Deconstructing ‘Minzu’

In a number of posts to follow I will identify three places where symbolic power operates, that is, how the Chinese State has exerted its monopoly of symbolic power to instill a signification of Uyghurs as an undeveloped singing, dancing subaltern subject. Indeed, this colonialist objectification: the predominant representation of Uyghurs, and other minzu (ethnic groups), as rural and quaint in contrast to the developed majority Han, is an ethnic representation, generally a canvas stretched over all of China’s 55 ethnic minority groups and is a crucial discourse within the reproduction of China’s national mythology (Gladney 1994, 2004). While the group under discussion and the specific symbols of representation are directly related to Uyghurs, the underlying principles are germane to an understanding of Tibetan, Mongolian, or other subalterns. Admittedly, most of what follows has been discussed elsewhere, and in more detail, by a number of China scholars, particularly Dru Gladney, but it deserves reexamination, particular concerning its application to the exigent conditions within the so-called Xinjiang and Tibetan Autonomous Regions because the logic of symbolic power and the methods by which it is wielded by the Chinese state are generally replicated from place to place.

In the first post I will begin with a brief analysis of Chinese cultural capital in the form of controlling the taxonomy of ethnic and national designations and inscribing a national origin myth, based on the superiority of Han domination and Party control. The second post in this series will examine the role of museums in reproducing these significations and draw more heavily on Benedict Anderson and his discussion of an imagined community. The final post in this series will be comprised of a more thorough analysis of the unity posters briefly mentioned in an earlier post, as these public inscriptions and visual elements are clear manifestations of symbolic power in the everyday social space and require a more serious engagement. For a brief social, historical discussion of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Please revisit The Politics of Representing ‘Uyghur,’ a socio-historical sketch

Nationality Designation

In the struggle inherent in the politics of representation, where agents are employed in imposing a vision of the social world, they wield the symbolic and cultural capital acquired in previous struggles, in particular the power they possess over instituted taxonomies (Bourdieu, 1991: 239). The Communist victory over the Guomingdang in October of 1949 ushered in ‘New China’ and guaranteed the monopoly of the Communist Party of China (CCP) over naming their victory and defining the ethnic composition of the new nation.

In the early 1950s the regime invited representatives of its disparate ethnic and national groups to Beijing. Gladney explains, although more than 400 separate groups applied to be recognized as distinct ethnic and national groups, there were only forty-one nationalities listed on the first census of 1953. The 1964 census included fifty-three nationalities, and the 1982 and 1990 censuses finally settled on the current fifty-six nationalities (2004: 9). In a Kafkaesque exertion of the power to define, according to the 1990 census there were still 749,341 ethnically ‘unidentified’ individuals awaiting recognition by the regime (2004: 9). This is arguably not only an example of power constructing its subjects but even leaving them ‘officially’ unconstructed.

This exertion of power over the taxonomy of existing as part of a category, group identity, and the corresponding externalities, both positive and negative, is a powerful example of biopower and sovereignty, most associated with Michel Foucault but extensively dealt with by Giorgo Agamben. For Agamben, understanding the sovereign is understanding the individual or entity with the power to decide the exceptions. In 3/4 of a million people living undefined, outside of legally defined and accepted categories of existence, we are greeted by the Chinese state with a significant case of deciding the state of exception.

The state not only set to the task of defining the nation in terms of ethnic demographics it also began to define the core characteristics of individual ethnic groups. Early propaganda films for example served this purpose as did the erection of many memorials to the ‘peaceful liberation’ of minority lands. An excellent example is Cui Wei, Chen Huaiai, and Liu Baode‘s 1964 film Tianshan de Hong Hua [The Red Flowers of Tianshan]. It is a typical propaganda piece depicting the unity and benefit of ethnic minorities working with the party for mutual development.

In the People’s Square of Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi there is a large obelisk which reads Zhongguo Renmin Jiefangjun Jinjun Xinjiang Jinian [A memorial of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army marching into Xinjiang]. Such inscriptions were a vital component in the early representation of minorities within official discourse. The signified is that the people living in the region were in need of liberation. It instills the discourse of the party as peaceful liberator and benefactor. The signifier is the text, memorializing this liberation. One signification, arguably, is that those minorities rely on the Party for their livelihood. But the politics of representation go deeper. In addition, and much as other nations have done in their own nation building ventures, the state museumizes national representations (Anderson, 1983) to further enshrine the official discourse. The following post in this series will deal with this final point in greater detail.

Anderson, Benedict (1983/2006). Imagined Communities, Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1991). Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity Press

Gladney, Dru. (1994). “Representing Nationality in China: Refiguring Majority/ Minority Identities,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 53, No. 1.

Gladney, Dru. (2004). Dislocating China: Reflections on Muslims, Minorities and other Subaltern Subjects. London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd.


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