Friday, July 10, 2009

Han vs. Tang?   posted by Razib @ 7/10/2009 06:43:00 PM

Update: After the comments I'm rather sure that though the WSJ piece was well written and generally right on specific facts (excepting the fact that Sun Yat-sen was not born outside of China as the author claimed) it is grossly misleading. I have no idea if the author had some agenda to push, but it does make me wonder as to how many boring articles the WSJ rejected only to accept the somewhat bizarre claims articulated in the piece they published. End Update

The WSJ has a long article up, China's Ethnic Fault Lines, which emphasizes the difference between Chinese speakers from various regions, who are all notionally "Han," though those of the south may refer to themselves as "Tang" in remembrance of the dynasty which witnessed a shift of China's center of gravity south.* It's a long piece with a lot of facts, but I have feeling that it tries too hard to suggest that the Han Chinese identity is a recent construction and that Cantonese and Fujianese have submerged separatist inclinations. From what I know those from south of the Yangtze have been essential players in the Chinese bureaucratic state for 1,000 years, so even hinting at an analogy with the separatism of Turks and Tibetans from western China is grossly misleading. The mercantile people of south China, especially Fujian, have long had to battle a central government, generally based out of the plains of northern China, which would have preferred that they focused on primary production. But despite this deep division in worldviews young men from Fujian were well represented in the bureaucracy. More recently both Mao and Deng Xiaoping were from south of the Yangtze. There are some tensions between people from different parts of China, as there are in any country, but the author seems a very knowledgeable person who might be leading some astray here by conflating expected regional & linguistic tensions with atavistic nationalisms submerged (I've seen some ethnic shell games before).

This all matters because the subtext of the piece is that China is more diverse than you think, and a possible near future powder keg. 91% of Chinese are Han, but if you look at mutually unintelligible dialects the index of diversity can crank up (what a language or a dialect is is to a large extent political; e.g., Croation vs. Serbian). On the other hand, if the glass is mostly full and you ignore dialect diversity for the purposes of separatist movements, and note that the huge increase in ethnic minorities in China to 9% is probably part of the same phenomenon as the doubling of Native Americans in the USA between 1990-2000, China looks rather homogeneous (the "new" Native Americans in the USA are probably likely to be less activist about their rights and identity than those who were Native American for many censuses in a row). Instead of a north-south dynamic the bigger issue seems to be the interior-coast economic chasm, which is obviously cuts across the Han vs. Tang division mentioned in the piece.

On the specific issue of the real nationalisms in China's west it seems Xinjiang and Tibet are going to have different futures. I've been hearing that Xinjiang is 40% Han for the past 15 years, so I suspect they're undercounting so as not to exacerbate resentments. With demographic marginalization the future is set & sealed (many of south China's non-Han groups exist as demographic islands surrounded by Han majorities). Tibet on the other hand is a different case because it seems that non-Tibetans experience enough physical discomfort that no one will want to settle down permanently. Extended occupation instead of absorption will be necessary so long as the locals are not quiescent (Lhasa is as 12,000 ft, 3,650 meters!).

I would like to hear from Chinese readers or those who live in China as the plausibility of the claims of the article above.

Note: The World Values Survey can be broken down by language spoken at home. I see no great difference between dialect groups and Mandarin speakers in regards to national pride. Also, here are supposed numbers for the number of people in China who speak Mandarin:
Just over 53% of the population of China or 690 million people are able to speak Mandarin, according to the Xinhua news agency. In China's cities, about 66% speak Mandarin, while only 45% speak it in the countryside. Around 70% of people between the ages of 15 and 29 speak the language, while only 30% of those over 60 can speak it.

The numbers seem a littler lower than others online. Additionally, Mandarin is not a regional identity, while in contrast Cantonese is a dialect with a strong regional association. Here is a map of dialect groups.

* The Han was China's first robust dynasty and established in many ways the patterns of Chinese culture which persist down to the present, and was also the institutional model for its government down to ~1900. The Tang was China's second great dynasty, and pushed the state's boundaries both south and west, and to a great extent was the period when southern China was sinicized.