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“the Rectification of Names”—China Struggles with Its National Question
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The thorny tangles of identity, ethnicity, nation, and race, are made thornier under a state ideology based on utopian fantasies and the denial of reality.

Sound familiar? It should; it’s what we write about here at

As a mind-clearing exercise, it helps to occasionally step back from our domestic broils to look at how things are managed, or mismanaged, elsewhere. That opening sentence of mine, for example, applies just as accurately to China as to the U.S.A. How are they coping?

Not well. Consider for example the Chinese higher-education institution whose name is officially translated into English as the Minzu University of China.

The what university? “Minzu” looks like a place-name but it’s not. It’s a Chinese word, translated in Mathews’ Chinese-English Dictionary(1931) as: “race; peoples; tribe; the nation, in the sense of the people.” (Modern online dictionaries concur.) If you postfix -zhuyi, the Chinese for “-ism,” you have the Chinese word meaning “nationalism.”

OK; but if it’s a Chinese word, what’s it doing in the official English name of the place?

Thereby hangs a tale.

In my own China days thirty years ago the place was officially the Central Institute of Nationalities. Expats referred to it in English as the Nationalities Institute. In Chapter 60 of Fire from the Sun, which deals with the 1989 student movement, I describe it as “a college near Beijing University, for training cadres from the national minorities.”

In 1993 the Institute was upgraded to a university. The official English abbreviation was changed from CIN to CUN. (The latter actually spells a word in the standard pinyin transcription of Chinese: cun, pronounced approximately “tswoon,” means “village.” Students used this as a nickname for the place.)

Then in 2008 the official English name was changed to the Minzu University of China, without there having been any change to the Chinese name.

Why? Because the translation of Chinese minzu into English “nationalities” was felt to be unsatisfactory. Nobody could agree on a more suitable alternative word; so in an onomastic throwing-up of hands, the authorities just dumped the Chinese word into the English name.

The thing to focus on there is that nobody could agree on a more suitable alternative word. Yes, the terminology of ethnicity, nationality, and race is just as flammable in China as it is here. And getting flammabler.

Some background is necessary here. Of China’s 1.3 billion people, 91½ percent identify as Han Chinese. The other 8½ percent—114 million souls—are distributed among 55 officially-recognized national minorities, with populations ranging from 18 million to a few thousand.

That may not sound much—although the U.S. political class is having hysterics about a (government-imported) Hispanic minority that is little larger—but the Hans are geographically concentrated, so that over half the territory of the People’s Republic of China is dominated by minorities, especially in the north and the west.


Some of these minorities, the Uyghurs of the far West for example, once had polities of their own. The Tibetans actually had an empire. Others, like the Koreans of the Northeast or the Mongolians of Inner Mongolia, are ethnic kin to nation-states currently existing and adjacent to China. Still others—the Mongolians again, the Manchus—once ruled China. Most are small indigenous groups swallowed up into Chinese rule as China expanded across the centuries.

The Communist Party’s policy towards the “nationalities question” has followed Lenin’s, as described in Book Two of Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism. Their ethnicity is officially recognized (and recorded on personal i.d. cards). It is also to be celebrated, for example with minority dance troops showcased in TV spectaculars on national holidays. Their home regions, if big enough, are declared “autonomous.” They send representatives to regional and national legislatures. They enjoy some minor social privileges, notably exemption from the one-child policy.

The autonomy, however, like the legislatures, is perfectly bogus. Even to advocate self-determination for minorities is both an ideological sin (“splittism”) and a serious crime (Article 103). The Party center makes all significant political decisions, and it is totally Han Chinese.

In China … diversity remains something for the museum or the frontier, rather than the halls of power at the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing. When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) announces its new leaders at the 18th Party Congress next week, ethnic uniformity will once again reign supreme: Seven to nine cookie-cutter men in dark suits and black-dyed hair, each representing the Han ethnic majority that officially comprises 91.5% of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) …

All nine members of the current Standing Committee are Han men. In fact, there is only one non-Han member of the current 24 member Politburo: Vice Premier Hui Liangyu, who is a member of the Muslim Hui minority but made his career along the Han-dominated coastal provinces. Besides Mr. Hui, there have only been three other non-Han members of the Politburo since 1949, with none of them reaching the all-powerful Standing Committee. At present, the party-secretaries of all five provincial-level autonomous regions are also Han. From Mao Zedong to leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping, modern China’s paramount leaders have always been Han.

[When Will China’s Leader Be An Ethnic Minority? by James Liebold; Tealeaf Nation, November 13, 2012.]

This system was stable well into the 1990s, but is now showing signs of serious stress.

After the eruption of serious violence in Tibet in 2008 and in Xinjiang in 2009, scarcely a month goes by without new evidence of deepening discontent somewhere in China’s Inner Asian frontiers … Summer 2011 saw violence in Inner Mongolia in protest over Han disregard for ecological spoliation and land rights, leading to a lockdown of university campuses and a disruption of provincial communications for some days.

[The Case of the Missing Indigene: Debate over a ‘Second-Generation’ Ethnic Policy by Mark Elliott, The China Journal, January 2015.]


Freshest in Chinese memories: the terrorist attack on March last year, when six men and two women, all dressed in black, murdered 29 people at the railroad station in Kunming, Southwest China. The Chinese authorities say the terrorists were Muslim Uyghurs. There is no way to confirm that, but it is not improbable: Uyghur separatists have been the most turbulent and violent in recent years.

(The January 11th “Unity March” in Paris following the Charlie Hebdomassacre, with a slew of world leaders at the head of the march, has raised much indignation on Chinese blogs. “Where’s our unity march?” they are asking, with reference to the Kunming incident. Short answer: Same place as the rest of your civil freedoms, pal. You live in a communist dictatorship.)

There have been a number of factors driving the increased restiveness of China’s minorities. Uyghur terrorists have taken inspiration from jihadists elsewhere. The internet has played a part; so has increased mobility as automobile ownership surges upward.

The Communist authorities have been responding with ferocious repression. They are haunted by the collapse of the U.S.S.R., in which East European and minority nationalism played a part:

In China’s political system … the collapse of the Soviet Union continues to be analyzed with a paranoia and urgency that some compare to the United States and its fight against terrorism …

“It’s hard to overstate how obsessed they are with the Soviet Union,” said David Shambaugh, a George Washington University expert who spent years meeting Chinese officials and reading internal party documents for a book on the subject. “They wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night thinking about it. It hangs over every major decision.”

[In China, Soviet Union’s failure drives decisions on reform by William Wan; Washington Post, March 23, 2013.]

There has, though, been a more positive response to the ethnic unrest: calls by significant Chinese scholars for the Leninist nationalities system to be scrapped. Harvard sinologist Mark Elliott describes the unfolding debate in detail in the China Journal article I quoted from up above.

Beijing University sociologist Ma Rong, for example, has proposed a Western-style multiculturalism, the different nationalities retaining their folkways but politically united in a Proposition Nation. Mark Elliott:

Having studied in the U.S., a country he visits often and knows well, Ma writes regularly of the need to approach ethnicity in China in the same way as it is approached in the United States.

Uh …

Other scholars, grouped under the heading “Second-Generation Ethnic Policy,” favor state-driven assimilation, the minority nationalities shedding their ethnic identities and becoming Han Chinese. A key essay on this theme appeared in the Journal of Tsinghua University with the title: The Bedrock of the Chinese Dream Is the Integration of the Peoples of China into a Single Nation-Race. As Mark Elliott points out:

This, of course, is precisely what non-Han in China today fear most: their own disappearance.

The reluctance to translate minzu as “nationality” in the ethnic sense—or, as the name “Minzu University of China” shows, to translate it as anything at all—is one outcome of this debate. Mark Elliott:

Like many other key social science terms used in Chinese, minzubegan as a Japanese neologism, minzoku, invented to translate the German word Volk … The majority of Chinese scholars now seem to agree that minzu should be reserved for ideas such as “nation” or “people” and that, for the more anthropologically inflected notion of ethnicity, it is better to use the word zuqun.

Chinese zu means “race, tribe, clan” and qun means “group,” so a fair translation of zuqun would be “ethnic group.”

Well, it’s good to know that Chinese elites have the same touching faith as our own in their ability to change reality by changing words.

They at least have a cultural reference for justification. As Confucius said: “What is necessary is to rectify names.”

John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. ) He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimismand several other books. His most recent book, published by com is FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle).His writings are archived at

(Republished from VDare by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Race/Ethnicity • Tags: China, Multiculturalism 
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  1. Why don’t they just get rid of their national minorities? The PRC could simply sterilize all national minorities (aside from young women will to become Politburo concubines). Who would stop them?

    Rebellion being a young man’s game, this would end the problem with unrest in one generation. After 60 years, every national minority would be a gray hair. After a century, they’d practically all be gone.

    I’m sure a few national minorities would succeed in hiding or cloaking themselves as Han, but for practical purposes this would eliminate China’s problems with ethnic diversity and separatism forever.

  2. Jon Pakon says: • Website

    Great and interesting article, thanks. Especially about how they are haunted by the Soviet Union.

  3. AnAnon says:

    “Why don’t they just get rid of their national minorities? The PRC could simply sterilize all national minorities (aside from young women will to become Politburo concubines). Who would stop them?” – Force projection is really difficult and costs money. Those 114M are spread out over a wide area, and it would be very expensive to get them all. It would be expensive just to move and house and feed the troops necessary to pull it off,if China can even count on those troops to not slack off, not accept bribes, not object to the plan, and so on. Lastly China’s dependencies on other nations mean that she cannot afford to test out whether or not they will respond.

  4. IBC says:

    Very interesting article. Is there any regional pushback against the growing use of Mandarin from people who identify as Han but who are native speakers of Cantonese or other regional dialects? If so, how does this factor into the question of Chinese national identity and diversity?

  5. Many of these minorities also have historical ties with the Han (eg. the Manchus), so eradicating them, either via violence or inter-marriages, won’t have a lot of public support.

    The idea of making China less about Han ethnicity and more of a Proposition Nation is somewhat better, particularly if they can focus on shared history and tribulations. The problem with this approach is that it brings some minorities in while excluding others (eg. the Tibetians).

    Yet another factor is to make the idea of a Sinosphere more explicit, incorporating the greater East Asian culture and diaspora, which by definition would incorporate the minorities.

  6. Mongolians are the Vikings, Uighurs are the Gypsies, and Tibetans are the American Indians in Chinese popular culture. Chinese folks are about as likely to genocide minorities as Anglo American hipsters would publicly genocide their fictional Cherokee grandmothers.

    In the US, hip youths believe in Native American shamans, listen to Viking themed rock bands like Amon Amarth, and generally have a positive view of these groups. In China, hip youths believe in Tibetan lamas and listen to Mongolia themed rock bands like Tengger Cavalry.

  7. War for Blair Mountain [AKA "Bill Blizzard and his Men"] says:

    In a very crucial way, the two situations are very different. Racially Balkanized greater China came with the historical greater Han territory. The racial-national Balkanization of the US is a direct consequence of the passage of the 1965 Immigration Reform Act(The 1965 Native Born White American Extermination Act).

    Post-1965 racial national Balkanization Immigration Policy is driven by 1) the enormous greed of the White Liberal MEGA CEO Masters of the Universe Class and 2)the racial nationalism of the various imported nonwhite fifth columns from places such as China and India.

    The highly racialized Chinese Fifth Column in the US is actively involved in the destruction of Centuries of acquired Native Born White American Engineering-Tech-Medical experience which will be lost forever(SUNY Stony Brook apparently exists to train the youth of China for careers in science-technology-medicine in the US….even though the taxes of Native Born White American WW1…WW2….Korean War Veterans paid for the construction of SUNY Stony Brook….SUNY Stony Brook is only available to Han-Hindu-Korean genelines…..proof by inspection(drive past SUNY Stony Brook on 25a anytime of the day)

    • Replies: @2Mintzin1
  8. RW says:

    John, how about using your math skills to project various possible iterations of the one child policy for Han and the two child policy for minorities onto future demographic trends in China.

  9. I agree with Bill Blizzard. Western culture needs to preserve itself and defend itself from racialized minority fifth columns. As a Chinese, I am proud to say that I’m not creating a breeding population in the US or polluting the Western gene pool. There are too damn many of us already, same with Mexicans.

    The US needs to truly defends itself against white genocide – which is a real problem. Even black genocide. Importing its own destruction is not the way. How do I as a colored person stop white genocide, when I am a hypocritical immigrant myself? I’d like to hear some advice.

    • Replies: @RW
  10. anon • Disclaimer says:

    Having studied in the U.S., a country he visits often and knows well, Ma writes regularly of the need to approach ethnicity in China in the same way as it is approached in the United States.

    campus environment != blue collar environment

  11. Coincidentally, I just wrote about the gaokao and how I found out that those 55 non-Han ethnicities get a direct point boost. It’s not a meritocratic exam or admissions process, despite the claims. However, the game is definitely rigged against the rural areas.

  12. 2Mintzin1 [AKA "Mike"] says:
    @War for Blair Mountain

    Mr. Blizzard: If you want a real charge, go inside the Wang center building, which is just north of the center Nicholl’s Road entrance to SUNY Stony Brook. Financed by an Asian, intended for and used by Asians, and existing, rent-free, on a publicly funded university campus.
    P.S., I assume that you are a lo fan, if so, you can expect to get some strange looks from those in the building.

  13. RW says:
    @Myra Esoteric

    Myra, How do you square your response to Bill blizzard’s comment with your comment in another educational thread as follows: “And market dominant minorities cause social stratification on steroids. This is well known throughout the world. Whether in Asia, Africa, Latin America. As an immigrant, obviously multiculturalism is in my interest but the social consequences on the receiving society are really not good. I feel pretty guilty for migrating after reading the thread, actually.”?

    • Replies: @Myra Esoteric
  14. @RW

    To RW:

    I would think that both comments are right in line with my ambivalence over me living in the US. Obviously multiculturalism is in my self interest, but it really isn’t in the interest of native born people – regardless of black or white. Like people say, white genocide, black genocide. I’m feeling a lot of guilt over this. BTW. I see blacks, whites and indigenous people as equally native to the US.

    Even more recent arrivals from Asia and Latin America have said this. But at the same time I appreciate the opportunities that this country has given me and want to give back.

    I’m very uncomfortable with the idea of market dominant minorities forming – regardless of what that minority is. It really causes problems. Whether it is a hipster white boy in the ghetto or an Asian in Africa, if the groups don’t get along and one group is more prosperous, what can be done? And that is why I support left wing policies.

    But at the same time, America is a country of immigrants. China also has some issues with diversity but it’s not as strong. At the same time a lot of people I know have undocumented family members.

  15. spandrell says: • Website

    No offense intended but Mr. Derbyshire is out of his depth here as is usual with his China coverage.

    First of all that map is incredibly inaccurate. There’s this old habit of painting minority color on any area that has even 10% minorities, which of course makes no sense unless you want to downplay the majority.
    The Tujia are a small tribe in western Hunan. Jiangsu in the map is full of blue when in reality it’s 99.64% Han. Please. And northern Xinjiang has no and has never had an Uyghur majority: it was Dzungar land until they were wiped out and replaced in stages by Han settlers.

    The Tibetans last had an empire 1300 years ago. Who the hell cares? And the Tarim Basin has never been independent; they always paid tribute to either China or the nomads to their north.

    China does have a conundrum with its minorities, but that’s only because they bought into the Soviet model of the Nationalities, which doesn’t make much sense. As it is the ethnicities are there because of bureaucratic inertia, because they attract tourists to rural areas (the women still dressing in their traditional clothes etc.); and the bigger groups because there’s nothing you can do against them. There’s 10 million Uyghurs and those aren’t going anywhere.

    But besides the problems in Xinjiang there is no real friction with minorities. China had millennia of practice with dealing with them, and the usual practice has been carrots and sticks to make them assimilate culturally and eventually intermarry and join the Han. That has always worked and China is trying to make it work again. And it will most likely do as long as the US government is prevented from funding ethnic agitation.

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