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In Inner Mongolia In Inner Mongolia
by Vieno Vehko
2013-03-26 09:18:49
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Recently, I took a plane to Beijing. My flight was only an hour but we encountered severe turbulence. As the wind gusted, making the plan bounce, I whimpered quietly to myself. Suddenly, without thinking, I grabbed the arm of the man sitting next to me. My terror had caused me do this. He calmly removed my hand from his sleeve and put my hand into his own. "It's okay," he said. This conservative looking, middle aged Chinese man went on to hold my hand during the rest of the flight. Upon landing, I apologized for grabbing his arm, and thanked him. Then I quickly exited the aircraft, knowing that I would never see this Chinese gentleman again. Yet I have not forgotten him, for he gave me much to think about, specifically: What does it mean to be Chinese?  

What exactly is Chinese identity? And how does identity differ from nationality or race? Certainly, recent historical literature has emphasized the state as the focal point of identity for many diverse groups, not just the Chinese. The Chinese State since its inception has also fostered a sense of national identity among all its citizens. In China, from the educational institutions to the fine arts and the Communist Party, these venues have served as avenues of economic and cultural mobility for millions of Chinese. And not just the dominant majority, the Han people, but also the indigenous and minority groups, have employed these avenues to achieve a better life.

For the Chinese, national identification began in 1949, after Chairman Mao took power. He began actively promoting the development of national institutions and of a national consciousness. Mao also supported the minority peoples, advocating equal linguistic and cultural rights for everyone. Yet he rejected the ideology of race, which, in the US, has created many negative consequences for People of Color. Mao and the subsequent Communist State have viewed indigenous and minority peoples as 'younger brothers'  to the Han ‘big brother.’ Since its inception, the state has sought friendship with minority peoples residing within its territories. In the mid-1980's, minority rights were again affirmed by the state, in an attempt to address the ills caused by the Cultural Revolution, whose policies concerning race, class, and political affiliations drastically interrupted Communist nation building. 

Citizenship and nationhood has always been about establishing boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. In the West, from around the time of the French Revolution, defining such boundaries has created challenges, even violence, as  the lines demarcating nations were constructed through conquest and colonialism. Generally speaking, western nations today base citizenship upon birth or residency within that nation's territories, as well as a formal vow to adhere to the national constitution. This mean a person can, in some cases, choose to opt for citizenship, or to forego citizenship. 

Problems arise, however, when we consider that many peoples in the US, for example, lived and thrived on US territories long before it was the US: whose boundaries and sense of nationhood are the correct ones? And other problems appear when immigrants who may be legal (or illegal) give birth on US territory: their children automatically become citizens but their parents are not. Strict immigration and suffrage requirements, as well as legal, linguistic, and social barriers, can impair immigrants from successfully entering and remaining in the US or other western nations. 

Moreover, for some non-liberal western countries, citizenship is a question of descent: being a member of one racial group born within the boundaries of the state. Such countries view their citizens in a literal, physical way: their moral, intellectual, and political qualities are due to their race and place of birth. Turkmenistan is one example of this kind of identity building. 

China, however, has in some ways a much more open policy concerning citizenship and national identity. No one in the modern Chinese state has been forced to abandon their homeland; minority peoples are given special educational and other advantages to help them compete with the Han majority. In many ways, China has a better track record regarding the treatment of her indigenous and minority populations than the US. Yet China also has strict policies regarding immigration, allowing only overseas Chinese the opportunity to become Mainland Chinese citizens, and only if they renounce their former citizenship. Western people living in China, even married to Chinese, cannot opt for Chinese citizenship. Children born of these marriages are not automatically Chinese citizens, either.

Large nations, such as China, the Russian Federation, Canada, and the US, all strive for political and social conformity, which is made difficult by the multicultural and multilingual nature of these states. Legislators everywhere push for assimilation in the name of national unity, while simultaneously singing the praises of a pluralistic society rich in cultural and linguistic diversity. Consequently, serious social problems exist in all multicultural countries, both big and small. For example, European-based states with an influx of migrant workers or immigrants may target certain national groups or religious groups as 'suspect' -- as enemies of socialism or democracy. This, in effect, causes such groups to become 'racialized' - in the sense that the suspect characteristics are thought to belong inherently to all member of the specific group, and that these characteristics will be transmitted through the generations. 

The negative aspects of this type of racialization gave rise to the movement called Social Darwinism: people classified by race were categorized as inferior or superior. The parallel eugenics movement, most publicized by the Nazis in Germany, but also present in other countries, including the former USSR and the USA, also have negatively highlighted this process of racialization as well. 

Clearly, ethnicity, nationality, and race are key terms for understanding how people relate to each other as individuals and as groups, offering clarity in understanding human political and social differences. Identity, however, is harder to express, for people define themselves and others fluidly, in their relationships to others. Moreover, religion, language, customs, and traditions influence all these terms: ethnicity, race, nationality, and identity. 

Generally speaking, however, ethnicity can be defined by the group's shared customs, which in turn are based based upon a belief in common descent. Ethnic groups can become politicized - they then become nations or nation states, which in turn conform with their own given internal ideas of ethnic identity. Nations may rest inside their own homeland, having a indigenous nationality with various clans and tribal affiliations, as is the case of Outer Mongolia. Or they may be situated as a minority nationality if the homeland has been politically joined to another dominant group's territories, as is the case of the Inner Mongolians inside of the PRC. A nationality may have been conquered by another group, and their homeland invaded, as is the perspective of the Tibetans in the PRC. Thus, the Chinese have many groups of people, with many ideas of who they are and what has happened to their ancestral lands. Officially in China, the Han are the majority group; there are 55 official minority groups, who are defined by their ethnicity; Mongol, Hui, Yi, Bai, Daur, etc. Some linguists, however, asserts that many more indigenous peoples live on Chinese soil, but are not counted because they are small in population, or too closely related to other group linguistically. Here again, the dominant population has the power to define the group, this time not just by nationality, but also by ethnicity. According to the Chinese state, all of these indigenous and minority people are Chinese by nationality, having been born on common territory inside the PRC.

Race, in contrast to ethnicity and nationality, is harder to define, especially in China. My definition is that race is present when a defined population group is perceived as holding specific characteristics that cannot be erased or changed; moreover, they pass from generation to generation. In effect, your race is your karma. Moreover, although race is often based on the way a person appears, (phenotype), skin color is not essential. Legal battles conducted in the US and Brazil found that skin color did not apply to race in courts of law; rather, the essential factors dealt with the immutable traits specific to each racial group. Significantly, race is related to power. Whereas ethnicity can be self-assigned, race is most often assigned by an outside, dominant power, to a group if they are in the minority. Racial consciousness can evolve within a minority group as well. In my lifetime I have witnessed the rise of the Black Panthers in the USA and racial awareness in South Africa, Israel, and Ireland, among other places. 


But to return to my original question: what makes a person Chinese? People here tell me, whether they are Han or Mongol, Bai or Daur, that they are 'all Asiatic by race.' There seems to be less conflict regarding racial tensions - because everyone ientifies themselves as Asian. But despite the fact that phenotype seems similar, are they really the same race? 

It also appears that China allows its citizens to define themselves as Chinese by race, by ethnicity and by nationality - and if they are Han, this makes sense. For example, the Han Chinese trace themselves back to a common ancestor, Huang Di, the “Yellow Emperor.” Yet other groups residing in China, such as the Mongols, do not claim him as their ancestor. Instead, the Mongolians all claim hereditary ancestry to Genghis Khan. This means that, although indigenous/ minority populations living on Chinese soil may label call themselves as Chinese by nationality, they may also strongly identify themselves by ethnicity: Hui, Manchu, Kazakh, etc. All these nationalities carry Chinese passports, which clearly mark their ethnicity, so they are Chinese citizens, albeit Mongol, Hui, Kirghiz, etc. Furthermore, since the advent of the Communist State, most Chinese speak a form of Mandarin or Cantonese. Yet indigenous/minority populations are often bilingual, with varying degrees of fluency in either language. 

Finally, today most people in China have a shared history, having lived on Chinese soil from birth; this gives them a shared worldview regarding Confucian and Communist cultures. Yet, as in the US, Europe, Canada, and elsewhere, there exist many minority peoples who have kept distinct cultural patterns that oppose Han culture and modern communist culture. The nomadic peoples are a case in point, with the ancient conflict between the sedentary farmers and pastoral nomadic peoples - which is perhaps a racial conflict? Are these outliers, these peoples, Chinese, too? Does a Chinese person have to confirm to all three categories: race, ethnicity and nationality to identify as a Chinese?

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Leah Sellers2013-03-27 05:29:53
Mr. Vieno,
Sir, really enjoyed and appreciated your piece and your process of Questioning.
Identity is such a Evolutionary multilayered and complex creature.
Thank you.

Eleana2013-03-28 03:14:10
I have a friend called PLUR Dragon, who is Manchurian; he will never call himself Chinese. He is over 6 feet tall and supposedly a prince. He uses the name PLUR always written in caps: stands for Peace, Love. Unity and Respect.

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