A “homogeneous” China?

The other day while in the Shanghai Museum, I wandered into an exhibit that displayed traditional garb for ethnic minorities in China.  I mainly saw representations for the Miao, the Tibetans, the Mongolians and the Yi.  A large part of me knew that I wouldn’t find it, but I looked around for traditional Hakka clothing:  the loose Ming style shirts and trousers, the large brimmed hats with the black veils and some description about how Hakka women never bound their feet.  Not surprisingly, I did not find any traditional Hakka clothing.  I later joked with Fuji about being disappointed that there was no representation for the Hakka in the ethnic minority exhibit.  Fuji responded by reminding me that the Hakka are not really an ethnic minority and that describing them as such would probably stir a lot of controversy.

Indeed, during the Toronto Hakka Conference this year, I met Dr. Keith Lowe and Dr. Shiu Loon Kong.  During his keynote speech, Dr. Kong explained that the development of the Hakka people was no different from the development of the Han ethnicity.  So, just as Fuji pointed out, the Han is obviously not a truly homogeneous ethnic group; it consists of subcultures and dialects, and the Hakka was one of the many peoples who managed to assimilate into Han society.  Though I know that the Hakka are ethnically considered Han, I found myself nodding wholeheartedly when I read Wasserstrom’s section on “How does ethnicity come into the picture?”

The section addresses the fact that, despite the fact that 90% of the Chinese population falls under Han, there are multiple subgroups and subcultures within the Han ethnicity that make the ethnic group anything but homogeneous.  Favorite example?  Yes, the Hakka are ethnically Han, but they historically were treated as a minority and developed many local enemies wherever they happened to settle down.  Growing up Hakka, I have always emphasized and embraced the idea that the Han are not a homogeneous people, and I have gotten into a few debates on the significance of diversity within the Han ethnicity.  A lot of my Chinese friends like to gloss over such debates with, “But we’re all really one Chinese people at the end of the day.”  I always respond with, “But was it always that way?”  History seems to tell us otherwise.

Carving out minorities from the larger Han ethnic group may be seen as a challenge or a test in where our allegiances or self-identification may lie, and perhaps that is why a lot of people like to think of the Han population as homogeneous.  Today intra-ethnic conflict within the Han subgroups may not be so much of a problem in China  (there is actually still a lot of ethnic conflict among other nationalities such as the Tibetans and Uighurs), as the Hakka have been increasingly assimilated to Han culture.  I still have people asking me whether the Hakka are ethnically Han, and yet, I feel like it’s not enough to give a simple ‘yes.’  Over the last few days, I have contemplated why I insist on seeing the Hakka as an ethnic minority, despite how “homogeneous” the Han culture seems to be.

Definitely, my experience with the Chinese-Indian community must have had some influence over this sense of otherness.  For example, during my interviews with ex-internees this past summer, I managed to slip in a few questions about how the Hakka lived among other Chinese in the Chinese community.  One interviewee mentioned that there was definitely a chasm between Hakka and non-Hakka and he even categorized other non-Hakka Chinese as different “tribes.”  According to my interviewee, the Shandong tribe, the Cantonese tribe, the Hubei tribe and the Hakka tribe seemed to make up the majority of the Chinese community.  But before these different “tribes” came to see themselves as united Chinese in the aftermath of the 1962 Chinese-Indian internment, they were extremely divisive.  It was not until the 1962 Sino-Indian border conflict when 3,000 innocent Chinese-Indians were interned that Chinese-Indians began to see each other as “Chinese.”  One interviewee seemed to imply that the Hakka were sometimes treated as inferiors; he mentioned that the Shandong people in his town would often walk past Hakka people without acknowledging them or would refuse to invite them to local Chinese weddings.  Additionally, Hakka people viewed the Cantonese with a tinge of animosity and jealousy when describing the housing conditions in the internment camp.

When I traveled to Calcutta in 2009 and 2010, I was shocked to realize how exclusive each group remained.  It wasn’t until this summer that I met some of the Chinese community’s Hubei people; I had been so confined to the Hakka community that I had never even met the elusive non-Hakka people in the Chinese-Indian community.

Growing up with such a background has led me to always feel a sense of otherness in Chinese social settings, even though the Hakka probably don’t differ very much from mainstream Han anymore.  Whether there is a power structure present or not between Hakka and non-Hakka, a part of me wants to believe it is still there though—I’ve come to think that part of the Hakka identity and spirit require struggle and challenge.  More importantly, I try to validate that the Hakka culture is still alive by insisting that the Hakka are an oppressed minority within the Han ethnicity (even though this would probably be an overstatement now).  The Hakka are dwindling down, but perhaps I keep telling myself that they will survive if the social environment is pressuring them to do so.  It’s a very nationalist goal.

I’ve tried to pay attention to how other ethnic minorities are perceived by mainstream Chinese.  Just last night, I was watching a dating show on TV, and there was one girl who stood out.  She was wearing what looked like a traditional Miao headdress while every other girl wore Westernized clothing.  Part of me wondered whether she was told to wear it or if she chose to do so.  If she had been told to do so, I would be outraged that she was tokenized in such a way.  If she had chosen to do so, I would be empathetic and praise her for preserving her culture.  But I doubt that the viewers really make such a consideration, and they probably see her as an outsider.  I do know that while I was watching, a lot of men (including some of the guys I was watching with) didn’t find her attractive.  Was it because she was “too traditional” or “too out of place”?

While contemplations on China’s ethnic minorities have led to a lot of questions, it has led to some overarching questions.  What is the significance of being an ethnic minority in China?  How do ethnic minorities fit into the greater scheme of being “Chinese”?  The Schein article in China Urban:  Ethnographies of Contemporary Culture has shed some light on how minorities and subcultures are regarded in China.  While some folk cultures as preserved yet tokenized, there are those that are seen as challenges to China’s progress.  This only further begs the question:  Why are some minorities privileged and tokenized over others?

I don’t think I have interacted enough with other Chinese ethnic minorities to be able to expound upon my answers to these questions, but I will continue to keep these questions in mind for another blog post on ethnic minorities.


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