Idle Speculation on the Term “Hanban”

I recently had a very interesting conversation with a PRC citizen living in the United States about Confucius Institutes, which you can find around the world in colleges and universities supporting Chinese language and culture. We had been talking about ethnicity and nationalism in China—I had just presented this paper on subnational peripheries, which obviously applies to places like Tibet and Xinjiang—and I made some offhand remark about how it’s so meaningful that the oversight organization for the Confucius Institutes is known as “Hanban” rather than “Zhongguo Renmin Ban.”

Let me explain, with the caveat that I speak precisely zero Mandarin, so I will rely exclusively on Wikipedia entries to make my point.

Han is the Mandarin word for what we might call ethnic Chinese. This is the most numerous by far of the 56 officially recognized ethnic groups in mainland China. It excludes groups such as Hui (Chinese Muslims), Tibetans, Mongols, and so forth.

Zhongguo Minzu is the Mandarin word for a member of the Chinese nation. Wikipedia tells me that it replaced the earlier term Zhongguo Renmin in the 1980s.

I’ve always been interested in how Chinese politics deals with ethnicity. Clearly, the idea or theory of a Chinese nation in PRC official discourse is pan-ethnic, but in practice Han identity rules, with non-Han ethnic groups publicly represented as something like museum showpieces (just look at this). So my offhand remark was just my way of wondering if this is a little trace of how a Han-centric view of Chinese civilization pervades the PRC’s public diplomacy. Call it a residue of ethnic nationalism.

I would be remiss without further observing that in Indonesian, the word Zhonghua has produced the word used to refer to Indonesians of Chinese extraction: Tionghoa. In Malay, Cina is used, resulting in the Malay wikipedia page about Chinese Indonesians being titled Cina Indonesia and the Indonesian wikipedia page about Chinese Malaysians being titled Tionghoa-Malaysia. There is, to my knowledge, no word to denote Han specifically besides suku Han (Han ethnic group).

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