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Zhonghua Minzu

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Zhōnghuá Mínzú (中華民族), in modern China, describes a notion of a "Chinese nationality" transcending ethnic divisions. This "nationality" contains all peoples of China integrated as one national, political, and perhaps even ideological-moral group. Many hold that this concept was introduced by Chinese nationalists to justify the political integration of various ethnic groups of China.

"Zhonghua" refers to the root concept of "Chinese" as constructed independently from ethnic concepts such as the Han ethnic group. Therefore, most Chinese use it to include not only the Han Chinese but also other minority ethnic groups within China, such as the Mongols and Tibetans. However, minority ethnic groups do not necessarily view themselves as part of the Zhonghua minzu, or indeed as Chinese in any sense. The history of these nations often reflects a high degree of independence (whether existing only in the political consciousness of that group, or among outsiders as well), some of which have politically been a part of China for many centuries, which others have only recently been integrated--but political status does not always change cultural and ethnic identities. Nonetheless many ambiguities exist. The degree and nature of the independence possessed by the Tibetan people is one case in point. Other groups, such as those of south-central/western China, including the Miao, Zhuang, and Yi, may not be culturally "Chinese" (that is, Han), yet it would be difficult to consider them politically or geographically independent from China. Even greater difficulty arises when considering groups like the Manchu, whose cultural identity is very distinct from that of the Han Chinese yet whose history has been tightly intertwined with that of the Chinese state and nation and can hardly be divorced from this relationship with China in the minds of most observers.

The boundaries of who is or is not a member of Zhonghua minzu have always been somewhat fuzzy and rather inconsistent and have changed from period to period. For example, whether overseas Chinese are considered part of Zhonghua minzu depends on the speaker and the context. The logic often stems from geographic location and political status--a Mongol living in Inner Mongolia would be considered by most to be part of Zhonghua minzu, while a Mongol living in Outer Mongolia would not; likewise there is even a Russian minority in China who are Chinese citizens politically, and many Chinese nationalists would want them to be considered Chinese in a ideological-moral sense as well.

The roots of Zhonghua Minzu dates from the fact that China was the dominant political power in East Asia for several hundred years, and that during much of the period, the notion of "Chineseness" was defined more in civilizational terms than in racial ones. In the 19th century, it was necessary for China to map its views on identity to fit with Western concepts.

The concept has been advocated by Chinese nationalists such as Sun Yat-sen and Liang Qichao since 1895. They planned to overthrow the Manchu Dynasty and establish the Chinese nation state modelled after Germany and Japan. At the same time, they intended that Outer China remain part of the Chinese nation, where languages, religions, cultures and administration systems were completely different from those of the Han Chinese.

Many at this time from the late 19th to the early 20th century feared that an overly restrictive view of the nation state would have dissolved the Empire into several different nations, which would almost definitely have allowed the Western powers to dominate China. The unifying and centralizing principles of Japan and Germany were considered examples China should follow, while the ethnically divided Ottoman Empire was seen as an example of what Chinese nationalists feared. To resolve the contradiction, the concept of Zhonghua minzu was introduced.

The concept of Zhonghua minzu has continued to be invoked and remains a powerful concept among Chinese nationalists into the 21st century. It continues to hold usefulness as the leaders of China need to unify into one political entity a highly diverse and potentially incohesive set of ethnic and social groups.

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Last updated: 05-07-2005 14:56:23
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04