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  • Gordon Dumoulin

Unique melting pot, uniform from a glance but oh so diverse at heart | DIFFERENT CHINA (ep 6)

China, Chinese people and Chinese culture is often easily simplified in the West to Kungfu, Kung Pao chicken, copy cats, the Shanghai skyline and oh yes the ancient history by the Terra Cotta army. This would be like the whole of Europe simplifying to eating pizza, speaking British English, the Eiffel Tower and being romantic or all Americans wearing cowboy hats, playing American football, eating hamburgers and the statue of Liberty.

Fortunately the international image of China is changing somehow in recent years as the country is getting more active on the world stage and their economic, environmental and innovative technology developments are crossing borders. Nevertheless, China is still seen as a highly uniform nation with unique, simplified stereotypes due to recent history but this is an image very far from any truth and reality. The simplified stereotype is also credit to the fact that most of the Chinese emigrants spreading all over the world during the past centuries originate from only a few Southern provinces in China, mostly Fujian, Zheijiang and Guangdong. These emigrants brought their own regional culture and habits to their new homelands which are now seen as the national culture and stereotype for the whole of China. 

China today is a melting pot of extraordinary natural environments, ranging from deserts to rain forests and from the highest mountains and plateaus in the world to endless grasslands, and a very colorful pallet of different regional histories and ethnicities. This variety has created a mélange of regions, cultures, cuisines, religions and stereotypes typical and inherent to the melting pot of today’s People’s Republic of China.

Administrative Territories and Ethnicity

The People’s Republic of China exercises jurisdiction over 22 provinces, five autonomous regions, four direct-controlled municipalities (Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, and Chongqing), and two special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau.

China shares land and maritime borders with 20 sovereign states with a land border of over 22,000km, more and longer than any other country in the world. Furthermore there are 56 ethnicities officially recognized by Chinese government with the Han 漢 people being the largest group, comprising more than 90% of the total population. Their features and traditions are often seen as the general Chinese stereotypes in the Western world.

However do not be surprised to see Chinese people in Western and Northern China with typical Caucasian features such as blue eyes and light skin or Chinese people in the South-West with more Indian or Malay like appearances. The Chinese government has declared 5 regions autonomous in China due to their distinctively different cultures, histories and ethnicities.

Culturally ethnic regions in China

China is very diverse in cultures, religions, languages and cuisines due to the different natural environments and historical pasts. In a general image, China has a core area (China Proper or Core China, see next section) where the population is mainly comprised of the Han ethnicity, and several frontier zones which are traditionally resided by minority groups.

Manchuria, also called DongBei (the North-East) is the home of Manchus, an ethnic group who established Jurchen Jin Dynasty and Qing Dynasty in Chinese history. Manchus have their own surnames, dressing styles, languages, favored sports (e.g. arraw shooting on icy grounds, soccer on icy grounds, horse jumping) and dining habits. Besides Manchus, Manchuria is also home of many other native minority groups, such as Korean, Russian, Xibe, Hezhe, Oroqen and Owenk. Some of them have cultures associated with Russia, Mongolia and Korea.

With expansive grasslands and prairies in its eastern part and Gobi Desert in its western part, Inner Mongolia is the home of Mongols as well as some other minorities with nomadic cultures. Traditionally until recently, these people lived in tents, migrate with water resources and make lives by stock raising. They have their own cultures, music, dances and languages.

Northwestern China is the home of Muslims (Xinjiang autonomous region, Gansu province and surroundings). There are many native ethnic groups, but the two with largest populations and cultural influences are Uyghurs and Hui. Uyghurs live in grand basins, deserts and river valleys in Northwestern China with cultures similar to those in Central Asia. Hui is another group of Muslims who have their special dining habits and dressing styles, too, but their overall lifestyles are relatively closer to Han ethnicity.

Other Chinese ethnic minorities like Kazak, Uzbek and Tajik are also from this area.

Tibetan Plateau is one of the highest places in the world. Cultures and lifestyles in this region is different from any other places in the world. Tibetans and Qiang are the two major ethnicities on the plateau and spreading throughout the provinces of Tibet, Qinghai, Gansu, Yunan and Sichuan. They have their native religion called Bon, but now more people believe in Buddha. Buddhism is an important aspect of the culture on the plateau. Arts, architectures, literature, music and daily lives of people on the plateau are closely associated with Buddhism. However, this Buddhism is adapted to the special environment on the plateau and is notably different from Buddhism in China Proper or South-East Asia.

Southwestern China is the most diverse place of this country. In Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi, there are more than 30 native ethnic groups whose languages, lifestyles, dressings, food and music are totally different from each other, and many of those ethnic groups have tons of subdivisions or branches with different characteristics.

For example, Bai people in Dali are known for their special architectures and sculptures, Miao people in Guizhou share the same culture with people in Laos and Jingpo people in Dehong share the same culture with people in northern Myanmar while Naxi people in Lijiang are known for their poets, drawings and music. Zhuang people in Guangxi are the second-largest minority group in China sharing similar cultures with people in northern Vietnam.

As mentioned before, five autonomous regions with distinctive cultures and ethnicities have been established by the Chinese government which are Xinjiang (Uyghurs), Tibet (Tibetans), Ningxia (Hui), Guangxi (Zhuang) and Inner Mongolia (Mongols).

Core China region (Han people Eastern China)

Within the Eastern China region dominated by Han Chinese people, diversity is as well immense. The largest differences exist between North and South within this region.

People in the South are usually soft-toned, smaller, prefer to eat rice, perform liberal arts and create their own businesses while people in the North are usually more outgoing and candid, taller, prefer to eat noodles and bread, perform physical sports and be a government official.

The Southern provinces are also scattered with own languages and dialects while most people in the North understand each other quite well with Mandarin. For example, in the southeastern province of Fujian are 2 major types languages (Hakka and Min) used by people in this province. Among Min Languages, there are at least 5 sub-types of this language (Minnan, Mindong, Puxian, Minzhong and Minbei). In Zhejiang province, the main types of language used are called Wu Languages. Wu is a general name for lots of local languages are sometimes very different from each other. There is a saying that "in Zhejiang and southern Jiangsu, languages used in places 30 kilometers away from your hometown are not understandable any more". In Guangdong province, people speak predominantly Cantonese.

Chinese Cuisines

China would not be China if there is no mention of food. Chinese food known in the Western world is mostly originating from Guangdong, Fujian and Zhejiang provinces as most emigrants in the past century originate from these provinces. However the cuisine in China is as or probably more diverse as in Europe, especially due to the different natural environments.

Although almost every small city in China has its own typical and distinctive dishes, following cuisines are traditionally identified as “the great Four Cuisines of China”.

Lu Style (mainly in Shandong): It has longest history and is hardest to learn and to prepare. The characteristic of Lu Style is to preserve the taste of raw material as much as possible.Sichuan Style (or Chuan Style, mainly in Sichuan and Chongqing): It is the most popular style among all Chinese food styles. It is known for spicy food and hot pots.Huai-Yang Style (or Su Style, mainly in Jiangsu): Originated in the historic city of Yangzhou and boomed in areas near River Huai during Sui Dynasty, Huai-Yang Style is known for delicious taste and superb cutting and slicing skill requirement.Canton Style (or Yue Style, mainly in Guangdong): This is the best-known Chinese food style in other countries. Most Chinese restaurants in America are actually Canton Style restaurants.

In modern times, Chinese people are also talking about the following 8 great cuisines ;

Sichuan and Hunan cuisines: hot, spicy and intense.

Anhui and Fujian cuisines: inclusion of wild foods from their mountains.

Guangdong (Cantonese), Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangsu: great seafood, and generally sweet and light flavors.

Shandong Cuisine: fresh and salty with a lot of seafood dishes.

Regional Stereotypes in China

The best for last, stereotypes are what people are always attracted to. A generalization (stereotyping) of people to make life simple and clear and often hide their own setbacks. One advise, take any stereotype light-hearted and with a grain of salt as stereotypes are just a very simplified generalization, often generated by isolated incidents and often false.

Chinese people have usually been stereotyped in the Western world as a uniform folk of people; for example as quiet, good at math, family-oriented, or bargainers.

However as this article is learning us, there is not one type of Chinese people but a melting pot of ethnicities, traditions, cultures and histories. It is like we would say that all Europeans are stingy because the Dutch are stereotyped this way or all Europeans have stiff upper lips and drive chaotically while only subsequently the British and Italians are labeled as such.

Little is known by the Western world about local or regional stereotypes within China while it is a dynamic phenomenon in China as anywhere in the world, especially as massive migrations during the last decades within China have resulted in local melting pots in practically every urban area.

While Northern Chinese males are considered masculine with the brutal and long winters, agricultural and hunting lives, larger in statute, heartier in constitution and a solid alcohol tolerance, Beijingers love to chat and boast about big topics such as politics and current events, though with a light heart, it feels uncommon to other Chinese people and even sometimes uncomfortable. Shanghai women are materialistic while the women in Sichuan are the beauty queens. Southern Chinese people will pretty much eat anything what moves while the people from Wenzhou (Wenzhounese) in Zheijiang province are considered the "Jews of China" being commercially and financially smart with close knit communities.

Though it is impossible and not desirable to make a systematic overview of stereotypes in China or anywhere, Kaiser Kuo wrote a nice poem on provincial stereotypes in China in his blog ‘Ich bin ein Beijinger’ about a decade ago which reflects some of the common stereotypes existing in China. A nice, light-hearted, non-offensive closure of more insights into the beautiful Chinese melting pot.

Provincial Poetry by Kaiser Kuo

In Dongbei, whence the Manchus came, the men do like their liquor.

While effusive with their friendship, with their enmity they’re quicker

Though they’re honest and straightforward, at the slightest provocation

They’ll show why they’ve been slandered as the Klingons of this nation.

The leggy Dongbei ladies for their beauty are renowned,

(I attest that in my travels, few more fetching have I found.)

But they suffer from one drawback, and it’s very sad to tell—

When they open up their mouths to speak, they break that magic spell.

The stalwart Shandong people grow as hearty as their scallions

On their noodle-heavy diet they’ve been bred as strong as stallions.

They’re known for dogged loyalty; they’re known as trusty folks,

But a bit slow on the uptake—thus, the butt of many jokes.

In Hunan and in Hubei in the country’s center-south

They say the people there can really run it at the mouth

In Hubei in particular, the saying is often heard

That a single Hubei codger can drown out a nine-head bird.

The Hunanese, in temperament, are piquant as their dishes,

Like duo jiao yu tou—capsicum with slow-braised heads of fishes.

Add to this mix the province’s infernal summer heat,

And you see why Hunan’s Xiang Jun had the Taiping rebels beat.

The teahouses of Chengdu represent the Sichuan Way:

The women toil in earnest while the men drink tea and play.

The Chuan hou plays at mahjong as the Chuan mei cleans and mends,

And like the Sichuan peppers do, she burns it at both ends.

The Pearl River Delta in the southlands of Guangzhou

Is home to China’s most industrious people, as you know:

They’re scrappy and they’re gritty and they’re free of all pretension,

And they’ll make a meal of any living beast you’d care to mention.

They say that Henan people are a sly and cunning lot.

But my ancestors are from there—proving some, at least, are not.

My co-provincials countrywide are blamed for every ill,

While provinces that suck as bad get let off easy still.

The Shanghainese are philistines, and this they’ll gladly own:

Commercial instincts permeate them to the very bone.

Their pride in Shanghai’s petit bourgeois ethos is immense

But what they lack in culture, they make up in common sense.

As you might well have expected, I have saved the best for last,

For my love for Beijing’s people is immovably steadfast.

From their gargling r-drenched accent to their dry sardonic wit,

The denizens of Jing Town are the dope, the bomb, the shit.

Beiingers love to gab, and though they’re lazy and they’re slow,

There’s nothing about politics that they aren’t apt to know.

They may complain a lot about the traffic and the air

But scratch beneath the cynicism and you’ll find they care.

So be grateful that you live here, and be clear on what it means.

Be grateful you don’t live among Klingons, or philistines.

Be grateful for the legacy of Yuan and Ming and Qing—

And most of all be grateful for the people of Beijing.

“Different CHINA” is a series telling different sides of China which are lesser known to the world. China is well known through many publications for its miraculous speed of developments and growth in technology, environment, commerce, social structures and international standing with Chinese people embracing innovation while keeping tradition highly valued. But this image does not do full justice as China is so much more in its diversity, culture, environment, people and initiatives.  “Different CHINA” is part of 5iZ.

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