How can you tell if a person is Chinese or not? Many people might initially react to this question by going through a list of racial stereotypes. Does the person have black hair? Black eyes? “Yellow” skin?
But Daniel Bell, a China scholar who’s lived in the country for over two decades, doesn’t see it that way. In his recent Wall Street Journal article “Why Anyone Can Be Chinese,” the Beijing-based Canadian argued that Chinese identity should be cultural, not racial. In other words, people from other races who do not have Chinese physical traits but commit to the Chinese culture and language like himself should be considered Chinese.
The idea may be a bit controversial, but I tend to agree with him. Full disclosure: I personally know Bell well -- I worked with him for a few years in the past. As someone originally from China, I was surprised by the value that he places on Chinese culture and people. When I first met him, I, too, thought there was no way this man could be considered Chinese in any regard. But after years of speaking almost exclusively Chinese with him, I can testify that his language skills are almost native ― without any foreign accent ― and his knowledge of Chinese culture and history is well above the average Chinese population that I have encountered in my own life. I now feel bad that my first instinct was to write him off as another white man merely interested in China. I just hadn’t thought of defining Chinese identity in the way he now suggests, but had it occurred to me sooner, I may have thought differently of him back then.
How can you tell if a person is Chinese or not?
I was born and raised in China and only moved to the West when I decided to pursue a master’s degree in Britain. After completing my degree and working there for a few years, I moved to the United States for my doctorate. I have now lived in America for six years. Throughout it all, Chinese culture has remained an important part of my life. In fact, it has played a large role in shaping my identity.
That’s why Bell’s argument resonates with me, especially the part about how China was once accepting of “foreigners” as Chinese. As Bell notes, during the Tang dynasty (618 to 907 A.D.), this embrace of other cultures was a reality. Often foreigners who had been employed by the Chinese government, such as Turks, Koreans and Arabs, were welcome as members of Chinese society and even allowed to take on public positions in government. If ancient China could stretch the boundaries for Chinese assimilation, why can’t we do that again now with identity?
In fact, I think Bell could even go further into history than he did in his op-ed to justify why we not only should expand the definition of what makes someone Chinese, but actively need to as well. Take the Han Chinese, the dominant ethnic group in China today. The Han, which make up the majority of China’s population, are actually not as homogenous as some might think. Though now often referred to as one group, the Han are actually comprised of much smaller ethnic and cultural groups that were eventually conquered and merged into one group under the Han dynasty, from which the current population takes its name.
In his article, Bell mentioned that non-Han Chinese were discriminated against and purged in ancient China. And while this is true, the distinction that the Han Chinese did not originally come from one single ethnic group is also important in further understanding this argument. Han Chinese are genetically and culturally heterogeneous. After all, the name “Han” comes from the Han dynasty, which unified China by sinicizing ― making more Chinese ― very different groups and forging a shared ethnic legacy.
And over the course of Chinese history, the cultures that today comprise the Han Chinese have never stopped mixing with other groups. As a matter of fact, even as of today, the Han population speak a variety of dialects and even distinct languages, which are sometimes mutually incomprehensible. Han Chinese are diverse and yet also unified, so it is easy for me to say that the Chinese identity has been historically culturally inclusive, even if there was some discrimination at times.
This period of pluralism is often considered one of the greatest periods in the history of China, with flourishing arts and cultures. It should be one we look back to now in this debate to understand why one identity from many can and does work.
Unfortunately, as Bell notes, somewhere along the way, open identity in China shifted and became treated more as a matter of race than culture. But such distinct definitions aren’t unique to Beijing. Despite cosmopolitan London, much of Britain defines its identity in a similar matter. The true British are thought to be those who are Caucasian and have lived on the island for several generations. When I lived there a decade ago, there was already resentment against the Eastern Europeans who went to Britain to seek better job opportunities and life prospects. The British attitude towards those non-Europeans was even worse. I am not surprised by Brexit. Even after I graduated from an English university and worked tirelessly to attract foreign investment to economically depressed areas of northeast England with UK Trade & Investment, I was still considered a temporary guest. I always had to answer the question: “So, when are you going back to China?”
I still find the question rather offensive and have not come up with a good way to answer it, even now in America. As a Chinese person who lives and works in the United States, I am very proud of my cultural heritage and will always consider myself Chinese, even if I choose to get American citizenship in the future. Even if becoming officially American means renouncing my Chinese citizenship, it doesn’t mean renouncing who I am. My Chinese identity will never be denied because I look Chinese, speak Chinese and understand the Chinese culture. If I were to randomly run into some other East Asians on the street who happened to speak decent Chinese, I would think that they were Chinese unless they revealed their identities to me. Even if they looked differently from me and spoke Chinese with an accent, they would still fall somewhere in the wide range of someone who has Chinese features and is familiar with the dialects. That is, at least today, in my mind part of what it means to be Chinese.
In the West, I'm still considered a temporary guest. I always have to answer the question: 'So, when are you going back to China?'
But will that change? Should it? Even with my multicultural experience, I still find it difficult to grasp a Caucasian Chinese identity like the kind Daniel Bell suggests. This is not because it is not possible, but because I have for so long been told by articles like this HuffPost piece ― “A White Person Wrote ‘Why Anyone Can Be Chinese,’ And It’s A Checklist In Privilege” written in response to Bell’s op-ed ― that being Chinese is too engrained in race for this to be allowed or even considered.
The difficulty of accepting such a narrow scope of what it means to be Chinese is not just confined to think pieces such as this. Before reading Bell’s piece, I had never even thought to consider someone like him as part of my culture because there was no model for that in Chinese TV shows or any other form of contemporary popular culture.
Yet perhaps writing Bell off was a lack of perspective on my part, given our history as a nation. Chinese culture and identity have never been static. China should be proud to have people of other races identify with Chinese culture and language and should be able to embrace them as Chinese.
Such a concept of identity, based less on race and more on a common shared sense of culture, exists in America in many ways already. I have been living in the U.S. for six years and have a Ph.D. in cross-cultural communication from the University of Maryland. If Caucasians could pass as Chinese, could I pass as an American? The simple answer is yes. I go about my life most days and no one gives my race, language or cultural habits a second glance.
There are the few times when people still ask me when I’m going back to China, but I feel confident that if I get American citizenship, I will certainly be considered American. Yet I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. “Americanness” is not defined by race or culture. This isn’t a post-racial society ― racism exists ― but it is often the undertone to a more inclusive vision. Rather, as an immigrant country, America absorbs people of various races with different cultural and religious beliefs. There are tens of millions of Asians in this country, many of whom were born and grew up in the U.S. They join tens of millions of people whose ancestors hail from just about every region in the world who all now identify as American in some form or another. It truly is a melting pot of the world. In the U.S., I can have both a Chinese identity and an American identity. I hope the same can be true in China in the future as well.
But how can we make the shift in China? What gives me hope is also remembering that the U.S. is not the only country where such a view of identity exists. On the other side of the world, in Singapore, there is a very different culture that has formed where British, Chinese, Indians and Malaysians worked together to build a nation. It is a true meritocratic city-state that has a high standard of living and rich intellectual discourse. One might feel conflicted about the Chinese in Singapore. Their ancestors clearly came from China. They might speak Chinese and have certain Chinese habits, but most would identify as Singaporeans first because they live and work daily with people who do not share that ancestry or language.
In fact, in some ways identity is about what is shared more than one’s origins. This is true of Chinese identity as well. There are many second generation Chinese families living abroad whose children don’t speak the Chinese language and have no interest in the culture. They identify with their country of residence. There are second and third generations of Chinese people living abroad who have struggled to learn their ancestors’ language and culture. They continue to identify as a Chinese person living in a foreign land and put an emphasis on their country of residence first. So why couldn’t someone who knows the language and culture but wasn’t born into it not be given the opportunity to opt in or out of Chinese identity?
In the end, it boils down to the mindset today. I agree with Bell that the real obstacle holding us back from a more nuanced version of Chinese identity is popular acceptance. If only Chinese people would accept a Caucasian’s struggle to become Chinese, everything would be better. It’s in China’s interest to expand the definition of Chinese, not just because of its roots in inclusiveness, but because of its importance on the global stage as well.
Unfortunately, we’re not where need to be in order for something like a Caucausian Chinese strand of Chinese identity to become a reality or a norm. Chinese people should be more welcoming and various government institutions should make the process more friendly if we are to get there. Right now, there aren’t enough people intensely interested in becoming immersed with Chinese culture because we keep shutting them out. Bell doesn’t feel accepted as Chinese, even if he wants to be and considers himself to be. Most people who learn Chinese nowadays do so for practical reasons so that they can communicate and do business with the Chinese people. They aren’t looking to become Chinese in the way Bell is, nor do they likely feel as Chinese as he does ― they are more like temporary guests.
The question we should be asking is not if someone not distinctly Chinese can be considered Chinese, but when and how they can acquire that identity.
Bell, and those like him, who seek to learn for the sake of the culture are thus a rare breed and must be taken seriously. China needs to expand its social and diplomatic power to not only build an understanding of its culture abroad, but convince the world of its worth as well. In this current political climate, it’s to China’s advantage to attract international talent that will build livelihoods in the country, not merely those who come for political or business gain.
If we begin to think this way within China, the flexible concept of “Chineseness” will undoubtedly become more attractive, and Chinese nationals will become more welcoming over time and evolve to allow for a broader Chinese identity. But it can’t be one man’s battle. More Chinese and non-Chinese scholars need to argue for a change. And if that happens, one day, China will once again welcome foreigners who have mastered the language and practice the culture regardless of how they look or where they come from.
And the same goes for those who are ethnically Chinese but have not lived or grown up in Chinese culture. If someone looks Chinese but doesn’t want to be identified with the Chinese culture, they should be allowed to only identify with their resident country. But if they look Western and want to be identified as Chinese, they should be allowed the same right.
Daniel Bell said he hoped “to be viewed as a Chinese not just in my own mind but in the minds of my fellow Chinese.” The question we should be asking then is not if someone not distinctly Chinese today can be considered Chinese, but when and how they can acquire that identity.
Daniel Bell is the former director of the Berggruen Institute’s Philosophy and Culture Center. The WorldPost is produced in partnership with the Berggruen Institute. The opinions in this piece do not reflect those of the Berggruen Institute or The WorldPost.