What’s in a word? Minzu and the Chinese Nation

This semester I’m teaching an upper division class in Modern Chinese History, “Chairman Mao’s China.” The title is of course somewhat reductive, but it gives me a chance on the first day to talk about what I hope the class will do. We are not going through Mao Zedong’s biography nor do we ascribe all of Chinese history to his actions. We do, however, look at modern China during his lifetime and a couple of decades after that. Mao played an important role in Chinese history and though it was of course not exclusively definitive, he did live through the fall of the imperial system and was then instrumental in the emergence of what we would now call “modern China.”

In truth, that is a big part of how I have designed the class, to investigate the development of the Chinese modern state. As a result, we have spent a lot of time on the competition between the Chinese Communist Party and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists from the 1920s through to the 1940s, and now find ourselves examining the task set before Mao and the Communists in 1949 and the years immediately following: now that we have won and secured a united Chinese political state… what do we do?

There are as you might imagine a lot of answers to that! The other day in class we talked about China’s minorities. The People’s Republic of China has 56 officially recognized ethnic groups, the dominant Han (roughly 85-90% of the Chinese population) and 55 minorities. Not 54 minorities, not 56 minorities: 55 minorities.

How did this happen? Well, it all goes back to attempts to configure an appropriately representative spread for the National People’s Congress, the legislature established in 1954 to formally pass laws reflecting whatever decisions the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee had decided to make. As Thomas S. Mullaney notes, an early and somewhat admirable attempt by the Communists to simply have Chinese people submit their own ethnic identity in response to a census request floundered in a sea of monikers identifying communities of tens of people to communities of over a million. The data was a mess, rife with possibly overlapping terms, previously unheard of terms and possibly suddenly invented terms. This was immediately seen as unworkable, and soon gave way to the Ethnic Classification Project and the concise identification of a specific list of Chinese ethnic minorities.

I asked my students what they thought of this, and stepped back to ask them a larger question: what is it, exactly, that China was supposed to look like at this point? Why identify minorities? By comparison Chiang Kai-shek when leader of China on the Mainland and after 1949 on the island of Taiwan, though no stranger to Han chauvinism, ostensibly promoted an inclusive platform that celebrated a kind of supra-ethnic Chinese civic identity reflecting Enlightenment ideals directly reminiscent of Western European and American experience, albeit with obvious allusions to China’s traditions and cultural legacies. There are a number of reasons the Chinese Communists waded into the question of ethnic identity, ranging from tactical considerations when establishing relationships with rural Chinese communities to larger discussions of transitioning Chinese society towards Socialism that sought to solve the problem of Chinese ethnic difference persisting despite the long-term inevitability, if Marx was right, of such differences withering away as the mode of production shifted to eliminate bourgeois exploitation.

So, basically the Communists should have believed that ethnic identity, like religion and eventually national identity, would eventually disappear. However, they had a job to do and the Party had long displayed a talent for understanding the complications of rural Chinese life. It was a major and consequential decision that informed the emerging idea of what a Chinese nation-state under Communist rule should be. Despite the clear codification of Chinese ethnic identity, it is still clearly a hugely complex subject.

So too is Chinese linguistics. Political and nationalist policy holds that the Chinese language is large and complex, containing multiple “dialects” such as Cantonese, Shanghainese and Minnanhua (Taiwanese). In fact, I am in danger of underselling the complexity: depending on how one differentiates between a Chinese “dialect” there could easily be hundreds. These purported dialects, by the way, are mutually unintelligible, which is not usually how dialects work. It’s how languages work.

Of course, there are clear reasons the Chinese government would prefer to maintain a specific position on linguistic unity, and it is the same reason that ethnic identity comes under such clear categorical controls. All Chinese minorities come together as one nation, a word often translated in Chinese as minzu (民族), indeed as Chinese leader Xi Jinping used it during his address to the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party this week.


Minzu is… a tricky word! The first character means people, in a more collective or almost figurative sense, and the second translates roughly into “clan” or “ethnic group,” though it can be used differently. So the word minzu can mean “ethnic group” and “nation” simultaneously.

In practice, you use context to parse out what the word means of course. Still, it’s interesting, no? For example my monoethnic Irish background means that my ethnicity is Irish and my civic identity, my national identity, is Irish. The catch is that Ireland isn’t monoethnic at all of course, but it does fit neatly with some fairly straightforward ideas about what a nation-state represents. What does this mean in a Chinese context?

I think it’s a remarkable and intelligent fudge. If you are inclined to be cynical and effectively see the pursuit of the “Chinese Dream” as Xi Jinping calls it as the latest vehicle for a Chinese identity defined by Han ethnicity, you can neatly fold minorities into a concept of the nation that skips between implying ethnic solidarity and ignoring ethnic difference. If the importance of recognizing ethnic minorities means more to you, there is a whole system right there, showing the world how much the Chinese government values the diversity of its people. All this of course is mitigated by the reality of how the minorities are typically portrayed in public discourse in China, where performative politics promote a sometimes comically simplistic idea of ethnic diversity contributing towards a national idea.

Either way you’re selling yourself something. Ultimately it’s a modern expression of a national idea, which in 1949 needed to be codified and expressed in some intelligible way. The 55 minorities are intelligible, at least. China is by no means the only society on the planet that has had to struggle with the ever-changing concept of the nation. The deployment of the word minzu is another reaction to the artificial construction of ideas around ethnicity, but I do find it extremely interesting. It reflects a certain ambiguity that remains in Modern Standard Chinese, a reliance on the importance of context when parsing out meaning. It is no coincidence that Chinese is such rich territory for puns, for example. The term also reflects a rather elegant way, I feel, of a very simple idea: having one’s nationalist cake, and eating it too.

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