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The Han: China's Diverse Majority (Review)

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Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi. 2015
The Han: China's Diverse Majority
Seattle: University of Washington Press
ISBN 9780295994673

As someone who works on Tibet and Mongolia, I am somewhat of a Sinologist manqué, a Sinologist who works on China, not out of any interest in China per se, but simply because of the political  manoeuvrings which have brought about the China which we have now had for more than half a century. Observing Tibet and Southern Mongolia (Övörmongol) within the framework of Chineseness, I am constantly intrigued by what it means to be Han, a member of one of 56 (but undoubtedly more) ethnic groups, yet part of a group which constitutes more than 90 per cent of the population. Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi's remarkable new book casts light on this question, and reveals Hanness as a slippery and multivalent designation.

In her epilogue, Joniak-Lüthi says that she was never interested in portraying the Han using the common dialectic of diversity and unity, but that her work is specifically focused on “the politics of fragmentation and the politics of unity” (p. 140, italics in original). Looking backwards from this epilogue, she has clearly succeeded in doing what she intended: the picture which is painted – unsurprisingly, if one removes one's own political or cultural prejudice – is of a majority people spread across a wide geographical area, with prejudices and expectations and attitudes like anyone else. If this book does anything, it reminds us that the Han is not a monolithic culture, but one made up of as varied a group of people as any other culture in China, or anywhere in the world.

My one problem with the study lies in its demographic. The informants, according to the author, were ‘largely’ between 20 and 45 years old, and either students or university graduates. She explains these choices as being “due to the nature of the project design” (p. 16), but for me no convincing explanation is given for focusing so exclusively on what we might call ‘young urban professionals’. Why not include a proportion of retired, or blue-collar workers, or people who never finished high-school? While the study itself is fascinating, and while it tells us a great deal about the specific demographic she has used, the author leaves too many demographic holes for it to be a truly convincing analysis of how the Han in general see themselves, because not enough of them are represented.

That caveat aside, the material elicited by Joniak-Lüthi from her informants is deep and broad. The opening chapter provides an excellent introduction to the idea of Hanness as a narrative device. The author traces the idea of the Han through the pre-modern and the modern: her approach is to point out the ways in which Han identity has played roles of fluctuating importance in Chinese history, and principally to view it as having changed during the late-19th century from a basis in culture to a basis in racialized nationalism. Her treatment of contemporary China, in which of course her material is based, is excellent. This chapter alone could be extremely useful as a concise introduction to the many and complex issues within which the idea of minzu (ethnic groups 民族) takes place.

The four chapters which form the core of the study deal with how issues of identity, both from the distant past and from the contemporary present, (have) come to inform the informants' views of themselves as ‘Han’ and as ‘images of Han’. Throughout her analysis, the author's sensitivity to the prospect of multivalenced reifications allows her text the flexibility to remind readers that Han is an open-ended and manipulable category. Her findings point to what she calls “parallel fragmentations of the Hanzu through multiple boundaries” (p. 140). This fragmented notion is shown through a series of analysis focusing on how the informants identify with the Chinese nation and state, how they negotiate otherness within the Hanzu (the Han ethnics), and how they negotiate Hanness within the political and conceptual framework of minzu. What is especially striking is that, notwithstanding the similar demographics of the informants, there seems to be no real consistency in their opinions. Many, for instance, stress the importance of being Hanzu, but their reasons for doing so range from ‘pride’ and a ‘feeling of belonging’ (p. 79) to, as the author suggests, “something of an emergency exit from place-based differentiation, a differentiation these Han found troubling and uncomfortable and on which they were unable to capitalize” (p. 80).

This would suggest that it is easier to default back into a comfortable ethnic unity than to align with a broader and more localized community. But Joniak-Lüthi's data also reveal the linguistic negotiations with which localized Hanzu define themselves through creating otherness. In a section entitled ‘Labeling, stereotyping and social boundaries’, she lists the socionyms and ‘major narratives’ by which this otherness is created. In these lists, otherness extends from city to region to the north–south divide, offering a conceptual set of porous boundaries through which the sense of pride and belonging mentioned in the previous chapter can be rearranged.

In the end, as one might imagine with such a numerous and complex population, the book's findings turn to whether the Hanzu is sufficiently coherent to be thought as a single minzu. But that the majority claim to see themselves indeed as a single minzu might be for a number of social, cultural or linguistic reasons. The author is to be commended in her admission, so late in her book, and after presenting so much meaningful information, that linguistic slippage might be at the heart of the responses: “the Chinese term tongzhi translates literally as 'sharing a common quality,' 'being inherently alike.' It is thus likely that some participants imagined the Han as sharing a common 'essence' (zhi) but simultaneously as distinct in terms of 'local cultures'” (p. 118).

Joniak-Lüthi's most impressive contribution to the analysis of Hanness comes when she discusses the ‘Simultaneity of Han-ness and fragmentation’. This section is an innovative argument for the idea that identity and self-identification shift according to sociopolitical, linguistic and discourse criteria. She suggests that the differences between individuals (‘the multiple home place-, kinship-, and occupation-related identities’) grow weaker “when their Han-ness is challenged or when scales of interaction change” (p. 138). Moreover, because such secondary identities do not have the institutional support of the state, they are less powerful and exert less influence over their bearers.

The fieldwork undertaken by the author for this study, and the deep analysis to which she has subjected it, has produced a wonderful contribution to scholarship on the Han, but I believe it illumines also the ways in which we all see ourselves. Am I, for instance, more or less or differently British now that I live in the United States than I would be living in the United Kingdom? When do I feel most (or least) British, and why? Joniak-Lüthi's groundbreaking study tells us a lot about the Hanzu, but it allows us also to place the Han physically, conceptually and sociopolitically within China (and within our own conceptualized ideas of Chinaness), and so understand better how China functions as a ‘people's republic’. Thus it is that this research greatly contributes to the ongoing question of ‘What is China?’ (and the subsidiary question ‘Who is Chinese?’), which is so vital for a useful and workable analysis of Asian polity and the globalized world.

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