CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 19, September 2009


In Search of Han | China Heritage Quarterly

<< Introducing Critical Han Studies

In Search of Han:
Early Twentieth-century Narratives on Chinese Origins and Development

James Leibold, La Trobe University

For most Chinese, the 'Han' (Hanzu, Hanren, Hanmin or Han minzu) are envisioned as a rolling 'snowball' (xueqiu 雪球)—a dense, domineering identity that literally steamrolled across the Chinese ethnoscape as it expanded and consolidated over time. Eminent ethnologist Fei Xiaotong was one of the first Chinese intellectuals to compare the Han to a snowball when he sketched out the unique 'plurality and organic unity' (duoyuan yiti 多元一体) of the Chinese nation/race (Zhonghua minzu 中华民族) in 1988. For Fei, the Han minzu (nationality, ethnic group or race) was the 'coagulate core' (ningju hexin 凝聚核心) around which disparate peoples active throughout Chinese history fused together (ronghe 融合) as they spread throughout 'this piece of land' which was and still is 'China.'[1]

Inspired by Fei's lectures and his subsequent articles and monograph on the topic, others added further details to the story of Chinese origins. Making extensive use of archaeological evidence, historian Chen Liankai sketched out the growth of an indigenous, sedentary Huaxia culture in the Central Plains regions of the Yellow and Yangtze river valleys around 3000-2000 BCE. Its superior culture and size drew in and 'polymerized' (juhe 聚合) surrounding nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples producing first the Han minzu following the Qin dynasty unification of 221 BCE and eventually the even larger Zhonghua minzu after the humiliation of the Opium War in 1840 and the consolidation of a new Republican state following the collapse of the Qing empire in 1911.[2] Similarly, a group of Chinese geneticists now argue that 'Y chromosome and mitochondrial (mt)DNA data have demonstrated a coherent genetic structure of all Han Chinese', which is the result of five thousand year history of 'demic diffusion' and 'assimilation of minorities' by the numerically superior Huaxia-cum-Han people and their advanced agriculture, technology, and culture.[3] The snowball analogy was central to Xu Jieshun's comprehensive anthropological analysis of the Han minzu's origins and development. As the founding director of the Han Research Center at the Guangxi Nationalities Institute, Xu has played a central role in the post-Mao development of Han studies on the mainland, which rests on the claim, in Xu's words, that 'from a single dot to a line, and from a line to an entire area, [the Han minzu] rolled like a snowball fusing many other minzu as it coagulated and formed; like a snowball, it grew larger and larger and more dense and compact, producing the world's most populous minzu.'[4] In short, adopting a primordialist approach, most Chinese scholars view Han as an innate, fixed and firmly bounded identity—an ancient yet evolving group which can be traced directly back to the very roots of Chinese soil, civilization and blood.

Outside of China, however, much recent academic literature inspired by post-colonial and post-modern critical theory has set its sights on deconstructing, dislocating, and unpacking this 'imagined community',[5] seeking to reveal the fragmented and atomized 'snowflakes' which belies the illusory unity of the Han snowball. In his landmark 1991 study Muslim Chinese, the anthropologist Dru Gladney suggested that the notion of a distinct Han minzu was 'an entirely modern phenomenon,' arguing that it was invented by Sun Yat-sen and other late Qing revolutionaries in an effort to draw together the empire's parochial and polygot communities into a single national imaginary.[6]

Gladney and others have subsequently argued that Han is an unmarked, empty or even invisible designation fashioned in 'relational alterity' with the colourful, backward, and exotic/erotic national minorities through a process of oriental or internal orientalism.[7] It has been suggested that the Confucian rhetoric of culturalism seeks to paste over the ambiguities and diversities inherent within this 'ephemeral' category,[8] concealing the deep fissures which run along religious, economic, linguistic and cultural lines among the numerous 'sub-ethnic' groups positioned uncomfortably beneath the Han ethnonym. In short, adopting a constructivist approach to identity and a de-constructivist method of analysis, many of these foreign-trained scholars remain suspicious of the perception of a common (yet nested) cultural and ethnic identity among the so-called Han nationality of today, instead choosing to view Han (and Zhonghua minzu) as an inauthentic, or even fictitious identity, which pastes over the deeper and often repressive structural features of nation and state building in modern China.[9]

In this chapter, I seek to negotiate a path in between these two metaphors: the snowball and snowflake. One that seeks to, at least partially, historicize and contextualize the category of Han by exploring some of the ways in which early twentieth-century male urban elites in China sought to make sense of the origins and development of their 'people'. In particular, I seek to flesh out some of the latent tensions embedded within the ideological work of these agents of the state or authenticators of identity, between: 1) competing ethnonyms and analytical categories for the Chinese people; 2) a cosmopolitan, transnational origin and an indigenous, firmly bounded creation myth; and finally 3) a singular, arrow-like homogeneity and a multiple, arabesque-style heterogeneity. While accepting that these narratives are the result of elite production, I do not wish to discount either the role of historical memory or the cultural parameters in which knowledge is produced and finds widespread meaning and social practice, what Bourdieu called 'the silences, ellipses, and lacunae of the language of familiarity.'[10] As a dynamic and chameleon-like category, Han was in a constant state of revision, with its boundaries and membership altering from one historical context to another as the chapters of this volume clearly reveal; yet, at the same time, the perception of who was Han or who could become Han was built on a set of inherited cultural practices and institutions, which while flexibly interpreted were limited by social reality

Is it possible that a more fully nuanced and historicized approach can help reveal both the durability of the Han snowball—that is the continuity of the ethnic category of Han over time—and the contingency of its snowflakes—that is the diverse meanings invested in the Han idiom at any point in time? In seeking a critical approach to the study of the Han, one starting point seems to be Roger Brubaker's provocative suggestion that 'ethnicity is fundamentally not a thing in the world, but a perspective on the world.'[11] In other words, fluid signifiers—like Han, Zhongguoren (Chinese) or Zhonghua minzu—only become meaningful and articulated when they assist people in making sense of their world and place within it. So while the search for an archetypal, unchanging Han 'essence' will remain illusive, we can seek to explore those specific contexts in which the category becomes meaningful. Here, it seems to me, we can most profitably search for the origins, significance and limits of Han.


[1] Fei Xiaotong, The plurality and organic unity of the Zhonghua minzu (Zhonghua minzu duoyuan yiti geju), Beijing: Zhongyang Renmin Xueyuan Chubanshe, 1989, pp.1-13.

[2] Chen Liankai, Preliminary research on the Zhonghua minzu (Zhonghua minzu yanjiu chutan), Beijing: Zhishi Chubanshe, 1994, pp.111-29, 275-288 & 288-311.

[3] Rui-Jing Gan, et. al., 'Pinghua population as an exception of Han Chinese's coherent genetic structure', Journal of Human Genetics 53.4 (2008): 303-12, quotes from p.303 and p.304; and, Bo Wen, et. al., 'Genetic evidence supports demic diffusion of Han culture', Nature 431 (2004): 302-05.

[4] Xu Jieshun, Snowball: An anthropological analysis of the Han nationality (Xueqiu: Han minzude renleixue fenxi), Shanghai: Shanghai Renmin Chubanshe, 1999, p.1.

[5] Benedict Anderson, Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, rev ed., New York: Verso, 1991.

[6] Dru Gladney, Muslim Chinese: Ethnic nationalism in the People's Republic, Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1991, pp.81-87.

[7] Dru Gladney, 'Representing nationality in China: Refiguring majority/minority identities', The Journal of Asian Studies 53.1 (1994): 92-123; and, Louisa Schein, Minority rules: the Miao and the feminine in China's cultural politics, Durham: Duke University Press, 2000, pp.100-31.

[8] Pamela Crossley, Helen Siu, and Donald Sutton, 'Introduction', in Empire at the Margins: Culture, Ethnicity, and Frontier in Early Modern China, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006, p.5.

[9] See, in particular, Melissa Brown, 'Ethnic identity, cultural variation, and processes of change: Rethinking the insights of standardization and orthopraxy', Modern China, 33.1 (Jan 2007): 116-7 and passim; Susan Blum, Portraits of 'primitives': Ordering human kinds in the Chinese nation, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001, p.12 and passim; Naran Bilik, 'Names have memories: History, semantic identity and conflict in Mongolian and Chinese language use', Inner Asia 9.1 (2007): 23-39; Stevan Harrell, 'Introduction', in Melissa Brown, ed., Negotiating ethnicities in China and Taiwan, Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 1996, pp.1-15.

[10] Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a theory of practice, trans Richard Nice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977, p.18. On Bourdieu's practice theory as applied to ethnicity, see G. Carter Bentley, 'Ethnicity and Practice', Comparative Studies in Society and History, 29.1 (Jan. 1987): 24-55.

[11] Roger Brubaker, Ethnicity without groups, Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2004, p.65.