The Myth of One China

Foreign Policy has published an excerpt of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, in which Jeffery Wasserstrom, the author, counters the widespread idea that China is a homogeneous society:

One reason that Americans tend to overlook the degree of diversity within China is that ethnicity and race loom so large in U.S. discussions of heterogeneity and homogeneity. And China, it is said, is 90 percent Han. But this widely cited number is a misleading indicator of diversity.

It’s true that China can accurately be described as somewhat less heterogeneous than other large countries. It has neither the dizzying religious diversity of India nor the complex linguistic variation of Indonesia, and it does not have as many inhabitants whose parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents were born in distant lands, as the United States does. But there is a world of difference between saying China is somewhat less diverse in specific ways than other countries and suggesting that its people are mostly basically the same. And even when it comes to ethnicity, there turns out to be much that is misleading about even the assumption of relative homogeneity.

Even if one accepts the 90 percent Han number, which is a problematic one (there is always something vexing about trying to define the exact boundaries of such categories), there are many groups of people within this capacious majority catchall group who speak mutually unintelligible dialects and have radically dissimilar customs. To cite just one illustration, the Hakka, or “guest people,” scattered around China are considered Han but have many characteristics that, in another context, might easily lead observers to categorize them as “ethnically” distinct from those they live among. There are many historical cases of what would seem typical outbursts of communal violence or “interethnic” conflicts that pit Hakka (who, among many other things that have set them apart from their neighbors, never embraced any form of foot binding, a practice that was far less uniform than outsiders have often suggested) against non-Hakka living nearby.

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