Cultural Identity among Chinese

Questioning cultural identity seems to be a strange exercise for people who are clearly “Chinese” to an outsider, but Chinese is very much an umbrella term.  Somebody may think of Chinese as one big, monolithic, homogenous culture.  In reality, it is quite heterogeneous.

Recent events and a new academic survey have highlighted differences in identity of Hong Kong Chinese and Mainland Chinese.  There now seems to be a growing tension that has bubbled to the surface.

Why would there be cultural differences among Chinese?

Let’s compare Canada and the United States as an analogy.  Canada and the U.S. are sons of a common mother.  At one time, Canada and the original 13 U.S. colonies were part of the British Empire.  The two countries are both English-speaking and you would be hard pressed to tell, from the outside, an American apart from a Canadian.  This is especially true for Canadians and Americans living close to the border (for Canada, by the way, about 75% of the nation lives within 150 km of the US border).  And most Canadians live in cities and drive cars just like most Americans.

The U.S. had the American Revolution to gain independence from Britain.  Canada had a much less splashy birth and is still a Commonwealth nation.  Americans have grown with a very different political history and origins story than Canada.  The U.S. has been a world super power for a long time.  Canada was traditionally a middle-man power-broker with little to offend others.  The U.S. is touted as the land of free enterprise and primarily laissez-faire policies.  Canada is social democracy which boasts universal health care and many Crown corporations in different industries.  This leads to some distinct differences in world view.  This is a simplistic comparison of Canada and the U.S., but I think it helps illustrate my point.

What are the general influences in each Chinese group?

Let’s look at some of the different places in Greater China.  For the purpose of this post, Greater China refers to the Mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

China, or the People’s Republic of China, was established in 1949 after defeating the Kuomintang Nationalists in a civil war.  Mao lead the country during some tumultuous years including the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.  Since the reforms of Deng Xiaoping in the 1980’s, the PRC has undergone a massive and lightning-fast transformation from an isolationist Communist nation to an economic juggernaut.  The social transformation has shot many of the more fortunate into unheard of fortune and wealth.  Also, China has gained an immense swagger and influence on the world stage.

Then there is Taiwan.  The defeated Kuomintang Nationalists fled the mainland and moved the Republic of China to the tiny island.  Taiwan is a mix of different Chinese groups.  Some are families of Kuomintang officials. Some are Chinese who left nearby Fujian province just across the Taiwan Strait.  Some are native Taiwanese who have traditions that are similar to Polynesians.  Taiwan under ROC rule only gained full-fledged democratic elections in the 1990’s.  Taiwan is a non-status state because of China’s claim to the island; thus, it has no official recognition as a nation-state.  However, Taiwanese have a great degree of freedom of press, freedom of information and freedom of travel.

There is also Hong Kong.  Hong Kong was taken as a British colony after the First Opium War in the 1840’s.  After World War II and the Chinese Civil War, waves of immigrants flooded into the colony.  Rapid industrialization ensued during the post-WWII years.  Pretty soon, the Hong Kong landscape was filled with residential highrises that butt up against one another.  Hong Kong became a world financial centre and an important hub for doing business with the PRC before it opened up its doors for business.  The British left a legacy of strong transport infrastructure, common law justice system, and a British-style education system.  However, Hong Kong has never had full-fledged elections for the Executive Director of the territory.  Hong Kong became truly a mix of East meets West with an amazingly fast-paced lifestyle.

There are still more groups elsewhere overseas, but these are primary groups in Greater China.  How can people who grew up in three such different places not be different?  That there would be tensions between some of these groups is only to be expected.  There are still deep-seeded effects from the Civil War and decades of separation from each other.

What is each groups identity?

When it comes to identity, the three groups are quite different.  From my understanding, the citizens of the PRC are taught a one China policy and that all Chinese are the same no matter where that person is from.  It’s a principle that sticks with them when they leave the confines of the PRC.  This leads to a lot of confusion and frustration on intra-Chinese interactions outside of China. Even I’ve experienced this when travelling through China.  It doesn’t make sense that somebody who is ethnically Chinese not understand Mandarin Chinese.

There is also a growing sense of national pride.  Chinese history is marked with defeats at the hands of Western imperial powers.  Now the dragon is rising and taking its rightful place as “the middle kingdom.”  Some other Chinese in other parts of Greater China also share this sentiment.  A certain haughtiness can accompany this new found pride and wealth as a nation.

Taiwan has a mix of identities.  The north tends to feel closer to the mainland and tend to vote for the party that favours such policies.  The south of Taiwan tends to vote for the party that favours more independence and that wants to distance the island from its neighbour.  However, people in Taiwan tend to identify themselves as Taiwanese, a group that is separate and distinct from Chinese.

In Hong Kong, they almost identify themselves as Hong Kong Chinese.  They feel a great disconnect from life and policies in the mainland.  It doesn’t help when a Mainland academic refers to Hong Kong Chinese as ‘dogs.’ Hong Kong is also the bastion of Cantonese media.  Whereas, China uses Mandarin Chinese and wishes that Hong Kong would use it more often.  Some Hong Kong Chinese also feel a closer affinity to the British years than to the current years.  They feel there was more freedom and less trouble during British rule.

It will be interesting to see in the coming years what happens with Hong Kong.  Hong Kong is truly under PRC rule; whereas, Taiwan is not.  Hong Kong’s future lies in what the powers in Beijing decide to do.  Will they allow open elections for the Executive Director of the territory?  Will they pursue a policy of assimilation?  Will there be policies that limit the status of Cantonese?  Will Hong Kong Chinese feel like they can make their own decisions or are they simply following edicts handed down from above?

Part 2 will further examine each group’s cultural identity.

Further Reading:

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2 comments

    1. Good point. I did leave out Macau. Macau is an interesting story on its own with its mix of Chinese and Portuguese culture. Unfortunately, I’m not as familiar with Macau. Maybe you could tell me more about Macau.

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