In China, it is not uncommon to hear expressions such as: “56 ethnic groups live together happily!”, and “Han people are the main and major part of Chinese. We called: DA HAN, means: Great Han.” What one does not often hear, however, are the opinions of any of those ’56 minorities’.
The first thing about the label ’56 minorities’, is that it is a lie. There are far more than 56 cultural groups living in what is now China, but the Communists figured it was easier to lump them together. Which isn’t a problem if you are Han. But, try telling a Tongan that he is a Samoan, and you’d better have your hospital insurance paid up. It’s insulting and it’s a lie, but the lie continues to be taught as part of China’s ‘Patriotic Education’.
Space (and time) does not permit a detailed analysis of all the different cultural groups that have been incorporated into the Han Dream, so I’ll focus on just three: Mongolian, Uighur, and Tibetans.
Mongolia used to rule China, and China was but a small part of the Mongolian Empire (which the Han now claim was Chinese, naturally). Recognising the untrustworthiness of their Chinese subjects, the Mongolians used the Han in only minor roles in the government, preferring to deal with other Mongolians and Arabs. The Han have long memories for slights real or imagined, and have never forgiven the Mongolian people. Which is why, when the Chinese Communists and the Red Army annexed Inner Mongolia back in 1949, their occupation was particularly brutal. Try today asking any Mongolian what they think of the Han. Chances are they won’t talk about 56 minorities living together happily.
The Uighur come from the country that was known in 1948 as East Turkestan, but which was renamed Xinjiang in 1949 after the Red Army charged across the border. The Uighur are a proud and ancient people, descended from the European Celts. It was these people who brought the first true civilisation to most of western and central China, as well as the wheel, weaving, and many other advanced technologies. The Uighur converted to Islam in 934, a religion despised by the Communists, and one which they have repeatedly tried (and failed) to stamp out. Interestingly, Uighur men are prohibited from growing beards, due to the twin facts that a beard is a sign of respect and authority in Islam, and Han Chinese seldom grow more than a few wisps of hair on their face. The Uighur are the true underclass of China, barred from holding good jobs or receiving decent educations. The women are regularly the victims of forced sterilisations, and they are the popular scapegoats for all criminal activity throughout the nation.
I have saved for last the Tibetan people, as they are in the news more than all other groups. Tibet was once a huge empire, larger at the time than China (the Bay of Bengal was known then as the Tibetan Sea). They were a proud and strong people, and they fought regular wars with the Han. They converted to Buddhism in the early 7th century, and spread that religion, as well as an advanced system of writing to both the Han, and their close kin, the Mongolians. The Han eventually reverted to their older system of pictographs, but you can still see today many similarities in the languages of the Mongolians and the Tibetans. Tibet eventually lost it’s military capabilities, and in an attempt to keep the peace with their old enemy the Han, allowed two Han advisers (amban) to be permanently stationed in Lhasa. The role of these advisers was to simply ensure that Tibetan government policy did not run counter to the interests of the Han. The Han today claim this as a major basis of ‘ownership since ancient times’, but the reality was far different. The two amban were in reality little more than ambassadors, holding no power of their own.
Tibet was slated for a particularly grim fate, being carved up into numerous ‘Chinese Provinces’, as seen in the image below:
The destruction of Tibet’s ancient culture began the day the Red Army crossed the border in 1950, with over a million civilians, mostly monks, brutally murdered and most of the temples destroyed or damaged. The Tibetan people rose up against their Han oppressors in 1959, and in the ensuing crackdown another 86,000 died. Between 1950 and 1984, an estimated 260,000 more died in labour camps (the dreaded Laogai, still in operation today).
The Han proclaim to all that theirs is a happy nation of 56 ethnic groups living together happily under the caring and watchful eye of their Han parents, but the reality is far, far different. Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it – please find below a copy of a letter from a Tibetan girl (which I found on the excellent Black & White Cat):
I really hope you will allow me to say a little on your blog about my own situation.
I’m a Tibetan who cannot speak the Tibetan language. I can understand a little of the Lhasa dialect and I can understand the Gannan dialect, but I cannot speak it.
Right now, I don’t know any more than everyone else about the real situation (section deleted)
I’ll say a little about my personal experiences.
When I went to primary school in Lhasa, there were schools that offered classes in Tibetan but the quality of teaching was very poor and not many pupils went on to higher grades. Parents would usually chose schools with a higher graduation rate so when I left kindergarten I didn’t take Tibetan classes and I completely forgot how to read or write Tibetan.
Before I finished primary school, I moved out of Tibet for health reasons and had even less contact with the language.
After I graduated, I applied for an office job. One boss asked my to change my Tibetan name to something that Han people could recognize more easily, like Zhuoma or Zhuoga, to give people a strong impression and be more competitive in business.
Later I went to XX for an interview. One manager was extremely interested in knowing whether or not Tibetans only wash twice in their lives. He was very curious to know: “Don’t they mind being dirty?” That took up a third of the interview.
Later on, my parent’s friend introduced me to a boyfriend who was Han. His mother was only worried about one thing: “She’s Tibetan. Supposing there’s a court case – my son would definitely lose.”
A few years ago, my father passed away. My relatives came a huge distance all the way from Gannan and got out butter lamps ready to light. The local committee said: “This is the XXX memorial hall. We can’t have that kind of feudal superstition here.” In the end I just had to throw away all the offerings and candles the committee had prepared to resolve the problem.
Also at that time, my sister had to keep it a secret that she went to the Jokhang Temple. If her work unit found out, they would have docked her salary.
A few years ago, I took my father’s ashes to Labrang Monastery where he lived when he was a child. The patriarch of the family braved wind and snow to recover solid remains from the ashes and we stood round him crying. But that didn’t stop a novelty-seeking Han from snapping and flashing away with his camera. In the end I cursed him in Han to chase him off.
People in the county town where I come from don’t wear Tibetan clothes to work anymore because it makes them feel inferior and ashamed in front of their Han colleagues.
In the past, my relatives back home could cut wood and sell it to earn money to buy things they needed. Then, because so many Han went there to cut down trees, the state banned tree cutting. With nothing to live on, they had to go to the city to find work. But with no education, their status was lower than Han migrant workers and they didn’t get the same pay for the same work.
My neighbors often praise us sincerely: “Are you really Tibetan? Hey, you don’t look it. You’re so white and so clean.”
In this city that’s called a center of culture, even my mother, my own family, everyone is trying as hard as they can to avoid revealing their Tibetan identity because we can’t fight off the nasty things people say.
Later, I made up my mind to study Tibetan, but I didn’t realize how hard that would turn out to be. I searched all over Lhasa and Beijing and I sill haven’t found any recorded teaching materials.
Now my Han friends say: “What a pity. You’ve lost your culture.”
The things a lot of people do and say hurt us, even though they don’t mean to. It seems that time and again we’ve tried to ignore this kind of hurt. But, now (sentence deleted). I hope from now on people won’t indulge in this kind of thing.