Review - Coming to Terms with the Nation


China is a “unified, multinational country” (tongyi de duo minzu guojia)--unified in one China, multinational in fifty-six minzu. How did this understanding of China’s demographic identity become orthodoxy? In Thomas Mullaney’s groundbreaking work Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China, we read this fascinating story that begins in the late Qing, through the Republican period, and culminates in the 1954 Ethnic Classification Project.

During the Republican period, Sun Yat-sen first conceived of China as a Republic of Five Peoples (wuzu gonghe), but under Chiang Kai-shek’s leadership the Nationalists called for a classic nation-state whereby there was only one Chinese people (Zhonghua minzu) without distinction. This mono-minzu agenda considered the ethnic minorities to be varied strains of the same common stock. Challenging Chiang’s vision, the Communists imagined a country with diverse ethnic groups (minzu), each recognized as separate and together constituting the Chinese people. Mullaney argues that the Communists incorporated minzu into their political structure in order to maintain “territorial integrity of a highly diverse empire” and to contrast themselves with the Nationalists (20-21). During the Natioanlist-Communist struggle for power, the Communists would preach their policies of national equality and self-determination to stir up support for their political cause.

The Communist vision found backing from Chinese scholars pioneering the discipline of ethnology that posited an ethnolinguistic taxonomy for classifying nations. The ethnolinguistic model came from Henry Rodolph Davies who served as a British official in southeast Asia and eventually laid the groundwork for applying ethnological philology to Yunnan people groups. Mullaney demonstrates how Davies became the touchstone for all Chinese scholarship on ethnicity and the irony that a colonial officer was used as the fount for ethno-national self-determination. Chinese ethnologists understood minzu to be primarily defined by language and so those who spoke a common language allegedly formed one minzu.

The key contribution of Coming to Terms with the Nation lies in revising the popular notion that the fifty-six minzu model is a direct legacy of Stalin’s theory of nations, which resulted in a crass social engineering project imposed on the hundreds of ethnic groups in China. Rather, Mullaney argues that the Communists followed a relatively hands-off approach, permitting social science significant input in classifying minzu to the point allowable by political exigency of speed (in time for the National People’s Congress (NPC)) and feasibility (incredibly small minzu populations could not be given an equal seat). Mullaney focuses almost exclusively on Yunnan, touching on neighboring provinces when certain minzu also resided. This limited focus is strategic: of the more than 400 minzu registered in the 1953-54 national census, more than half originated in Yunnan.

The 1953-54 census left the minzu category open-ended, giving registrants the freedom to write whatever they deemed fit. The census designers assumed that the well-developed national identity of Tibetans and Hui, groups they were familiar with, would also be true of other minorities. After compiling the data, a political crisis ensued. This experiment with self-categorization produced four-hundred-plus minzu registered in the census. This was impractical for political representation. Some minzu only had one member! Hypothetically, that individual would represent himself or herself at the NPC. Confusion over the term minzu likely accounts for the staggering number of census registrants. In the end, the state recognized twenty-five minzu in Yunnan. To solve this quandary, the Party launched the Ethnic Classification Project.

The Ethnic Classification Project deployed groups of social science researchers to relevant provinces, who were accompanied by political cadres. The researchers interviewed representatives from these ethnic groups and created a “Swadesh list” that contained a host of basic vocabulary and their accompanying translation. In so doing, they created a database of languages to see how they might relate to one another. In so doing, these researchers constructed ethnic identities based on linguistic similarity and intelligibility. An overarching minzu might have a dominant language, but other self-categorized minzu found themselves grouped together as dialects.

This is not to say that Party cadres had no hand in minzu classification. In Yunnan, the cadres made clear to the researchers that Stalin’s understanding of a “nation” would be the standard by which their work would be judged. Stalin’s model is found in the 1913 tract Marxism and the Nationalism and Colonial Question. In it, he defines a nationality as a group that shares “a common language, a common territory, a common mode of economic production, and a common psychology (taken to mean culture)” (72). A nation must bear all four marks. In addition, nations only existed in capitalist and socialist societies. Pre-capitalist communities were not true nations and were either clans, tribes, or tribal federations. This adherence to Stalin’s model naturally was a source of great consternation for the research team.

The way around this restriction? The research team proffered an alternative interpretation. They argued for the concept of potential communities (minzu jituan) that would eventually become full-fledged nations. Though not fully developed, they should be recognized for what they would one day become, with the help of the state.

Arguably the most interesting chapter is the fourth, “The Consent of the Categorized,” which explores the tactics used to get these newly categorized minzu identities to take hold. Mullaney links Mao Zedong’s use of group interviews to understand social dynamics to the group meetings conducted by the researchers. The point of these meetings was to persuade, indirectly, the sub-minzu communities that were now subsumed under an umbrella minzu that they were in fact of the same ethnicity as these other sub-communities and the dominant sub-minzu group. This could be as easy as getting them in the same room together so that they realized they spoke mutually intelligible languages. Sometimes more direct tactics were needed. The political cadres helped organize these meetings and strategically invited local elites and leaders who could help instill these new identities. Chapter four also discusses the fascinating process of choosing the ethnonym (the name of the minzu) in the midst of several autonymns (self-ascribed names of the sub-minzu communities).

In the end, the Ethnic Classification team in Yunnan recommended only five new minzu in addition to the minzu categories they had already decided upon a priori, based on their ethnolinguistic model. What we see in Yunnan is that “the Classification team’s methodology is best understood as a hybrid of two traditions of social research: the ethnological tradition developed by Chinese academics in the Republican period and Communist methods developed before and just following the founding of the People’s Republic” (119).

In the post-Classification period, the fifty-six minzu model has persisted with great resilience. Whenever a couple, each from a different minzu, have a child, the official records will only list one minzu. Hybridization is not recognized. In this way the state upholds the minzu status quo. An official standard dialect was selected for each minzu, in the face of a wide spectrum of dialects in each minzu. The state sponsored the Social History Research Investigations (shehui lishi diaocha), which published a “Concise History” (jianshi) series of primers on each minzu. This sustained the production of knowledge based on the fifty-six minzu framework while also instituting amnesia in regards to the Classification ever taking place. In the post-Mao era, cultural tourism reified the minzu classifications and even foreign anthropologists and historians work from the fifty-six minzu model.

Mullaney recognizes that Chinese ethnologists are still doing work and trying to find ways to speak of these “lost communities” that persist in spite of the fifty-six framework. They continue to perpetuate their local customs. Some Chinese ethnologists speak of zuqun (a neologism from Taiwan) to discuss these ethnicities without contradicting the sacred fifty-six. Will the fifty-six hold? Mullaney is ambivalent, but he briefly argues that any future order will not completely reject the fifty-six framework since it is now too deeply ingrained; rather, it will build out of the fifty-six framework (136).

Making such a complicated topic and potentially convoluted story of Classification accessible to a wide audience is a difficult task, but Mullaney has successfully pulled off this feat. The clarity of his prose, the helpful charts and graphs, and the logical chapter divisions testify to Mullaney’s grasp of his material.

Coming to Terms with the Nation, at 136 pages, is also the perfect length for a sustained treatment on a specific province (Yunnan), with his arguments marching forward toward a clear objective without belaboring his points. It would serve all students of China studies to read this well-balanced blend of history, political science, and ethnology.