What constitutes a Chinese?

What constitutes a Chinese?

First and foremost, I need to emphasize that once again (and it’s the fact): Chinese is a not a single race. Chinese is a a sense of belonging for all the people that live under the influence of Chinese culture and develop (either voluntarily or involuntarily) their identity and affiliation to Chinese civilization, such as adopting Classic Chinese language, adjusting into Chinese agricultural societal order, converting into Chinese philosophy, recognizing the orthodox Chinese historiography, and using Chinese naming system etc. In the Chinese history, there were innumerable counts that northern Turkic/Mongolic/Tungusic/Tocharian nomads invaded the agriculture-based China and gradually submerged in the widening gene pool of modern Chinese population (mostly between Mongoloid nomads and Chinese, e.g. Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic; Tocharian influx is very limited), as well as southern Hmong-Mien/Tai-Kadai tribes that integrated the Northern Chinese settlers and became sinicized over the time. Basically Chinese agricultural civilization is like an super vortex that kept on engulfing its neighboring steppe riders and forest dwellers. The China Proper today is a direct result of Chinese culture expansion up to late 19th century and early 20th century (from both cultural assimilation and Han Chinese immigration). Countries like Korea and Vietnam would be rather difficult to strive for independence if they did not struggle out of sinosphere – their artificially-made written script plays a vital role in keeping their original identity from the gradual sinificiation process.

On the same time, it is rare in the history that Chinese expanded China proper through successful military campaigns. As a matter of fact, after Anshi rebellion in mid-Tang dynasty, or around 750AD, China had always been passive in dealing with the nomads. China proper even started to be at the hands of steppe riders completely by the Mongols in 1279AD and later by Manchus in 1644AD (while Northern China proper briefly under Nomad’s control in Wu Hu era (304AD-439AD) before Anshi rebellion and Ming dynasty (1368AD-1644AD) be the only effective Chinese central government’s control on Northern China Proper after the Tang dynasty).  However, the expansion of China proper (Chinese culture) went even further and more swiftly after the influx of nomads in Northern China and outflux of Chinese in the Southern “savage land”.

To explain the extremely elastic vitality of Chinese culture before the arrival of Western influence (communism being the ultimate terminator of classic Chinese culture), I always like to compare Chinese culture to the expansion of Christianity in Europe. Those two share a lot of similarities. They both hold a holistic and coherent worldview and social codes to help maintain an agricultural-centric society; they both highly adopted by the ruling class as a sense of identity to increase the centripetal force among all social classes; and they both expand outwards while outer culturally inferior tribes were militarily superior and invading inwards. The only difference is that while Christianity was more proactive in converting nomadic tribes and forest hunters in the name of religion, which emphasizing more on the recognition of its religious worldview and less on the assimilation of culture and language (Christianity being the major force in creating the written script for many European languages and thus preserving their own ethnic/cultural identities in Europe); Chinese never proactively preached non-Chinese, instead it was largely those nomads and tribes that have got in contact with the Chinese consciously decided to fully assimilate into Chinese, therefore taking up the whole package of Chinese philosophy (language, history, worldview etc.) and developing into the defenders of Chinese culture  (the most notable case being the sinification process of Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei in late 400AD).

The reason behind the strong magnetic effect of Chinese culture is quite straightforward: Chinese civilization (especially Confucianism) provides a stable social order for the agriculture-based regime, and thus a much easier livelihood for steppe nomads and southern mountainous tribes. Chinese culture superiority in East Asia was thus based on its complementary agricultural ethics and technology as well as the enormous luxury it produced. Who would rather go to hunt in the mountains and herd sheep while they realize could just make food out of agriculture? Classic Chinese therefore became to Lingua-Franca in the whole East Asia.

As a result, many Northern Chinese would probably carry more blood of Hu (Chinese term for all northern nomads) and many Southern Chinese with Man (Chinese term for all Southern tribes) blood. Interestingly, at certain point there were even speculations that a Chinese village in Northwestern China might have lived the descendants of the missing Roman legion after the Battle of Carrhae in 53BC. Though this proved falsified later, DNA test did confirm a significant contribution of Caucasian gene in the village (probably more likely as a result of Persian-Sogdian influx). All of these point to the fact that the identity of being a Chinese is rather a sense of cultural identification than a result of kinship expansion. And Classic Chinese culture (which is a result of thousands of years’ gradual assimilation of all agricultural breeds in the Yellow River basin until 221BC) played a vital role in connecting different breeds into the China proper.

However, Classic Chinese culture experienced drastic downfall since the May-fourth Movement in 1919. The traditional Sino-centric worldview has bee fiercely attacked by Chinese intellectuals who viewed Classic Chinese as the dead-weight that held back China modernization. A wave of aggressive anti-classicism movement surged at that time. At that time someone even proposed to totally abandon Chinese script, one of the three independently developed written script (the one being Sumerian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyph) and the only one that has been continuously developed and used ever since, to adopt a total romanization of Chinese language. Though this was even seen extreme at that time, classic Chinese was gradually downplayed in the Chinese education ever since. Vernacular Chinese, a colloquial interpretation of Northern Mandarin Chinese dialect, was promoted nationwide as the standard Chinese ever since. Without the support of Classic Chinese, the cultural identity of Chinese significantly declined. Instead, the modern nationalism stepped in and replaced Chinese culture as the main source of Chinese identity afterwards. Chinese Classicism was later put into an end after the takeover of the extreme left-wing communist regime after 1949, especially after the introduction of the modern ethnic definition in China and the  Cultural Revolution. Nowadays, alas,  Chinese Classic culture becomes merely an exclusive possession of a very few number of Chinese intellectuals like me, who could only find a sense of comfort and admiration in the past while looking at the contemporary desinicizing China.

What constitutes a Chinese? As much as I am aware of every logic reasoning in this question, I still firmly believe a proper Chinese could have a full understanding and appreciation of Classic Chinese culture and language. Just because you happen to have genes that give you Mongoloid facial feature and speak vernacular Chinese (or even don’t know how to speak among some overseas Chinese), doesn’t mean you are qualified as a Chinese (Starting calling yourself Asians, good for both of us). As a Chinese Classicist I found it quite hard to obtain a sense of belonging in the modern China (ill-manner, money-worshiping, dishonesty are never classic Chinese!). Classic China is all I could relate to. If you want to be a real Chinese, act like a proper Chinese.  君子明春秋大義也!

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11 comments

  1. Interesting article.

    “Chinese Classic culture becomes merely an exclusive possession of a very few number of Chinese intellectuals like me, who could only find a sense of comfort and admiration in the past while looking at the contemporary desinicizing China.”

    This reminds me of the classical tradition in Europe. It survived the jump to nationalism in Europe because it was venerated as one of the foundation stones of those nations (but unfortunately is not surviving the shift to cultural marxism).

    1. If you are bragging about European glorious history, it’s highly possible that you will be labelled with racism and chauvinism. The post-WWII surging of the “unconditioned love” for the minorities, regardless of its different nature in IQ/culture/religion, really took me quite a while to understand… And so far there’s only one theory that could make sense…

  2. Hi dude, Chinese guy from Beijing here says hello.

    I enjoy your articles in general, I think you keep a very good blog have a unique way of explaining things. But I have to say as a northern Chinese I do find some notions in this article inaccurate and offensive. It seems to be implied in this article that Northern Chinese are somehow not “pure” Chinese and have Caucasian blood in them. This is not true. As far as I know, the “Roman village” case is an exception rather than the rule. According to recent Y-chromosome and autosomal DNA studies, most (95%) Northwestern Chinese people are purely Mongoloid. So I am not sure putting the “Roman village” example here is approriate. I think it might lead uninformed readers to think that most northern Chinese are Mongoloid-Caucasian hybrids, which cannot be further from the truth.

    Just some observations. Good luck and keep the good blog going!

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      Here is a reply to your point: I was not trying to imply all Northern Chinese are not pure Chinese, I was saying that there are lots of nomadic influx into the Northern Chinese gene pool. I use that Liqian village as an extreme example just to illustrate how this could happen in Northern China over the time. No, most Chinese are not Mongoloid-Caucasoid hybrid, that would be the case for lots of Central Asian people. Norther Chinese, however, do have a distinct genetic characteristic different from that of Southern Chinese from recent genetic study (check http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masatoshi_Nei Masatonshi’s genetic study on Mongoloid). Through the long history of China, most of nomads who invaded Northern China and integrated afterwards are mostly Mongoloid as well. It wouldn’t surprise to find out that most of Northern Chinese are pure Mongoloid. Meantime, Southern Chinese have also a lot of admixture from indigenous tribes such as the Miao and Yao people etc. All I am saying is, Chinese is not a race but a common identity of different peoples who got influenced by the Chinese culture (which of course swift to modern nationalistic identity based on blood and ancestry after 1949).

      This article is just explaining that the identity of China is a culture affiliation rather than blood connection. To some extent it is similar to that of Roman empire in Europe. But the difference is that Chinese unique culture successfully coherently preserved and glued all parts together to the present China and Chinese identity (In my other article I contribute this largely to the usage of logogram Chinese scripts). I see this civilization pattern as much more successful and superior than those based on pure blood and heredity.

      Therefore I was not offensive to the Northern Chinese at all, as I was never intended to. However, I do admit I am not aware of the exact mixing ratio between Chinese farmers and steppe riders or Chinese migrants and Southern tribesmen in those times (I would love to read more about it, and also the source of your “95% northern Chinese pure Mongoloid” statement). But I don’t think and certainly don’t hope to mislead the readers that Northern Chinese are rather Mongoloid-Caucasoid hybrid. I will add a line to specify that most of the assimilation happened in Norther Mongoloid steppe riders (Mongolic/Turkic/Tungusic). About Iranic Tocharian I included them as there are indeed evidence to support the influx of Caucasoid gene into Northern Chinese gene pool as well, if not many. By the way, one point I omitted in the original article is that during the Wu Hu Rioting period there appeared to be several groups of Caucasoid-like nomads invading China as well, but then we have a this cool guy call Ran Min (冉閔) who basically manged to rebel foreign rules and successfully crushed many nomads, especially those with high degree of Caucasian appearance. If that didn’t happen, probably we’d see more Caucasoid genetic admixture among the Northern Chinese… Or Northern Chinese will no longer apply to the people in the region now… We never know.

  3. It is a good idea to clarify this point in the article as the original article could be misleading. It is true that Wu Hu mixture happened in historic times, but it has been proven by modern genetic studies that this mixture is minimal and is only present in a very small proportion of northern Han Chinese populations. The scale and prevalance of intermarriage between Han and normadic steppes in the historic times was vastly overestimated. For source you can refer to the following link:

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2790583/

    As for the genetic difference between north-south Han population, it has been discovered that the Cantonese and Minnan populations are closer to Thai people than to northern Han people. They are better classified as Southeast Asian rather than East Asian.

    Accordingly, I think it would be best to revise the article.

    1. That’s a very good source. Thanks for the information.

      One thing I have to point out is that those studies are based on random sampling from the population pool. Of course their findings are somewhat reflective of general situation, but there is always discrepancy between the sampling study results and actual condition of the whole population. I was discussing the admixture issues purely from historical point of view. I do admit that Chinese population must significantly outnumbered northern nomadic invaders back in the days. Those steppe nomad genes are very much likely to be heavily diluted in thousands of years’ mixing with the Chinese farmers. The study you provided merely sample different group of Han Chinese in various geographical locations, rather than comparing with other groups of people. Furthermore, most of nomadic groups who were completely assimilated could not be identified anyway in modern times, let’s say if one study seek to find a pure Xianbei or Khitan sample. The mixing ratio might be minimal due to the large population base of Northern Chinese farmers, but it doesn’t downplay the significance of assimilation process that took place in Northern China over thousands of years, especially regarding cultural and linguistic influence.

      Regarding Southern Chinese, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that Cantonese and Minnan populations are closer to Thai. But Thai originated from Southern China, they are definitely not South-Eastern Austro-Asiatic at all. That’s why I said Southern Chinese are closer to indigenous people that used to live in Southern China before the arrival of Chinese immigrants.The mixing pattern in Southern China would rather be a small number of culturally advanced Chinese migrants assimilating with a relative larger group of locals, with the latter adopts the former’s advanced civilization but leaving loads of genetic admixture in the “Southern Chinese”. This is very similar to the situation in North China.

      “They are better classified as Southeast Asian rather than East Asian.”

      No, they are not. The whole idea of this article is to exert that cultural identity and cohesion works way more effective to preserve a civilization than pure hereditary trace. They are Chinese for they have embraced Chinese culture and sense of belonging. In my view, this type of cultural identity is far more sophisticated than modern nationalistic identity based on gene and blood.

      I noticed that you have used a lot of genetic findings to back up your arguments. Very nice input here as I am no expect in that field and therefore did not explicitly address on the genetic evidence in this article. But to discuss issues regarding ethnic identity and admixture it is important to incorporate all aspects into a holistic point of view that includes genetic, cultural, historical, and linguistic evidence. I would only revise further my original article if either significant ambiguity or fatal misconception were identified with sufficient evidence and logic reasoning. As far as I concern, and taking into account your arguments, I do not think it meets the criteria to revise the original article. Of course you are welcome to argue back to convince me to do so in the future. But as far as I see it now I wouldn’t revise the article.

  4. It is your blog after all, so of course it’s up to you whether you want to revise it or not. But there are a few other points I’d like to make. One of them is that the original Chinese civilization was created by pure Northeast Asian Mongoloids, not Thai-like Southern native populations, who should not be classified as Mongoloids, but rather a hybrid of Pacific Islander Negrito and Mongoloid. I think it is an important point. As you correctly pointed out, the Thai-like Southern native populations were merely later “sinicized” by Northeast Asian Mongoloids. So that’s an important distinction to make. The original Chinese civilization was created by Northerners, not Southerners. Northern China remained more prosperous than Southern China for thousands of years. It is only in the recent centuries that Southern China began to catch up. Another point is that, genetics determine everything. History and culture are both determined by genetics. Genetics determine a population’s intelligence, temper, and all other characteristics, which in turn determine a population’s history and culture. I think when you talk about history and culture, it’s important to keep this in mind. Biology determines everything.

    1. ” One of them is that the original Chinese civilization was created by pure Northeast Asian Mongoloids.”

      I agree. As I mentioned in the article, Chinese civilization originated in the north. No doubt about that.

      “not Thai-like Southern native populations, who should not be classified as Mongoloids, but rather a hybrid of Pacific Islander Negrito and Mongoloid”

      Haha, let’s be a big fair here. I don’t think the indigenous people in South China are Negrito. I would rather associate them to the ancestors of Polynesians (they went to Taiwan and went southward maybe). Moreover, “Southern Chinese” is a very broad term that associates basically the Han Chinese in the vast area of South China. I don’t think they are homogeneous in terms of genetics within themselves either. You can’t generalize them to a simple hybrid of Pacific Negrito and Mongoloid. That’s pretty inaccurate. Also, you need to look at the scale of Chinese immigration and the scale of cultural assimilation in Southern China. I do think there’s a very large scale of Chinese immigration to the South over the years. One could tell from the pattern of Chinese immigration in Manchuria, which occurred recently and contributed predominately to the current Chinese population in the region, it is possible that there are lots of Chinese in Southern China that are purely the descendants of Chinese immigrants.

      “Northern China remained more prosperous than Southern China for thousands of years. It is only in the recent centuries that Southern China began to catch up. ”

      Yes, initially. But this changes pretty much after the fall of Tang over a thousand years ago. I wouldn’t say that’s pretty recent.

      ” Another point is that, genetics determine everything. ”

      Grrr.. I see your pride in genetics and biology. You need to be more informed about the beauty of social-science as well :) Biology is cool, but still can’t explain everything at present technological level.

      ” Genetics determine a population’s intelligence, temper, and all other characteristics, which in turn determine a population’s history and culture”

      Genetics are also altered by the environment people live. People evolve differently according to their different living conditions. A population’s history and culture (only happened in recent a few thousand years) do have something to do with that. But there are also other factors such as migration, interaction of other groups of people, and alternation of living environment etc. I wouldn’t say Genetic is all it matters, though undoubtedly a major factor.

      “. I think when you talk about history and culture, it’s important to keep this in mind. Biology determines everything.”

      Good point, I will keep that in mind for my future articles (welcome for any input regarding biology facts, I assume that’s your expertise). The same advice goes to you, broaden your scope beyond mere biology facts, be more open-minded to absorb different views from historical, linguistic, and cultural perspectives. Biology definitely rules, but the problem is that we are not thoroughly informed just through modern biology study. There are other ways to get facts beyond modern biological technology. You shouldn’t blindly believe in modern biology and downplay everything else as modern biology technology could explain everything. You should read my article about Liberal’s cognitive bias. I think most of cases people tend to believe things they are only aware of and develop a cognitive bias based on that towards different sources and opinions. One should always review the authenticity of information itself and try to take more objective facts from different spectrum as much as possible. The better you are informed, the closer your judgement would be to the real situation (provided that you are able to screen out subjective emotional response over rational reasoning and objective facts).

      Last words: the IQ difference between Northern Chinese and Southern Chinese are not that significant to make a distinction between those two culturally and biologically, especially when the modern nationhood accelerates the mixing rate among the Chinese all over the place (I myself is a good example of such mixing). To me, Northern Chinese and Southern Chinese are all Chinese, and should work together as one. There are way more obstacles and unfriendly people that can’t wait to see China breaks up itself, You shouldn’t really pick up such pettiness.

  5. Be aware of bio-cultural co-evolution: not only has evolution speeded up over the last several thousand years (see Cochran and Harpending) but also we are learning more about the ways cultural environments influence not only natural selection (lactose tolerance being but one example) but also, through kin selection, the genetic profiles of various sub-populations. Hbd chick is good on this. We still have much to learn in this area.

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