Introduction to China - Unity and Diversity in China Today

One could argue that since 1949 some of the earlier differences between local cultures or nationalities have weakened or disappeared. This occurrence is a result of a number of factors: the spread of Mandarin as the language of the schools and media; the uniform political and social ideology promoted via the Communist party, the Youth League, the Women's Federation, the Peasants Association, and the Peoples Liberation Army; nationwide participation in a series of political campaigns; state control of the news and entertainment media; and the uniformity of socioeconomic organization between 1950 and the early 1980s. Furthermore, the suppression of some local religious practices and the development of secularized, state-revised festivals and state guidelines for betrothals, weddings, and funerals have all contributed to the blurring of the differences between regional Han cultures, and they have also had their effect on the practices of the minorities.

Over recent decades, population movements have also played a part. Han families from diverse regions have been resettled in large numbers in newly developing areas such as the northeastern provinces, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia, whereas some minority communities have been relocated closer to Han areas of settlement. During the Cultural Revolution years this process was accelerated by the transfer of at least 12 million young Han urbanites to rural villages and state farms, some of these in areas primarily inhabited by the ethnic minorities. Many of these transfers have become permanent. Since the 1980s there has been population movement from the countryside into established urban areas, both by assignment and voluntarily, heavy immigration into the new Special Economic Zones and Development Zones, and a flow into underpopulated areas that hold promise of economic opportunity.

Despite these unifying trends, there are also signs of intensification of ethnic awareness and sentiment among the minorities. Some of the official classifications have taken on new meaning. This development is clearly evident in the 1990 census, which reports a large jump in the number of individuals or communities claiming minority status. Some groups have had a dramatic rise in population since the 1982 census, most markedly the Manchu, Tujia, She, Gelao, Xibe, Hezhen, Mulam, and those claiming Russian nationality. There is increased demand for school texts and other publications in minority languages (including tongues formerly classed as "dialects"), with recognized standardized romanizations or reformed versions of earlier traditional writing systems. With these come demands for separate schools at the primary level, and the recognition of additional autonomous counties or townships in areas with large minority populations. Among many groups there is revival, elaboration, or even invention of local dress and other visible markers of ethnic difference. There is also increased production of local craft items (or items with a minority "feel" to them) for a wider market, as well as a revitalization of local festivals. Some of these changes relate to the growing international and internal tourist market, as at the Dai Water-Splashing Festival in Xishuangbanna, the Miao Dragon Boat Festival in eastern Guizhou, or the tourist souvenirs and entertainment provided by the Sani (Yi) at the Stone Forest near Kunming. Among the Hui and other Islamic groups, religion has been revitalized and is tolerated by the state because of its desire to maintain and increase good foreign relations with Islamic countries. Buddhism among the Dai and Christianity among the Miao, Yi, Lisu, Lahu—and, of course, the Han themselves—are tolerated for similar reasons.

The state allows and in some ways even encourages the upsurge of ethnic expression, as long as it does not move toward separatism. China takes pride in describing itself as a multinational country. Minority themes figure strongly in contemporary Chinese painting and graphics, and television frequently airs travelogues and commentaries about the minorities and performances by song-and-dance ensembles whose material is drawn in large part from the minority cultures. Books about the strange customs of the shaoshu minzu find a wide market; occasionally, they also spark protests by the minorities.

The attention to ethnic diversity works in part to strengthen the unity of the Han. Even if Cantonese differ in many ways from Shandong people and mutually joke about the other's strange language and life-style, they see themselves as far more similar to each other than to Tibetans, Mongols, Miao, or Dai. In the researches of the 1950s investigative teams, the one group that was not studied was the Han. Part of what defines the Han is the mirror of "otherness" provided by the shaoshu minzu. Minority life-styles, to Han eyes, are often exotic and sometimes appear backward and immoral. What also defines Han is the official interpretation of minority diversity as leftovers from earlier historical forms. State and scholars alike regard the minorities as representative of earlier stages of society as outlined by Lewis Henry Morgan and Engels: the primitive commune, slavery, feudalism, and early capitalism. In contrast, the Han represent the next stage of the progressive advance of history, having established the foundations of socialism. In addition, the Han see themselves as the carriers of science, rational thinking, and modern technology, standing in the position of teachers and protectors of the minorities.

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