ethnicity, concepts of

ethnicity, concepts of
While ethnicity has become a commonly used analytic concept in the study of societies around the world, it is quite new in China. The term minzu came into Chinese from Japanese around the turn of the twentieth century as increasing attention was paid to the relationships among groups within the new nation-state. Minzu is popularly shortened from the official term shaoshu minzu ‘minority nationality’; it is translated as ‘ethnic group’, ‘minority’, ‘minority nationality’, ‘ethnic minority’.
Ethnic groups are identified on the basis of four characteristics (common territory, common language, common economic life and common psychological characteristics (culture)). Actual cases violate these principles frequently, but at another level there is nonetheless faith in their guidance. As of the early twenty-first century, fifty-five ethnic minorities have been identified, though there are several other groups seeking official recognition. The Han constituted 92 per cent of the population in the 1991 census; minorities number approximately 104 million.
PRC policy has been influenced by the Soviet Union’s nationalities policies and also by a theory known as cultural evolution, which holds that there is a single direction of historic change moving towards civilization, modernity and Communism, and that all groups can be located on this line. Each minzu is studied to determine its location, using marriage patterns, subsistence technologies, religion, housing and the presence or absence of writing systems. The Han Chinese are by definition most advanced, though some groups such as ethnic Koreans living in northeast China pose some challenge to the model by surpassing the Han in educational attainment.
Policies with regard to minzu revolve largely around the question of assimilation or tolerance. The officially stated goal is that all ethnic boundaries will dissolve at some unspecified future point, when Communism is attained, but those working with ethnic groups acknowledge that this is essentially irrelevant at present. There was a great deal of discrimination of minzu during the Cultural Revolution, with notorious humiliation of Tibetans and Hui. Since the Reforms, however, policies have tended to favour minorities and the percentage of people claiming minzu identity has increased. This is often explained as stemming from minzu exemption from the one-child policies, but may have roots as well in more profound questions of finding a place within the larger polity.
Political ‘autonomy’ for areas in which the population has traditionally been primarily minzu has been part of the Chinese constitution from the beginning. This has involved mostly the encouragement of ethnic cadres in governing their own areas.
A concept of ‘subethnic’ identity has sometimes been proposed to explain differences in groups usually considered Han, such as the Hakka (population est. 32 million). This opens up the possibility of creating multiple identities in China, a tendency deplored by a state focused on creating national unity.
Ethnic unity and harmony—encoded in the constitution, enshrined in street names (Minzu Tuanjie Lu, ‘Nationality Unity Street’) in most cities—is sometimes visible, but in some areas, such as Xinjiang, ethnic conflict has been increasing since the 1990s. About 17 million people in China are Muslims, in ten different ethnic groups. Ethnic consciousness among Muslims and other border groups is increasing (see Islam in China).
Crossley, Pamela Kyle (1990). ‘Thinking about Ethnicity in Early Modern China’. Late Imperial China 11:1–34.
Dreyer, June Teufel (1976). China’s Forty Millions: Minority Nationalities and National Integration in the People’s Republic of China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Gladney, Dru C. (1990). Muslim Chinese: Ethnic Nationalism in the People’s Republic. Cambridge, MA: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University.
Harrell, Stevan (ed.) (1995). Cultural Encounters on China’s Ethnic Frontiers. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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