The exploration of Han-ness and of the parallel fragmentation of the Hanzu through multiple boundaries form the focus of this study. Though at first glance the argument here may appear similar to earlier studies on “plurality in unity” (duo yuan yi ti) (Fei 1989) or on the “Han snowball” (Xu 1999), the present exploration is crucially distinct from these conceptualizations. Importantly, it does not utilize “diversity” and “unity” as paradigms to characterize “the Han.” It has even less to do with the idea of organic, evolutionary merging from plurality/diversity to unity that these scholars propose. Rather, the focus here is on the study of the politics of fragmentation and the politics of unity.
This book contributes to the small but growing field of critical Han studies (see Mullaney et al. 2012). Scholars in this field grapple with the immense category of “the Han” from multiple perspectives in an attempt to demystify and de-teleologize its making and maintenance. This is done by critically discussing the processes through which the category of “the Han” has become what it is today, by focusing on its historical contingency, by drawing attention to its imagined nature, and by analyzing its practices and discourses in their social and political contexts. The present book contributes to this field of study in several ways. First, it explores how the Han minzu identity that originated in the nationalist symbolic order of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century fit itself in between other collective identities of the Han/Chinese that originated in the prenationalist period. Although Han-ness was meant to ultimately cover or even replace them, these home place–, kinship/lineage- and occupation-based identities have not disappeared but continue to exist alongside Han-ness today. While most scholars emphasize the importance of “minorities” in the making of the modern Han minzu, the Han minzu was as much constructed vis-à-vis these place-, kinship-, and occupation-based identities. During the twentieth century, new collective, non-minzu identities of the Hanzu emerged. These newer identities, most significantly constructed along a rural/urban axis, as well as inside/outside or native/stranger differentiations, developed through the substantial “contribution” of the state. Through the household registration regime, the state institutionally reinforced the categories of urbanity, rurality, locality, and outside-ness. These identities, together with home-place identities, significantly influence othering processes among Hanzu in eastern Chinese cities.
As we have seen, at first glance Han-ness appears to be a powerful, unifying identity. Yet by adjusting our perspective, the limits of Han-ness—as evidenced in the fragmentation, discontinuities, and power struggles among Hanzu—become apparent. As it functions today, the minzu identity is unable to mediate the power struggles and exclusions dividing contemporary Hanzu. In eastern Chinese cities, Han-ness is perceived by many Hanzu as meaningless in mundane identity negotiations. Instead, home place and a “home-place-determined mind-set” emerge as critically important to how Hanzu identify themselves and other Han. While Han individuals tend to discuss home-place identities in terms of ascribed and emotional attachments, these identities are also instrumentalized and strategically employed. At the same time, though home place is important in identification processes, it is, like minzu, not a socially overwhelming identity. As home-place identities restrain Han-ness, so they are in turn restrained by other collective identities—being Chinese, urban, migrant, a graduate of a specific university, a government employee, a Communist Party member, and more. These multiple identities maintained by Hanzu are situationally activated depending on the corresponding “other.”
This deconstructive analysis highlights the Han minzu as a deeply divided category. However, my research data compel us to simultaneously recognize that despite the existing fragmentation, the Han-making projects of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have been at least partially successful. The non-minzu identities of the Hanzu, both those originating in the premodern period and those reinforced in the twentieth century, have become to a significant degree nested within the Han minzu identity. Even though Han-ness is marginally important in everyday identity processes in eastern Chinese cities, the Han minzu has been successfully promoted as an overarching denominator. This hierarchization of identities in which Han-ness prevails over the fragmented non-minzu attachments is clearly in the interest of the Chinese state and is reinforced by it.
One of the central questions of this book has been which identities are performed in which situations, and why some of them appear as more ethnic than others. My research material demonstrates that in mundane identification processes in eastern Chinese urban settings, Han-ness is unable to mediate social exclusions. In these settings, many Hanzu turn to home-place and other non-minzu identities to find a feeling of belonging as well as social solidarity and crucial support networks beyond immediate kin. The identities on which these solidarity and assistance networks are established are framed in these situations as given, primordial, and exclusive attachments. Networks established along these attachments may behave like ethnic groups, for example forming occupational niches where the employment of fellow locals is prioritized. Further, there are the privileged identities as Locals and Urbanites, which are established and assumed to protect the symbolic and material resources these identities offer access to, such as preferential employment, lower housing prices, higher wages, and so on. In these processes of establishing boundaries, these identities are also constructed as primordial and inaccessible to Outsiders. They are ethnicized to create networks of solidarity and to erect barriers to maintain specific power asymmetries and resource control. The state does little to diminish this existing hierarchization among the Hanzu. The state-promoted minzu identity seems unable to create social cohesion and everyday ethnic solidarity among fellow Han in eastern Chinese cities. Han-ness, formulated in terms of political mission, power, history, and ancestors, although certainly an appreciated alternative is nonetheless perceived as too distant; lacking the familiarity of home-place attachments, it is rarely an everyday identity choice.
The Han minzu was constructed at the turn of the twentieth century with a clear political goal in mind. In the early twentieth century the meaning of Han-ness was reformulated through a new nomenclature inspired by discourses of race, nation, and state. This way of imagining Han-ness prevails today. Yet its framing, as well as its minzu form, will likely change again in the future, particularly as we consider the growing transnationalization of identity politics, the individualization and fragmentation of identity expression made possible by the Internet, and increasing national and international mobility. In the era of global flows, discourses of ancestral land and cultural ancestry are likely to gain even greater importance in the articulation of Han-ness. At the same time, othering vis-à-vis “minorities”—or discourses of modernity and advancement constructed in relation to “minorities”—will potentially lose their validity. Perhaps institutional frames will also change again, as minzu categorizations are difficult to export globally.1
This book is a series of photographs. At a single moment in time and space, it captures fluid identity positions that reveal instances of the complexity of identity negotiations.2 This study proposes possible approaches to—and analytical terminology for—a discussion of the processes of inclusion, exclusion, merging, and distinction that occur among the contemporary Hanzu. Of course, this analysis is restricted by the locations of fieldwork and the selection of research participants. Further research in different regions and communities is needed to elaborate on and possibly deconstruct some of the assumptions made here. There is still much to be done to create even a basic understanding of how Han-ness functions, what it does, what its limits are, and where it remains insignificant. Though some processes of Han identity negotiation and identity performances are discussed here, scholarship that traces categorization and identification paradigms in multiethnic and rural areas is needed to further complicate our current understandings. In Qinghai, for example, religion rather than language or minzu appears to affect the formation of social alliances between Buddhist Han and Tibetans in opposition to the Muslim Hui (Vasantkumar 2012). In Xinjiang, some Xinjiang Han (e.g., early Han settlers and their descendants) side with some Uyghur to contest the influx of new Han migrants, thereby investing the paradigm of shared home place with more weight than the paradigm of minzu.
Further studies in multiethnic and rural areas are needed to help understand the practices of being Han in non-Han-dominated and rural locations and also the identities these Han activate in their daily interactions. Such studies would allow for a nonhegemonic, transitory, and pluralistic understanding of the Han identity, just as this identity is lived by Han individuals. Exploration of identity switches to and away from Han-ness, between various ren, min, and jia identities, and between still other modes of classification are necessary to contest the monolithic representations of “the Han.” Still other forms of differentiation, such as the Cantonese distinction between yan (humans), lau (semihumans), and kuai (ghosts) must be explored too.3 These will take the analysis of categorization processes into an entirely new dimension. Ultimately, microlevel studies are necessary to help understand the processes that divide and unite contemporary Han, the making of identities, their simultaneous porosity and primordiality, the complex dynamics of identity politics, the fluctuations and the fragmentation of Han ethnonationalism, and the challenges Han individuals face in negotiating between them.