A scholar who’s lived in China for more than two decades argues that Chinese identity should be cultural, not racial
Daniel Bell, center, with a group of students earlier this month.PHOTO: WANG PEI
Who is Chinese?
The answer may seem simple at first: a person who is born looking Chinese.
But consider my own case. Canadian by birth, with Caucasian physical features, I have lived and worked in China for more than two decades, speak the Chinese language, identify with Chinese culture and am now a permanent resident of China. But almost no one considers me Chinese.
Both of these instances point to the difficulty with a view that is deeply ingrained in contemporary China and at least implicitly endorsed elsewhere: That to be Chinese is to belong to a race.
The real obstacle to popular acceptance is the assumption that Chineseness is a racial category. Stereotypes against outsiders are common in any culture, and China is no exception.
During much of its history, particularly the eras of prosperity and glory, China was an open society that welcomed foreigners. The Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907) is a classic example. The capital Chang’an was a multicultural urban center with nearly a million residents and drew ambitious migrants from around the world. Its greatest generals were Turks, Koreans and Sogdians (an ancient Iranian civilization). Arab scholars could participate in the imperial examinations. Li Bai, its most famous poet, was perhaps of Central Asian stock.
But the open attitude of the Tang dynasty eventually gave way. After the shocking rebellion of An Lushan in the 8th century and the sacking of the capital by Uighurs and Tibetans, Chinese attitudes toward outsiders took a markedly negative turn.
This is a recurrent pattern. When China is powerful and secure, foreigners are welcome and considered employable, including at the highest levels of government. When China is weak, foreigners are often viewed with suspicion and even hatred. The most famous modern case is the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901, which sought to violently expel the Western and Christian presence in China.
Indeed, China’s most insecure period was the “century of humiliation” from the 1840s to the 1940s. Chinese elites came to realize that not only was China not the center of the world, it was a weak country unable to stand up for itself. China lost wars to Western countries and Japan, and its territory was carved up by foreign powers.
It was in the wake of these events that a race-based conception of Chinese identity took hold. Leading reformers of the day, such as the scholar and political thinker Kang Youwei, traveled the world and came to the pessimistic conclusion that different races were engaged in a deadly struggle for survival. They saw Chinese identity as the legitimate racial basis for a nation-state that could take its place against other similarly constituted nations.
That legacy still shapes attitudes today. But China has rebuilt a strong and powerful state, with less to fear from foreign bullying, and it has become a key player in our vast, cosmopolitan world economy. To my mind, China has reached a point in its history when it can return to a more generous conception of identity and embrace those who meet the cultural criteria of Chineseness.
A meritocratic immigration policy open to all, regardless of ethnic or racial background, would also serve China’s economic interests. The now-discarded one-child policy has created a demographic bulge, with the elderly constituting an ever-growing proportion of the population. The country would greatly benefit from the contributions of talented young migrants from around the world.
President Xi Jinping describes his broad agenda for the country as the “China dream.” My own China dream is more modest: to be viewed as a Chinese not just in my own mind but in the minds of my fellow Chinese.
ExpatRights: yes, our dream too! a ‘multi-cultural’ China!!
— Dr. Bell is dean of the school of political science and public administration at Shandong University and a professor at Tsinghua University. His most recent book is “The China Model.”
tan_guan [-3] [S] 20 2
Alternate title: “Why China should accept me as Chinese: I deserve it for singing the CCP’s praises for years”
DisappointingResults 4 2
If only that’s all it took. I’d change my tune in a second! I’m so bitter!!
KeysToTheKremlin 3 2
Zuckerberg on steroids.
BillyBattsShinebox 8 2
Who is Chinese? The answer may seem simple at first: a person who looks Chinese.
East Asia confirmed for China
AlecFahrin 6 2
Is he wrong? “China” used to have far more non-Chinese minorities relative to the population than they do in modern times (1900’s). Han have significant genetic admixture in the North and South. These minorities became Chinese. Many still do in the southwest and northeast of China.
PointingAtTheGUI Barbados 3 2
He is not wrong, but doesn’t mean China would accept it.
cashtangoteam United States 5 2
Anybody else notice how he said he’s lived and worked in China for more than 2 decades then two sentences later says he arrived in 2004?
Pretty sure the math doesn’t check out on that one.
Polypinoon [+1] European Union 7 2
He’s obviously using the Chinese moon calendar to calculate his time spent in China.
Einhander_pilot United States 5 2
KeysToTheKremlin 3 2
If you think this is bad, you should watch his debate at the Asia Society.
Einhander_pilot United States 2 2
Gonna have to check that out!
KeysToTheKremlin 1 point 2
Einhander_pilot United States 1 point 2
Cringe for breakfast!
PlueberryBancakes 4 1 day ago
Asian countries tend to conflate ethnicity with nationality — wow Professor, what an earth-shattering insight.
dazzazhonggua [-2] 6 2
China’s literally the last place that can happen.
tan_guan [-3] [S] 19 2
The Caucasian Chinese struggle is real.
laduzi_xiansheng 7 2
Fuck I’ve been in china longer than him and at no point have I ever thought of wearing Chinese clothes at any sort of event.
pferdemann 2 2
You have been living there for more than 20 years?
laduzi_xiansheng 2 1 day ago
Nah this guy arrived in 04. I was 03.
Im gonna tap out at 20 for sure.
pferdemann 2 1 day ago
Dude, not that you need my advice, but better leave sooner than later. I arrived in 06, left last year. I kind of regret not leaving earlier now, because I was gonna do it eventually anyway. I know how it is, I miss China a lot, the laid back lifestyle, the adventures, the people – but it’s not a place you wanna grow old in.
laduzi_xiansheng 1 point 1 day ago
I fly a lot for business, China is my ‘base’ for jumping to the EU + US. I feel like China has provided me a lot of opportunity that I wouldn’t have had in the UK, especially on the career ladder front, it would have taken me twice as long to reach my position and I have been exposed to a lot more high level tasks than if I stayed in the UK at 18.
Downside is that whenever I think about applying for a job in the EU or US the first thing the other side do is offer to send me back to China. Ta fuck.
Shishioo [+1] Sweden 5 2
It certainly isn’t any lack of commitment on my part to Chinese culture. I’ve been working on Confucian philosophy for many years, and it inspires the way I lead my life. I’m told over and over that my commitment to Chinese culture is more “Chinese” than that of many Chinese people. At conferences in China, I often find myself the only person wearing Chinese-style clothing.
Holy cringe. Why is it always the people with autism who change their entire cultural identity when they come to China? I’ve met some people like this and they all are very socially awkward types. Sure, of course it’s alright to like the country you live in, but to change 100% of your beliefs and personality to “fit” inside China is cringy, especially when no one follows Confucian thoughts anymore.
proletariatnumber23 2 2
ktgster 1 point 2
jesus christ, this guy deserves to be Chinese more than me. But yes, Chinese identity is very very tied to race.
You can’t change this shit overnight. You need the CCP to introduce politically correct SJW type shit in China to make it happen. Call that white guy a 老外？get thrown into multiculturalism and globalization training camp.
TallAndFeathered United States 1 point 1 day ago
In the third paragraph the author mentions he has Chinese permanent residency. Is he equating having a residence permit with being a permanent resident or he actually has “Chinese permanent residency?” My understanding is: though you all and I have resident permits, we are merely guests, one year at a time.
bradj43 1 point 1 day ago
Actually had a long conversation about this with my close Chinese friend last night. It took me a while to convince him to stop defending and denying the fact that foreigners are always and will always be labeled first and foremost as foreigners.
It’s interesting because I have no desire to ‘be Chinese’ in pretty much any way you might consider. Yet at the same time, I do think it would be nice to be able to just be in China. Like, to just be another person who lives there. I’m not going to live in China my whole life, and again, I’m not Chinese nor do I want to be, but I freaking like it a lot.
Fortunately, I do think I have found a pretty good balance and sense of normalcy when I am focused on doing the things I love and building meaningful relationships. I don’t think about this issue often at all. I believe I can and do choose to feel comfortable because it is my choice. But it is still an issue that will never completely go away.
tan_guan [-3] [S] 1 point 1 day ago
Yeah it would be good to have the option, to be afforded that level of dignity and respect. If it was possible to become Chinese it might also become a soft power coup for China, and a surprisingly high number of people might choose to do it. How many sinophiles convince themselves that they don’t want to be Chinese to make the fact they never can be easier to deal with? At least Bell is honest about it.
bradj43 2 20 hours ago
How many sinophiles convince themselves that they don’t want to be Chinese to make the fact they never can be easier to deal with?
Haha, hmmmm, I don’t know. I think there is a huge difference between how many would do it if it suddenly became possible but no other circumstances changed vs. how many people would do it if a whole lot more about what it meant to be a Chinese citizen changed. To be honest I really don’t think I’d even consider it still if the latter were true, but maybe as you said I’ve convinced myself because it’s not even an option.
tan_guan [-3] [S] 1 point 20 hours ago
Impossible to know for sure, and I guess I’m talking about myself as much as anyone – my life might be totally different if becoming Chinese was an option, I might have aimed for it years ago and had a totally different plan for life.
piscator111 [+5] 0 2
A scholar who’s lived in China for more than two decades argues that Chinese identity should be cultural, not racial.
SentientCouch [+1] United States 2 1 day ago
You got downvoted for this, but I’m pretty sure everyone who read that also went “nah.”
KawfeeSpill -1 2
/u/tan_guan [-3] continues with his mission to nurture a Sinophobic culture on reddit.
tan_guan [-3] [S] 3 2
Not my mission, and not sure how you came to that conclusion from this post.
ReginaldJohnston 1 point 1 day ago
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