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Eating Chinese

If my high-school senior brother saw the title of this blog, he would think it was about movies with zombies.

If some college guys I know saw it, they would think it was about Asian friends with benefits.

But it isn’t, and it isn’t.

Instead, let’s ingest some facts about China. No MSG. And the benefits are strictly intellectual: sorry, guys. 🙂

Everyone knows that China is important. With 1.3 billion people, it has the largest population of any country and the fastest-growing major economy. Here at school, we have over 100 Chinese students. Both students and professors are trying to learn more about China.

What you might not know is that China has many of the same problems as we do in the West. Racism, sexism, and suppression of diversity are all serious issues in China. And the establishment of China as a country has interesting parallels with the United States.

Ethnic Groups in China

Most Americans think that everyone in China is ethnically “Chinese,” but that’s not true. What we think of as Chinese are actually Han Chinese, who make up 92 percent of the Chinese population and 20 percent of the world’s population outside China. The Han are the largest ethnic group in the world. Their 92 percent majority status in China naturally makes them the dominant group in Chinese politics and culture.

The Han Chinese take their name from the Han dynasty, which ruled over an empire in the eastern part of what is now modern China from 206 BC to 220 AD. Modern China has 55 other recognized nationalities, many of which have second-class status. Those include Uyghurs and Hui, who are mostly Muslims; Tibetans, who live in a country that China annexed in 1951; and the Zhuang, who are close to the Han and tend to support the government.

Most of the powerful political figures in the last century wanted to unify China under the rule of the Han, even if they paid lip service to giving minorities their freedom.

In 1911, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, who had grown up in Japan and was influenced by Japanese nationalism, led a movement that overthrew the last Chinese empire. To replace it, he advocated the idea of Han minzu (Han nationalism) as the basis for a unified Chinese country. Later, when the Communists were trying to overthrow the government established by Dr. Sun, they promised independence to China’s minorities in order to gain their support. But when the Communists finally got into power, they broke those promises.

Marginalizing Minorities in China

The basic position of the Chinese government seems to be that the Han nationality and culture are “normal,” while minorities are portrayed as backward and uncivilized. In China, people’s identity papers state their official nationality — not Chinese, but Han, Hui, Uyghur, and so on. That automatically stamps non-Han people as “other.” It’s the same as if U.S. citizens’ passports didn’t identify them as American, but instead as Caucasian, African, Hispanic, and so on.

Movies supported by the Chinese government reinforce the idea that non-Han people and their cultures are inferior. One example, “Amazing Marriage Customs” (1992, not to be confused with a 1987 Hong Kong film that had the same title) portrayed China’s minorities as sexually primitive and uncivilized, in contrast to the advanced and civilized Han majority.

It’s interesting that here in the United States, there’s a parallel. Many politicians talk about representing “real Americans” against the invading barbarian hordes. They build their campaigns on hatred and fear of “the other.”

Marginalizing Women in China

Women get treatment similar to ethnic minorities, though the second-class status of women is a long-standing Confucian tradition in China. Traditionally, education was forbidden to women. Some women in southern China even developed their own writing system, called Nushu, so that they could write to and for each other. Mothers taught it secretly to their daughters.

The Chinese government reinforced the traditional subjugation of women with its view that women must be controlled and restricted, especially sexually. Interestingly, those restrictions apply to Han women but not to minority women, perhaps because of the stereotype that Chinese minorities are inherently uncivilized.

So What’s the Point?

The point is this. Chinese and Western societies evolved with completely different histories, cultures, and religions. But in spite of those differences, both suffer from sexism, racism, exclusion, stereotyping, and prejudice. It suggests that those problems are natural tendencies of human society. They are the “equilibrium level” to which our societies fall unless we constantly strive to make them better, fairer, more compassionate and rational.

It doesn’t mean we should give up. But it means that whether we live in the United States or China, in Massachusetts or Kentucky or Ontario or Saudi Arabia, we have to keep working for compassion and social justice. We have to keep fighting against stereotyping and prejudice. Human nature makes it an uphill battle, but we only lose the battle if we stop fighting.

The battle can never be won permanently. But it can be won a single day at a time, a single person at a time, and a single act of kindness at a time. That’s what we can do.


P.S. A Chinese friend at school read this blog and said she thought that China was making real progress on human and minority rights, even if it’s slower than anyone wants. I want to make it clear that I’m not saying Han Chinese are “bad” or anything like that. They’ve done what majorities normally do, and it takes time to recognize how it affects other groups. Here in the United States, whites had an overwhelming majority for over 200 years, and we treated other groups pretty badly. Eventually, we realized the injustices we had committed. We started trying to set things straight, and we’re still working on it! So I guess that we should be as patient and understanding with China as we are with ourselves. As long as they are trying to improve human and minority rights, they are on the right path.

P.P.S. If you agree or disagree with something on this blog, please don’t just talk to me after class. Leave a comment! xoxo 🙂

Copyright 2010 by Rinth de Shadley.

  1. David
    April 13, 2010 at 11:52 am

    When I saw the title, my first comment was “I don’t like to eat Chinese, but Chinese food is yummy…”

    Once again, you have a great point. I must say that we’re culturally more advanced in areas of racism, sexism and religion than the Chinese, at least on the surface. What we get wrong is that you cannot legislate that everyone should be color-blind, or blind to sex. It’s a defense mechanism that we cannot get rid of. When it comes to females, males are hard-wired to dominate and protect. This is from our hunter-gatherer days. Same is true of racism-it comes from our primitive past. I don’t think we can legalize sexual equality or racial equality. What we can do is try to treat everyone with dignity. Right now, many cannot even drive down the road without waving half a peace sign at everyone as they cut them off. I think all this needs to start in the parking lot of whatever church you go to…and spread from there.

    • Rinth de Shadley
      April 13, 2010 at 7:37 pm

      Hi, David —

      Thank you for your funny and insightful comments!

      You’re right that racism and sexism are somewhat wired into our brains by evolution. But we have one advantage. Unlike “the beasts of the field,” which can only behave as their instincts dictate, we can choose to ignore our biological programming and follow a better path. It’s not easy, because our biological programming keeps trying to re-assert its control over us. But we can always choose to think and act in ways that we know are right. That’s our challenge. That’s why God gave us intelligence and free will.

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