Nationalities Discourse in Chinese Yanbian, 1945-1952

Who is apart of the Chinese nation (中华民族)?

In asking this question, I realize I have somewhat taken for granted the active process by which the Chinese Communist Party constructed the Chinese nation, or how the CCP built an identity platform which was inclusive of dozens of different nationalities groups  in the 1940s and 1950s. That is, of course, the “Chinese nation,” or the Zhonghua minzu (中华民族).

I probably took this for granted more than I should have because recent CCP literature retroactively applies more modern concepts to the distant past. In reading memoirs about Chinese Yanbian, for example, we so often encounter the words “Han ethnicity” (汉族 Han zu) and “Korean ethnicity” (朝鲜族 Chaoxian zu) that we forget these categories were not necessarily used, or at least consistently used,  at the time being remembered.

Instead, in the 1940s, Chinese Communist cadre in Yanbian often used the term “Chinese people” (中国人 Zhongguo ren) to refer to the Han while also using the term “Korean people” (朝鲜人 Chaoxian ren or 韩人 Han ren) to refer to those other peoples living in Yanbian. Thus, at least initially, the CCP did not speak of minzu guanxi (ethnic relations), but rather of the relationships between the Chinese and Koreans peoples. This is an important distinction, I think, which shows that the CCP’s understanding of ethnicities and nationalities was still developing and being implemented in the mid to late 1940s.

It was only over time that the Yanbian cadres dropped “people” and began using the phrase “Korean ethnicity” (朝鲜族) to describe Koreans living in Yanbian, while it took even longer for the CCP to cease using the term  “Chinese people” to describe China’s ethno-majority. Thus we are reminded that, as CCP cadre constructed an ethnic identity for Koreans living in China, they were also implicitly renegotiating the ethnic status of what we call the Han today.

This is an issue which I hope to dive more into in the near future. This research could be useful in demonstrating the active process of identity construction in China, as well as in uncovering the how-and-why of Chinese ethnopolitics in Yanbian during a period of active foreign relations with the North Korean state.

These ideas were spawned while writing the essay “North Korea’s China Connection: Documenting Transnational Cadre Ties during the North Korean Revolution, 1945-1949” for SINO-NK. 

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