An ethnohistorical dictionary of China

Type Book
Title An ethnohistorical dictionary of China
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 1998
Publisher Greenwood Publishing Group
Putting together an ethnohistorical dictionary of China has proven to be a daunting
task. Part of the problem, of course, is defining ethnicity. Most anthropologists
argue that ethnicity is a sense of individual identity with a larger group
based on any combination of racial, religious, linguistic, and class similarities.
The possible number of permutations on these five factors can further be complicated
by rates of acculturation and assimilation over time. At any given moment,
ethnic loyalties tend to be dynamic rather than static, subject to infinite
variety because of economic, demographic, political, and social change. No
sooner do anthropologists publish their research than group circumstances
This is particularly true in the case of Chinese ethnohistory. Discussing linguistic
groups in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), for example, is particularly
difficult because the government insists on maintaining the fiction that
there is only one Chinese language, and that it is divided into a series of dialects.
To argue otherwise would require government officials to recognize major ethnic
divisions with the dominant Han people, something Chinese officials have been
extremely reluctant to do.
Most linguists argue, however, that the definition of ‘‘dialect’’ means that it is
mutually intelligible by users of other ‘‘dialects’’ of the same language. The Chinese
government claims that eight dialects of the language exist within the national
boundaries: Mandarin, Wu, Jin, Gan, Xiang, Hakka, Yue, and Min. The
problem with that definition, of course, is that none of these so-called dialects is
mutually intelligible with the other. The people who speak them may very well be
united by their Han* descent and their shared eclectic mix of Buddhist, Taoist,
and Confucian religious beliefs, but they cannot understand one another’s spoken
languages, which should render them members of different ethnic groups.
Complicating the issue even more is the fact that each of the Chinese languages
possesses many dialects, and some of those dialects are not mutually intelligible
to speakers of related dialects.
At the same time, however, all Chinese languages share an unusual linguistic
similarity. They cannot be mutually understood by different speakers, but they
all employ the same written script, which is mutually readable. Also, if an
outsider asks a Wu or Mandarin speaker what language he or she speaks, the
answer is invariably ‘‘Chinese.’’ Some linguists have begun employing the term
‘‘regionalect’’ to describe the Chinese languages. Whether or not Mandarin, Wu,
Gan, Xian, Hakka, Jin, Yue, and Min are dialects, regionalects, or languages,
they divide the more than 1.1 billion Han peoples into distinguishable, individual
groups whose members share loyalty and a sense of identity with one another
because of language.
Political realities also complicate a description of ethnicity in China. I have
endeavored here to include descriptions of all the major ethnic groups in China,
but in doing so I must define just exactly what I mean by China. Is the People’s
Republic of China really China, or must Taiwan be included, as the Chinese
Communist party insists? Or is the Republic of Taiwan on Formosa the legitimate
political representative of the Chinese people? Hong Kong became part of
the People’s Republic of China on July 1, 1997, but Macao, until December 20,
1999, at least, will remain a part of the Portuguese empire. Tibet also poses a
problem. Many Tibetan nationalists will certainly reject the notion that Tibet is
part of the People’s Republic of China because they feel that the Chinese invasion
and occupation of Tibet are illegitimate. Indian nationalists feel the same
way about the Aksai Chin region of the Kashmir, which borders Tibet. Aksai
Chin was clearly under Indian control until 1959, when Chinese armies moved
in and claimed the region. India protests the claim, but the matter has not yet
been settled.
In an effort to be inclusive, I have therefore defined China very broadly. For
the purposes of An Ethnohistorical Dictionary of China, China includes the
People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China on Taiwan, Tibet, and the
Aksai Chin region of Jammu and Kashmir. Such an approach will, no doubt,
offend the political assumptions of many people, especially human rights activists
interested in East and Central Asia, but I decided that being as inclusive as
possible rather than as exclusive as possible was the lesser of two evils.
Another problem with discussing ethnicity in China grows out of the country’s
recent history. With the triumph of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist
party in 1949, China all but closed itself off to the outside world. It became
nearly impossible for foreign scholars to gain access to the People’s Republic
of China, and opportunities to conduct fieldwork for anthropologists and archaeologists
evaporated. Chinese scholars continued their work and published
the results of their research in Mandarin-language journals, but access to them
by Western scholars was limited by the language problem and by the all too
frequent unwillingness of the central government to distribute information
abroad. In the paranoia of a totalitarian state, any and all information becomes
grist for foreign espionage mills. The central government has rigidly controlled
the flow of information in and out of the People’s Republic of China. As a
result, major Western scholarly journals in anthropology, ethnology, sociology,
linguistics, and archaeology carried few articles about contemporary Chinese
society during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Even after the Cultural Revolution
ended, when government censorship standards relaxed somewhat, it was still
difficult, if not impossible, for social scientists to get into the PRC.
Finally, certain political paradigms in the People’s Republic of China affect
the ways in which social scientists approach the study of ethnicity. Although
the vast majority of the people of the PRC and the Republic of China are of
Han descent, there are tens of millions of minority peoples. Most ethnologists
would agree that these minorities are divided into hundreds of ethnic groups.
The central government, however, has refused to acknowledge such diversity.
They have officially recognized only fifty-five minority ‘‘nationalities,’’ even
though many of those minority groups have no general sense of nationalism and
are divided into dozens of subgroups based on linguistic, religious, demographic,
and social differences. An asterisk (*) in the text indicates a separate entry.
I wish to express my appreciation to librarians at Sam Houston State University,
Brigham Young University, Rice University, the University of Texas at
Austin, the University of California at Los Angeles, and the University of California
at Berkeley. I would also like to express my appreciation to Cynthia
Harris, my editor at Greenwood, for her patience in seeing this project to its

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