Who Gets To Be Chinese?


Jacob Dreyer is a writer and editor based in Shanghai.

All images courtesy Thomas Sauvin / Beijing Silvermine. Beijing Silvermine is an archive of more than a million negatives salvaged over the last 14 years from a recycling plant on the edge of Beijing. Sauvin, a French collector and artist, assembled the archive into a unique photographic portrait of the Chinese capital and the life of its inhabitants in the decades following the Cultural Revolution.

“We must go to the root and criticize the Han chauvinist ideas which exist to a serious degree among many Party members and cadres.”
— Mao Zedong

SHANGHAI — For a time, Joseph and I would go to the park at dawn to take in the sights of a Chinese morning: the sun rising over Jing’an Temple, the elderly practicing Tai chi, stray cats gazing maliciously at us. Inevitably, a retired Shanghainese would walk up. How handsome he is, they would say. He looks nothing like you. Our Chinese genes are much stronger than yours.

What qualifies a person to be Chinese, anyway? My son holds a U.S. passport; his hair is brown and his skin looks the same as mine (although he has the bluish mark on his bum that a Mongolian friend told me is a sign of Genghis Khan’s DNA). On the other hand, he certainly has his mother’s deep, dark eyes.

America is paper, one retiree told me; China is blood. What this person meant was that U.S. citizenship is a matter of bureaucracy and paperwork — in theory, open to anybody. In contrast, Chinese citizenship is a closed loop. If you’re in, you can never really escape — and if you’re out, there’s no way of entrance.

It is for this reason that some call China an ethno-state, contradicting the official recognition of 56 ethnicities (sometimes called nationalities) that are equally entitled to citizenship. Of course, many who consider themselves (and are considered by others) to be Chinese are not citizens of China. The borders of China and the limits of Chineseness map onto each other incompletely.

China’s borders encompass individuals who are, like me, impossible to mistakenly identify as Chinese. Meanwhile, most major cities in the world have a Chinatown, and even villages and truck stops in America have Chinese restaurants. These places have nothing much to do with the Communist China that emerged in 1949.

“The collection of peoples we call China is not really a society of citizens. Rather, it is an organization — a government — keeping tabs on populations and territories within its domain.”

Until he is 18, my son is eligible for the privilege (if it is that) of Chinese citizenship, as long as he chooses to renounce American citizenship (China doesn’t recognize dual nationalities). This is not because he was born here in China, but because his mother is Chinese.

On some days, as we walked past the artificial lake and the tea garden, stopping by the playground to play on the slide, I would mentally review the tasks I’d set for myself to prepare for Joseph’s future. What school? Had I paid the health insurance? Should I get bananas or eggs on the way home? And is my son really one of “the Chinese people,” cossetted and protected as well as abused by a society that takes the patriarchal family as its dominant metaphor?

Recently, the government has been discussing a proposed law that would outlaw “harm[ing] the feelings” of the Chinese people. As a parent, the notion that I could ban any hurt or injury to Joseph’s feelings seems grandiose, but the fathers of the Chinese nation insist upon it. Nothing is too good for you, my children, they say; now sit down and be quiet.

Like any proud parent, the Chinese government insists that the country’s population is the best.  When asked about the prospect of India’s population surpassing China’s in sheer numbers, the government spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, retorted: “When assessing a country’s demographic[s], we need to look at not just its size but also its quality.”

China, the “国家” — “kingdom-family” — is not an ethno-state in the way that Israel is, where any Jewish person can become a citizen. China does not do that. But it is certainly an estranged and complicated family, whose international disputes often seem to revolve around errant children, runaways and the dirty secrets that flare up into argument over the dinner table during holidays.


In the veins of our century there flows the heavy blood of extremely distant, monumental cultures.”
— Osip Mandelstam

In the fairytale version of Chinese history, the people who became the Han found themselves in the Zhongyuan — the central plains of Henan — during a long cooling period of climate change, and the colder weather encouraged nomadism and a struggle for resources. Different tribes kept warring with each other and getting attacked by raiders until the leader of one — Qin Shi Huang — established a forcible, autocratic unity.

In “Crowds and Power” (1960), the Nobel Prize-winning Bulgaria-born writer Elias Canetti sought to explain what makes a group of dissimilar people become a coherent community. Usually, he wrote, it is an external threat: Two tribes with no reason to trust each other end up doing so out of necessity, pooling resources and joining up against rivals that threaten both. Essentially, this is what ancient Chinese history records.

Qin unified different tribes into a community whose borders were defined by a hostile periphery of nomadic raiders. As the historian Sima Qian wrote a century after Qin died: “Qin is a man of scant mercy who has the heart of a wolf. When he is in difficulty he readily humbles himself before others, but when he has got his way, then he thinks nothing of eating others alive. If the Qin should ever get his way with the world, then the whole world will end up his prisoner.” Out of the diverse jumble of territories in continental East Asia, the world that Sima Qian imagined did become that prisoner. Today, we call it China.

From its origins, then, the community of the Han referred to a mix of different people thrown together by exigency, forming a collective for self-defense that ended up becoming one of the longest-lasting human social structures on Earth.

This primeval moment was the beginning of many of China’s political traditions. Mao Zedong once bragged that he outdid Qin by burning books and burying scholars. These are some of the things that outsiders find so unpleasant about China. But since Qin’s time, Chinese leaders have often advocated iron discipline in order to keep such a diverse range of peoples and territories, always under attack from outsiders (or perceived to be), united into a singular group. If they don’t, things will fall apart into chaos. In Chinese history, they repeatedly have done so.

But the collection of peoples we call China is not really a society of citizens in the sense that emerged from the American and French revolutions. Rather, it is an organization — a government — keeping tabs on populations and territories within its domain. 

The population core of China during the Han dynasty was located in roughly the same place as it is today, in the developed coastal provinces and central plains. As it expanded — in Qin’s time but also more recently when the Q’ing dynasty suppressed the Dzungar Khanate — tribes that stood in the way were assimilated. If this wasn’t voluntarily, then by force.

Ganhuyag Chuluun Hutagt, a Mongolian financier, once told me that Chinese assimilationism posed a greater threat than Russia’s war-making. What was once Soviet Mongolia is an independent state with United Nations representation today, whereas in the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia, which is albeit richer per capita than Mongolia, the education system is mostly in Chinese, the natural resources are exploited by Chinese engineers and entrepreneurs, and ethnic Mongolians are a minority. Sadly (from a Mongolian perspective), people in Inner Mongolia are well on their way to being Sinified in a process that can feel almost inevitable. Consider, also, the Manchus — the last Chinese emperors came from their ranks, and their homeland of Manchuria was protected by the “willow palisade,” from which Han were legally forbidden to enter. Today, it has become the three provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning, where ethnic Manchus, Koreans and others are indistinguishable from Han in the streets.

Today, through China’s tax-sharing system, the coastal provinces and municipalities effectively subsidize the interior and border regions. Guangdong, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Shanghai, Shandong and Beijing all lie in the historical Han heartland, the area Chinese planners see as the future of China’s economy and population core. To some degree or another, the rest of China is empty space, a buffer against the outside world, a place to grow crops, harvest sunbeams, capture carbon credits, breed armies of workers (and soldiers). (The central plains, where it all started, is today a shadow of the coastal economy, densely populated but suffering from some of China’s worst problems.) Ethnic Han make up at least 80% of the population in 23 of China’s 31 mainland provincial administrative regions. In the other eight, like Inner Mongolia, assimilationist efforts remain incomplete.

In this context, there’s no wonder that China’s neighbors are wary. It seems like a coincidence of 20th century history that Vietnam and Korea, for example, are not Chinese provinces, but Guangdong and Jilin are. The discontinuity between the borders of China today and the maximalist “Huaxia” concept of the Chinese nation — where all who used Chinese characters in the past are somehow part of the same civilizational unit — is one of the primary flashpoints of Chinese nationalist grievance.

Han seems to be a malleable term that means “civilized” more than it denotes an ethnic phenotype. And yet, modern China, and certainly the China that has existed since 1949, always conceived of itself as a biological entity very different than the “West.”


Even though the white race commands strength and occupies a position of superiority, the yellow race is large in number and possesses wisdom. Thus, it is only logical that the two should join and integrate.”
— Kang Youwei

In December, we fled the impending cold of Shanghai to see friends in Australia, a country/continent that embodies the allure of the “West” to Chinese. In this modern, prosperous society, people are free to be as Chinese as they want — there are about 1.4 million people of Chinese ancestry living in Australia, or over 5% of the population. In cities like Sydney, it’s 17%.

My friend Jenevieve Chang is one of them. Born to a conservative family in Taiwan, “out-of-province people” (“外省人”) who arrived from Hunan after the Communists took power, she grew up in the southern Sydney suburbs. She circled the world, lived in London and then Shanghai, wrote a memoir. Now she’s raising a child in Marrickville, a trendy suburb.

The divisions and splinterings that the 20th century wrought on the concept of Chineseness have been a core issue that Jen has wrestled with for as long as I’ve known her. Families like hers are drawn in a subterranean way to the motherland, even as business and family skeins across Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, even Southeast Asia.

Long before James Cook “discovered” Australia for the British, the Chinese valued it, as they did Vladivostok, for its sea cucumbers. But a world organized around access to sea cucumbers is exactly what many seek to flee when they speak and live in English.

The English-speaking world has been an escape, not only for women bored of patriarchal men, but for patriarchal men seeking to avoid Chinese politics and taxes, for those who find a clean grocery store simpler than a wet market, or even for families like my own who find China a bit overwhelming at times. For a while in Australia, we felt inexplicably anxious; anxiety is the constant companion to life in a dense, high-pressure society like Shanghai’s. It buzzed in our ears like a mosquito until the WeChat notifications decreased and we started to enjoy ourselves.

In common parlance, the way we continue to talk about China and the “West” is perhaps a heritage from the Cold War. The reality is that most Chinese emigrants tend to target certain foreign countries — mostly in Southeast Asia, China’s near-abroad, or the English-speaking rich world. On Gavin Newsom’s recent visit to China, he alluded to the 2 million Chinese who live in California, more than in Japan and the Eurozone combined.

Chinese diasporas, for the most part, aren’t that interested in a generic West, especially not the part that seems defined by ethnic particularity, like Europe. That part is difficult to access and find belonging in. It is only in the English-speaking world where Chinese can really enjoy the privilege of an amphibious identity, being entirely Han and entirely Canadian or Californian or Australian at the same time.

“Han seems to be a malleable term that means ‘civilized’ more than it denotes an ethnic phenotype.”

In light of the Han tendency to assimilate smaller ethnic groups into “civilization,” it must be said that the English-speaking world has an odd parallel with Huaxia, which came into being in the early days of the idea of Chineseness, when multiple different tribes united in their use of the Han script and ceremonial rites against the “barbarians” who did not. Parts of the West have proven quite capable of assimilating Chinese people into their civilizational orders. And it is the West that is most self-consciously organized in a rivalry with Communist-led China today.

For many Chinese nationalists, English-speaking people have always been damnably slippery, aquatic by nature. In Shanghai, the French called their colony the French Concession; the Americans and English referred to theirs as the International Settlement. Chinese nationalists past and present smirk at this, as they do at the “international community” with “international norms” that, in the final analysis, are mostly the norms of English-speaking people.

This wouldn’t be an issue except for the reality that many Chinese people desire those norms. An average Chinese would find it very difficult, if not impossible, to become a Parisian, but many have become Californians. The former director of the University of Adelaide’s Confucius Institute, Gao Mobo, told me a story of a Chinese-born neighbor in his upscale suburb. I believe in Australian values, this Tsinghua University graduate insisted; I am Australian, not Chinese. When prodded, those values tend to be similar to American, Canadian or British values: property rights, the rule of law, freedom of speech. Universal values.

Zhang Taiyan, the early 20th-century philosopher of Chinese modernity, wrote about how the idea of the individual as separate from a group was created by the concept of universality, which hid a structure of domination within it. Adelaide, Hong Kong, Vancouver and various other places with parks named after Queen Victoria all perceive of themselves as transparent and open. The structures they use to do so — the built environment, laws, banks, zoning codes — are to a greater or lesser degree inherited from the multiethnic British Empire.

Zhang decried universalism as a condition of oppression: “One cannot take the data of one place and treat it as authoritative and applicable everywhere — this much is sure!” As he explained his political project: “Those whom I call revolutionaries do not want revolution, they want to restore greatness. They want to restore the greatness of the Chinese race, to restore the greatness of the China’s prefectures and commandaries, and restore the greatness of China’s political power. What in reality aims to restore greatness has been called revolution.”

For him, the Han was a particular way of doing things; universal values would flatten everything that made China unique, making it just another colony in a global order ruled from the West. The insidious universalism of the English-speaking colonizers, which persistently skimmed the cream off the top of China, is the greatest rival imaginable: The Chinese people cannot be collected and unified into a cohesive consciousness if some of the smart, enterprising or desperate ones periodically move to Australia.

Mao’s Communists, however, saw things slightly differently: Any empire is multiethnic, and as such strains the boundaries of family. It needs ideology and abstraction. A China that was just a family of Han would be a China that decided to limit itself. A China that was an ideology could encompass people all across the world.


“A culture is in its finest flower before it begins to analyze itself.”
— Alfred North Whitehead

Ko Wen Je, Taiwan’s Ross Perot-style third-party candidate, consistently describes Taiwan’s relation with China with the phrase “兩岸一家親” — “We are one family on either side of the Taiwan strait.” It’s a Xi Jinping phrase. The logic of an extended family underpins many such gestures in both countries. Former President Ma Ying-jeou, for example, recently took a trip to his ancestral village in Hunan.

After Taiwan’s election this month, mainland Chinese media, rationalizing results they weren’t able to control, highlighted the fact that 60% of voters chose candidates perceived as closer to China; if Ko hadn’t spoiled it, many speculated, the Kuomintang would have won. The family reunion could still happen, just give it time. On a certain level, whether this is true or false, it’s good if the mainland Chinese think so, because that allows them space to keep coexisting.

The metaphor of family has proved compelling for many ethnically Han people on both sides of the strait: Mainland conservatives sometimes describe Taiwan as one might a runaway teenager, while many Taiwanese politicians describe the mainland’s leaders as authoritarian and sexist. Every family has misunderstandings and estrangements.

When some young Taiwanese reject the notion that they are Chinese, they are rejecting China as a political construct but still take their Han identity for granted; they probably still consider themselves part of “中华.” Even the Taiwanese government, under the independent-minded Democratic Progressive Party at least, describes Taiwan as a predominantly Han society in which 95% are partially or entirely Han. After all, you can’t pick your family, even if you might disagree with them about politics.

In the U.S., white nationalism is the precinct of those who feel that a country that is “theirs” has been taken away by a “great replacement” by others. Never mind that “white” today encloses groups like the Irish and Italians who were considered ethnic outsiders not that long ago. Those invested in their identity as white perceive themselves as being above, monitoring the border between themselves and the lower orders.

In contrast, “Han” in the modern period has been defined primarily with resentment to those same “whites.” If “Blacks” are needed to make whites truly white, then foreigners are needed to make Chinese truly Chinese.

The foreigners in question tend to be English-speaking people who eat beef and are loud and aggressive. When young people in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan drift away from the family, some Chinese nationalists assume it is because they were bribed by the U.S. state department; there can’t be any other explanation.

Within the logic of Chinese nationalism, for Han to aspire to equality with foreign groups is ludicrous. As China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently explained to his Japanese and Korean counterparts: “No matter how yellow you dye your hair, or how sharp you make your nose, you’ll never turn into a European or American, you’ll never turn into a Westerner.”

“A China that is just a family of Han would be a China that decided to limit itself. A China that is an ideology could encompass people all across the world.”

Some Chinese conservatives observe Korean plastic surgery trends with horror. On flights from Korea to China, there are many Chinese who have had double eyelid surgery and breast implants, who have dyed their hair blonde or wear contact lenses to make their eyes blue. What a disgrace, the conservatives must think. These lost children need self-confidence. Maybe they need to hear again the story of Chinese identity. They’d be better off joining the Han in the project of creating a Chinese alter-modernity instead of throwing in the towel and moving to Australia or Vancouver or Los Angeles.

Han people have recorded the concept that race is a fiction for millennia. It is encapsulated in a phrase attributed to Confucius: “夷狄入华夏,则华夏之。华夏入夷狄则夷狄之” (“When barbarians come to China, they become Chinese. When Chinese go to the land of barbarians, they become barbaric). Within the worldview of this saying, Han is above all a culture, not an ethnic phenotype. As such, it is endlessly capacious, able to accommodate various barbarians — the Mongolians, the Manchurians, me.

Various foreign groups have been assimilated into the Han via intermarriage, a process called “汉化,” or “Han-ization,” much to the regret of Chinese cultural critics such as Bo Yang, a Cultural Revolution escapee who wrote “The Ugly Chinaman” in exile in Taiwan. The Chinese, he wrote, are like soy sauce; a drop of their flavor overtakes whatever you add it to. New York City, the 13th Arrondissement of Paris, Ghana — wherever Chinese people go, there they are, industriously turning the place into China, with the smells and sounds and cuisine of Chinese life.

In Xinjiang and other ethnic minority regions, students can take an educational track to study partially or entirely in Mandarin Chinese, and later get affirmative action-style preference to enter university. The alternative schools with curriculums taught in the local language, by contrast, are often perfunctory, suffering from funding or political issues and at best teach vocational trades. The pressure to integrate is clear.

If you can become Han by studying for certain exams, then it’s implicitly the case that Han is not a biological category. Whatever other reasons or justifications for the quotas that allow ethnic minorities reserved spaces in China’s best universities, the process of imperial assimilation is at work. Stakeholders are created and the ancient logic of intermarriage and acculturation continues.

Han is the name of the dividing line between in and out. “汉奸,” the commonly used word for traitor, implies a Han person having sex with the enemy — for example, the Japanese occupation forces during the Second World War. As China’s power relative to other groups has waxed and waned over the years, exposure to outsiders has seemed simple — as in they’ll be readily assimilated into civilization — or deeply offensive — as in collaboration with an enemy capable of assimilating China into foreign ways.

A burst of cultural confidence in recent years has seen unprecedented numbers of Chinese studying overseas. China’s leaders, who are increasingly given to populist gestures — eating the breakfast foods of the common people, eschewing expensive watches and brands — believe that being part of China will be attractive enough that most who are allowed to will want to come back home to become part of a unified and confident China. Increasingly, it looks as if they are right.

China is no ethno-state if a person as visibly different from the norm as my son is at risk of becoming Chinese. In fact, an incredible ability to assimilate external groups has long been the historical strength of the culture called China. It is only in modern times that the Chinese have encountered any civilization equally alluring.

And so, the Chinese and the English-speaking world — a civilization that dare not speak its name, but which is achingly recognizable when you see it — dance around each other, both trying to ingest the other, neither quite succeeding. Is Joseph Chinese? I guess that’s up to him.