How Many Chinas Are There?

Yes, yes, One China and all that. I’m not talking about separatism, I’m referring to those invisible and not-so-invisible cultural and social lines you cross within the Chinese universe. I’ve heard the term Two Chinas used to refer to the gap between Chinas upwardly mobile elite and poverty mired majority. I’ve heard the term Three Chinas used to refer to the different worlds of the Mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Personally, I add to that Xinjiang and Tibet, which exist in reform time warps (and are both administered directly by the Central government and a small clique of interchangable Politboro members), as another China; Macau could be considered another one with its unique blend of Chinese and Portuguese cultures with a healthy dash of iniquity. Then there’s the diasporas – how many of those are there? Remember – 树高å?ƒä¸ˆå?¶è?½å½’æ ¹. A tree may grow very high, but the leaves always return to the roots, as the saying goes. Popular thinking says the huaren are extensions of China itself. I’d say the diaspora could at least be divided into two groups: huaqiao and huayi, those born in China and those born abroad.

I’ve got eight (Mainland: SEZs/DINKs/etc., XJ-Tibet, everybody else; Taiwan; HK; Macau; Huaqiao; Huayi). What’s everybody else think?

The Discussion: 16 Comments

What about the China that appears in the background settings – like an opium dream mixed with a bad acid trip – which Song ZuYing sings about on CCTV gala events?

October 19, 2006 @ 6:24 pm | Comment

If you include that one, then I think China approaches infinity.

October 19, 2006 @ 6:37 pm | Comment

Singapore? It’s a bit more than Huaqiao/yi…

October 19, 2006 @ 9:51 pm | Comment

Sam has a good point. In this context there is no reason to focus only on areas that the CCP has control of or lay claims to.

October 19, 2006 @ 11:53 pm | Comment

I agree, Skystreaker, and that’s why I included the huaqiao/yi. Perhaps you misinterpreted; I’m not claiming huaqiao/yi as the only way to divide overseas Chinese. I’m looking for other possible perspectives. I don’t know Singapore from Malaysia, other than my Singaporean huayi friend who hated Malaysia. By suggesting huaqiao/yi, I was especially thinking of American and other Western born Chinese who, frankly, find the mainland weird and alien. I’m looking for more suggestions, like Sams. I’d be interested to hear Imagethief’s opinion on Singapore, for example.

October 20, 2006 @ 6:05 am | Comment

How long or how many generations must a huaqiao be a citizen of America/UK/etc. before they are just considered American/British? My ancestry is half Scottish, but I’m definetely not Scottish, and I don’t know much about Scotland, other than I’ve heard it’s beautiful.

October 20, 2006 @ 8:12 am | Comment

You become “just American” when you begin saying “America is the greatest country in the world” in spite of a world of evidence to the contrary.

Another symptom is believing in convenient fairy tales about how America unsustainable happy-motoring lifestyle/economy will last forever if we just use some “new technology” and continue to build more McMansions and all of the useless infrastructure around them, and to believe that the “service industry” is anything other than pushing worthless pieces of paper around based on said housing/motoring bubble and all of the unsustainable debt that sustains it.

If you believe in all of that ridiculous shit, then you are 100 percent American. It’s kind of like when a formerly attractive 65 year old woman has a delusion about still being the belle of the town with all the teenage boys lusting after her – that’s what America is like today.

October 20, 2006 @ 9:18 am | Comment

Singapore is majority Chinese; Malaysia is not.

Have you ever read Tu Wei-Ming’s article on “Cultural China.” He says there are four: the PRC; Taiwan, HK, Singapore (all equal one); the Chinese diaspora; and those non-Chinese people who participate in the continuing articulation and reproduction of Chinese culture. Because Tu is harkening back to the early Confucian idea that Chinese-ness is a cultural thing, not an ethnic thing. So, Dave, by that definition, you are in!
Can’t find a link; here’s a cite:
“Cultural China: The Periphery as Center,” Daedalus 120, no. 2 (1991)

October 20, 2006 @ 11:52 am | Comment

The obvious question to ask is, “what constitutes Chinese-ness?” I mean, it is really important to define this concept, if we’re going to include “non-Chinese people who participate in the continuing articulation and reproduction of Chinese culture”. Do we just include those who endorse Chinese culture (be it modern or traditional)? Or do we include what we called iconoclastic intellectuals who are critical of various aspects of Chinese culture? History seems to suggest that people who are critical of China often have plenty to offer to “cultural China” in the long run. So where do we draw the line?

October 20, 2006 @ 6:07 pm | Comment

That is the key question Fat Cat. Tu is suggesting a rather broad and fuzzy line. We could make things a bit neater by restricting ourselves to how Cultural China is enacted and performed within certain state boundaries. But one of his points is that the reformulation, especially in modern terms, of Chinese-ness has come from outside the formal boundaries of the old “Center,” i.e. the China now politically defined as the PRC. If he is right – and that, too, is a big question – than we might have to include people like Joseph Needham and Roger Ames.
Obviously, Tu’s point will not be widely accepted. The most common understanding of Chinese-ness is now embedded in an imagery of race and ethnicity. How could a white guy possibly claim to be “Chinese” in any meaningful way? What is interesting, however, is how the earliest notions of Chinese-ness were more cultural than ethnic/racial. Confucius and Mencius were thinking in more universal terms of “culture” and civilization. They were not nationalists in the modern sense, and that is what makes them so potentiall radical today.

October 20, 2006 @ 10:11 pm | Comment

Sam, I agree with most of what you said, and thanks for doing it so eloquently.

From my understanding, what makes Confucius’ thinking so radical for us today is that he argued for the upholding of values and ethics that makes us HUMAN. His thinking is fundamentally inclusive, rather than exclusive. It’s never his original intention to draw a boundary between what is Chinese and what is non-Chinese. On that basis, I can imagine that he’d be rather happy to call Needham and Ames and many other racially non-Chinese people CHINESE. So the identification of Confucianism with “Chinese-ness” has, in many ways, gone against the original intention of Confucius. He must be turning in his grave now.

October 21, 2006 @ 12:37 pm | Comment


Thanks for the tip, I’m going to look into Tu Wei-Ming’s article.

What is Chineseness? I guess I was thinking along the lines of self-identification affirmed by the community. Thus I can call myself Chinese all I want, but the community has to agree to this to make it count – hence Sam’s point that the current emphasis on ethnicity leaves me out. On the other hand, this would limit overseas ethnic Chinese to those who consider themselves Chinese, though the community would argue that you’re Chinese whether you like it or not.

Reminds me of David Cross’ stand up routine about being a Jewish atheist – he can’t not be Jewish, according to his rabbi, no matter how much he believes God does not exist, because his mother’s reproductive organs were Jewish.

October 21, 2006 @ 4:11 pm | Comment

So far there is no Chinese majority in Tibet although it has been occupied for some 47 years, but things could be different in next decade.

There are already lots of Chineseness there.

October 22, 2006 @ 6:57 pm | Comment

@Bellevue: “There are already lots of Chineseness there.”

Yes, but what on Earth does that mean?

October 23, 2006 @ 4:14 pm | Comment

I asked Will@Imagethief about Singapore:

With all due respect I gotta disagree with Sam on this one. Singapore is no more Chinese than Boston is Irish. It is emphatically not like Hong Kong in this sense (where there was significant post-Mao immigration), although the two are often compared.

I think people get tripped up on this because alone in Southeast Asia Singapore’s Chinese are the ethnic majority, but that’s an accident of history. Culturally the Singapore Chinese are clearly part of the the broad Southeast Asian Chinese diaspora. Most people of my wife’s age are three to five generations removed from China, some of them more. There is a cultural and linguistic connection, but if you suggested any kind of deeper link to the mainland Chinese polity most Singaporeans would look at you funny. Singapore is also culturally distinct thanks to all the cross-polination with the Malays, Indians, etc. (And, of course, Singapore was part of Malaysia for some time.)

However, that said, I would say that Singapore is well integrated into the broad span of Southweast Asian ethnic-Chinese tycoonery that spreads from Thailand down through Malaysia and Indonesia. This group is definitely sniffing around China and, in some cases, well integrated into it, for mostly cynical reasons. Also, despite the fact that Singapore’s natural hinterland is Southeast Asia, not China, the government is trying hard to build business and political connections with China. It does periodically shoot itself in the foot, as it did a few years ago when Lee Junior visited Taiwan, thus leading to months of abject prostrations.

When I first arrived in Singapore, your average Singaporean thought Chinese were hopeless country bumpkins. That may explain why Singaporeans have a lingering reputation for arrogance here to this day.

So a business relationship and a cultural connection yes. But I think most Singaporeans would turn white at the prospect of anything deeper than that.

October 23, 2006 @ 4:18 pm | Comment

Will knows Singapore way better than I. But, I think the question is not really whether Singaporeans feel connected to the PRC, the physical space of old China; but, rather, whether they understand themselves as a particular expression of a more abstract sense of “Chinese-ness” which is not geographically defined or bounded. So, let’e restate the question: Will, does the “Chinese” majority of Singapore understand itself as culturally “Chinese?” And, if so, how does their cultural understanding differ from Chinese in the PRC or in other geographic locations.

October 23, 2006 @ 9:29 pm | Comment

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