One of the many ways in which China’s politics have changed in the 25 years since Mao’s death has been the subtle downgrading of one of its key terms, ‘the Chinese people’—Zhongguo renmin, and the rise of an expression not much heard in that distant age: ‘Zhonghua nation’—Zhonghua minzu. The difference matters. For most of the Mao era, the expression ‘the Chinese people’ was used so frequently that one hardly noticed it—except when its meaning was changed. In the first years of the People’s Republic, ‘the people’ of China consisted principally of four officially designated but ill-defined classes: workers, peasants, national bourgeoisie (i.e., capitalists deemed to be neither part of the Guomindang ruling group nor working for foreign businesses) and petty bourgeoisie. Each of these classes was represented on the new state’s flag with a little yellow star, doing homage to the Communist Party’s big yellow star. ‘The people’ excluded Chinese nationals who belonged to enemy classes, such as rural landlords and bureaucrat capitalists. The term said nothing about ethnicity: it referred only to those who belonged to the country, and the state, of China. As with the notion of ‘the Soviet people’, it suggested both vertical divisions—between the subjects of one state and those of others—and horizontal ones, between classes, which could potentially override national frontiers.

But the term’s meaning was not fixed. By the 1960s, Mao found his earlier definition of ‘the people’ too inclusive. Reconceptualizing the nature of Chinese society after the imposition of socialism, he now saw its essential contradiction as the hostile divide between bourgeoisie and proletariat. Both these groupings were imaginary rather than socio-economic: they existed in the Chairman’s mind, distinguished by their supposed attitudes to his kind of chiliastic socialism. Two of the classes on which the regime had purported to base itself in 1949—the national and the petty bourgeoisie—now no longer had a good claim to belong to ‘the people’. At the height of Maoist fervour in the late 1960s, the very term ‘people’ seemed too conciliatory and inclusive, and was generally replaced by more militant formulations such as ‘revolutionary people’, ‘labouring people’, ‘revolutionary masses’, ‘workers, peasants and soldiers’ and so on. The state was no longer a ‘people’s democratic dictatorship’ but a ‘proletarian dictatorship’. The most important divisions were the horizontal ones.

One of the clearest signs that late Maoism was finished, after Deng Xiaoping’s takeover in December 1978, was the reversion to the formulation ‘people’s democratic dictatorship’ and a broadening of the category ‘people’, as the Communist Party dropped large-scale class struggle from its self-given mission. This process has now gone a great deal further. Especially since the crisis of 1989, the Communist Party has been redefining itself as what is in effect (though not yet in name) a national socialist party, with growing emphasis on the first adjective and ever less on the second. While the militantly nationalist words and actions of the Chinese state have received a lot of attention around the world over the last decade, the redefining of this nationalism and its curious intellectual foundations have not. It is an awkward topic, and it is understandable that most Western observers should show a certain reluctance to draw attention to a rather embarrassing tendency in some intellectual circles in China towards nationalism with racial overtones.

Consider the statement of one of the country’s most distinguished archaeologists, writing in 1991, that ‘China’s culture is an indigenous one with a tradition of nearly two million years.’footnote1 These words express an attitude to the past of what is now China that goes far beyond the conventional clichés about four, five or six thousand years of Chinese civilization. They indicate a new task being undertaken by certain palaeontologists and archaeologists: that of creating a ‘scientific’ Chinese national identity of immense chronological depth, distinct from that of the rest of humanity. Attitudes such as these have political implications—whether or not the people of China and East Asia really did develop from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens sapiens independently of human evolution elsewhere. Relatedly, there is the interesting implication of suggestions made in recent years that China is only superficially a polyethnic country, in which up to fifty-six politically recognized nationalities share a common citizenship—the official position for the last forty years or so. A new argument, or rather a newly revived one, has it that China is actually inhabited by a single ethnic group. In other words, all the nationalities are, beneath their apparent diversity, one.

‘Race’ as a category is as shapeless—ultimately, as meaningless, perhaps—as it is emotionally charged. Nevertheless, we need working definitions of the words ‘race’, ‘nation’ and their cognates if we are to ask whether they can usefully be applied to attitudes, expressed or implied, in Chinese historical records—and in more recent views. ‘Racial’ thinking could be said to include the assumption that groups of humans, larger than extended families or clans, are distinguished by physical, genetic and cultural features, or any two of the three, that are shared by—and define—all members of each group. Belief in this genetic, hereditary element in group identity is the essential point. ‘Racism’ goes beyond thinking racially, to advocating or taking racially motivated action against others.

Nationalism, by contrast, does notnecessarily require shared physical ancestry as a defining characteristic. I take ‘nation’ here to mean a group, larger than a kin-group or tribe, whose members regard themselves as having a shared identity that distinguishes them from other groups; and treat the adjectives ‘national’ and ‘ethnic’ as interchangeable. I shall not use nation as synonymous with ‘state’, as in the loose contemporary usage ‘nation-state’, which appears to justify the too-often murderous assumption that the two should be coterminous. The concept of nation may include a racial component, and may even be linked to racism, but it does not have to be; it can also be defined primarily by culture, language, religion or territory. National or ethnic identity is essentially subjective: it is about who you think you are and who you think that other people are. Without rehearsing the thoughtful explorations of this subject by Benedict Anderson, Eric Hobsbawm and others, it is enough to note that, in China as elsewhere, communities have been reimagined and redefined.footnote2

Before looking at the intriguing ambiguities of ethnicity and race in modern China, it might be as well to sketch in some earlier indications of thinking about national identity. Interestingly, although one can find instances of both racial and racist attitudes, China comes off better than many other parts of the world in this regard, especially before the twentieth century. There is no room to explore fully the implications of the illustrations that follow. They do, however, seem to fit into patterns.