Of nations, peoples, countries and mínzú
May 21st 2013, 17:55 by R.L.G. | NEW
DID Joe Biden insult China? The American
vice-president has a habit of sticking his foot into his mouth, and
in this case, the recent graduation speech he gave at the
University of Pennsylvania inspired
a viral rant by a “disappointed” Chinese student at Penn, Zhang
Tianpu. What was Mr Biden’s sin? Was it Mr Biden’s suggestion that
creative thought is stifled in China?
You cannot think different in a nation where you
cannot breathe free. You cannot think different in a nation where
you aren’t able to challenge orthodoxy, because change only comes
from challenging orthodoxy.
No, that wasn’t it.
The source of the insult is a surprising one: Mr Biden called China
a “great nation”, and a “nation” repeatedly after
that. Victor Mair, the resident sinologist
at the Language Log blog, translates Mr Zhang’s
In this sentence, “You CANNOT think different in a nation where you
aren't able to challenge orthodoxy”, he used the word “nation”.
This is what really infuriated me, because in English “nation”
indicates “race, ethnicity”, which is different from “country,
state”. “Country, state” perhaps places more emphasis on the notion
of the entirety of the country, even to the point of referring to
the idea of government.
Mr Mair explains:
The weakness in Zhang's reasoning lies mainly in his confusion over
the multiple meanings of the word mínzú 民族…. [M]ínzú 民族 can mean
“ethnic group; race; nationality; people;
nation”. Coming from the English side, we must
keep in mind that “nation” can be translated into Chinese as guó 国
(“country”), guójiā 国家 (“country”), guódù 国度 (“country; state”),
bāng 邦 (“state”), and, yes, mínzú 民族 (“ethnic group; race;
nationality; people; nation”).
It is clear that, when Biden said “China is a great nation”, he was
respectfully referring to the country as a whole.
Yet the sensitivity to questions of ethnicity in China, especially
with regard to the shǎoshù mínzú 少数民族 (“ethnic / national
minorities”), e.g., Uyghurs, Tibetans, and scores of others, caused
Zhang to take umbrage over something that the Vice President never
I leave it to Mr Mair and the Chinese-speaking commenters to
discuss the ins and outs of mínzú.
But the confusion lies partly on the English side of things.
English-speakers use “nation” in a way unmoored from how it is used
in other western countries, not to mention differently
Political scientists talk about “nations” carefully. The word
refers to the—partly artificial—notion of a people who share a
language, history, religion, ethnicity and culture. When nations
awake, become self-aware as nations, and seek their own state, that
And a nation that succeeds in getting its own state has
The concept is very European. The French are the
canonical “nation”, even if this identity is more
constructed and less ancient than most Frenchmen realise. The first
definition for the modern sense of “nation” in the Académie
Française's dictionary is that of the political scientists:
Ensemble de personnes établies sur un territoire
et unies par des caractères ethniques, des traditions
linguistiques, religieuses, etc. [Collection of persons established
on a territory and united by ethnic charcteristics, linguistic and
religious traditions, etc.]
In this traditional European understanding, the Germans are a
nation. The Russians are a nation. Many European languages have a
word that encapsulates this concept. For the French it is of
course nation itself;
for the Germans, Volk,
for the Russians, narod.
In all of these languages, the nation is distinct from the country
Land or strana)
and most definitely from the state (état,
Staat, gosudarstvo). We see the quasi-familial connection of
the nation to its territory in terms
Vaterland and rodina,
all from “parental” etymological roots. All of these words mean
slightly different things to different people in these countries,
and they change over time. For example, the
French peuple partly
overlaps with Volk/narod.
And the Soviets used narod to
refer to the new “Soviet nation”, and natsionalnost' to
refer to nationalities like Russians, Kazakhs, Jews and so forth.
But the point remains: the people/Volk/nation
is a prominent and powerful concept in European thinking. As a
metaphor, it has more in common with a blood-related family than
with a group of like-minded people living together by
Things got confusing when new kinds of states began to appear.
Small mixed groups of people from Europe established footholds in
the Americas—among a population of indigenous Americans—and then
started importing slaves and later accepting immigrants from all
around the world. These new societies were hardly “nations” in the
traditional European sense, with a shared history, ethnicity,
culture, language, religion and the like. Some of
these things, of course, were shared among much of the population,
but by no means all. In the United States, “Americanness” (for
idealists, at least) came to mean belief in American civic ideals;
a kind of nation of the mind. Much the same happened in places like
Canada, Brazil and Australia, with their linguistically and
racially mixed populations. Each of these places, today, has a
strong identity. But it does not rest on the old European idea of
the nation, a single people with a single story. Some political
scientists cleverly introduced the idea of the “state-nation”, a
community that came into existence because of the prior existence
of a distinct state. France is a nation-state; Brazil, a
But political scientists have no power to determine how ordinary
people use words. And in America, “nation” is now used broadly,
more or less as a synonym for “country”. Politicians are very fond
of it in particular. A search of the Congressional
Record for the 112th Congress (2011-2012) maxes
out at 2000 results for the phrase “our nation”. In contrast,
British politicians are “nation”-shy: a search of
the Hansard, which records debates in the Houses of Parliament,
finds just 109 instances of “our nation” in 2011-2012.
A Google search of British and American books
over the 20th century shows much the same:Americans write
about “our nation” quite a lot more than the British do.
That “nation”-creep could be touchy does not occur to Americans
most of the time. The official version of the story is that
American-born citizen has as simple a claim on the American
identity as any other. The questioning of Barack Obama’s
Americanness, on so many grounds, shows that this is premature
self-congratulation. If there is such thing as an American nation,
it is a complicated one.
So not even English-speakers agree on the basket of concepts
“nation” should include. And English-speakers are far more
wide-ranging in their use of “nation” then Europeans are with their
loaded words like Volk and narod.
This seems to have been the same conceptual mismatch that confused
Mr Zhang in his response to Mr Biden. Though he was graduating from
an elite English-language university, he missed this subtlety of
“nations” in the course of his education. In that, he is like many
of the Americans graduating with him.