Thinking About Ethnicity and Race in China

A discussion on H-ASIA, which began when I used the term laowai in an unrelated discussion on Chinese academics in US universities, has morphed into an interesting conversation on concepts of race and ethnicity in China.  A post today by one of our editors, Linda Dwyer, citing Emily Honig's work on ethnicity in twentieth century China (her focus was on the Subei people from northern Jiangsu who are treated quite poorly by others in the great metropolis of Shanghai), reminded me of this article by my former teacher, Pamela Crossley, on the concept of ethnicity.  Crossley's extensive work on ethnicity and race, focusing on the history of the Manchus, is reflected in this essay.  Continuing a trend I began in my last post with Wakeman's Policing Shanghai, I offer the following synopsis of her article, drawing from a pool of papers I wrote back in my grad schools days.


 Above:  A Manchu Bannerman, Qianlong Era (Anonymous, 1760).  Crossley argues that the Manchu ethnicity was invented during the early Qing and was created largely out of the institution of Manchu banner garrisons.

A synopsis of Pamela Crossley, "Thinking about Ethnicity in Early Modern China," in Late Imperial China 11:2 [June 1990]:1-36. by Andrew Field

    Pamela Crossley's essay, "Thinking About Ethnicity in Early Modern China," is in part a diagnosis (admittedly of insufficient length) of the problems inherent in the concepts of "ethnicity" and "race" and their application to the past two hundred years of China's history; in part an appreciation of the impact of anthropologists' work on that of historians; and in part a critique of the three articles that follow her essay in the June 1990 issue of Late Imperial China

In typical Crossleyan style (I remember her fondly as one of my best profs at Dartmouth), she is interested in taking apart and examining the tools we use to construct our histories, rather than merely fashioning them.  To this effect, the term "ethnicity" offers little resistance.  As a phenomenon, it is very difficult to demonstrate, for the constant interplay and mutation of cultural, social and religious patterns in the mosaic of human history resists encapsulation in a "truthful" or "scientific" way, such that certain groups might be given a cohesive and determinant set of features that the word "ethnic" suggests.  Nevertheless, as a concept, "ethnicity" may certainly play a key role in the construction of social identities and in the creation of major structures of conflict on many levels of emergent, complex societies.  The question is, just what is "ethnicity," and how do we use it?

First, we must distinguish "ethnicity" from "race," another powerful concept that begs a related set of definitional questions.  In broad terms, "race" might be used to characterize crude phenotypic differences between humans, such as skin color or facial features, whereas "ethnic" traits are subtler, linked with variations in dress, belief, and language, among other things, rather than purely physical differences.  Still, the two concepts are never completely separable, and "ethnic" distinctions may easily be--and often are--confused with "racial" distinctions. 

Another question regarding the definition of "ethnicity," very important to scholars working across several languages (i.e. most of us) relates to how the term is configured in other language and scholarship systems.  Thus, Crossley appreciates that scholars of the former Soviet Union may draw upon an ethnological tradition that makes clear linguistic distinctions between our crude terms of "nation-state," "people" (in the sense of "nationality") and "ethnicity" with the simpler terms of natsiya, narod, and etnos.  On the other hand, Modern Chinese merely offers minzu 民族 to express the above concepts, and often must rely upon foreign terms to make clearer distinctions.   Still, in one of her more cryptic turns of phrase, Crossley reminds us that "precision can... be as confining as liberating," and then proceeds to "unpack" the term "ethnicity" further by analyzing its roots in European discourse.  

    The word "ethnic" seems to have originated with the Greek word ethnos, used to describe those living outside or on the periphery of civilized areas, playing, as it were, by other rules.  It eventually became associated with inherited traits, thus taking on racial overtones.  In short, the concept of "ethnicity" originated in a distinction between the central and the marginalized people in a complex society, and provided a conceptual tool for those with cultural power to subordinate those without. 

Finally, ethnos  or "ethnicity" may be distinguished from the much more recently coined term "ethnic group" (etnicheskaya gruppa), for while the former carries the pejorative sense of displacement and powerlessness, the latter carries the positive aura of persistence and survival, suggesting peoples that have consciously maintained cohesive though liminal identities through to the present, and continue to radiate strong cultural presences within the geographical and political margins that larger cultural and political enterprises have confined them to.

    In what context, if any, are these problematic concepts of "race," "ethnicity," and "ethnic group" meaningful?  Taking the Manchus as an example (appropriately, since this is the subject of her dissertation and of her first book, Orphan Warriors), Crossley asserts that the categorization of Manchus as a race was untrue, given that "they had...never been a single people," but instead displayed diverse origins in the large number of tribes, polities or linguistic confederations (or however one may label them) that constituted people of the Northern Steppes. 

Instead, the Manchu "race" was a product of the ideology of the early Qing Court, which for political reasons was led to construct a unified cultural and racial identity separate from that of the majority of the ruled populace.  For this reason, though as an actual phenomenon the Manchu race did not exist, nevertheless as an idea in the minds of those who inhabited China's vast realm, the Manchu "race" was quite real.  Manchu ethnicity, however, was more a result of the phenomenon of the Manchu garrisons; in these pocket communities in Beijing and other cities, their members "fashioned an ethnic consciousness for themselves," drawing upon the racial identity fashioned by the Court.  The identity of Manchus as shaoshu minzu , or a "minority nationality," persists to this day.  

    Crossley's analysis of "ethnicity" and "race" suggests that we open up other commonly accepted but problematic terms for inspection, such as "language."  To what extent is our tendency to refer to a Chinese "language," and to recognize Guangdong hua, Minnan hua, and Hakka as "dialects," a product of traditional sinology?  

    This question is pertinent to Stephan Harrel's work on inter-ethnic violence in Taiwan in his book Ploughshare Village, and in an essay that follows Crossley's in Modern China, for Harrel sees the linguistic and cultural variations of China's various peoples as "ethnic" and not "sub-ethnic," an appellate also stemming from traditional sinology.  In a short critique of Harrel's essay and the others that follow hers, Crossley notes that each essay rather "unskeptically" employs the concept of ethnicity to analyze social conflict, thus courting the danger of confuting ethnic with communal conflict. 

To the essayists, and to her general audience, Crossley suggests that we employ the concept, but in a reserved and skeptical manner, noting the contingency of ethnicity and of ethnic groups as historical constructions in the context of imperialism (for an ethnic group divorced from its context as a subordinate cultural system in an imperial polity would lose its meaning).  In this sense, one may link her work on ethnicity with those who hoist the various banners of Subaltern, post-Modern, or post-Orientalist studies.  Of course, her densely argued essay offers much more than is encapsulated here, and like her major monographs on the Manchu Qing, it is a must read for anybody interested in taking apart the concepts of ethnicity and race in China.

 [after posting a link to this blog on H-ASIA, Pamela Crossley posted the following response.  I've included it here to avoid any misunderstandings about her work:]

From: Pamela Crossley <>

Dear H-ASIA,

I'm delighted to see this bit of the exchange, and of course I'm

delighted that Andrew Field remembers my little essay. If I may offer a

friendly amendment: I know Andrew knows what he means, but I have

learned there are some out there who react to the idea that

"ethnicity" is a construction by thinking they heard somebody say

that culture is an invention.  As I argued in that essay and still

believe, culture is real enough, but "ethnicity" is a phenomenon that

does not make sense outside a certain set of ideological assumptions

that are certainly dependent upon the political framework to which one

thinks one belongs. So, ethnicity as an invention is okay with me in

the very terms that Andrew has used.  I shouldn't like this to be

misunderstood to mean that culture and cultural differences can be

invented by the state. Only their representation can be.


Pamela Crossley

Dartmouth College