Frank Ching – Who is a Chinese?


Frank Ching – Who is a Chinese? (Peking University, July 24, 2013)

Frank Ching – Who is a Chinese?

PEKING UNIVERSITY – I think that many ethnic Chinese – and by that I mean Han Chinese – born and brought up outside China, often grow up feeling rootless and wanting to know more about china and about their own family background. […]

When did the first Chinese appear on the scene? We can determine quite exactly when the first American appeared in the world: 1776, when the United States of America was born. But when was China born? A lot of people talk about 5,000 years of Chinese civilization, but when did the people become Chinese? When did China become China?

The word “China” supposedly came from the First Emperor, who unified the country and established the Ch’in Dynasty. Is that when Chinese first emerged on the world scene, in 221 B.C.? Was Qin Shi-huan the first Chinese? Where did the first Chinese come from? […]

Certainly, when I was going to school, the concept of Chinese was equated with the concept of the Han people. I don’t know if schools in China still teach about the great patriot Yue Fei and the traitor Qin Kuai, who brought about his execution in the southern Song dynasty. Clearly, both Yue Fei and Qin Kuai were Chinese, one a patriot and the other a traitor.

Forgive me while I spend a few minutes on Chinese history, which I’m sure you all know better than I do. The southern Song dynasty was succeeded by the Yuan dynasty, established by Kublai Kahn, the first Mongol emperor. This is where the concept of Chineseness gets a little tricky:

Kublai Khan overthrew the southern Song dynasty and established a Mongol dynasty, known to Chinese history as the Yuan dynasty. This was the first foreign dynasty to rule all of China, and it lasted until 1368. But were the Mongols foreigners in China?

Since Kublai Khan was the emperor of China, by definition he must have been Chinese. Unless, of course, Kublai Khan was the emperor of China in the same sense that Queen Victoria was Empress of India. India became a colony of Britain and the people of India became British subjects for the next century and a half, until 1947. The British monarch did not become Chinese.

But with Kublai Khan, it seems, the situation was different. Instead of the Chinese becoming turned into Mongol subject, it appears, the Mongol conquerors were transformed into Chinese nationals.

That certainly is the view of the Chinese government today.

I became aware of the current political view of history when I went to a talk at the Chinese University of Hong Kong given by a renowned scholar, who claimed that China was never conquered.

The Mongols did not conquer China, he said. The Manchus did not conquer China. Those were not wars of conquest but civil wars. The Mongols and Manchus were Chinese, though perhaps they didn’t know it.

So in China today, the accepted wisdom is that not only did the Mongols and Manchus not conquer China, but the lands that they conquered became part of China and, indeed, are part of China today.

Of course, the difference in behavior between Queen Victoria and the Mongol and Manchu rulers was that Queen Victoria did not move her capital from London to Peking. Both the Mongols and the Manchus established their capital in Beijing. Thus, Chinese people point to area conquered by them as Chinese territory, or having been Chinese territory at one time.

I often say that if Japan, after conquering much of China in the 1930s and 1940s, had moved its capital from Tokyo to Beijing, many Chinese people today would say that in the 1940s, Japan used to be part of China and, in fact, all the territories conquered by Japan, including virtually all of Southeast Asia, were part of China.

As you know, after somewhat less than a century of the Mongols, another Han Chinese dynasty, the Ming, was established, which lasted for several hundred years. But then the Manchus came and established another foreign dynasty, the Qing. Paradoxically, this foreign dynasty was also the last Chinese dynasty.

In the early years of the Qing dynasty, there were many calls to “overthrow” the Qing and restore the Ming.” Even down to the time of Dr. Sun Yatsen there were calls to throw out the “alien” Manchus.

But, interestingly, once the Qing dynasty collapsed, Sun Yatsen and other revolutionaries decided to accept the Manchus as Chinese, and chose a five-colored flag as the first flag of the Republic of China. The five colors – red, yellow, blue, white and black – represented the five races of China – the Han, the Manchus, the Mongols, the Hui and the Tibetans.

The reason was simple. If the Manchus were not accepted as Chinese, then all the lands they conquered should not be considered part of China. China became huge during the Qing dynasty, adding Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia and Manchuria.

If China wanted to remain only Han, it would lose almost half of its territory. So, for very pragmatic reasons, the republican leadership decided that Chinese were not just Han, but included other races as well.

So the Republic of China, and subsequently the People’s Republic of China, decided that in order to keep all the territories within the boundaries of the Qing empire, they had to recognize non-Han people as Chinese people.

But re-interpreting history also creates problems.

When did these non-Han people become Chinese, or were they Chinese all along? For example, if Kublai Khan was Chinese, then was his grandfather, Genghis Khan, also Chinese? Genghis Khan founded the biggest empire in history, including part of China and a substantial part of Central Asia. In fact, the Mongol empire occupied most of Eurasia. Should China now claim all those areas as Chinese?

But then, if Mongols were always Chinese, what about today’s Mongolia? That is an independent country. Are its people also Chinese?

And while some people in China would like to see Mongolia integrated into the People’s Republic of China, there are those in Mongolia who feel that Inner Mongolia should be considered of their territory.

Ironically, the shoe is now on the other foot and Han Chinese, instead of being colonial subjects of foreigners, have as a result of historical events become in effect the colonial masters of peoples in Tibet and Xinjiang, many of whom do not feel Chinese.

This is the historical baggage inherited and also shaped by the current government of China.

At a time when China’s rise is causing concern in neighboring countries, Chinese academics and officials say reassuringly that China has never been expansionist. But then, if so, why are China’s borders today so different from those of the First Emperor? How did China get to be so big?

One explanation is to say that the Han were not expansionist, but the Mongols and Manchus were expansionist. But then, if the Mongols and Manchus were also Chinese, the argument that China was not expansionist can no longer hold water. If Mongols and Manchus were Chinese all along, then China has been an aggressive, expansionist power through much of its history. […]

Let me say a few words on China’s attitude towards so-called “overseas Chinese.” Actually, according to a Chinese political dictionary, an overseas Chinese is a Chinese national who lives overseas. But, it seems, the common attitude is that it includes all people of Chinese descent around the world.

Last November 3, the online edition of the People’s Daily published an English-language article headlined: “Overseas Chinese’s participation in politics becomes irresistible trend.” The article cited politicians in the United States, South Africa and Australia, referring to them as “overseas Chinese” who were “participating in politics in foreign countries.” Of course, from the standpoint of those individuals, they were participating in politics in their own countries, not foreign countries. The article said: “In order to strengthen exchanges and cooperation with China, more and more overseas Chinese are needed to participate in the local political life.”

From the People’s Daily’s standpoint, it seems, these ethnic Chinese politicians serve China’s national purpose, even though they are elected officials of other countries. […]

Other countries, it seems, don’t hold onto the descendants of people who emigrated overseas and claim them as their own. For example, Britain, to whom many Americans trace their ancestry, doesn’t claim George Bush and his family as “overseas British.” They are simply recognized as American.

But China, it seems, insists that anyone with Chinese blood cannot be a foreigner, but is really a Chinese with foreign citizenship. […]


Frank Ching is a journalist and writer who has reported and commented on events in Asia, particularly China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, for many years. He worked for The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal and the Far Eastern Economic Review.

This is an excerpt transcript with highlights by the transcriber from Frank Ching’s thought-provoking and brilliant public talk on Chinese identity and nationalism at Peking University on July 24, 2013