In The China Quarterly, James Leibold offers an article on a provocative topic: a community of Chinese who write online in support of Han ethnic pride or in disgust in perceived slights to the majority ethnicity in China’s codified ethnicity system.
He argues that some angry people are claiming the mantle of the Han ethnonym to challenge PRC ethnic policies that include affirmative action-like preferences for members of ethnic minorities in some areas of life. The Han category, he implies, is similar to whiteness in the United States: “Like the category of whiteness in the United States, Han is historically contingent: constructed, performed and institutionalized within the specific cultural framework of ethnic difference in Chinese tradition.” The implication, of course, is that “Han supremacism” and “white supremacism” are analogous concepts.
The article is worth a read. There are a few points I would make from the perspective of a social scientist and in the context of studying the Internet, however.
First, the article bases its assessment of Han chauvinism online on a case study that sticks out as unusual—specifically, the 2008 incident in which a respected historian who writes about Manchus was slapped at a book signing by a man who saw the scholar as a Han traitor (汉奸). This is not the sort of thing that happens every day, though it was an important incident. I’m just not sure what this outlier case tells us about Han identity, except to note that even a large number of those who might be considered pro-Han condemned the violence.
Second, the article makes a case for a phenomenon through reading a stack of BBSs, but oscillates between calling “Han supremacists” a “small but increasingly vocal segment of Chinese youth” and condemning their “hate-speak … as a vulgar, aberrant and potentially malignant expression of mainstream Chinese pride and patriotism” (emphasis added, p. 541). It also notes that there exist “over 40 Chinese and English language websites dedicated to the discussion of Han or Huaxia culture and identity.” With the numbers involved in China, the Han ethnicity, and the Chinese Internet population, that seems small, but it’s presented as if it’s large. I would love to see better measures of the size of this community.
Third, I wonder what the more hegemonic narratives on Han ethnicity or ethnicity in general are saying in the increased openness of online discourse. Leibold summarizes a lot of work on ethnicity, including his own work from Reconfiguring Chinese Nationalism and Mark Elliott’s argument that the modern usage of the Han ethnonym emerged through interaction among northern and central plains peoples in the late Yuan and Ming.* He puts the current Han chauvinist outliers in the context of other discussions on nationalism, drawing heavily on Peter Hays Gries’ book. In this field of disputed meanings, what are the other competitors?
Overall, however, the article is an interesting read. In the end, it proposes that Hanness is both a sub-nationalist identity (if “nation” is to be congruent with China and not an ethnicity; just let that be for now) and a “boundary spanner,” which I take to mean a relatively open category that can create unity, rather than a category defined by a non-Chinese Other.
All this by way of saying, it’s an interesting paper and I’m not quite sure what to make of it yet.
*Leibold cites a conference paper Elliott gave at a Stanford conference on Han studies. My (possibly mangled) account here is from my memory of an in-class lecture in 2008. If I’m not mistaken, this argument has yet to be published.