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Race and the Periphery in China

August 1, 2010

Chinese news services are denying reports of the “Support Cantonese” protests in Guangzhou this week, and the police have arrested a man for supposedly “disseminating fake news.”  This heavy-handed cultural repression is typical government policy regarding the nationalist spread of Mandarin at the expense of local identity.  While there are surely self-determination issues relevant to the Chinese treatment of minority and peripheral cultural groups, from Cantonese to Uighur and Tibetan, more pertinent is the issue of cultural homogenization.  Taking the language example, by marginalizing peripheral culture in China – not using the language in schools, not allowing media to broadcast in minority languages etc. – the Communist Party is effectively working to make several languages go extinct.

A segment of Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World comes to mind, unfortunately I can’t find a link to the clip, but here is a segment of the dialogue (from IMDB:

McMurdo Station Linguist – Computer Expert: So just imagine 90% of languages will be extinct probably in my lifetime. It’s a catastrophic impact to an ecosystem to talk about that kind of extinction. Culturally we’re talking about the same thing, I mean, you know, what if you lost all of Russian literature. No more Tolstoy.

Narrator: It occurred to me that in the time that [the film crew] spent with [the McMurdo Station Linguist] in the greenhouse possibly three or four languages have died. In our efforts to preserve endangered species we seem to overlook something equally important. To me, it’s a sign of a deeply disturbed civilization, where tree-huggers and whale-huggers in their weirdness are acceptable, while no one embraces the last speakers of a language.

Also, a New York Times post on the Room for Debate blog on race relations in China brings up a related issue.

Chinese history gives an important perspective.  There is an expectation in China, to conform to the center, and there is a tradition of doing so, as many dynastic rulers in China were non-Han, but all were effectively Sinicized (Chinese-ified).  I have read geography articles that have guessed that the nation’s geography could play a role.  China’s heartland is surrounded by mountains, which may have contributed to the nation’s inward-lookingness.

The story of Manchuria gives the most remarkable example.  The Manchus originate in Northeastern China, between North Korea, Russia, and Inner Mongolia.  These people ruled China during the Qing Dynasty, the last dynasty.  Today, they have Sinified so much that they are no longer a unique ethnic group, and are more or less indistinguishable from Han Chinese.  They have completely lost working use of the Manchu language.

To sum up, as Yan Sun says on the Room for Debate blog, the Chinese ability, “to blend made China’s melting pot possible, can also be a barrier to ethnic sensitivities.”

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