Three Minutes of Silence

Everyone in my office just stood silently with perhaps a billion others here, while outside drivers sounded their horns and sirens in unison. I was by my office window and could see people stopped in their tracks on the sidewalk, all standing still. The traffic stopped dead while the horns blared. The migrant workers in the concrete and steel pit alongside my building all stopped their work and stood up as well. Everyone faced the same direction, their heads lowered. The three minutes seemed to last a long time. For the first few seconds, it seemed a bit meaningless, and then with each passing second it took on greater gravity. There is still a hushed silence throughout the office, everyone keeping their thoughts to themselves, everyone on the verge of tears.

For all its warts, China is a spectacularly beautiful country, and I will never make the mistake again of falling for the generalization that the people here “only think about themselves.” I wish I could put into words all the grief I’ve seen here in the past several days, and the efforts of everyone I know and work with, regardless of their financial status, to give and to help. It is literally impossible not to be deeply, deeply moved.


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 81 Comments


Do you have any evidence for your assertion? I thought all Chinese nuclear tests, including underground tests, took place at Lop Nor. Am I mistaken in this? When was the test site moved to Sichuan?

May 22, 2008 @ 7:51 am | Comment

fearless wrote lots of things, but all are wrong. Pls check it more seriously when you want to have conclusion.

May 22, 2008 @ 1:09 pm | Comment

I’ll hold three minutes of silence for the Chinese people when they have the humanity to free the Panchen Lama. What we’re seeing is not selflessness — it’s just their usual selfishness and ethnic exclusiveness, magnified by a disaster. Sorry I can’t agree with the rest of you.

May 22, 2008 @ 7:19 pm | Comment

Rohan, it may surprise you to learn that the Chinese Government and the Chinese People are not the same thing and it is not the people who are holding anyone.

Richard, thank you for your post. The silence was not hysterical nationbalism, but a dignified, tearful and genuine expression of grief. I too was deeply moved. Ignore the idiot comments.

May 22, 2008 @ 10:11 pm | Comment


Your comments astonish me.

1) The Chinese may or may not be, as you appear to suggest, more selfish than other people. However, by what contorted reasoning do you interpret their show of grief for their compatriots at this time as an expression of “their usual selfishness”? When Americans grieved after 9/11 for fellow Americans, was that
selfishness? Is it selfish for someone to mourn a close relative?

2) As for “ethnic exclusiveness”, you should be aware that the epicentre of the recent earthquake was situated in an area in which the majority of the inhabitants, & therefore probably the majority of the victims, are not Han Chinese at all but Tibetans or Qiang, an ethnic group who are related to the Tibetans & who speak a related language. (Indeed, I’m pretty sure that Wenchuan County lies within the territory of Greater Tibet claimed by the Tibetan Government in Exile.) These are the people that the Han Chinese in the rest of China are grieving for. When victims are pulled from the rubble, their ethnicity is irrelevant to the public who mourn. Where is the “ethnic exclusiveness” in this?

3) Nobody is expecting anyone to hold 3 minutes silence for the element of the Chinese government that is responsible for detaining the Panchen Lama. The silence
was for the victims of the earthquake. On what evidence do you question the “humanity” of schoolchildren buried alive? What power did those dead children ever have to bring about the release of the Panchen Lama?

The comments you have made seem to indicate an irrational prejudice against the Chinese as a people. I hope I’ve misunderstood you but apologies if I have.

May 23, 2008 @ 1:01 am | Comment

how can patriotic americans sit idly by while the fenqing attack the sacred golden arches?

May 23, 2008 @ 4:05 am | Comment

Perhaps its time for china to consider a name change.. like the EU or the US of Amerioa .. China would do better to formally recognize its multi ethnicity and reassure those non Han that worry about being consumed by the Han majority by calling itself the US of Asia (which it basically is with 56 nationalities)
When I see a Tibetian or a Hui or a Uighur reach the positions that Barack Obama and Condolizza Rice reach then I will feel better about Han stewardship. This is not to be antihan its just to gently remind China that it is more than it thinks it is

May 23, 2008 @ 7:04 am | Comment

My family is in Vancouver, Canada and we observed the three minutes of silence as well.

May 23, 2008 @ 9:13 am | Comment

When I see a Tibetian or a Hui or a Uighur reach the positions that Barack Obama and Condolizza Rice reach then I will feel better about Han stewardship

It’s Tibetan, there is no second ‘i’. Since they’re relatively smaller in number it’s statistically not as likely for something like that to happen, but I don’t see why it couldn’t. “Han” Chinese hate eachother more than minorities as far as I know.

May 23, 2008 @ 12:47 pm | Comment


There are so many views that I really don’t agree. Actually the Chinese words are sometimes vague. But in the xinhua news, the word Chinese minzu definitely refers to all the ethnic groups. Chinese usually use “Zhonghua minzu” to say “Chinese People”. Nobody would come to mind that “oh,it’s saying Han Chinese”. Ask ANY Chinese that what they think about “Zhonghua minzu”. Please do not imagine by yourself. Just remember the China national anthem sings “Zhonghua Minzu now is in the most dangerous moment”. A national anthem can never be so stupid to be clusive to its own people.

You wrote:

“For example when they say Zhonghua minzu is “The descendants of dragon” obviously they are referring to Han chinese…”

I think it’s because the 90% Han population plays a representative role to show what Chinese is as a whole. Should the slogan goes like this “Zhonghua minzu is the descendants of dragon-its minorities are not”. weird. This seems really exclusive. Just like we don’t say “French people are romantic, but some are certainly not”. We are talking about a group of people, there definitely are minorities.

I found that in your Wikipedia (English), there is no mention of minority ethnic architecture in the explanation of “Chinese architecture”

“The orinigal meaning of “hua” is Han people so “zhonghua” should also mean Han people.”

Again, “zhonghua” means China or Chinese, not only Han people.

“I can say that they have a illusion that one day all other ethnic groups will be assimilated in to the “great ” Han people…”

Really? I don’t think so. Minority ethnic things are popular in China. Beautiful they are. Trips to places those people live in are extremly hot. There is no intention to make them being assimilated in to Han people. There were fights among ethnic groups in wartime and the regions that ethnic groups live change from time to time in history. And there were marriages of ordinary people and royal people as well as cultural exchanges in peace time. Some minority people were attracted by the steady agricultural culture that han people had while they have to move from time to time to find grasslands to raise sheep and cows. Then they moved to live with han and was assimilated gradually. In this way, i doubt is there a pure ethnic group indeed. I am a han Chinese, and accroding to my family name “hu”, my ancestors must be in one of the minority ethnic groups.

We shared the complicated history and China was ruled twice by ority ethnic people (372 years in total). Finally, we managed to live together, just like people in many counties in the earthquake-hit Sichuan Province. I believe it is the most peaceful time in history.

“no wonder that they discourage the ethnic minority to wear their ethnic clothes, practice religion, they do not even allow people to wear mustache and beard as people with beard look too different from a common “zhonghua minzu”. ”

It sounds like joking to me. Prove to me. You talked with minority ethnic people and they told you about that? I figure not. I haven’t heard about these “discourage” or “don’t allow”, but I do see Uygur men with mustache or beard and wearing their cute ethnic hats, and women who wear ethnic clothes selling samll adornments. And I know students in Tibet wears their ethnic clothes in classroom while most han students have to wear ugly uniforms. And I saw on your western program (the famous discovery) that people were wearing ethnic clothes, happily, kindly. As for religion, I don’t know actually.@_@

Some ethnic minority people look like han people now (one of my classmate), but nobody forced them to,they changed by themselves. Han people kept beard as a tradition. But people cut the beards off now. And people seldom wear han ethnic clothes-even during our own festivals. So I think it’s modernization and market economy that is changing all of us. It’s just like having learned science about nature, Chinese abandoned the ancient gods, and now do not pray for rain as we used to do. It’s just like an ancient Chinese king learned from other enthnic clothing and then changed the style of his people’s clothing. Because he found it’s more convenient that the clothing gets shorter.
So, it’s not Westerner that changed Chinese, not han people changed ethnic minorities. It’s modernization that changed us all.
Again, there is no intention of han people to change minority ethnic people.

“Chinese people will be happy when all the colors are “red”, all the people in china talks in chinese language, all the people in china lookalike han chinese.”

I agree with the word “assimilation” that “x” used in his comment. I’m puzzled why you think this way.

May 23, 2008 @ 7:40 pm | Comment

i had a similar experience at work. my two posts were these:

in any case, i won’t make any generalizations.

May 23, 2008 @ 10:36 pm | Comment


Ask yourself how the average Chinese person responds to a) a Tibetan nun shot in the back by Chinese border guards, and b) a Chinese girl killed by an earthquake. That should answer your question.

May 24, 2008 @ 6:02 am | Comment


No it doesn’t answer it. I suspect that the average Chinese person probably would respond with more grief to (b) rather than (a), if only because he or she might have bought the CCP propaganda

May 24, 2008 @ 8:18 am | Comment


(Sorry, this is what I meant to post. I must have inadvertently pressed “submit” too early.)

No it doesn’t answer it. I suspect that the average Chinese person might well respond with more grief to (b) than to (a), if only because he or she might have bought the CCP propaganda that the nun was commiting a serious crime against the state or whatever, or at least was deliberately & knowingly doing something wrong & was therefore not wholly innocent. (Both you & I would doubtless strongly disagree with this viewpoint.) However, he or she would see the girl killed by the earthquake as a victim of a misfortune totally outside her own control & therefore more to be pitied regardless of ethnicity.

A much better question would be: does the average Chinese person respond with grief to a) a Chinese girl killed by an earthquake, but not to b) a Tibetan girl killed by an earthquake? I am not aware of any evidence that the Han Chinese public are grieving only for the dead children of their own ethnicity. I doubt whether the average Chinese TV viewer, watching the children being pulled from the rubble, is even aware which are Han, which Qiang or which Tibetan, (except perhaps in the areas where the Tibetan schoolchildren wear their traditional dress).

But this is not the main point I was trying to make in my previous post. What I objected to was your apparent assertion that the current displays of grief by the Chinese public, & in particular the 3 minute silence, are somehow a manifestation of their “ethnic exclusiveness”. Even if there are Han Chinese who are guilty of “ethnic exclusiveness” vis-a-vis Chinese of other ethnicities (& there may well be), how does the 3 minute silence instantiate this? There’s no connection.

May 24, 2008 @ 9:24 am | Comment

Ask yourself how the average Chinese person responds to a) a Tibetan nun shot in the back by Chinese border guards, and b) a Chinese girl killed by an earthquake. That should answer your question

Yeah I asked myself that, and the thought that I came up with is that they’d probably think a) is worse because it’s a murder. Nice try with the “nun” thing though, hoping that using a female in your example would garner more sympathy.

My question is definitely answered, you certainly are a huge retard. I’m surprised you’ve lived this long without forgetting to breathe or choking on your tongue, and killing yourself in the process.

May 24, 2008 @ 12:29 pm | Comment

I’m not surprised that someone here would manage to slander 1,210,000,000 people once again in the wake of 50,000+ deaths (thousands of which were the Tibetans you pretend to care about).

I love the way how every “Free Tibet” psycho gives off this impression that he thinks he has done more for Tibetans than Chinese people, when the average ‘Han’ feeds Tibetans, gives up placement in colleges and jobs, and subsidizes minority births at their loss against their will.

May 24, 2008 @ 12:46 pm | Comment


The connection is that there is no apparent corresponding grief for tragedies that visit non-Han.


Take up the Yellow Man’s burden–
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard–

May 24, 2008 @ 5:02 pm | Comment

There is a misconception of equating Han Chinese as The Chinese, and the rest of non-Han Chinese as non-Chinese. So in a discussion, the concept of Chinese is used as an racial entity as apposed to Tibetans or Miaos. So without saying any more, there is already an implied idea that Tibtan or Miao people don’t belong to China, sort of colonies or occupied territory of Han-China. Americans/Wsterners tend to subconsciously substitute Han as the White settlers, the Tibetans as Native Americans. So before any discussion, to an American/Western mind, the Chinese(Han) is already guilty. The Hans should leave Tibet or whatever other minority land.

To use the North American analogy, the truth is that the Han Chinese and Tibetan Chinese are like Cherokee Indians and Delaware Indians, both are Ancient native people of the Asia mainland, having lived side by side for thousands of years.

The American idea of race also does not work in Chinese context. There is indeed only one race in China, that’s the Asian race. The race relationship in China is more like an all White country with Anglo, German, French, Irish groups, another metaphor would be all Native American country with Cherokee, Dalaware, Miami, and other Indian tribes.

Without clerify those ideas, the way the Western media use of Chinese/Tibetan to report news is very misleading.

May 24, 2008 @ 8:12 pm | Comment

Technically there isn’t an “Asian” race, but those in the West and South have a lot of Northeast Asian admixture.

May 25, 2008 @ 4:43 am | Comment

Take up the Yellow Man’s burden–
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard–

Stop trying to profit from your disgusting past, white barbarities are definitely unique to your history in size and scale.

Tibetans themselves (that are part of the Communist Party) take part in the “burden” and Tibetans are “yellow” too.

May 25, 2008 @ 4:45 am | Comment


How do you know that “there is no apparent corresponding grief for tragedies that visit non-Han”? Isn’t the evidence just to the contrary? As I commented above (post 55), it is probable that more than half of the victims of the recent earthquake were non Han. When Han Chinese weep when they see the bodies of children on TV being pulled from the rubble of Beichuan, they are perfectly well aware that the majority of those children are likely to be non Han. Wenchuan, the epicentre of the earthquake, is part of so-called “ethnographic” Tibet. (Indeed, Tibetan separatists are referring to “the earthquake in eastern Tibet”.) This is a Chinese disaster, not a Han-only disaster.

I’m not claiming that Chinese, Han or other, don’t have feelings associated with belonging to a particular ethnicity. But where is the evidence that the Han are any more guilty of “ethnic exclusivity” than any other ethnicity in China – or anywhere else in the world for that matter? OK, so if there’s a league table, what makes you put the Han Chinese at the worse end?

Remember Hurricane Katrina? Did white Americans give more evidence of grieving for the black American victims in New Orleans than the Han Chinese are doing now for their compatriots of all ethnicities? (I mention Hurricane Katrina of course because, as you will recall, a question mark was raised at the time, perhaps unfairly, about the response of the rest of America to that tragedy.)

May 25, 2008 @ 5:36 am | Comment

Oh I wish I was Tibetan
Not a Han or Manchu
I’d say, “Now stop your frettin'”
I’d say, “Dalai Lama who?”

I’d move like Michael Jackson
Yeah, I’d do a moon walk.
I’d look around for action
And I’d shake a big rock

I’d watch the flatlands tremble
Man, I’d see them all shake
I’d watch the buildings crumble
As the rain fills up the lake

I’d watch the water swirl
See the people run amuck
I’d say, “That’s not my world.”
But I’d wish them all good luck.

If I was a Tibetan
Not a Han or Manchu
I’d watch the sun a’settin’
And leave the rest to you.


May 29, 2008 @ 4:40 am | Comment


But where is the evidence that the Han are any more guilty of “ethnic exclusivity” than any other ethnicity in China – or anywhere else in the world for that matter? OK, so if there’s a league table, what makes you put the Han Chinese at the worse end?

The crimes that are being carried out before and after the earthquake by the Chinese government, with the fairly general support of the Han population, against the Tibetan population, are what lead me to put the Han Chinese at what you call the ‘worse end’. It’s strange to engage enthusiastically in torture, murder and repression and then stand up to ask for sympathy because something bad happened to you. It’s not… coherent.

Has anyone else found the new Duck format slows down their browser?


You were the one complaining about all the good things the poor unappreciated Han are supposedly doing for the Tibetans. You seem to have missed Kipling’s point that this is what colonialists should expect. And don’t get into childish arguments about colour — race is a construct, relevant only to the extent that it is subsumed into ethnic or national disputes. And the Tibetan-Chinese rift certainly is an ethnic-national rift, as is illustrated by all the Chinese who talk about how ungrateful the Tibetans are. (If they were Chinese, you idiots, then obviously they would be grateful. They aren’t, so they’re not.)

May 30, 2008 @ 5:18 am | Comment

Both USA and PRC have their skeletons in the closet. But as a China-resident Westerner, I see one noticeable difference between the 2 countries. Everyday people seem to be following a scripted play in what they say. It’s always been like this, but during these recent torch relay and earthquake troubles, it just seems all the more obvious. There’s no voiced questions about where the donated money is going, why the buildings weren’t built to earthquake standards despite the money budgeted for it, etc. Lots of people saying how much money they gave. Not many understanding that copying the Athens 2004 practice of sending the torch overseas was just asking for trouble. We foreigners usually just listen and agree in such English-language conversations with groups of Chinese, maybe drop one subtle hint about something, but generally just gel in. Hopefully, after the Olympics, more Chinese will feel more comfortable openly questioning why things happen.

June 1, 2008 @ 3:02 am | Comment

I don’t want to get involved in questions of racism concerning the earthquake. People in China don’t know what ethnicity the victims are, and don’t even care, to tell the truth. They see only the human suffering.

But looking at people’s dismissals of fearless’s comments about the Zhonghua minzu, I would like to suggest that he is closer to the truth than many Chinese apologists would like to admit. Chinese love to tell you that there is more than one ethnic group in China. What Westerners call “Chinese” are actually the “Han” ethnic group. China has 56 ethnic groups belonging to the greater “Zhonghua minzu” (“Chinese nationality”). It is this greater 中华民族 (Zhonghua minzu) that CCTV and other Chinese media refer to, definitely not the 汉族 (Hanzu).

Unfortunately, there is a lot of obfuscation over the term zhonghua minzu, and listening to well-meaning Chinese “explain” what it’s all about is not actually terribly helpful. They are only regurgitating the official line and don’t really have the right to say things like “You’s re a perfect example why western ppl start to critisize China, it often annoys rather than makes us comptemplate, because you dont know what you talking about.”

The problem is that, as fearless points out, the Chinese tend to mix these concepts up in a way that can only be described as Freudian. For instance, I was told by one young (Han) Chinese recently, in a show of modesty, that he had great difficulty understanding the ancient texts of the zhonghua minzu. I was at a loss for a moment, wondering if he was talking about ancient Tibetan or old Mongolian. Of course, he was referring to nothing of the sort. He meant that he had trouble reading 古文 (guwen). In other words, he was using zhonghua minzu as a fancy term to refer to the Chinese, meaning the Han Chinese (assuming that the ancient texts written in 汉字 hanzi are the cultural heritage of the Hans, although I’m aware that this is probably rather simplistic). At any rate, despite the official meaning of zhonghua minzu as referring to all 56 ethnicities, some people actually use it as a grandiose way to refer to the Han Chinese and their culture. By the way, when discussing the term Han zu, we need to keep in mind that ‘Han’ is actually a fairly modern concept in many ways. Tracing the name back to the Han dynasty is fine, but this is a case where etymology is not that helpful in understanding what is going on.

Unlike our friendly contributor of Manchu ethnicity, who considers himself a member of the Zhong hua min zu, I believe that there is more complexity in Chinese attitudes to the Zhonghua minzu than meets the eye. I have spoken to a young Chinese of Mongolian ethnicity who informed me that Inner Mongolians who have a deeper knowledge of history have an extreme dislike of the term zhonghua minzu, which tries to hijack the history of ethnic minorities like the Mongols into Chinese history. Not everybody goes along with the rosy picture of a Zhonghua minzu grandly united throughout history.

As for the term 民族 minzu, the question of translating it as ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity’ is not that simple. The term ‘minzoku’ was, I believe, invented by the Japanese as an equivalent to the 19th century European term ‘race’. ‘Race’ in those days was used quite freely in expressions like the “English race” or “French race”. Since then ‘race’ in English has been narrowed down to its current meaning of ‘racial groups’, and is no longer applied to ‘ethnic groups’. So ‘race’ has changed in meaning while the original translation equivalent minzu hasn’t. When people say that all Chinese (except the people of Xinjiang) are of the same race, the yellow race, they are using ‘race’ in the modern sense. The same term minzu has been translated on other occasions as ‘nationality’ (as in ‘China has 56 nationalities’), which is a reflection of Soviet terminology. Most modern Western people find the ‘nationality’ translation confusing and prefer ‘ethnic group’ or ‘ethnicity’.

June 2, 2008 @ 5:30 pm | Comment

Ozymandias: Just shove off will you. You can look for hairline fractures among subgroups within larger groups anywhere in the whole world. But by and large China’s ethinic problems are far less serious than most places around the world-including the West. But of course Westerners will (and have) try to prise open those hairlines and create havoc. The most disagreeable aspect of Anglo-Saxons is their joy in seeing coloured people beat each other up. They love it when yellows kill each other, when Africans kill each other. They shake their heads and feign concern, but in their hearts they are exultant – “see, non-whites discriminate against and hate other non-whites and are more racist to each other than we whites are racist to non-whites” Its just too flippin transparent.

June 2, 2008 @ 5:46 pm | Comment

Further to my previous post, nothing makes Westerners feel more uncomfortable and disconcerted as when they see non-whites from different groups getting along.

I have heard that on Taiwan, many expatriate whites are peeved about the success of Ma Yinjiu in the elections and can’t hide their disappointment over improving Mainland China- Taiwan ties.

Similarly seeing a Yellow man get together with a Black man and sign deals of significant import, without deferring to Western opinion also causes Westerners obvious unease.

Psychology in a similar vein is described at the link below. Whites feel that interracial dating is an exciting romantic option for them, but feel uncomfortable when they see different non-white races dating each other.

June 2, 2008 @ 6:09 pm | Comment

Here’s what I think, Wayne. You don’t like reading generalizations about Chinese people? Then stop making ridiculous claims about what “Westerners” think and how “all Westerners want to see non-white people fighting” and what have you. It’s insulting and more to the point, it’s idiotic.

I really do not understand how it is that people who scream so loudly about racism turn around and make racist generalizations.

Cut it out. I’m not in the mood to put up with this kind of crap.

June 3, 2008 @ 12:32 am | Comment


To be even-handed then, shouldn’t you also be rebuking the “ridiculous”, “insulting” & “idiotic” “racist generalisations” in this blog about Chinese people? I can point out one or two, eg Rohan’s post 53 above.

Actually, I think Wayne has made an interesting point. (Btw he did not say “all” Westerners &c.)

June 3, 2008 @ 7:07 pm | Comment


Your argument has lots of huge & obvious holes in it.

Just for starters, your line of reasoning doesn’t even begin to make sense unless you assume that most of the Han population of China actually believe what you yourself believe about what is going on in Tibet, (viz “torture”, “murder”, “repression” &c). Surely you don’t think that’s the case? The evidence appears to suggest that the majority of Han Chinese believe their government’s policies in Tibet to be largely benevolent & beneficial to Tibetans, (if only because that’s what their government tells them), or at least no worse than they are elsewhere in China. Are you not aware of how tightly the government controls the flow of information to the public?

In my opinion there are other egregious examples of grossly flawed thinking elsewhere in your posts in this thread, which I’m prepared to dissect later if the thread is still alive.

Meanwhile, not surprisingly, you have failed to provide any morally defensible argument to support your extraordinary claim that the Han Chinese, an entire ethnic group of 1.2 billion people, have somehow become unworthy & undeserving of the compassion that normal, decent people afford each other at times of disaster. With respect, I find your attitude, to borrow your own words, not only lacking in “coherence” & “humanity” but also redolent to a high degree of the very “ethnic exclusiveness” of which you accuse the Chinese people.

June 3, 2008 @ 7:54 pm | Comment

[…] moment affected me more than the three minutes of silence held one week later still my most vivid memory of the unhappy period. Hearing the sobbing and […]

May 12, 2009 @ 11:01 pm | Pingback

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