with Chinese ancestry,” asserted Chinese premier Li Keqiang in a recent speech.

This is a highly perceptive, and troubling, article that merits reading in its entirety.

In this post, I will focus on some key terms.

First of all, front and center, what is this mínzú 民族?  It can mean lots of things:  nation, nationality, people, ethnic group, race, volk.  This is not the first time that mínzú 民族 has erupted on the international stage.  One of the most notable instances was four years ago, emanating right here from the University of Pennsylvania.  The incident is well recounted by R.L.G. in "Johnson" at The Economist (5/21/13), "Of nations, peoples, countries and mínzú:  Differing terms for ethnicity, citizenship and group belonging ruffle feathers":

DID Joe Biden insult China?  The American vice-president has a habit of sticking his foot into his mouth, and in this case, the recent graduation speech he gave at the University of Pennsylvania inspired a viral rant by a "disappointed" Chinese student at Penn, Zhang Tianpu. What was Mr Biden's sin? Was it Mr Biden's suggestion that creative thought is stifled in China?

You cannot think different in a nation where you cannot breathe free. You cannot think different in a nation where you aren't able to challenge orthodoxy, because change only comes from challenging orthodoxy.

No, that wasn't it.

The source of the insult is a surprising one: Mr Biden called China a "great nation", and a "nation" repeatedly after that. Victor Mair, the resident sinologist at the Language Log blog, translates Mr Zhang's complaint.

In this sentence, "You CANNOT think different in a nation where you aren't able to challenge orthodoxy", he used the word "nation". This is what really infuriated me, because in English "nation" indicates "race, ethnicity", which is different from "country, state". "Country, state" perhaps places more emphasis on the notion of the entirety of the country, even to the point of referring to the idea of government.

Mr Mair explains:

The weakness in Zhang's reasoning lies mainly in his confusion over the multiple meanings of the word mínzú 民族…. [M]ínzú 民族 can mean "ethnic group; race; nationality; people; nation".  Coming from the English side, we must keep in mind that "nation" can be translated into Chinese as guó 国 ("country"), guójiā 国家 ("country"), guódù 国度 ("country; state"), bāng 邦 ("state"), and, yes, mínzú 民族 ("ethnic group; race; nationality; people; nation").

It is clear that, when Biden said "China is a great nation", he was respectfully referring to the country as a whole.  Yet the sensitivity to questions of ethnicity in China, especially with regard to the shǎoshù mínzú 少数民族 ("ethnic / national minorities"), e.g., Uyghurs, Tibetans, and scores of others, caused Zhang to take umbrage over something that the Vice President never intended.

In a later post about smartphone zombies, Cant. dai1tau4 zuk6 / MSM dītóu zú 低頭族 (“head-down tribe”), "Tribes" (3/10/15), I wrote:

The first word I think of when I see 族 as a suffix is Mandarin mínzú, Japanese minzoku 民族 (“nation; nationality; people”), which is formed from 民 (“people; subjects; civilians”) + 族 (“family clan; ethnic group; tribe”).  The term is a neologism coined in the late 19th century by Japanese thinkers to match the Western (especially German) concept of “nation”.

… I have assembled a large amount of material concerning the absence of mínzú / minzoku 民族 as a lexical item corresponding to “nation” in China before it was introduced from Meiji [1868-1912] Japan.

When we prefix mínzú 民族 with shǎoshù 少数 ("few; small number; minority"), we have shǎoshù mínzú 少数民族 ("minority; national minority; ethnic minority").  Here it gets really tricky, because, as Anderlini points out in his article, there are officially 56 ethnic groups (mínzú 民族) in China, of which 55 are shǎoshù mínzú 少数民族 ("minorities; national minorities; ethnic minorities; ethnic groups"), with the 56th being the dominant, majority (over 90%) Hàn mínzú 汉民族 ("Han nationality; Han ethnic group").  Consequently, when Chinese politicians talk about the blood of the Chinese race, it's important to know whether they are are referring to Hàn mínzú 汉民族 ("Han nationality; Han ethnic group"), Zhōnghuá mínzú 中华民族 ("Chinese nation / people", where Zhōnghuá 中华 is understood as "Central cultural florescence"), or something else.  In each case, we need to judge carefully whether they meant to include all the ethnicities within the sovereign territory of the PRC or in the whole world, or whether they were referring specifically to individuals of Han ethnicity within the sovereign territory of the PRC or in the whole world.  Often, for politicians, as for poets, ambiguity is desirable, or at least convenient.

There are no less than half a dozen other words for "(the) people" that are in common use in Mandarin.  I won't go into all of them here, but will mention only one:  rénmín 人民, as in rénmínbì 人民币 ("RMB; people's currency") and Rénmín rìbào 人民日报 ("People's Daily").  This term, rénmín 人民, does not get involved with race, ethnicity, nation, and so on, but emphasizes the population as a whole.

As for "Zhongguo / China", that too is a huge can of worms, for which see this incisive paper by Arif Dirlik:

"Born in Translation: 'China' in the Making of 'Zhongguo'"

[h.t. John Rohsenow, Bill Bishop]


  1. ~flow said,

    June 25, 2017 @ 5:38 am

    It would seem to me one could write a veritable encyclopedic work based on nothing but the vocables for, and the history and ramifications of, two or three concepts, viz. China, and Chinese characters. Maybe throw Chinese language into the mix: Words for the Country, its Writing, and its Speech.

  2. Bob Ladd said,

    June 25, 2017 @ 5:54 am

    Without intending to downplay the Chinese side of this issue, I think part of the problem here is that in English, perhaps especially American English, nation mostly refers to geographical/political entities, not ethnic ones (think of phrases like "all across the nation"), and I think many Americans, probably including Mr. Biden, are at most only vaguely aware of the fundamentally ethnic meaning. I first became aware of this difference in 1978 when I got involved in translating a history of Transylvania from Romanian into English. Nationalism is more or less as toxic in Central and Eastern Europe as it is anywhere else, and I had plenty of occasions to decide whether to use nation or some other term to make the English text reflect the author's original intentions.

    (If anyone is interested, the author was Stefan Pascu and the book was published about 1981 by Wayne State University Press.)

  3. Anonymous Coward said,

    June 25, 2017 @ 8:25 am

    And most Estadounidenses, save for the erudite, are very unfamiliar with the sense of “state” as, well, state, and not the US states.

  4. ~flow said,

    June 25, 2017 @ 8:59 am

    I can remember one occasion where the lecture of a teacher of Buddhism from Asia were translated from his (non-native) English into German; that went fine until he said something about "the human race". You cannot just go and say "die menschliche Rasse" in Germany when you're standing in front of an audience. Insofar I can somewhat understand Mr Zhang's exasperation.

  5. julie lee said,

    June 25, 2017 @ 2:30 pm

    What has puzzled me is the use of "nation" for some American Indian peoples: for example, "Navajo Nation"," Seminole Nation of Oklahoma", "Seminole Tribe of Florida" (from Wikipedia, "American Indian Nations") . Here "nation" is explained as meaning "federally recognized tribe".

    This use of "nation" interchangeably with "tribe" is different from the word "nation" when we refer to a nation such as China or the U.S.

  6. John Rohsenow said,

    June 25, 2017 @ 2:33 pm

    That this is not a purely academic question is obvious not only from current attitudes in Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan about being "Chinese", but increasingly in Hong Kong, e.g., in recent articles re: the upcoming 20th anniversary of the "retrocession" of HK to China where "According to a University of Hong Kong survey released on Tuesday that polled 120 youths, only 3.1 % of those aged between 18 to 29 identify themselves as "broadly Chinese". The figure stood at 31% when the regular half-yearly survey started 20 years ago." and where "Hong Kong's incoming leader, Carrie Lam, speaking to China's Xinhua state news agency, said she would seek to cultivate the concept of "I am Chinese" at nursery level."

  7. Bob Ladd said,

    June 25, 2017 @ 4:17 pm

    @Julie Lee: That's exactly my point. "Navajo nation" (or the equivalent) would be normal in many other European languages. It's mainly in English that nation has taken the primary meaning of geographical/political unit (similar to "state", which, as Anonymous Coward points out, doesn't normally mean the same thing in AmEng as in many other European languages).

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 25, 2017 @ 5:13 pm

    The OED says:

    "1. a. A large aggregate of communities and individuals united by factors such as common descent, language, culture, history, or occupation of the same territory, so as to form a distinct people. Now also: such a people forming a political state; a political state. (In early use also in pl.: a country.)In early examples notions of race and common descent predominate. In later use notions of territory, political unity, and independence are more prominent, although some writers still make a pointed distinction between nation and state. Cf. NATION-STATE n."

    Julie Lee: This is the relevant definition in the OED:

    "5. A North American Indian people. Also: the territory occupied by such a people, or (in pl.) by North American Indians generally.
    1650 in Arch. Maryland (1883) I. 260 The Ports adjoyning are very much pestered with great Concourse of Indians of several nations.
    1709 J. Lawson New Voy. Carolina 199 Two Nations of Indians here in Carolina were at war together.
    1740 in S. Carolina Hist. Soc. Coll. (1887) IV. 83 I desire also that you will send me..the Indian presents, with power to distribute them, for much Depends on the Nations.
    1775 J. Adair Hist. Amer. Indians 333 [The Muskohge] would be ashamed to allow the latter to carry those captives, who were their friends, through their nation to Charles-town.
    1814 Niles' Reg. 6 264/1 Our own troops are on the point of marching into the nation.
    1836 W. Irving Astoria III. 24 There were white men residing with some of their nation.
    1867 F. Parkman Jesuits in N. Amer. xxxii. 426 That portion [of the Hurons] called the Tobacco Nation.
    1900 Congress. Rec. 2 Feb. 1455/2 The work of survey..for the two great nations—the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations—could be completed within the next year.
    1946 G. Foreman Last Trek Indians 109 Here they were joined in a few days by the main body of the nation from Chicago.
    1994 Harper's Mag. June 34/1 Their orphanage was in the farthermost sticks of the southwestern Choctaw Nation."

    (What happened to the preview?)

  9. Bathrobe said,

    June 26, 2017 @ 12:45 am

    民族 in Chinese is used in the sense of (officially recognised) ethnic group. China's practice was taken from the Soviet Union, where the various ethnic groups were called 'nationalities'. This page describes the thinking behind it:

    The Soviet policy on nationalities, or national minorities, was based on Lenin’s belief that alongside the “bad” nationalism of predatory colonialist nations, there existed a “good” nationalism, that of oppressed nation states yearning for freedom. Lenin believed that a comprehensive state-sponsored program of “nation-building” could fulfill the nationalist aspirations of the many non-Russian peoples of the Soviet Union and thus prevent them from aspiring to any real autonomy.

    The Soviet term for 'nationality' was (if I am correct) Национальность (natsional'nost'). It term could refer both to independent nations and to the nationalities of the Soviet Union.

    In China it was translated as 民族, using the Japanese-coined term, and, following the Soviet lead, the English term for this was 'nationality'. Unlike the Russian term, however, 民族 in Chinese is used strictly for ethnic groups, not for independent states. I would not be surprised if this were a deliberate choice. If China had used a word with similar connotations to the Russian, it could have had sensitive implications for national unity.

    Confusion over the meaning of 'nation' in English or its equation to 民族 in Chinese could be what caused the misunderstanding of Biden's speech.

  10. Len said,

    June 26, 2017 @ 3:01 am

    I grew up in Britain, with a fairly standard education, and it never occurred to me that "nation" was connected to ethnicity. Before I went to university I treated "nation" as a perfect synonym for "country", in the sense of a sovereign state – something that joins the UN and gets its own colour on a world map. UK, US, China, Russia – all nations as far as I was concerned. It was only when corrected by history students that I learned a nation was something more akin to an ethnic group or a people, not an administrative unit.

  11. Keith said,

    June 26, 2017 @ 3:24 am

    It seems to me, that the problem here is not so much Zhang's misunderstanding of the Chinese term "mínzú 民族", as VM is reported to have stated; I think it is rather Zhang's misunterpretation of Biden's use of the term "nation".

    Zhang seems to have taken the English word "nation" from Biden's speech and to have translated that into "mínzú 民族". From that premise and with his personal understanding of "mínzú 民族" Zhang has started to think that Biden is talking about "the Han people as a race, wherever they are in the world".

    Bathrobe's comment about the Soviet term "национальность" is instructive; it seems to be one of those "technical" words so beloved of the ideologues of the time. I think that nowadays, the term "народ" would be commonly used for "nation" in the sense of "ethnic group, people".

    Russian also has a special term, "россянин (masc) , россиянка (fem)" for a citizen of Russia, as distinct from "русский (masc) русская (fem)" for an ethnic Russian person. A famous peom by Mustay Karim begins (if I remember rightly) "не русский я, на россянин"… It's tricky to translate, but I'd render it as "I'm not an ethnic Russian, but a proud Russian citizen"

  12. cliff arroyo said,

    June 26, 2017 @ 5:03 am

    @julie lee "What has puzzled me is the use of "nation" for some American Indian peoples: for example, "Navajo Nation"," Seminole Nation of Oklahoma", "

    This comes from the principle of tribal sovereignty in the US from a time when Native Americans were considered citizens of their tribes (some of which had or acqured state-like qualities) and not the US, also reflected with the US government drawing up treaties with varous tribes (of which all or almost all were broken by the US, but….).

  13. ajay said,

    June 26, 2017 @ 5:29 am

    "Western politics is so complicated. Did you know they have ten different words for 'minzu'?"

  14. Louis Xun said,

    June 26, 2017 @ 8:50 am

    "Zhongzu" is race. "Zhonghua" is nation, which the Financial Times author himself recognizes when he writes "The concept technically includes all 56 official ethnicities, including Tibetans, Muslim Uighurs and ethnic Koreans."
    Remember, the Financial Times is now a Japanese product and Japanese really is an exclusive race, unlike the inclusive "zhonghua." The key is "hua."

  15. Bathrobe said,

    June 26, 2017 @ 9:41 am

    @ Louis Xun I doubt that Japanese ownership of the Financial Times is relevant.

    Zhonghua Minzu is 'inclusive' by design. It originally referred only to the core nationality, the Han Chinese. It was later expanded and made more 'inclusive' in order to keep hold of the lands of the Tibetans, Muslims, Mongols, and Manchus. A kind of forced inclusivity.

  16. julie lee said,

    June 26, 2017 @ 12:22 pm

    @Bob Ladd and @Jerry Friedman: Thank you for the comments.
    Puzzle solved.

  17. TeeMac said,

    June 26, 2017 @ 12:37 pm

    The idea that "nation" can mean a shared core of beliefs or allegiances is embodied in sports fandom, where terms such as "Raider Nation" or "Redsox Nation" have become common in recent years.

  18. julie lee said,

    June 26, 2017 @ 12:40 pm

    We say that China has 56 minorities and 56 minority languages, though many younger members of these minorities may have lost the ability to use the minority language. What should we say of the United States? I 've read that New York City schools have people speaking 135 (or more) languages; that is , 135+ languages are first languages of the schoolchildren and their families. In Los Angles and some other U.S. cities the same. Many of these minorities consist of sizable communities.
    Do we then say that the U.S. has 135 (or whatever) minorities and as many minority languages? Or do we say the U.S. has only one minority, African-Americans?

  19. julie lee said,

    June 26, 2017 @ 12:51 pm

    @cliff arroyo: Thanks, that's helpful.

  20. Nathan said,

    June 26, 2017 @ 1:25 pm

    @julie lee: We don't say the US has N minorities or languages. The US doesn't give official status to any language or ethnic group. There are finite lists on some kinds of government forms (used for statistical tracking, and usually more about "race" than ethnicity), but the lists don't extend beyond those limited domains.

  21. Bathrobe said,

    June 26, 2017 @ 6:34 pm

    Nobody has mentioned the League of Nations and the United Nations. In these bodies, the term 'nation' refers to the political unit rather than the ethnic 'nation-state'.

    For the League of Nations, most languages that had 'nation' in their vocabulary uses that word in naming it. However, Germany used Völkerbund. Most Slavic languages (but not Russian) used narod or cognate forms.

    For the United Nations, German uses Nationen. Most other languages continue with the practice adopted in the League of Nations. The term 'United Nations' was suggested by Roosevelt and famously referred not to the current body but to the Allied countries during WWII (omitting France).

    For the League of Nations, Chinese used 国际联盟 guójì liánméng 'international league'. For the United Nations it uses a term that dates back to the wartime alliance: 联合国 liánhé-guó 'united countries'.

    Getting offended about Biden's use of nation suggests an incredibly poor grasp of English.

  22. Bathrobe said,

    June 26, 2017 @ 7:01 pm

    I must say I was disappointed at the Financial Times article because it failed to go into the key term 中华民族 zhōnghuá mínzú in any depth, including the origin of 民族 mínzú (from Europe via Japanese) and the history of how 中华民族 was applied. Liang Qichao, who proposed the term, originally appears to have used it only for the Han Chinese. The expansion of the term to include other ethnicities can be viewed idealistically or cynically, depending on your point of view. The expansion also involved a wholesale rewriting of the Chinese narrative.

    If you are going to look at a Chinese term that has been translated into English, you need to look more closely at the Chinese original.

  23. ajay said,

    June 27, 2017 @ 4:23 am

    The term 'United Nations' was suggested by Roosevelt and famously referred not to the current body but to the Allied countries during WWII (omitting France).

    And his first suggestion for a name was "Associated Powers"; the winning coalition in WW1 consisted of the "Allied Powers [Britain, France, Italy, Japan] and Associated Powers [various others including the US]". But he reckoned "United Nations" sounded better.

    France was omitted because at the time of the declaration (January 1942) France was fighting on the side of the Axis against Britain in Africa and the Middle East.

  24. John Swindle said,

    June 27, 2017 @ 11:43 pm

    @julie lee: Although the USA has no set list of minorities or minority languages, there is a widespread assumption that "White," "non-Hispanic" people are God's majority and all languages other than English are foreign languages. The terms "White," "Hispanic," and, in this context, "foreign language" are all worth interrogating, and "nation," though usually synonymous with "country," doesn't always mean the same thing. Now, about the Hong Kong nation …

  25. Philip John Anderson said,

    June 28, 2017 @ 8:01 am

    Len, I guess you grew up in England in particular.

    While country, nation and (sovereign) state are often used interchangeably in Britain, most people are accustomed to describing Wales, England and Scotland as countries, although they are not independent. They do have some self-government now, but that is because they are countries, not what makes them so. They can be nations too, although that often refers to people, and follows parentage than country of residence or birth. See the Six Nations rugby competition.

    But when people talk about "this country/nation", it's often ambiguous, and only context can show whether Britain or one of the nations is meant; English people often don't know or care themselves.

  26. julie lee said,

    June 28, 2017 @ 11:56 am

    @Nathan, @ John Swindle, thank you for your comments.

    It's impressive that China has 56 minorities. However, the U.S. has 256 American Indian nations that are federally recognized, some, if not all, with territories (reservations) that are semi-autonomous, and their own languages.

    Then we could say the U.S. has at least 256 minorities, which is even more impressive than 56.

    However, the 256 are bunched under one minority—Native American minority. And the U.S. has three other recognized minorities: African-American, Hispanic, and Asian. (See "Minority Programs", online).

    What about Middle-Easterners? Can they qualify as Asian minority, or African-American minority (since some Middle Eastern countries are in Asia, some in Africa), and enjoy the many "minority programs" in the U.S.?

    Victor Mair's post has opened up some questions as to the meanings of words such as "nation" , "race", "tribe", "minority".

  27. Rodger C said,

    June 28, 2017 @ 12:02 pm

    @Julie lee: I believe the federal definition of "white" involves "tracing one's ancestry from any of the peoples of Europe or the Middle East."

  28. julie lee said,

    June 28, 2017 @ 12:04 pm


    The U.S. has 562 federally recognized American Indian nations, not 256. Also: 562 minorities, not 256.

  29. julie lee said,

    June 28, 2017 @ 12:13 pm

    Thanks, Rodger C.

  30. Bathrobe said,

    June 28, 2017 @ 5:11 pm

    The concept of officially recognised minorities in China was taken from the Soviet Union. The same model was adopted by Vietnam and Mongolia, who both recognise 'minority nationalities'.

    There are 56 in China because that is the number recognised by the state. This number is in many ways arbitrary. It represents what the government has decided. There are cases where minorities have applied for recognition but been rejected. The Gaoshan-zu of Taiwan includes a number of different ethnic groups but only one minority is recognised by the government of the PRC, which at this stage isn't really relevant The different tribes of Mongols are lumped into a single nationality (a continuation of Qing policy). The Buryat Mongols, for instance, are recognised as a separate ethnic group in Russia but not in China.

    Since the historical situation and cultural background of the United States is quite different from that of the Soviet Union and China, talking about "officially recognised minorities" in the United States isn't a very meaningful exercise. The main 'ethnic group' in the U.S. is entirely colonial (indigenes were swept aside), the United States long had a 'melting pot' concept of ethnicity, and the United States lacks a tradition of dividing its citizenry into 'national minorities' on their ID cards. Dividing the United States into ethnic minorities is therefore a purely hypothetical exercise. How it would work out if the U.S. decided, in some parallel universe, to follow Soviet policy is subjective and speculative. There is nothing 'impressive' about the numbers on either side. One is a (partly artificial) result of government policy. The other is a just an imaginary figure.

  31. Victor Mair said,

    June 28, 2017 @ 9:54 pm

    From Arif Dirlik:

    I wonder if you are aware that this distinction (minzu/guojia) was drawn sharply in the debate between Liang Qichao and Tongmeng hui in 1905-1907. I had a discussion in my article, "Socialism and Capitalism in Chinese thinking: the Origins." It was published as Chap i of my Marxism in the Chinese Revolution.

  32. julie lee said,

    June 28, 2017 @ 10:59 pm

    @ Bathrobe: Thanks for the information. However, even though the

    U.S. doesn't follow Soviet policy on recognizing minorities, the U.S.

    does have officially recognized minorities , for example, in its federal

    minority programs. And the federally recognized 562 American

    Indian nations in the U.S. isn't "just an imaginary number".

  33. Bathrobe said,

    June 29, 2017 @ 1:16 am

    Since the whole historical background and philosophy is different, there is no real way of comparing them. The entire purpose of Federal minority programs is different from the Soviet policy of recognising minority nationalities.

    If you look at the 562 (actually 566) tribes, you'll find seven Apache tribes living on different reservations, 13 Sioux tribes living on various reservations, etc. Instead of the Chinese practice of lumping nationalities together (as seen in the Gaoshan-zu, Tibetans, Mongols etc.), the U.S. has a practice of splitting indigenous people up into small groups. The criteria for recognising U.S. tribes are covered here and include: long-standing historical community, outside identification as Indians, political authority, and descent from a historical tribe. If the indigenous Americans were still organised into 'nations', one wonders whether the current classification would ever have been arrived at.

    It is difficult to see any sense in comparing the Chinese system, with its own peculiar historical roots, with that of the United States, which has never adopted such a system and does not conceptualise itself in those terms.

  34. John Swindle said,

    June 29, 2017 @ 1:19 am

    @julie lee: Here's a thought experiment. Consider, for example, all of your friends. List as many as you can think of. Assign them to categories according to some set of criteria you consider important. Now see how many fall into each category. Pretty interesting, no? Now count how many categories there are. Is counting the categories less interesting? Why?

  35. Jichang Lulu said,

    June 29, 2017 @ 4:25 am

    Warts and all, Anderlini's piece must be on to something, given that it prompted the relevant authorities to take immediate action. The column was physically removed from copies of that day's Financial Times at Beijing airport, which is how me (and, judging from Twitter comments, many others) learnt about it and decided to read it. (Intact FT copies were reported elsewhere in China, e.g. at Pudong airport in Shanghai.)

    Not that logical consistency is a relevant concern, but the PRC authorities' current understanding of who owes them loyalty is inherently contradictory. Anyone ethnic Chinese, regardless of personal choice, citizenship or place of birth, is supposed to 'love the motherland' (zuguo 祖国, 'ancestral country'). So are non-ethnic Chinese within the PRC's understanding of its borders, belonging to the other 55 minzu contained in the Zhonghua minzu, but that doesn't apply to members of those ethnic groups living in countries the PRC recognises as independent.

    As of press time, the Relevant Organs don't expect e.g. ethnic Mongolians from Mongolia or Russia to call China 'the motherland', despite the official line is that Genghis Khan was a Chinese emperor. In this view, which GK would have hardly appreciated, he was an outstanding politician of the Zhonghua minzu, who contributed to the unification of China and the integration of its brotherly nationalities (兄弟民族 xiongdi minzu – as in the Russian national anthem: братских народов союз вековой). That brotherhood is only enforced for non-ethnic Chinese born within a PRC-issued map of China. Ancient inhabitants of that territory are also retroactively Zhonghua minzu members, regardless of whether they had any relation to a centralised Chinese state (if there happened to be one at the moment). Modern (Outer) Mongolians, North and South Koreans etc. are not expected to see China as their 'motherland', the way the Chinese diaspora is.

    So the use of these various concepts can be 'inclusive' or 'exclusive', political or ethnic, depending on the audience, at the discretion of the relevant authorities.

    A recent piece on this topic by Ruben Gonzalez-Vicente talks of 'extraterritorial racial sovereignty'.

    Needless to say, more than 56 languages are spoken in China. Ethnologue counts 299.

  36. julie lee said,

    June 29, 2017 @ 3:32 pm

    @Bathrobe, @John Swindle, @ Jichang Lulu: Thanks for the comments and information. I'm learning all the time. My comments are an attempt to understand the meaning of the word "minority", in a nation.

    A few comments:

    @Bathrobe says:
    "If you look at the 562 (actually 566) tribes, you'll find seven Apache tribes living on different reservations, 13 Sioux tribes living on various reservations, etc. "

    Yes, but
    these Apache tribes may belong to different ethnic groups, and the same with the Sioux tribes and other American Indian tribes:
    "Apache groups are politically autonomous. The major groups speak several different languages and developed distinct and competitive cultures," in other words, distinct ethnic entities, under the umbrella term "Apache". (Wikipedia: "Apache")
    An ethnic entity/group is
    " a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition."

    Let us just look at the 566 American Indian nations from the aspect of languages. They represent at least 61 American Indian languages (including Athabascan languages, Iroquois languages, and so on) (Wikipedia, "Athabascan", "Iroquois", etc.). A language is an important cultural tradition and is often a key to ethnicity.

    However, in the U.S., as we gave seen, all the American Indian ethnic groups are bunched under one minority, the "Native American" minority.

    The other U.S. federally recognized minorities are: African-American, Hispanic, and Asian. A lot of races and ethnicities are bunched under these.

    Language-wise, let's just look at Asia. Indonesia has 700 languages, the Philippines has 135 languages, India has (according to a census report) 30 major languages, and some 122 minor languages, and so on. This is only part of Asia.

    I was impressed by the fact of China having 56 minorities. This is because, many years ago, when I went to college in Taiwan, we all learned that China has 4 minorities—Manchu, Tibetan, Mongol, Hui (Moslem) . So I was greatly impressed when I later learned that under the Communist government, China has 56 minorities.

    The display of the 56 minorities of China at the recent Beijing Olympics were, I thought, an attempt to impress with China's ethnic diversity and inclusiveness. Now, if the U.S. were to parade all its ethnic minorities (from Asia, Africa, and the Americas) in all their native attire, at its Olympics, that would be an even more impressive display of diversity and inclusiveness. Parade or not, the U.S., with all its minority programs giving educational and other benefits to minorities from Africa, Asia, and the Americas, does strike me as being even more inclusive than China.

  37. Bathrobe said,

    June 29, 2017 @ 6:21 pm

    @julie lee

    Your point about the Indian tribes or nations is well made. Defining 'minority nationalities', or even the majority nationality, is not a straightforward affair.

    In the case of the U.S., the historical basis for the current relationship with many Indian tribes is the existence of treaties which were signed with them as sovereign entities (although there are many with which treaties were not signed). These tribes are not mere minorities (like Blacks, Hispanics, etc.); they are legally sovereign political entities.

    In the case of China, the version that you learnt at school has its ultimate basis in the Qing, which treated the Manchus, Mongols, Muslims, and Tibetans as separate from the Chinese, united in a larger entity under Manchu rule. The recognition of 55 minorities by the PRC followed the adoption of Soviet nationalities policy. There is no doubt that this (theoretically) represents a more enlightened approach to ethnic minorities. The Chinese government even encouraged the emergence of a fifth major nationality, the Zhuang of Guangxi. Needless to say, China does not recognise any of these groups, no matter what their size or background, as 'sovereign political entities'.

    The reality in both the U.S. and China is rather different from the theory. Jichang Lulu has already touched on what 'inclusiveness' really means in China. The Indian tribes in the U.S. have refused to accept monies legally awarded to them as compensation for the breaking of treaties in the past.

    As for parading 566 U.S. tribes, as well as separate (I won't say 'segregated') contingents of Blacks, Hispanics, and Whites at the Olympics, I don't think the effects of this even bear contemplating.

  38. julie lee said,

    June 29, 2017 @ 7:09 pm


    (A note: Ethnologue (1996) says there are 154 Native American languages spoken in the U.S., many of them becoming extinct.)

    I agree with you that inclusivity in China and the U.S. is different in theory (or law) and in practice (for example, the treatment of African-Americans by the police and judiciary in the U.S. and the treatment of Uyghurs by the security people in China).

    Thanks, for me this has been a fruitful discussion.

  39. liuyao said,

    June 30, 2017 @ 2:49 pm

    Just a minor point: even by official count, not all of the 55 minority ethnicities have a separate language of their own. The Chinese-speaking Muslims are classified as a minzu (Huizu).

    The confusion on the part of Zhang most definitely came from an often raised point by Chinese commentators, that what the Chinese call guojia corresponds to three separates words in English: country, nation, and state. (The subtext was that one could love one's country without supporting the state or the regime.) What was not made clear is that English-speakers could be just as confused of the three.

    The word zuguo also had a bit of history. It literally is "ancestor's country/state", used by overseas Chinese, particularly in Southeast Asia to refer to China (Here's a photo taken in Singapore in 1945 ) I'm not sure exactly when it got imported to China as a word for motherland or fatherland.

  40. Bathrobe said,

    June 30, 2017 @ 4:10 pm

    My feeling is that both "motherland" and "fatherland" have unfavourable (cringe-inducing) connotations in English. For "fatherland" this is for obvious reasons, but I find that even "motherland" has an alienating impact.

    On the other hand, for Australians up until maybe as late as the 1960s, it was common to refer to the UK as the "mother country". For me this does not sound nearly as bad, perhaps due to familiarity. That might not be the case for others, of course, given the racial and imperialist overtones behind it.

RSS feed for comments on this post