Introducing Critical Han Studies

Thomas S. Mullaney

Encompassing over ninety percent of the populations of the People's Republic of China and Taiwan, Han 漢 is one of the largest categories of collective identity in the world. On the mainland, Han is understood to be a type of minzu 民族, or ethnonational group, a categorical designation which places it alongside the country's fifty-five other officially recognized minzu: the Zhuang, Yi, Bai, Miao, Lisu, and so forth. The category of Han, however, is of a size and constitution that sets it apart quite starkly from its 'sibling nationalities.'

First of all, it claims among its members some 1.2 billion people, making it roughly seventy-six times larger than mainland China's next largest minzu, the Zhuang, and over four hundred thousand times larger than its smallest, the Lhoba. Whereas ethnic groups no doubt vary greatly in size, nevertheless the incomparable immensity of Han—a category whose 'branches' have populations that exceed those of many European countries—prompts us to reconsider the appropriateness of treating Han as the same type of collective identity as those with which it is normally compared. To compare Han to any given non-Han minzu is in certain respects akin to comparing a phylum with a class, a class with an order, or an order with a family—that is, across entirely different taxonomic orders. Based on size, it would seem that Han is on a scale all its own, on par with such global categories as race, religion, and even continents.

The internal composition of Han also raises questions as to its coherence as a single, unified category. Han encompasses eight immense speech communities—Mandarin, Wu, Yue, Xiang, Hakka, Gan, Southern Min, and Northern Min[1]—groups which, although referred to as 'dialects' (fangyan 方言) in Chinese parlance, exhibit levels of mutual unintelligibility which, were they applied to the European context, would be treated as differences of language. As Jerry Norman has argued, 'there is probably as much difference between the dialects of Peking [Beijing] and Chaozhou as there is between Italian and French; the Hainan Min dialect as different from the Xian dialect as Spanish is from Rumanian.'[2] Some have suggested that, were it not for the shared basis of Chinese characters, China itself (and the Han with it) might very well disintegrate.

There had been several proposals in recent decades to do away with the Chinese characters and to introduce an alphabet in their place. They have all proved to be unsatisfactory so far, because the character of the Chinese language, as it is at this moment, is unsuited to an alphabetical script. They would also destroy China's cultural unity: there are many dialects in China that differ so greatly from each other that, for instance, a man from Canton cannot understand a man from Shanghai. If Chinese were written with letters, the result would be a Canton literature and another literature confined to Shanghai, and China would break up into a number of areas with different languages.[3]

Others remain skeptical with regards to the presumed centripetal, unifying influence of this common script, arguing that such uniformity is no more solidifying that the shared 'Latin taproot' of French, Italian, and Spanish.[4]

When we take these issues of scale and composition into account, the group now referred to in the singular as 'Han' appears less like a coherent category of identity, and more like an umbrella term that encompasses a plurality of diverse cultures, languages, and so forth. Confronted with this tension between its putative unity and empirical difference, then, one might expect Han to have long been the object of critical and deconstructive analysis, akin to that which scholars have brought to bear on national, racial, ethnic, and even continental categories.[5] If categories of race constitute inventions; national categories, imaginations; and continents, myths; then surely we can expect the same of Han. However, with the exception of a very limited number of studies, which will be addressed forthwith, our expectation would not be met. The category of Han has in large part managed to pass through the epoch of deconstruction largely unscathed, if not fortified. On the whole, the traditional understanding of Han as singular and homogenous has remained unchallenged, and has continued to echo the highly questionable idea that, as Eric Hobsbawn has phrased it, China is 'composed of a population that is ethnically almost or entirely homogenous.'[6]

PDF version of the conference program

Excerpts from two chapters in that volume are produced here as a foretaste of the book, and the project, as a whole.

From Mark Elliott, 'Hushuo 胡說: The Northern Other and Han Ethnogenesis'

From James Leibold, 'In Search of Han: Early Twentieth-century Narratives on Chinese Origins and Development'

In an effort to initiate a conversation about this largely unexamined category of identity, the Critical Han Studies Conference and Workshop was organized by Thomas S. Mullaney, James Leibold, Stéphane Gros, and Eric Vanden Bussche. Hosted at Stanford University in April 2008, the conference brought together more than fifty scholars from eight countries.[7]

This gathering was simultaneously a venue for the presentation of new scholarship, and a workshop for conceptualizing a completely new interdisciplinary field of study. It was out of this academic collaboration that a volume of essays has been produced for publication, not so much as a microcosm of the conference, but rather as an initial wave of new scholarship on the Han category designed to define certain key issues and to help inspire further research. The eleven chapters featured in this up-coming volume represent the first step towards the creation of a new area of analysis, one provisionally titled 'Critical Han Studies'.



This study was made possible through the generous support of seven agencies, institutions, and departments. These include the Chiang Ching kuo Foundation for Scholarly Exchange/American Council of Learned Societies, Stanford University Center for East Asian Studies, Stanford College Humanities & Science Office of the Dean, Stanford Humanities Center, Stanford University Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, Stanford University Department of History, and the Hewlett Fund. Special thanks goes to the many colleagues and students who had a part in this project at its various stages. Above all, I want to thank my co-organizers and co-editors James Leibold, Stéphane Gros, and Eric Vanden Bussche, all of the participants in the Critical Han Studies conference, and the members of the Stanford University community who helped us make the conference a reality.

[1] Dru Gladney, Dislocating China. Reflections on Muslims, Minorities, and Other Subaltern Subjects, London: Hurst and Company, 2004, p.7.

[2] Jerry Norman, Chinese, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, p.187.

[3] Wolfram Eberhard, A History of China, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969, p.308.

[4] Fred C. Blake, Ethnic Groups and Social Change in a Chinese Market Town Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1981, p.7.

[5] Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds, The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983; Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed., New York: Verso, 1991; Martin W. Lewis and Kären Wigen, The myth of continents: a critique of metageography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

[6] Eric J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality Nations and Nationalism Since 1780, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, p.66.

[7] These scholars included: Nicole E. Barnes, Sylvie Beaud, Naran Bilik, Erica Brindley, Clayton Brown, Melissa Brown, Uradyn E. Bulag, Kevin Carrico, Huaiyu Chen, Zhihong Chen, Tamara Chin, Eva S. Chou,Robert Culp, Frank Dikötter, Mark C. Elliott, C. Patterson Giersch, Dru Gladney, Stéphane Gros, Stevan Harrell, John Herman, Hung Li-wan, Sun Jiang, Jiang Yonglin, Tong Lam, Françoise Lauwaert, James Leibold, Hsueh-Yi Lin, Jonathan Lipman, Luo Wenqing, Haiyun Ma, Jeff McClain, Charles McKhann, Thomas S. Mullaney, David Schaberg, Leo K. Shin, Christopher Sullivan, Donald S. Sutton, Nicholas Tapp, Emma Teng, Christopher Vasantkumar, Florent Villard, Wang Ming-ke, Wang Peihua, Scott Writer, Xie Linxuan, Xu Jieshun, Gang Zhao, Zhao Yongfei, and Minglang Zhou.