Jamil Anderlini in the Financial Times (6/21/17), “The dark side of China’s national renewal“, writes:
To an English-speaking ear, rejuvenation has positive connotations and all nations have the right to rejuvenate themselves through peaceful efforts.
But the official translation of this crucial slogan is deeply misleading. In Chinese it is “Zhonghua minzu weida fuxing” and the important part of the phrase is “Zhonghua minzu” — the “Chinese nation” according to party propaganda. A more accurate, although not perfect, translation would be the “Chinese race”.
That is certainly how it is interpreted in China. The concept technically includes all 56 official ethnicities, including Tibetans, Muslim Uighurs and ethnic Koreans, but is almost universally understood to mean the majority Han ethnic group, who make up more than 90 per cent of the population.
The most interesting thing about Zhonghua minzu is that it very deliberately and specifically incorporates anyone with Chinese blood anywhere in the world, no matter how long ago their ancestors left the Chinese mainland.
“The Chinese race is a big family and feelings of love for the motherland, passion for the homeland, are infused in the blood of every single person with Chinese ancestry,” asserted Chinese premier Li Keqiang in a recent speech.
This is a highly perceptive, and troubling, article that merits reading in its entirety.
In this post, I will focus on some key terms.
First of all, front and center, what is this mínzú 民族? It can mean lots of things: nation, nationality, people, ethnic group, race, volk. This is not the first time that mínzú 民族 has erupted on the international stage. One of the most notable instances was four years ago, emanating right here from the University of Pennsylvania. The incident is well recounted by R.L.G. in “Johnson” at The Economist (5/21/13), “Of nations, peoples, countries and mínzú: Differing terms for ethnicity, citizenship and group belonging ruffle feathers“:
DID Joe Biden insult China? The American vice-president has a habit of sticking his foot into his mouth, and in this case, the recent graduation speech he gave at the University of Pennsylvania inspired a viral rant by a “disappointed” Chinese student at Penn, Zhang Tianpu. What was Mr Biden’s sin? Was it Mr Biden’s suggestion that creative thought is stifled in China?
You cannot think different in a nation where you cannot breathe free. You cannot think different in a nation where you aren’t able to challenge orthodoxy, because change only comes from challenging orthodoxy.
No, that wasn’t it.
The source of the insult is a surprising one: Mr Biden called China a “great nation”, and a “nation” repeatedly after that. Victor Mair, the resident sinologist at the Language Log blog, translates Mr Zhang’s complaint.
In this sentence, “You CANNOT think different in a nation where you aren’t able to challenge orthodoxy”, he used the word “nation”. This is what really infuriated me, because in English “nation” indicates “race, ethnicity”, which is different from “country, state”. “Country, state” perhaps places more emphasis on the notion of the entirety of the country, even to the point of referring to the idea of government.
Mr Mair explains:
The weakness in Zhang’s reasoning lies mainly in his confusion over the multiple meanings of the word mínzú 民族…. [M]ínzú 民族 can mean “ethnic group; race; nationality; people; nation”. Coming from the English side, we must keep in mind that “nation” can be translated into Chinese as guó 国 (“country”), guójiā 国家 (“country”), guódù 国度 (“country; state”), bāng 邦 (“state”), and, yes, mínzú 民族 (“ethnic group; race; nationality; people; nation”).
It is clear that, when Biden said “China is a great nation”, he was respectfully referring to the country as a whole. Yet the sensitivity to questions of ethnicity in China, especially with regard to the shǎoshù mínzú 少数民族 (“ethnic / national minorities”), e.g., Uyghurs, Tibetans, and scores of others, caused Zhang to take umbrage over something that the Vice President never intended.
In a later post about smartphone zombies, Cant. dai1tau4 zuk6 / MSM dītóu zú 低頭族 (“head-down tribe”), “Tribes” (3/10/15), I wrote:
The first word I think of when I see 族 as a suffix is Mandarin mínzú, Japanese minzoku 民族 (“nation; nationality; people”), which is formed from 民 (“people; subjects; civilians”) + 族 (“family clan; ethnic group; tribe”). The term is a neologism coined in the late 19th century by Japanese thinkers to match the Western (especially German) concept of “nation”.
… I have assembled a large amount of material concerning the absence of mínzú / minzoku 民族 as a lexical item corresponding to “nation” in China before it was introduced from Meiji [1868-1912] Japan.
When we prefix mínzú 民族 with shǎoshù 少数 (“few; small number; minority”), we have shǎoshù mínzú 少数民族 (“minority; national minority; ethnic minority”). Here it gets really tricky, because, as Anderlini points out in his article, there are officially 56 ethnic groups (mínzú 民族) in China, of which 55 are shǎoshù mínzú 少数民族 (“minorities; national minorities; ethnic minorities; ethnic groups”), with the 56th being the dominant, majority (over 90%) Hàn mínzú 汉民族 (“Han nationality; Han ethnic group”). Consequently, when Chinese politicians talk about the blood of the Chinese race, it’s important to know whether they are are referring to Hàn mínzú 汉民族 (“Han nationality; Han ethnic group”), Zhōnghuá mínzú 中华民族 (“Chinese nation / people”, where Zhōnghuá 中华 is understood as “Central cultural florescence”), or something else. In each case, we need to judge carefully whether they meant to include all the ethnicities within the sovereign territory of the PRC or in the whole world, or whether they were referring specifically to individuals of Han ethnicity within the sovereign territory of the PRC or in the whole world. Often, for politicians, as for poets, ambiguity is desirable, or at least convenient.
There are no less than half a dozen other words for “(the) people” that are in common use in Mandarin. I won’t go into all of them here, but will mention only one: rénmín 人民, as in rénmínbì 人民币 (“RMB; people’s currency”) and Rénmín rìbào 人民日报 (“People’s Daily”). This term, rénmín 人民, does not get involved with race, ethnicity, nation, and so on, but emphasizes the population as a whole.
As for “Zhongguo / China”, that too is a huge can of worms, for which see this incisive paper by Arif Dirlik:
“Born in Translation: ‘China’ in the Making of ‘Zhongguo’“
[h.t. John Rohsenow, Bill Bishop]