In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Politics of Ethnic Identity in China

  • Introduction
  • Historical Legacies and Traces
  • Borders and Frontiers
  • Han Majority Nationalism
  • Ethnic Identification and Policies
  • Security
  • Development
  • Chinese Transnational Identities

Political Science Politics of Ethnic Identity in China
Elena Barabantseva, David Tobin
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0306


The People’s Republic of China (PRC), in the eyes of its leadership, has been perceived as a unitary multiethnic state (duo minzu guojia), comprised of the Han majority and fifty-five ethnic minorities. State propaganda routinely emphasizes the inseparability of the Han from other ethnic groups that have seamlessly cohered into one harmonious whole in the course of five thousand years of history. The “ethnic minorities” (shaoshu minzu) concept attained its meaning during the minority identification project (minzu shibie) of the mid-1950s shortly after the establishment of the PRC. Yet, the ideas and principles of the Chinese national model formalized through the ethnic identification project are informed by the centuries of the Chinese central state’s expansion and absorption of new territories and people into its domain. The articulation of the Chinese territorial and cultural borders went hand in hand with the development of new forms of categorization and demarcation of difference encountered as Chinese borders expanded. Prior to the Republican period (1911–1949), to be Chinese was a matter of accepting and converting into Confucian norms. According to the rules of the governing order of imperial China, tianxia, practicing the Confucian ritual and ethical principles was sufficient to become Chinese (huaren). In the period of China’s forced opening-up to the outside world in the mid- to late 1800s, the formulation of national principles was part of the process of negotiating what constituted China and who the Chinese people were. The concepts of ethnicity and nation developed at the intersections between Chinese state’s relations with its domestic Others and its turbulent interactions with the outside world. The themes of national survival, territorial unity, cultural cohesion, stability of borders, and the development of the Chinese nation into a strong modern state are closely related to the formation of the politics of ethnic and national identity.

Historical Legacies and Traces

The politics of ethnic identity in contemporary China is shaped by the histories and legacies of Chinese imperial conquest. The echoes and traces of territorial expansion loom large in China’s relations with its ethnic Others. Since the inception of the first central state in 221 BCE, its rulers were grappling with the question of state unity and integration of the newly conquered populations. Sources in this section offer scholarly insights on how Chinese rulers have historically developed new forms of language, ideology, knowledge, strategies, rituals, and government to ensure stable functioning of the expanding state. Lattimore 1940 argued that evolution of the Chinese central state’s relations with frontier people lay the foundations for the state’s governing model. Duara 1995 argues for the importance of denationalizing China’s official history and paying attention to the fractured historical accounts that are obfuscated in the narratives of continuous Chinese national unity. Bulag 2002 points to the longstanding challenge of preserving unity over a large multi-ethnic empire and the challenges of dealing with nomadic tribes. Crossley 1999, Elliot 2001, and Perdue 2005 document how the Qing (1644–1911) established its authority over a vast territory despite its marginal status and how, through a series of novel governing techniques, expanded its rule to new territories. Crossley 1999 and Deal and Hostetler 2006 explore the role of cartographic and ethnographic practices played in the Qing imperial rule.

  • Bulag, Uradyn E. The Mongols at China’s Edge: History and the Politics of National Unity. Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002.

    This book interrogates the construction and practices of “national unity” in China through a close analysis of the long history of rituals, class, ethnicity, and sexuality with Mongols and other northern nomadic groups. In particular, it explores tensions between ethnic and national identity in the formulation and functioning of the Chinese multi-ethnic unitary model.

  • Crossley, Pamela Kyle. A Translucent Mirror: History and Identity in Qing Imperial Ideology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

    This path-breaking study of the Manchu territorial conquest during the 1600s shows how the Qing dynasty’s representation of itself changed through a novel use of maps and cartographic knowledge, and how the meanings of “Manchu and “Mongol” changed during their dynastic rule.

  • Deal, David, and Laura Hostetler. The Art of Ethnography: A Chinese “Miao Album.” Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006.

    This important study documents how rulers of imperial China in the 18th century viewed and represented border populations through a genre of ethnic albums that included prose, poetry, and illustrations.

  • Dikötter, Frank. The Discourse of Race in Modern China. 2d ed. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015.

    The second edition of the influential 1995 publication revisits how the ideas of race have evolved from the late-Qing reformers in the late 19th century until the ascent of Xi Jinping to power in 2012. Dikötter shows how the debates on race have been historically closely related to the idea of saving China from the semi-colonial position in relation to the West and developed in tension with the ideas of Confucian cultural universalism.

  • Duara, Prasenjit. Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China. London: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226167237.001.0001

    This important book offers an incisive critique of the linearity of modern China’s national history through the analysis of conflicting narratives of national, local, and transnational relations. It presents a compelling account of ways to problematize historical narratives that serve to forge a singular and linear account of Chinese national identity.

  • Elliot, Mark. The Manchu Way: The Eight Banners and Ethnic Identity in Late Imperial China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001.

    Based on Manchu-language archives, this study delves into the role of ethnicity in China’s last ruling dynasty, the Qing. It presents a carefully researched picture of “ethnic sovereignty,” the maintenance of a distinct ethnic identity among the ruling elite and a form of governance through a distinct Banner system that was instrumental in the conquest of China and helped the Manchus to sustain their minority rule over the empire for several centuries.

  • Lattimore, Owen. Inner Asian Frontiers of China. New York: American Geographical Society, 1940.

    A classic path-breaking study on the role and place of border regions in the evolution and expansion of the Chinese state, and its relations with neighboring nomadic peoples.

  • Perdue, Peter. China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.

    This seminal volume chronicles the Qing Empire’s expansion into what is now known as China’s Northwest frontier. Based on Manchu and Chinese sources, it paints a rich picture of the previously little-known story of China’s lasting expansion.

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