Book Review: The Great Han -- Race, Nationalism and Tradition in China Today

“Make China Great Again” is officially now the agenda of President Xi Jinping. Can “Make the Han Great Again” be far behind? In this interesting if somewhat academic work, Australian China scholar Carrico has examined the rising influence of traditionalist, racially based sentiments within modern China, particularly through study of the Han Clothing Movement (Hanfu yundong) and associated ideas.

At one level, the movement, established in 2001, is a curiosity, seemingly on the fringe of a society rapidly modernizing and engaging with the world. Han clothing is the symbol of a wider commitment to belief in restoration of a largely imaginary era of Han greatness and cultural purity and rejection of foreign-influenced money obsession of China today. But it has important elements in common with the officially promoted emphasis on Confucian principles, and on long held beliefs in the genetic division between Han and the rest.

Nor does this merely appeal to aging traditionalists and those who hanker after a return to traditional script and other pre-Communist aspects of the nation. The book begins with a quote from a Han Clothing Movement supporter, an IT professional based in that hub of Chinese modernism, Shenzhen:

“You can’t have nationalism without race (minzu zhuyi). That’s what we want to do: promote Han racial nationalism (Han minzu zhuyi) …. The multiracial nationalism we have now in China, with 56 races as part of a larger “Chinese race” (Zhongua minzu) is a big scam. It was imposed upon us by the Manchus, forcing us Han, the core of China from the beginning of time, into submission. All that this nationalism has done is to weaken China. You can’t just destroy the distinction between civilization and barbarism (Hua yi zhi bian), incorporate a bunch of barbarians into our nation and then expect a strong nation. All this talk of “wealth and power” (fuqiang) is empty and meaningless without Han nationalism.”

The principal villains, from this Han perspective, are not the western powers and Japan and the one hundred years of humiliation, they are the Manchus. The dynasty may have been overthrown in 1911, but Manchu ideas, customs and (allegedly) Manchu money continue to prevail. The queue may have gone but the Manchu qipao and magua – both designed originally for horse-riders --are is still viewed as the standard Chinese traditional dress, as for example provided to delegates to the APEC Summit in China in 2015.

The Han movement’s intent is to remove all such foreign impurities, which has also to include inter-marriage with inferior foreign genes, a problem which has supposedly been enhanced by the one child policy.

The movement shows up the uncertainty which often exists in China around the meaning of the word minzu. Does this simply connote a nation-state? Or does it imply a specific racial identity? Under the foreign Manchus, there was no problem as all the ethnicities came under a single political entity under a Manchu monarch. But are the 55 identified as non-Han equal nationalities or simply colorfully dressed dance groups for the amusement of tourists? At least according to Carrico’s Han Clothing advocates, they must be kept at apart – but under Han control. They are incapable of prospering on their own, but have become a drain on the Han.

Some of this may seem too extreme to be worth bothering much about. It is not too different from the racism and nativism which thrives among many – mostly Trump supporters – in the United States. Nonetheless it is relevant to China’s perception of its relations with the world in general, and its immediate neighbors in particular.

In his “The Discourse of Race in Modern China,” Frank Dikotter explored the history of the Chinese views of race and identity and their application today. It includes the concern with the whiteness of skin color. In particular this provides a crucial demarcation between Han Chinese and their mostly browner southeast Asian neighbors – let alone Indians and Africans.

The Han Clothing adherents of Carrico’s book indulge in rants against Africans in particular. But as residents of Hongkong and Singapore will be aware the color divide has more mundane manifestations – domestic helpers are only recruited from brown Asians, not Chinese.

It may be that as China becomes great again, it will become less concerned with ethnicity, more with being a benign empire accepting of all races and religions under its wing. But at least as likely is the prospect of Han chauvinism advancing in step with Chinese power.