“What is a Chinese Identity?”

From the Announcement in the Newsletter:

“What is a Chinese identity?”,
by Professor Barend ter Haar

Professor ter Haar is Run Run Shaw Professor of Chinese, Director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of University College.

Everybody knows where China is and many will also be aware of the disputes about Hong Kong (resolved in 1997) and Taiwan (still outstanding). For decades after 1949 we even spoke about two Chinas. People may be less aware of the issues surrounding a Chinese identity, or more appropriately Chinese identities. Is a Chinese person someone who speaks Mandarin, do all Chinese speak Mandarin? Who are the Han-Chinese and who decides? What answer can you expect when you ask someone with a passport from the People’s Republic of China where he or she is from? Since when are the Chinese Chinese?’ Rather than providing an answer to all of these questions in one short talk, the speaker intends to show why these questions still matter today.

From the Professor’s academic webpage at Oxford University :

Research Interests : Although I am first of all a social and cultural historian, the religious dimension is so central to Chinese traditional life that much of my research up to now has dealt with religious phenomena. In addition, I have worked extensively on issues of ethnic identity, violence and fear, oral culture and social organization. An important concern is to demonstrate that traditional culture and cultural patterns are still relevant today, as becomes visible for instance in the case of the Falun Gong or the ongoing role of exorcist violence in political contexts throughout the twentieth century.

Current Projects: a book-length monograph on the Chinese deity Emperor Guan. Once this is out of the way I intend to write a book for a wider audience on the vexing question “where are China’s witches”. It is remarkable that the stigmatization and persecution of people as witches in traditional China is so limited as compared with the West and many other parts of the world. In the long run I will be working increasingly on questions of orality and literacy throughout the imperial period.

Additional information can be found on the website at faculty.orinst.ox.ac.uk/terhaar/


From the Report in the Spring 2016 Newsletter:

On 16 March members of the Anglo- Netherlands Society filled the auditorium of the Unilever building to the gunnels, as they do every year, for the Annual Unilever Lecture.  This year’s topic was on the question: “What is a Chinese identity?”
Speaker was sinologist Professor Barend ter Haar, Run Run Shaw Professor of Chinese and Director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Oxford University.

Ms Lysanne Gray, Chief Auditor at Unilever, gave a word of welcome on behalf of Unilever. She emphasised the importance of mutual understanding in a multicultural organisation like Unilever. China is a big business partner for Unilever, so it is crucial we know at least a little bit about ‘the’ Chinese and where they come from.

After Chairman Dick van den Broek introduced Professor Ter Haar to the audience, we all sat in anticipation of a lecture that was going to tell us about ‘the’ Chinese. But that, of course, was not what happened. Things are never that simple.

From the start professor Ter Haar was quick to deconstruct any stereotype images linked to ‘The’ Chinese. He went so far as to question the validity of ‘my identity’ in general.

If I thought of myself as having an innate ‘Dutch identity’, as something natural, or developed by myself, Professor Ter Haar was quick to pour cold water on that idea – by the bucket load. No luv, your identity is determined by the passport you carry. Therefore it is decided by external agents, not you.

So how about our innermost feelings about who we are as Dutch, or British/English? Do they count for nothing? May-be they do, but it is worth pondering how much has been planted there by authorities like school, clubs and media.
If that is true for a democracy, where we are free to switch passports and therefore identity, how much more true is it for a one-party state, like that of China?

According to Professor Ter Haar the Communist Party is going to great lengths to create a national Chinese identity. Chinese rulers had tried this before, but now it can really take off with the help of state education and modern media and technology.

The usual suspects that always pop up around concepts of ‘national identity’ are all there: language, history, culture, rituals and the concept of a ‘common enemy’.
The Communist Party and its leaders built their idea of what a Chinese identity looks like to reflect their own background. The Party was established in the North of China, former stronghold of the ancient Han people. Therefore, they represent themselves as heirs of the Han, who they claim are the ‘real’ Chinese. In their minds ‘Han’ means ‘Chinese’.  The Han also were the creators of the famous Chinese administration and bureaucracy, with its own administrative language: ‘Mandarin’.

The authorities were ‘not amused’ when Harvard professor Mark Elliot  stated  that ‘Han’ does not mean ‘Chinese’, but quite the opposite, namely  ‘The Other’, or outsiders, rather than insiders. The party re-introduced the old exam system the Han used to train up their administrators.  Nowadays, if you want to go to university you study what the state tells you to study, whether you enjoy the subject or not.

Talking about education, all schools in China teach in Mandarin, the official state language in China. The numerous other ethnic languages and dialects spoken in China are banned from official institutions and the media and the fact that Mandarin itself has many variants is conveniently ignored.

As I understand it the education system, the media and public rituals form the infrastructure of the ‘national identity programme’ and Mandarin is the vehicle via which the ideas of the Party about the Chinese identity are being transmitted. That is a start to create a national identity, but it is not enough in itself.

Essential in creating a common identity is the concept of a common enemy. This is done to create a feeling of ‘togetherness’, of ‘us against them’. (Think of where else this is happening at the moment. You don’t need to look very far.)
For decades Japan has been regarded as enemy Nr 1 to the Chinese and Japan and the Japanese are regularly vilified by the official media, stirring up strong emotions of hatred towards the Japanese.

The same method is applied against the Manchus, an ethnic minority whose members have lived in China for centuries. They are wrongly accused of massacring the Chinese, therefore are seen as the enemy from within. The usage of the Manchu language in schools and media is banned.  Emotions are the core of the story of ‘a national identity’ and rituals channel and amplify them and thus reinforce the official ideas on national identity. An example of how this works and which is applied all over the world, including the UK, is the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games, which took place in Beijing in 2008.

And yet, despite all the engineering by the Chinese rulers can we speak of one Chinese identity? Can we even speak of a national identity the Communist Party would like to see?  Professor Ter Haar admits he doesn’t know. Creating a national identity is a process that unfolds slowly and is therefore difficult to pin down.
Because in China the state controls how people express their ideas of identity and suppresses any expressions deviating from the official line, a false image of a Chinese identity is created. Bear in mind too, that most of what we see from China comes from the capital and is not representative of the whole country.

Questions were raised on how phenomena such as religion, ancestor worship, pride in capitalism, etc. might give an indication of a Chinese identity. Ter Haar replied that none of these give us any firm clues, either because they are rare, or exist hidden away, as in the case of religion, or they are highly diverse, as with ancestor worship, or they are actively distorted or suppressed. For, despite the fact that China has a purer form of capitalism than the UK, Chinese people are discouraged from feeling proud of capitalism, whilst being praised for being a proud communist. Surely that does not reflect a true feeling of identity.

Ter Haar’s conclusion was that there is no one Chinese identity. Instead there are many and these keep changing over time and as people move around. What is very interesting to see is how in urban areas people express their identity indirectly, via the revival of disappearing cultures. That is a positive sign of how people circumvent a government’s relentless push towards a clear answer to the question ‘What is a Chinese identity?’

Sir David Miers thanked Unilever for its hospitality, the speaker for informing, educating and entertaining us. Sir David was relieved to find the Chinese have ‘a’ identity, and that Barend ter Haar is THE professor of Chinese.

With that, all proceeded to the 8th floor, where a truly wonderful buffet dinner was laid out for us, with Chinese draperies.