When I had just arrived in China, three years ago, China News Weekly had a special feature entitled "Who Are We?" The cover was half the face of a Peking opera singer. This half represented the past, culture, old society and the core concept of China. The other half of the face, painted completely red, expressed a new, politicized and international China. The cover was somewhat frightening and the topic was very thought provoking: What is identity?
In reality, all of humanity has two identities.
The first identity comes from nature. We are first and foremost human beings made up of DNA and are intended to mate. Our second identity comes from culture and society. It is the "other" and the "outsider." This second identity is both active and passive. The national flag, anthems, athletic competitions, and patriotism are all intended to unite people together with the feeling that they are all one family. For political reasons, it is important to bring all these people together. This process, however, also creates the "Us" vs. "Them" mentality.
One night a few years ago in Hangzhou, I was out taking a stroll and I forgot who I was. Suddenly, across the way from me someone shouted, "There's a laowai (foreigner)!" I responded, "I'm a laonei" [Editor's note: Laonei is a neologism intended to mean the opposite of foreigner. No such word exists in Chinese, and is here used facetiously.] Outsider, insider are all games you play in front of the mirror. If the same man saw me on Mars, he would probably call me a Martian.
But the idea of identity is even more complex. Where do minorities and people of mixed ethnic heritage belong? In reality, we're all mixed bloods, it's just that that is not particularly obvious to other people. Since the end of the reign of Qianlong [early 19th Century] to now, there have already been around 8 generations of people. This means that every Chinese born in the 1980s has 512 ancestors each. There were probably one or two minorities along the way and perhaps even a couple foreigners. Going back 500 years, it becomes even clearer: everyone has over 1 million ancestors; this means that we all most definitely have a common ancestor somewhere along the way. We just don't know how many generations ago it was. Scholars believe that Genghis Khan has over 17 million descendants alive today (just including the patrilineal descendants). One of his distant relatives is the current Queen of England. In 2004, a restaurant in London offered free food to whomever could prove he or she was a descendant of Genghis Khan.
Therefore, we remember the most famous and unique of our ancestors to establish our families' identity. One of my ancestors, whose name I bear, migrated from Scotland to France in 1450. Now there have already been 15 generations in France but we still remember where we came from. Although now our French blood is more than our Scottish blood, we still have contact with our distant relatives in Scotland and we wear kilts on particular holidays.
Last year's riots in Lhasa and the riots in Urumqi last month should cause people to reflect. Many people online are discussing China's ethnic minority problems. Today I was talking with a reporter friend of mine. You wouldn't guess that he's a minority just by looking at him, but every time he mentions that he's a Hui, it's obvious that he pays a lot of attention to his identity. When he was abroad in Spain, the locals had no idea that he was a minority because in most European countries, nation of origin is the most important part of identity. I believe we should actively manage our different identities. In China, ID cards list each person's ethnicity. This is bad because it serves to differentiate and separate people rather than bringing them together. It also doesn't fully represent the breadth and complexity of the sources of Chinese culture. My friend was adamantly opposed to having people think he was Han, but ID cards shouldn't have any ethnicity written on them, Han or minority.
In reality, many people who are considered Han today in China actually came from other ethnicities. Many Beijingers are "Hanified" Manchurians and Mongolians. Why don't we let people choose their own identities? I like to use chopsticks to eat just like Chinese people, but I also like to eat Western food. This is freedom of choice. When it comes to dealing with friends, I prefer adopting Chinese ways. If I have to analyze problems, I do it in a French way. At work, I believe the American way is the best, etc. Last time I was in Yunnan and Guizhou, I saw several parts of minorities' cultures that were unique and interesting.
None of us can choose what country we were born in or what language our mother tongue is. But what about culture? I believe that the 21st century global citizen should be a cultural hybrid. You can pick which parts of a culture you want to adopt or retain and in doing so create a unique, diverse identity.
Read the original in Chinese here.
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