19 January 2010

China, language, and race

The uniformity of the Chinese people is a myth with deep roots in the West. Part of this is, of course, a product of many white folks’ tendency to think that all Chinese people – indeed, all “Orientals,” according to white folks of a certain age – look the same. These same white folks may also think that all black people look the same, all “Mexicans” look the same (when exactly did Costa Rica become part of Mexico?), and even that all “Arabs” (everyone from Moroccan Berbers to Punjabi Sikhs) look the same: the combination of ignorance and intellectual laziness can go a long way. But black people, “Mexicans,” and “Arabs” are generally quite aware of their own intragroup diversity – and in the last case, they probably would not even be aware that there was a group to which they all belonged, other than that of “non-European human.”

China is a bit different in this respect, because the Chinese themselves have their own myths about their uniformity. Take, for example, the Chinese language(s). It has become fairly common knowledge in the West that there is a difference between Mandarin (northern) and Cantonese (southern) Chinese, largely because with the former dominant in the People’s Republic and in Taiwan and the latter dominant in Hong Kong, both were widely taught in British and American universities. There are other varieties, too: Shanghainese, for example, or the Hakka widely spoken in the Chinese diaspora. (The different forms of Chinese are, incidentally, responsible for the striking difference between stereotypical “Chinatown” Chinese names – Yap, Kwok, Ng – and the names people from China seem to have – Ye, Guo, Wu.) In fact, few Western linguists would consider Mandarin, Cantonese, and the others to be the same language at all, any more than they would consider French, Italian, and Spanish to be “dialects” of Latin.

All the Romance languages are descended from Latin, and their relatedness is obvious. But even when no vocabulary substitution has occurred (e.g., French parler versus the unrelated Spanish hablar, both meaning ‘to speak’), words have often changed dramatically; compare the descendants of Latin filius ‘son’: French fils, Italian figlio, and Spanish hijo. The Chinese situation is similar, with all the different Chinese languages sharing a common ancestor but often little resembling each other. A good example is the name , probably pronounced ngo in Middle Chinese (which roughly corresponds to Europe’s mediæval Latin). It would take a linguist to recognize that the Mandarin Wu and the Cantonese Ng are the same name (in the same sense that hijo and fils are the same word) – unless one were literate in Chinese and considered them merely different regional pronunciations of the same character. It’s quite like if Spaniards and Frenchmen both still wrote in Latin and literally considered hijo and fils (or rather ikho and fis, as they are pronounced) to be regional pronunciations of the word they both wrote filius – and that was indeed roughly the situation in mediæval Europe.

Unlike the French and Spanish, however, the Chinese widely consider the regional variations of Chinese speech to be dialects of a single language rather than languages in their own right. This, of course, gets right to the heart of one of the most politically charged questions in linguistics: What is the difference between a language and a dialect? (The American “Ebonics” controversy of the 1990s was an unusual eruption in U.S. politics of what is a common issue in many parts of the world.) An often-quoted aphorism in linguistics is that a language is a dialect with an army and navy. Catalan has traditionally been treated as a Spanish dialect and Provençal as a French one, although they are much closer to each other than either is to its supposed “standard” language, while Low German is a collection of idioms much more similar to Dutch than to the standard (High) German of which they have been treated as dialects – for that matter, in certain respects Low German is closer to English than it is to standard German.

All this is, of course, related to modern nationalism (sensu stricto): if we define the nation in predominantly linguistic terms, and if we require the borders of the state to coincide as nearly as possible with linguistically-determined national boundaries, then the international-relations repercussions of where we draw the line between language and dialect are clear. As, indeed, might be the implications of treating Mandarin and Cantonese as distinct languages, if one had a certain view of China and the Chinese nation.

We should not assume, though, that even something as simple as the concept of Chinese translates easily. The question of how you say Chinese in Chinese depends not only how you define the Chinese language but on what you mean by Chinese. There are two distinct concepts that we tend to express with the same word – Chinese – in English and other Western languages: 中华民族 (zhōnghuá mínzú, literally ‘Chinese-citizen ethnicity’) and 汉族 (hànzú, ‘Han ethnicity’); we might consider the distinction vaguely analogous to that between British ‘of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ and English ‘of England (and not Ireland, Scotland, or Wales)’, a distinction which also confuses many foreigners. The word Han is, in fact, widely used in English to refer to China’s majority ethnic group, but primarily by academics – as well as by journalists who have just added it to their vocabulary (alongside words like Sunni and Darfur).

The Han comprise, basically speaking, all non-Muslim Chinese-speakers. It is not a racial identity but a cultural one; language is a necessary but not sufficient condition to be considered Han, as attested by the Hui (Chinese-speaking Muslims) being considered a distinct ethnic group. People from China who speak minority languages (and, of course, the Hui) are considered China-the-country-people (zhōnghuá mínzú people) but do not belong to the narrower category of Chinese-culture-people (hànzú people). Interestingly, even though China has been repeatedly conquered by outside groups – most famously the Mongol (the Yuan Dynasty) and the Manchu (the Qing Dynasty) peoples – the Han make up around 90 percent of China’s population and are the overwhelming majority even in the parts of Mongolia and Manchuria which the Russians failed to detach from China. Han people of northern China (reputed to be tall and fair) are said to be easily distinguishable by appearance alone from those of southern China (reputed to be shorter and darker), but though this is attributed to the different “barbarian” groups absorbed by the Han in different parts of China the distinction is not racialized. Except for the unassimilated few on the fringes (Xinjiang, Xizang, etc.) who cling to their more primitive cultures and languages, all are Han and all speak Chinese – at least if we define “speak Chinese” broadly enough.

So while China is not blind to the diversity in its population, it does cultivate a myth of uniformity, even when (as in the case of language) some intellectual contortionism is required to prevent cognitive dissonance. And while the population of China encompasses considerable diversity, all the various peoples – Han and otherwise – do nonetheless fit comfortably in that fuzzy racial category which we might call East Asian. As do, in fact, most of the peoples with whom China historically had nontrivial relations, at least until foreign drug lords with red hair and big noses started taking over the country a couple centuries ago. Since then the Chinese have learned to associate Europeans, despite their sometimes revolting dietary habits, with wealth, technology, and various similarly-desirable things. Africans have not fared as well.

Last month’s Room for Debate piece China’s Changing Views on Race discussed the issue of race in China and brought to my attention a November Washington Post article on the subject, a subject which has been at the back of my mind for the last year or so, as I am currently working on a piece of fiction which includes black Chinese characters. The piece I’m writing is science fiction, but the intersection of black and Chinese is not: it seems a twenty-year-old from Shanghai named Lóu Jìng caused quite a controversy when she appeared on a television talent show last year. Ms. Lóu’s father, you see, was a black man. While this young woman’s father was a black American, there is a growing population of Africans in China: an immigrant neighbourhood in Guangzhou is, according to the Washington Post, known as “Chocolate City” – and many Chinese are not happy about it.

Americans have come to accept that black people can be fully American – well, most of them have – and Canadians aren’t far behind. Many European countries are also coming to grips with having residents and even citizens of African ancestry (some more than others, of course). This is all very much uncharted territory for China, however. As young Lóu Jìng, publicly taunted for being a “black chimpanzee,” found out, Chinese people who look (semi-)African pose a significant challenge to the Chinese myth of uniformity. Tall or short, fair or dark, just speak a Chinese language without being a Muslim and you’re Han. But look somewhat African, speak Chinese, and not be a Muslim?

Ever the optimist, I believe that the Chinese will get over it, just like we did will any day now. But it may be an “interesting” journey.

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