Who is Chinese?

12 Jun 2003

“Who is Chinese?” This is what I wrote on the board for my class last night. The Chinese concept of what exactly it is to be “Chinese” is really interesting. Speaking to Chinese people, you can’t help but come into contact with the issue. Over a year ago, Wilson and I were co-teaching American Society and Culture to English majors. Once I asked the class, “is Wilson Chinese?” NO! was the emphatic reply. A few even went so far as to assert that Wilson is “more American” than me. (This is to say that Wilson, the quintessential Californian, better fit their Hollywood image of what an American “should” be.)

This example aside, however, I find that Chinese people tend to be rather inclusive when deciding who is “Chinese.” I mean “inclusive” in that they often include people in this “Chinese” group that a Westerner might not expect would be included. (This contrasts sharply with the Japanese island mentality, in that not only can outsiders never be “Japanese,” but even the Japanese themselves cease to be real “Japanese” if they’re away for too long.) The Chinese tend to regard people of Chinese descent as “Chinese” even if they speak no Chinese in any form and have spent no time at all in China. Interestingly, it seems that this generous bestowment of Chineseness can be revoked when actual experience with the “Chinese” people in question comes into play. [See Flying Chair for a recent entry along similar lines.]

So after writing “Who is Chinese?” on the board, I proceeded to ask my class a series of questions. It’s significant to note that Wilson taught my class one time (for 2 1/2 hours). Here’s a paraphrase of the ensuing dialogue.

Me: All of you are Chinese. But who else is Chinese? Is Wilson Chinese?
[Some confusion ensues. I force them to vote. The result is about 6:2 against.] Me: Why isn’t he Chinese?
Student: He’s American. He doesn’t speak fluent Chinese, and he doesn’t have the same culture as us.
Me: Oh, I see. So language and culture are the most important. So I guess DaShan is Chinese then?
[Laughter] Student: Of course not! He can never be Chinese!
Me: Why not? He speaks fluent Chinese and he understands your culture. I think he might even have Chinese citizenship.
Student: But he doesn’t have Chinese blood!
Fei XiangMe: Oh, I see, Chinese blood is also important. So how about Fei Xiang [a famous half-Chinese half-white star] then? Is he Chinese?
[More confusion. A vote once again shows a split.] Me: Why isn’t he Chinese? He speaks fluent Chinese, he understands your culture, and he has Chinese blood.
Student: But he only has half Chinese blood.
Me: OK, so what if Fei Xiang had a child with a Chinese woman and they lived in China. Would that child be Chinese?
[Those who had said no to Fei Xiang appear a bit confused, but one student is adamant.] Student: No!
Me: OK, what about a person who is 7/8 Chinese? Is that person Chinese?
Student: No!
Me: OK, how about 31/32 Chinese?
[The other students are laughing.] Student: No, he’s not pure Chinese!
Me: Not even 1,048,575/1,048,576???
[More laughter. The one student is thinking. The point is finally sinking in.] Me: Do you think your Chinese heritage is that pure? If even one of your ancestors wasn’t 100% Chinese, then neither are you.
[I proceed to draw a tree illustrating how many people are involved.] Me: Do you really think any of you are that Chinese?
[Lots of head scratching.]

Oh yes, I love my job.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. I think Fei Xiang is Chinese although he got blue eyes. He was born
    in China. Chinese is definitely his first language. He also spent 18 years in China, so he already joint into the Chinese culture. Furthermore, the climate in certain area can affect people’s look. I still feel that Fei Xiang or Kris’ look reflects more on Chinese although his eyes are blue. He also behaves like a Chinese. All in all, Fei Xiang is a Chinese!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Jeffrey D Says: October 9, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    Is Jay Chou Chinese? I don’t think so. He comes from Taiwan!

  3. I remember watching a Chinese cook competion for children on cctv, all children had one parent who was Chinese except, all children spoke perfect Chinese and called china their home, but the host would refer to them as ‘我们外国的朋友’ so if one of the parents was from Japan for example the would say the child was Japanese, if a parent was American then so two was the kid and so on. Oh I forgot to mention on kid had 2 Chinese parents and there for represented Chinese cooking on the show and guess what…that’s correct. He won the show.

    Now what I’m getting at is that when Chinese blood is mixed as far as the Chinese seem to be concerned the foreign blood destroys the child’s Chinese heritage completely. So with this logic I can see why Fei xiang would not be considered Chinese.

  4. Fei Xiang is half-American, half-Chinese. He was born in Taiwan, but his mom is from Shanghai. He didn’t have a “first” language — English and Mandarin were equally his first languages, since he spoke English to his dad and Mandarin to his mom. I am a classmate of his from Taipei American School, where he went by the name of Bart Phillips. He was very shy and slightly overweight, quiet and absolutely a nice guy. I think he moves between cultures easily … it would be interesting to know if he considers himself a hybrid, more Chinese than American, or more American than Chinese.

  5. Then are Singaporeans considered Chinese? 76% of the Singapore populations are ‘Chinese’ by race. But do we considered ourselves as Chinese? To be utmost frank, we Singaporean consider ourselves ‘Singaporeans’ rather than ‘Chinese’.

    Most of us look different from the mainland Chinese. Singaporeans have a unique look and our first language is English.

    What do you guys think? 😉

    • Hi. Think that Singapore once provided a space for people of mixed parentage to call it home. Doesn’t seem that way anymore. I’m of babanyonya, dutch and chinese ancestry, and so I feel that The Singapore identity should be plural. And that tickboxes should be removed, so that people can be truly singaporean without having to include grandpa or grandma eternal in their forms.

  6. Sorry to veer off topic, but Rachel, did you happen to know Bart’s older sister Anya? She also went to TAS, class of 72 – Bart was class of 78 I think – Please post back if you remember her – or email me at johnhath at gmail dot com please. Thanks so much.

  7. CHINESE Says: June 23, 2009 at 4:55 pm

    我是中国人 无聊的在上网,,汗 我在中国啊 有谁看的懂 嘿嘿

  8. CHINESE Says: June 23, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    汗 似乎看懂一点点 飞翔当然是中国的了。。。。。不用争论的

  9. John, Anya Phillips went to NYC after high school. She became a friend of Debbie Harry, founded the legendary Mudd Club, and became an influential figure on the scene of NO WAVE movement in late 70’s. She died of cancer on July 23, 1981, at the age of 26. She is still remembered by a lot of people who were there in NYC, and a fascinating girl to those who are interested in the music culture and fashion from that period.

  10. Bewildered and slightly shocked…People, u think of this question wayyyyy tooo logically, except for “CHINESE” of course, and “Hua”, ur not answering the question. People who r Chinese by race and blood r all Chinese okay? But not those ppl who r like 1% Chn of course, they do hav Chn blood in them but not rly considered Chn. Fei Xiang is totally Chinese ppl.

    Below is quote from HeiLong

    Now what I’m getting at is that when Chinese blood is mixed as far as the Chinese seem to be concerned the foreign blood destroys the child’s Chinese heritage completely. So with this logic I can see why Fei xiang would not be considered Chinese.

    This is way 2 logical, way way way 2 logical. I am Chinese, I currently I live in Australia and receive Australian education, but I emphsise, I AM CHINESE!

    Below is quote from John

    I think Fei Xiang is Chinese although he got blue eyes. He was born in China. Chinese is definitely his first language. He also spent 18 years in China, so he already joint into the Chinese culture. Furthermore, the climate in certain area can affect people’s look. I still feel that Fei Xiang or Kris’ look reflects more on Chinese although his eyes are blue. He also behaves like a Chinese. All in all, Fei Xiang is a Chinese!!!!!!!!!!!

    Now, climate in a certain area affect people’s look, OMG, it does not. Does it rly matter if he looks more Chn than American? We kno that his mum is Chn and that is good enough 4 us. And plus he even grew up in Chn.

    Below is quote from Jeffrey D

    Is Jay Chou Chinese? I don’t think so. He comes from Taiwan!

    Okay… Politically Taiwan is not a part of People’s Republic of China, but in all other areas, it is. Taiwanese ppl hav Chn blood, if one doesnt, well u can tell that he/she migrated. In history, they were 1 same country, but years ago, Taiwan was snatched away by Europeans. So u think that just coz some1 lived in Taiwan decades ago so now he/she isnt Chn? Taiwanese ppl r genetically Chn and historically Chn, they hav Chn culture and speaks Chn. Taiwan is included as a part of Chinese history, Taiwan’s history has China in it, Taiwan comes from Chn. Taiwanese ppl r still Chn whether they like it or not. Its just like Chn is Taiwan’s mum and Britain is its kidnapper, so now wot do u think?

    PPL, u rly need 2 move away from ur logical reponses and rly think properly. Ur reasons which support ur beliefs r actually hilariously shocking. Foreign blood completely destroys Chinese heritage….? Gosh…its just a way of saying, since this random kid is like half Jap and is sorta different, the host or someone isnt rly thinkin like…oh, this kid’s Jap, he’s so totally Jap, he looks Jap, he thinks Jap and he does everythin the Jap way.

  11. YQ, you said:

    “Its just like Chn is Taiwan’s mum and Britain is its kidnapper, so now wot do u think?”

    Well, I think you are a bit confused. Taiwan was never “snatched away by Europeans” or by Britain. Perhaps you are thinking of Hong Kong? Taiwan was a part of Japan for 50 years, from 1895 until the end of WWII in 1945. At that time, Japan lost the war and ceded Taiwan to the R.O.C. (Republic of China, i.e. Taiwan).

    In regards to Taiwanese being Chinese, you are absolutely right. They are of Chinese decent. However, if you asked a Taiwanese person if he or she is Chinese or Taiwanese, he or she will emphatically answer “Taiwanese!” It’s the same as if you asked an American, whose ancestors originated from England, if he or she is American or British. Of course the response will be American.

  12. Trimac20 Says: March 9, 2012 at 11:42 am

    Actually in my experience most Singaporeans consider themselves ‘Chinese, Malay, Indian’ as well as Singaporean. Which one is more important depends on how nationalist they are. My mother was born in Singapore and still considers herself ‘Chinese’. She was English educated and along with my father who is Malaysian, who also considers himself Chinese (as well as Malaysian of course) only spoke English at home.

    I think it’s dependent as much as how others view you as how you view yourself. In Malaysia the Chinese have historically seemed to stick together – for a number of reasons, with a few exceptions. They were also considered ‘non-natives’ by the ‘Malays’, the self-proclaimed native ‘sons of the soil.’

    Anyway, I was told by my parents that I was Chinese, or at least Asian, but as a kid I wondered what that really meant and even now I wonder if I’m truly Chinese.

    I was born in Singapore. My ancestors have lived in Malaysia and Singapore for 3 generations, so I’m removed by almost 100 years from China itself.

    I do not speak any Chinese dialect, only English.

    I am Australian and culturally mostly ‘Western’, although in this globalised age I think most people in Australia do have international influences. As a kid I actually never liked Chinese food – but did prefer other Asian cuisines for some reason. My palate is a lot more flexible now (also after visiting China). While I enjoy eating Asian out and cooking Asian now and then, my staple food is probably more Western, more out of what I’m used to than really preferring it though.

    I’m Western largely because of living in a western society and only knowing English. My whole mode of thinking, religion, philosophy, the literature I read – predominantly western. So in this sense I’m not Asian.

    I believe some differences are ‘exaggerated’ by my ‘thinking’ is more Western – i.e. individualistic, less concerned with collectivism/connectedness. Taoist ideals appeal to me, but I can’t say I’ve studied nor applied them.

    I’m terrible at using chopsticks – a knife and fork is what I grew up using. If eating dim sum or something I will use chopsticks, but sometimes with difficulty.

    Personally, I don’t feel a strong sense of any sort of identity anymore. My nationality is now Australian, since I renounced my Singaporean citizenship, but I acknowledge my Singaporean heritage. I came to Australia when I was a year old. I guess some might call me Singaporean-Australian, but I just consider myself Australian. I don’t think Western culture/identity is superior or preferable, but realistically I can say I’m only Asian in ancestry. As far as my ‘Chinese’ identity, I believe it’s only ancestral. Since I believe the Han ethnic group is a cultural-ethnic thing, not a genetic thing (Han is genetically quite diverse) I’m not sure I belong to the Han ethnicity anymore. My ancestors were from a southern province of China that wasn’t ‘sinified’ until the Han dynasty (in contrast to the heartland of China, the North China Plain, where a ‘Chinese’ civilisation has been in existence for 5,000 years old). Genetically I’m probably a mix of the invaders from north China and the long tribes. None of my family looks like the typical person in north or central China and some of my ancestors look more Southeast Asian. There’s a good chance I have some non-Chinese ancestors though their impact was probably not that big.

    Anyway, I do consider myself Chinese but only ancestrally. It’s not the dominant facet of my identity. Culturally and otherwise I am clearly not Chinese. So am I ‘truly’ Chinese? I think it shows that identity is indeed fluid; that nationalities seem to have an identity that is set in stone: the Chinese, Jews and in later years the Italian. That no matter how many generations removed, you are still such and such.

    I wonder what people here think, whether they would consider me ‘Chinese’ in any meaningful sense?

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