Contrary to popular belief, what it means to be Chinese has always been complex. I explore the tensions, nuances and ambiguities within this identity for native and global Chinese communities.

I have always been proud to be Chinese. Growing up in Britain during the 1990s, surrounded by a mix of Chinese family, friends of mixed ethnicity, and generally accepting people all round, it was not something I felt I needed to defend or actively promote.  It wasn’t until I went to university, and came into contact with a wider public, that I began to see a problem. I increasingly found myself hanging round with Westerners, young and old, interested in the East.

However, no matter how enthusiastic they were about K Pop and anime, they seemed to be oblivious, and in some cases actively not wanting to acknowledge, any pop cultural output from China, or its influence on their particular fandoms. Also, whilst I found many middle class white kids indulging in fantasies of becoming samurai or geisha, China’s traditional culture was not nearly as accessible as those skillfully packaged for them from other mysterious lands of the East. Among these Manga reading, Geiko wannabes, I was sad to find, were British Born Chinese students, who berated their Sunday Chinese classes as a dry and dull chore they were forced to attend, in order to “earn” pocket money that would be spent on imported Japanese Visual Kei CDs.


Delivering my Chinese sci-fi talk in London


Although Western mass media is still generally damning of China for the collateral damage of its fast-tracked development, approaches are changing, with public figures like singer KT Tunstall embracing her quarter Chinese heritage, and broadcasters like ABC and BBC creating entertainment content based on the Chinese diaspora. It is an apt time to discuss just what it means to be Chinese.

There is no doubt that I am Chinese. Born to two mainland Chinese parents, and having spent a third of my life in China, I have never been far from my native culture, even as an adolescent in Britain, later taking up the mantle to promote this heritage after my own cultural awakening. I have long black hair, wheaten skin, and the classic eye shape that tells people from a li away that I am Chinese. At least that is, until they hear me speak my soft but clipped received English. For a vast number of people, the issue of a Chinese identity is a lot more complex.


Take biracial people who are brought up in the West. I have some friends who are totally westernized, going into fits of panic if I serve anything more exotic than fish and chips, whilst others cautiously dip their toes into the other half of their heritage, unsure where they should go, what they will find and doubting the validity of all of it, having grown up surrounded by much sinophobia. Others, journalists and editors from major newspapers, writers, artists involved in organisations such as Yellow Earth, or champions of the forgotten Chinese Labour Corps of WWI, fight on a daily basis for the Chinese to have a voice overseas and to dispel deeply ingrained misperceptions.

 

 

I have to say that most of my biracial friends are a mixture of Asian and white, but that almost implies that white is the default. When the mix becomes more diverse, the issue becomes even more problematic. The priority of cultural influence comes into play, so does the spinning of a new identity from often very disparate sources. It becomes a matter of feeling part of a larger group, not just identifying with a genotype, but belonging, and being made to feel welcome.

One of my prominent memories of secondary school, was a conversation with my half-Irish half-Malaysian-Chinese classmate whilst queuing outside the dining room. It was 1997 and the day of Hong Kong’s official return to China after its lease to Britain. To my surprise, she talked about how excited all of her family were at this good news and how they were going to celebrate with a special meal that evening. I don’t remember anything like as much enthusiasm from our mainland family friends, who had spent most of their lives in China and only relocated to Britain for work. The gladness I could clearly see from this 15 year-old girl who was at least twice removed from China, was far more than I would have expected for a homeland that she had never visited, but knew in her heart she belonged to.

In the 21st century, as China has opened her doors a little wider, people from all over the world have settled and started families there, not only in the metropolis, but also regional cities; looking to start a new life, or make use of the career opportunities on offer, especially with the growth of joint ventures and industries such as computer games. Again, not just people from the White West. Since the middle of the twentieth century, China has encouraged exchange with Africa, and many from the raw materials industries have chosen to move to China to further their enterprises.

 

If you are white or black, brown or Asian and you’ve grown up in China, do you consider yourself Chinese? Speaking to award-winning writer and director Sam Voutas, Austrailian by birth, but raised through the 80s and 90s in Beijing. He is one of the army of global citizens who consider their identities separate from both China and their country of origin, not really belonging anywhere.

Is there a point of entitlement? A level one has to achieve to consider oneself Chinese? And when is it unacceptable to? For example, if one’s ethnic origin is half-Chinese, or a quarter, or an eighth? How comfortable would you be to say you were Chinese because your great-grandmother was Chinese?

At one extreme, there are those who, unlike my enthusiastic classmate, are totally of Chinese ethnic origin, but seek an identity devoid of China, such as many Hong Kongers, who still “correct” those asking if they’re from China by drilling down to the Special Administrative Region. We only need to look at the way Taiwan advertises for its flourishing tourist industry to see that it embraces Chinese culture, preserving many temples and art forms that had been lost during the last century’s turmoil on the mainland, yet they consider themselves politically separate, and disassociate themselves from being Chinese with many modifiers. There is also a certain amount of truth in the common stereotypes of the “banana”, someone who is ethnically Chinese but culturally totally white. Those who, when they have moved away from a family home, almost ritually snap any chopsticks that may have been accidentally packed, replacing them with John Lewis cutlery, refusing to answer to any first name other than “Steve”, or “Brian”. By contrast, there are the “eggs” whom I see at my tours and talks. Those sinophiles who, whilst being totally white, certainly have the mentality of China.


The Windy Pandas racing at the London Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival


I have generally found that later generations of diaspora tend to be a lot more active and interested in seeking their roots. In their parents’ chosen lands, they had preserved Chinese culture, sometimes like a fly in amber, other times nurturing new branches, combining the memories of their homeland and the realities of their adopted one. Faith in certain Chinese deities have been kept alive, some ceremonial rituals created, cuisines adapted and traditional festivities observed, sometimes without the symbolism and weight of the original. The extent to which native Chinese folk culture has survived its transport overseas is entirely haphazard and dependent on the outlook and tastes of their individual carriers.  It has been interesting talking about Chinese culture to my to Asian diaspora Chinese friends and associates. Their idea of “being Chinese”, is something that seems at once familiar, yet strange to me, and quite often is very specific.

There is also the question of where in one’s identity of Chineseness fits. A simple word order in the description of Chinese identity has always made me pause for thought. In Britain, one is “British Chinese”, in the U.S., “Chinese American”. Whether you consider yourself as a Chinese person who is a British citizen, or a British person of Chinese origin, says a lot about the importance you place on your heritage in your identity. At a glance, it looks like “Chinese American” takes liberties with the ethnic origin of its diverse citizens by emphasizing they are first and foremost Americans, whereas “British Chinese” seems more tolerant of minority individual identities.

However, having seen the landslide of output from the U.S. on China in both academia and popular media, compared to the U.K.’s, this word order could simply signify more of an acceptance of the Chinese (and other cultures), rather than the perception of it as still something separate and foreign.

Put an Australian adopted Chinese, an ethnically Chinese Malaysian, a mainlander, a British and an American Chinese in a room together, and what would they talk about? It might make perfect sense to an outsider, who may see them all as Chinese. But will they really all get along swimmingly?

Even within mainland China, identities are far more complicated than an outsider may expect. The national sense of identity that most Chinese have as being from the same country, is to a large extent due to a highly successful campaign by the state to unify the country when it was in critical danger of crumbling to pieces in the early 20th century, presenting the Chinese as descendants of the dragon and Yellow Emperor. However, in this country spanning the size of the European continent, and with similar diversity between its provinces, the emotional attachment of most natives to the idea of home, is not the enormous land of the Middle Kingdom, but the town, city or village they live in. It’s regional.

 

Internal divisions are many and complex, and became a lot more relevant when changes of legislation in the Houkou system in the 1980s allowed people more freedom of movement between provinces to take up the employment opportunities created by China opening its doors to the outside world .

There are levels of division within China, such as a major north-south divide.  As a child of the extreme north (a mother from Jilin) and the south (a father from Guangdong), I have grown up very aware of the gulf between two very different ideas of Chinese behaviour. Even neigbhouring regions can vary a lot, not only in diet, customs and habits, but even in its spoken language. Many works have been written and filmed in the last three decades on the interaction between migrants and locals in major cities, reflecting some of the eye-opening exchanges, happy unions and also some unavoidable friction. It’s clear that a lot of diversity exists even within the Han peoples, as well as the 55 recognised ethnic minorities who make up the nations of China. When away from their home regions, minorities tend to live in within communities of their own folk or become completely assimilated among the Han. Within China, identities are first and foremost regional, and then secondly national, but that level of delineation tends to disappear once you cross the water. It may be difficult for the outsider to grasp that China has tended to promote diversity within and universality without.

Being Chinese can ultimately mean many different things to individuals.

Throughout history, the idea of the Chinese as a homogenous culture, endorsed by authoritative Western scholars has existed for centuries, but internally, these thousands of years of “uninterrupted history” has been punctuated with ruptures and divisions, churning identity and creating a new idea of China with every new dynasty. The country had been invaded and taken over by one bordering tribe after another, the Liao, then the Mongols, and then the Manchus. Song courtiers died to uphold their flowing robes of wide sleeves, wrapped around the body and tied at the waist with a wide sash, over the bolder colours and toggle buttons of the Mongols. Ming scholars had in turn died to keep their naturally grown long hair rather than half-shave their heads and plat it into the Manchurian cue, or don their nomadic Qipaos. With the forming of the republic, again, cutting men’s cues was considered un-Chinese and humiliating, and those traveling overseas were legally obliged to wear their hair in such a fashion. Later, the Qipao-influenced Cheogsam was transformed into a national dress during the revolutionary 1920s. Whilst the state of things in the 19th century may have looked immovably and eternally Chinese to the outsider, scholars and warriors have struggled with and fought for what they believed was “being Chinese” for centuries.

Being Chinese can ultimately mean many different things to individuals. It is an identity that is defined by experience and culture, rather than being restricted to race, genetics and geographical location, and I would love to say “anyone can be Chinese!” However, such a glitter-dusted sentiment reduces a nation’s experience to an accessory, like a fad for playing Mahjong, or putting chopsticks in your hair (don’t put chopsticks in your hair).

From chinesetouristagency.com

There is, at the opposite end of cultural acknowledgement, cultural appropriation, and whilst there is the ugly and obvious crime of culture appropriated badly (see Carl Douglas’ Kungfu Fighting, Bird’s Eye Sweet & Sour Chicken, and anything with Warner Oland in it), there is also the question of attribution. Although the Avatar animated series has presented many elements of Chinese aesthetics and culture accurately and beautifully, not all of the audience would recognise their origins, and I have had white cosplayers try to explain to me the relevance of the Dai Li.  It is an even worse crime to only refer to the country appropriated from when it is negative and avoid mentioning its origins when it’s positive.

When the Netflix Ironfist series aired, I crackled with tension every time the Chinese drug trade was mentioned, but the hero’s Qi based gimmick was discussed in terms of Tibetan, Japanese, and every other peripheral way, other than acknowledging its Chinese routes. Whilst it would be far too foolish and dismissive to set out that only people of Chinese origin can write or talk about China, the Chinese do need to have a voice and be allowed to drive the propagation and development of their own culture anywhere in the world. But whether you are ethnically Chinese or not, it’s fine to want dragons and dumplings along with your tea and scones.


Feature image: From the left: half-Chinese half-American Carter, son of Wuxia translator Deathblade, with his favourite dish; Faye Cheung, half-English half-Chinese publishing professional with her father; cosplayers at a convention in Guangzhou posing in their traditional style costumes; Jade Leamcharaskuk, half-Chinese half-Thai video game composer and creator of Hungary Whispers.

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