“The Rectification Of Names”—China Struggles With Its National Question


The thorny tangles of identity, ethnicity, nation, and race, are made thornier under a state ideology based on utopian fantasies and the denial of reality.

Sound familiar? It should; it’s what we write about here at VDARE.com.

As a mind-clearing exercise, it helps to occasionally step back from our domestic broils to look at how things are managed, or mismanaged, elsewhere. That opening sentence of mine, for example, applies just as accurately to China as to the U.S.A. How are they coping?

Not well. Consider for example the Chinese higher-education institution whose name is officially translated into English as the Minzu University of China.

The what university? “Minzu” looks like a place-name but it’s not. It’s a Chinese word, translated in Mathews’ Chinese-English Dictionary (1931) as: “race; peoples; tribe; the nation, in the sense of the people.” (Modern online dictionaries concur.) If you postfix -zhuyi, the Chinese for “-ism,” you have the Chinese word meaning “nationalism.”

OK; but if it’s a Chinese word, what’s it doing in the official English name of the place?

Thereby hangs a tale.

In my own China days thirty years ago the place was officially the Central Institute of Nationalities. Expats referred to it in English as the Nationalities Institute. In Chapter 60 of Fire from the Sun, which deals with the 1989 student movement, I describe it as “a college near Beijing University, for training cadres from the national minorities.”

In 1993 the Institute was upgraded to a university. The official English abbreviation was changed from CIN to CUN. (The latter actually spells a word in the standard pinyin transcription of Chinese: cun, pronounced approximately “tswoon,” means “village.” Students used this as a nickname for the place.)

Then in 2008 the official English name was changed to the Minzu University of China, without there having been any change to the Chinese name.

Why? Because the translation of Chinese minzu into English “nationalities” was felt to be unsatisfactory. Nobody could agree on a more suitable alternative word; so in an onomastic throwing-up of hands, the authorities just dumped the Chinese word into the English name.

The thing to focus on there is that nobody could agree on a more suitable alternative word. Yes, the terminology of ethnicity, nationality, and race is just as flammable in China as it is here. And getting flammabler.

Some background is necessary here. Of China’s 1.3 billion people, 91½ percent identify as Han Chinese. The other 8½ percent—114 million souls—are distributed among 55 officially-recognized national minorities, with populations ranging from 18 million to a few thousand.

That may not sound much—although the U.S. political class is having hysterics about a (government-imported) Hispanic minority that is little larger—but the Hans are geographically concentrated, so that over half the territory of the People’s Republic of China is dominated by minorities, especially in the north and the west.

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Some of these minorities, the Uyghurs of the far West for example, once had polities of their own. The Tibetans actually had an empire. Others, like the Koreans of the Northeast or the Mongolians of Inner Mongolia, are ethnic kin to nation-states currently existing and adjacent to China. Still others—the Mongolians again, the Manchus—once ruled China. Most are small indigenous groups swallowed up into Chinese rule as China expanded across the centuries.

The Communist Party’s policy towards the “nationalities question” has followed Lenin’s, as described in Book Two of Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism. Their ethnicity is officially recognized (and recorded on personal i.d. cards). It is also to be celebrated, for example with minority dance troops showcased in TV spectaculars on national holidays. Their home regions, if big enough, are declared “autonomous.” They send representatives to regional and national legislatures. They enjoy some minor social privileges, notably exemption from the one-child policy.

The autonomy, however, like the legislatures, is perfectly bogus. Even to advocate self-determination for minorities is both an ideological sin (“splittism”) and a serious crime (Article 103). The Party center makes all significant political decisions, and it is totally Han Chinese.

In China … diversity remains something for the museum or the frontier, rather than the halls of power at the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing. When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) announces its new leaders at the 18th Party Congress next week, ethnic uniformity will once again reign supreme: Seven to nine cookie-cutter men in dark suits and black-dyed hair, each representing the Han ethnic majority that officially comprises 91.5% of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) …

All nine members of the current Standing Committee are Han men. In fact, there is only one non-Han member of the current 24 member Politburo: Vice Premier Hui Liangyu, who is a member of the Muslim Hui minority but made his career along the Han-dominated coastal provinces. Besides Mr. Hui, there have only been three other non-Han members of the Politburo since 1949, with none of them reaching the all-powerful Standing Committee. At present, the party-secretaries of all five provincial-level autonomous regions are also Han. From Mao Zedong to leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping, modern China’s paramount leaders have always been Han.

[When Will China’s Leader Be An Ethnic Minority? by James Liebold; Tealeaf Nation, November 13, 2012.]

This system was stable well into the 1990s, but is now showing signs of serious stress.

After the eruption of serious violence in Tibet in 2008 and in Xinjiang in 2009, scarcely a month goes by without new evidence of deepening discontent somewhere in China’s Inner Asian frontiers … Summer 2011 saw violence in Inner Mongolia in protest over Han disregard for ecological spoliation and land rights, leading to a lockdown of university campuses and a disruption of provincial communications for some days.

[The Case of the Missing Indigene: Debate over a ‘Second-Generation’ Ethnic Policy by Mark Elliott, The China Journal, January 2015.]

Freshest in Chinese memories: the terrorist attack on March last year, when six men and two women, all dressed in black, murdered 29 people at the railroad station in Kunming, Southwest China. The Chinese authorities say the terrorists were Muslim Uyghurs. There is no way to confirm that, but it is not improbable: Uyghur separatists have been the most turbulent and violent in recent years.

(The January 11th “Unity March” in Paris following the Charlie Hebdo massacre, with a slew of world leaders at the head of the march, has raised much indignation on Chinese blogs. “Where’s our unity march?” they are asking, with reference to the Kunming incident. Short answer: Same place as the rest of your civil freedoms, pal. You live in a communist dictatorship.)

There have been a number of factors driving the increased restiveness of China’s minorities. Uyghur terrorists have taken inspiration from jihadists elsewhere. The internet has played a part; so has increased mobility as automobile ownership surges upward.

The Communist authorities have been responding with ferocious repression. They are haunted by the collapse of the U.S.S.R., in which East European and minority nationalism played a part:

In China’s political system … the collapse of the Soviet Union continues to be analyzed with a paranoia and urgency that some compare to the United States and its fight against terrorism …

“It’s hard to overstate how obsessed they are with the Soviet Union,” said David Shambaugh, a George Washington University expert who spent years meeting Chinese officials and reading internal party documents for a book on the subject. “They wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night thinking about it. It hangs over every major decision.”

[In China, Soviet Union’s failure drives decisions on reform by William Wan; Washington Post, March 23, 2013.]

There has, though, been a more positive response to the ethnic unrest: calls by significant Chinese scholars for the Leninist nationalities system to be scrapped. Harvard sinologist Mark Elliott describes the unfolding debate in detail in the China Journal article I quoted from up above.

Beijing University sociologist Ma Rong, for example, has proposed a Western-style multiculturalism, the different nationalities retaining their folkways but politically united in a Proposition Nation. Mark Elliott:

Having studied in the U.S., a country he visits often and knows well, Ma writes regularly of the need to approach ethnicity in China in the same way as it is approached in the United States.

Uh …

Other scholars, grouped under the heading “Second-Generation Ethnic Policy,” favor state-driven assimilation, the minority nationalities shedding their ethnic identities and becoming Han Chinese. A key essay on this theme appeared in the Journal of Tsinghua University with the title: The Bedrock of the Chinese Dream Is the Integration of the Peoples of China into a Single Nation-Race. As Mark Elliott points out:

This, of course, is precisely what non-Han in China today fear most: their own disappearance.

The reluctance to translate minzu as “nationality” in the ethnic sense—or, as the name “Minzu University of China” shows, to translate it as anything at all—is one outcome of this debate. Mark Elliott:

Like many other key social science terms used in Chinese, minzu began as a Japanese neologism, minzoku, invented to translate the German word Volk … The majority of Chinese scholars now seem to agree that minzu should be reserved for ideas such as “nation” or “people” and that, for the more anthropologically inflected notion of ethnicity, it is better to use the word zuqun.

Chinese zu means “race, tribe, clan” and qun means “group,” so a fair translation of zuqun would be “ethnic group.”

Well, it’s good to know that Chinese elites have the same touching faith as our own in their ability to change reality by changing words.

They at least have a cultural reference for justification. As Confucius said: “What is necessary is to rectify names.”

John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. ) He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. His most recent book, published by VDARE.com com is  FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle).His writings are archived at JohnDerbyshire.com.

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