Women and the Family in Chinese History

By Patricia Buckley Ebrey | Go to book overview

7
Surnames and Han Chinese identity*

Despite enormous geographical diversity and mutually incomprehensible dialects or languages, today more than a billion people consider themselves to be Han Chinese. This situation makes Han Chinese ethnic identity one of the wonders of world history. Whereas Western Europe and the Americas together are home to almost as many people, they divide themselves into several dozen countries and even more ethnic groups. What has made China different? What has made it possible for Han Chinese to imagine such an enormous agglomeration of people as sharing something important, something that makes it possible, even desirable, to live together in a single state? No one would deny that Han Chinese had multiple identities, or that many situations left room for manipulation and negotiation, for choice concerning which identity or identities to assert. But the Han Chinese layer of identity has been and continues to be important in social and political life. In this essay I examine the connection between Chinese surnames and Han Chinese identity. 1 I contend that Chinese understandings of ethnic identity have differed in important ways from ones found elsewhere – ones based on language, race, or place – and that their distinctive features help account for the huge size of the Han ethnic group.

Conventional wisdom has it that the secret to Chinese identity and cohesion was Confucian “culturalism” or universalism, bases for identity fundamentally different from nationalism, racism, and the sort of ethnic identity that sets up boundaries against outsiders. Culturalism was, without question, an important strain of Confucianism. Confucius and his followers over the centuries saw Chinese culture as superior to any other culture; they also saw that culture as something outsiders could acquire. To them the Chinese state and the Chinese family were perfect forms of social organization because they were based on the truest moral principles, universal principles such as loyalty and filial piety; adherence to these forms and principles were what

____________________
*
This essay was first published in Negotiating Ethnicities in China and Taiwan, edited by Melissa Brown (Institute for East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley, 1996), pp. 11–36. Copyright © 1996 by The Regents of the University of California. Used by permission of the publisher.

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