Linguistic challenges when writing about “China”

The Financial Times last month published The dark side of China’s national renewal (subscriptions required), addressing the idea that all Chinese people should help China achieve the “China Dream”:

To an English-speaking ear, rejuvenation has positive connotations and all nations have the right to rejuvenate themselves through peaceful efforts.

But the official translation of this crucial slogan is deeply misleading. In Chinese it is “Zhonghua minzu weida fuxing” and the important part of the phrase is “Zhonghua minzu” — the “Chinese nation” according to party propaganda. A more accurate, although not perfect, translation would be the “Chinese race”.

Zhonghua minzu 中華民族 is a phrase that doesn’t translate well in English. As discussed by Arif Dirlik in Born in Translation: “China” in the Making of “Zhongguo”, the words China and Chinese are inherently invited by the West.

As Lydia Liu has observed, “the English terms ‘China’ and ‘Chinese’ do not translate the indigenous terms hua [華], xia [夏], han [漢], or even zhongguo [中國] now or at any given point in history.”

While minzu 民族 could have a variety of meanings, including nation, nationality, people, ethnic group, race, and volk. The phrase Zhonghua minzu 中華民族 is understood to include the 56 ethnic groups China officially recognizes as well as anyone whose ancestors are derived from these groups. People with Taiwanese nationality are considered by China (and many in Taiwan) to be a part of Zhonghua minzu because over 97% of Taiwan’s population could trace their roots back to someone who migrated from mainland China to Taiwan. This is not problematic.

[Chinese premier] Li [Keqiang] said it was the duty of all people of Chinese descent to help achieve the investment, technological development and trade goals of the People’s Republic of China.

He said they are also required to promote traditional Chinese culture (as defined by the Communist party) all over the world and to unwaveringly oppose Taiwan’s independence.

We run into trouble when talking about Chinese and Taiwanese identities. The word Chinese could refer to a plethora of terms, many of them would make the statement “Taiwanese people are Chinese” to be confusing without additional context. Inherently many people in China and Taiwan consider themselves to be of shared ancestry. However, because of this, it would almost be politically incorrect to say that Taiwanese are not Chinese. Consider the sentiments expressed in this HuffPost article:

“Are there not deeper shared values that are more important to explore than a European Canadian wanting to be accepted as ‘Chinese?’”

About 60% of Taiwanese people are exactly the opposite. They only wish to be accepted as Taiwanese, while China and some people in Taiwan have been trying to force the label “Chinese” unto them. In this Chinese mindset, a person who doesn’t have the physical features and ancestry as the majority of people living in China cannot be Chinese, either as a citizen of the PRC or a cultural identity. But on the flip side, someone who fits exactly those criteria must be Chinese, and disagreeing with such is considered to be treachery.

If someone looks Chinese but doesn’t want to be identified with the Chinese culture, they should be allowed to only identify with their resident country. But if they look Western and want to be identified as Chinese, they should be allowed the same right.

What I hope is one day Taiwan can reach the point where nationalism is no longer based on ethnicity, but on shared values. Anyone should be able to be Taiwanese, as long as they share the same values as people living in Taiwan and its islands. We could pose a very similar question: are there not deeper shared values that are more important to explore than to make sure everyone with “Chinese ancestry” are to be known as only “Chinese”?

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