Unity and Diversity: Local Cultures and Identities in China

Unity and Diversity: Local Cultures and Identities in China

Unity and Diversity: Local Cultures and Identities in China

Unity and Diversity: Local Cultures and Identities in China

Synopsis

This book examines the evolution of the local identity in China from historical times to the present day. It traces the expression of local identity in religion and myth, in the construction of the provincial character, in the growth of cities, in literature, in economic development and in the expansion of the Chinese state.

Excerpt

Within China, there exists a patchwork of local cultures. Experience on the ground suggests that the traveller in China is more likely than not to be confronted by local opinions that emphasize the local character of traditions, even though such character is often expressed in terms that are common to many parts of China. One cannot stress too strongly how very different some local traditions can be, and yet, if one were to be asked to define the uniqueness of one local tradition as compared to another, it would not be easy to do so. Especially within what is considered to be ethnic Han China, what counts as the uniqueness of a local tradition often turns out to be, upon reflection, a variation of what in many parts of China would be considered common Chinese culture. What passes as Chinese culture, on the other hand, is manifested differently in different areas. Discovering what counts as local culture is, in some ways, similar to debating whether Han Chinese dialects should or should not count as languages. The linguist may be able to divide China into linguistic regions, but there is no ready answer to the question of whether Han Chinese dialects are or are not mere variations of a common Chinese language. The conclusion comes rather naturally that local Chinese culture is part and parcel of the overall Chinese culture: one cannot have a local identity without being part of the greater identity of being Chinese, and one cannot be Chinese and not have come from some part of China (Cohen, 1991).

REALITY AND APPEARANCE

One might suppose that for centuries some process of standardization had been at work. Some years ago, Barbara Ward suggested that the standardization of local cultures was selective. It tended to occur in those aspects of local culture that were looked upon as indicative of its 'Chineseness', just as differences would have been cultivated in other aspects that were indicative of a community's distinctiveness from its neighbours (Ward, 1965). One might ask why funerals are so similar all over China and regional cuisines so different. The answer would be that funerals have to be similar because there are standard ways to pacify the souls of the dead, while even within Guangdong province, Cantonese food has to be different from Hakka food because that is, among other features, what sets the Cantonese and Hakka apart.

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