Which ethnic group do you belong to? and other subversive questions

This 2014 article, excerpted by major Chinese media outlet Guancha from a journal article, discusses why textbooks in Xinjiang about ethnic minorities were rewritten to curb what four experts—all of them Han, the majority ethnic group that constitutes 92% of the population of China and 100% of the Politburo, the most powerful body in the Party—considered unacceptable promotion of ethnic divisions. Specifically, they object to content like the following questions:

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Which ethnic group do you belong to? Do you know the representatives from your ethnic group at the National People’s Congress? Do you have a good understanding of the ethnic group to which you belong? Does your class have ethnic minority students? Which ethnic groups are those minority students from? What is your ethnic group’s language? What is the main religion practiced by your ethnic group?

This article and its implications are important to keep in mind as we delve further into reading about Xinjiang and inevitably encounter the justifications of Chinese unity and nationalism positied in defense of central government policy towards the region. Who defines acceptable boundaries of ethnic identity? Why are the questions listed above so subversive?

As with all translated articles on this blog, key portions/takeaways are highlighted.

Special thanks to translator Quinton Huang (Twitter: @relentlessqwert).

Why did Xinjiang experts halt national "Ethnic Studies Materials"? 新疆专家为何叫停国家“民族教材”?

2009年,中宣部、教育部、国家民委联合发布《关于在学校开展民族团结教育活动的通知》,要求全国大中小学广泛开展民族团结教育,并纳入课程和考试评价。由此,教育部、国家民委组织编写并向全国中小学发行了民族团结教育四本系列教材:即《中华大家庭》(用于小学三、四年级,人民出版社2009年版)、《民族常识》(用于小学五、六年级,人民出版社2009年版)、《民族政策常识》(用于七、八年级,人民出版社2009年版)、《民族理论常识》(用于高中一、二年级,红旗出版社2009年版)。

In 2009, the Publicity Department* of the Chinese Communist Party, the Ministry of Education, and the National Ethnic Affairs Commission jointly issued the “Notice on the Launch of Ethnic Unity Educational Activities in Schools”, requiring all schools at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels to broadly initiate ethnic unity education and incorporate it into curricula and testing evaluation. Based on this, the Ministry of Education and the National Ethnic Affairs Commission have compiled and issued a series of four textbooks on ethnic unity education to all schools at the primary and secondary levels. The four textbooks are: The Great Chinese Family (to be used in Primary 3 and 4 classes, published by Renmin Publishing House in 2009); General Knowledge on Ethnicity** (to be used in Primary 5 and 6 classes, published by Renmin Publishing House in 2009); General Knowledge on Ethnic Policy (to be used in Primary 7 and 8 classes, published by Renmin Publishing House in 2009); and General Knowledge on the Theory of Ethnicity† (to be used in Secondary 1 and 2 classes, published by Red Flag Publishing House in 2009).

* Formerly called the Propaganda Department ** The translation of 民族 minzu 'ethnicity, nation, nationality' is notoriously tricky. Wang Linzhu summarizes the background in a footnote of his 2015 paper, "The Identification of Minorities in China". He writes: "The phrase 'minzu' in Chinese appears as two separate characters. In regard to ethnicity, 'min' literally means 'people' and 'zu' equates to lineage/clan. ... After the introduction of the nation concept in 1903, people started to name traditional groups as the Han minzu/zu or Tibetan minzu/zu, alongside the new Chinese nation (trans. zhonghuaminzu). The usage of minzu in this sense is confusing, as it represents the Chinese nation on the one hand and refers to its constituent parts on the other. Therefore, how to accurately translate minzu, the constituent groups of the Chinese nation, has long been debated. Diverse translations, such as nationality, ethnicity, ethnic group, or minzu as it is, have been suggested." † Translator Quinton Huang's note: 民族理论 is a Marxist concept that usually is translated into "Theory of Nations/Nationality" or "the National Question" in English (cf. Stalin's "Marxism and the National Question").

新疆中小学当年采用了这本教材,因少数民族学生的需要,新疆的教材必须翻译成维吾尔语、哈萨克语、蒙古、柯尔克孜语。由于翻译者把握不准,于是向自治区教材审定委员会委员马品彦(新疆社科院中亚所研究员)、戢广南(新疆社科联研究员)请教。马品彦、戢广南初步看到该教材,感到该教材存在一些不适合新疆的一些内容,当即向新疆教育厅做了反映。

Primary and secondary schools in Xinjiang adopted these textbooks that same year. Because of the needs of ethnic minority students, the textbooks used in Xinjiang had to be translated into the Uyghur, Kazakh, Mongolian and Kyrgyz languages. As the translators were not completely accurate, two members of the Autonomous Region’s Textbook Review Committee—Ma Pinyan (researcher at the Central Asia Research Institute, Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences) and Ji Guangnan (researcher at the Xinjiang Federation of Social Science Associations)—were consulted. When Ma Pinyan and Ji Guangnan initially read these textbooks, they felt that there were a few parts which were not appropriate for Xinjiang and immediately expressed this to the Xinjiang Department of Education.

自治区教育厅领导对两位专家的意见十分重视,厅党组书记赵德忠立即安排相关处室人员到北京,向国家教育部主管此事的民族教育司反映。民族教育司的领导叫来该套教材的主要编写人员金炳镐(中央民族大学教授)等进行沟通,原编者听不进新疆同志的意见。在当年乌鲁木齐“7•5”事件发生的大背景下,民族教育司的领导相当重视新疆方面的意见,破例在原教材未做调整的情况下,允许新疆方面根据新疆实际对该教材略作修改。故而新疆在印刷该教材时,删减了个别词句和图片。当年该教材在全疆中小学使用了。

The leadership of the Autonomous Region’s Department of Education paid great attention to the views of these two experts. Secretary Zhao Dezhong of the Department’s Party Committee promptly arranged for relevant department staff to travel to Beijing and report to the Department of Ethnic Education, the body responsible for these matters within the national Ministry of Education. The leadership of the Department of Ethnic Education called over Jin Binggao (professor at Central Minzu University) and the other main editors of the textbook series to facilitate a conversation, but the original editors did not accept the suggestions of our Xinjiang comrades. As the 7/5 Ürümqi Incident* had occurred that same year, the leadership of the Department of Ethnic Education valued opinions of those from Xinjiang highly and thus made an exception. While the original textbooks were not fully revised, Xinjiang authorities were allowed to slightly modify them based on the reality on the ground there. Therefore specific phrases and images were removed when printing these textbooks for Xinjiang. These materials were then used in Xinjiang’s primary and secondary schools that year.

* Refers to the July 2009 Ürümqi riots, which began on July 5. The Wikipedia article is a surprisingly good overview of the riots, their background, and their consequences. According to official numbers, 197 people—mostly Han—were killed.

第二年6月,该教材由原来试用本成为正式教材。看到该教材继续在新疆使用、全国大面积发行,在教育厅基教处组织的教材工作座谈会上,新疆学者马品彦、戢广南、潘志平(新疆社科院中亚所所长、研究员)、孟楠(《新疆大学学报》主编、教授)都对该教材提出了不少意见。会后,由戢广南梳理并撰写了简要报告,报送自治区教育厅。

In June of the following year, the textbooks, originally published as trial editions, became official curricular textbooks. Seeing that these textbooks continued to be used in Xinjiang and were being issued across the country, in a work conference on textbooks organized by the Basic Education division of the Department of Education, Xinjiang scholars Ma Pinyan, Ji Guangnan, Pan Zhiping (researcher and dean of the Central Asia Institute, Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences), and Meng Nan (professor and chief editor of the Journal of Xinjiang University) raised a number of concerns regarding them. After the conference, Ji Guangnan summarized the points raised in a brief report that was submitted to the Autonomous Region’s Department of Education.

之后,戢广南基于多年研究,深感该教材一些偏差反映了多年来我国民族团结教育存在的重大问题,对边疆民族地区长治久安不利。为了能够充分说明问题,戢广南执笔撰写、四位专家共同署名上报了《教育部民族团结教育教材倾向性问题和不妥之处应予纠正》一文,约5000多字。该文有理有据地列举事实,揭示出该教材2009年教育部版中小学四本教材过多地提示和强调了各个民族的分界差异、所属不同,主导倾向是强化各民族的“分”而不是“合”,容易导致民族分界意识的增强,不利于中华民族认同和边疆长治久安。

Based on his many years of research, Ji Guangnan deeply believed that the biases within the aforementioned textbooks were indicative of serious, long-existing problems within China’s ethnic unity education and were detrimental to the long-term peace and stability of frontier ethnic minority regions. In order to fully explain these problems, Ji Guangnan submitted a report of more than 5000 characters entitled “The improprieties and bias problems in the Ministry of Education’s ethnic unity education curricular materials should be corrected”, jointly signed with four other experts. This report listed out the facts of the matter with reason and evidence, demonstrating that the four textbooks published by the Ministry of Education in 2009 for the primary and secondary levels excessively emphasized the differences between various ethnic groups’ delineations and affiliations. The textbooks’ predominant narrative was to stress the divisions rather than the unity between various ethnic groups. This could easily lead to the hardening of ethnically divisive consciousness and thus be harmful to the acceptance of the Chinese national identity and the long-term peace and stability of frontier regions.

在《教育部民族团结教育教材倾向性问题和不妥之处应予纠正》的建议文中,作者指出了该教材的诸多不妥之处,比如:教材处处提问“你属于哪个民族?你知道哪些本民族的人大代表?”“你了解自己所属的民族吗?”“你们班有少数民族学生吗?他们是哪个民族的?”“你的民族语言是什么?”“你的民族主要信仰的宗教是什么?”——这样在本来是平等友爱、几乎没有什么民族界限的中小学生刻意区分出不同民族,强调彼此语言不同、信仰不同、权利不同,要着意分清“你是你,我是我”,容易在学生心目中悄然形成“我们不是一家人”的意识。

In “The improprieties and bias problems in the Ministry of Education’s ethnic unity education curricular materials should be corrected”, the authors identified many improprieties within the aforementioned textbooks. For example, throughout the textbooks the student is asked: “Which ethnic group do you belong to? Do you know the representatives from your ethnic group at the National People’s Congress? Do you have a good understanding of the ethnic group to which you belong? Does your class have ethnic minority students? Which ethnic groups are those minority students from? What is your ethnic group’s language? What is the main religion practiced by your ethnic group?” In this way, these prompts take primary and secondary school students who originally were peers and friends in each other’s eyes, and who had almost no ethnic divisions amongst themselves, and deliberately divide them into distinct ethnic groups. These prompts emphasize that there are different languages, different faiths and different rights among students of different ethnicities, and purposely make clear that “you are you, and I am me”. It is thus easy to quietly inculcate the notion that “we are not one big family” within the hearts and minds of students.

作者指出教材内容实际上是严格把汉族与少数民族分开,主要讲的是各民族的区别区分,说差异,强调不同民族传统,过多地提示和强调各个民族的分别分界,所属不同。讲了55个民族知识,说到少数民族地区,都是地大物博,资源丰富,美丽富饶,却几乎不讲汉族知识,容易把少数民族与汉族区分割裂开来,这并不完全实事求是,还客观上增加民族分界意识、权属意识,实际效果并不好,不利于国家资源开发和各民族共有共享国家资源。该教材几乎不讲中华大家庭各民族的血肉联系,融合共通,不讲清楚中华民族的形成发展,而对中国民族状况,“多元”讲的很多,“一体性”几乎不讲。书名叫《中华大家庭》,读后让人感觉到却是只见55个民族“小家”,很难看到“中华大家庭”。这种片面的倾向,不利于形成中华民族的凝聚力和向心力,偏离了真正的民族团结思想和“三个离不开”的原则。

The authors pointed out that the content of the textbooks are in practice drawing a sharp dividing line between Han people and ethnic minorities. They focus on differences and discrepancies, emphasizing different ethnic traditions and overly stressing the differences between various ethnic groups’ delineations and affiliations. They talk about the 55 nationalities and ethnic minority regions, going on about how these places are vast, beautiful, fertile and rich in resources. On the other hand, they barely mention Han people, thus making it easy to divide and separate ethnic minorities from the Han. This is absolutely not seeking truth from facts. In fact, this narrative objectively heightens awareness of the divisions between ethnic groups and of ethnic title.* The practical consequences of this interpretation are not good at all, as this is detrimental to the development of the country’s resources and their common ownership and use by all ethnic groups. These textbooks hardly discuss the flesh-and-blood connections and shared harmony of all the ethnic groups which constitute the Chinese family. They do not explain clearly the formation of the Chinese nation, and instead overemphasizes the “diversity” of the state of China’s ethnicities while scarcely mentioning its “unity”. Though the textbook is titled The Great Chinese Family, after reading it, the reader only perceives 55 small “ethnic families” and strains to see the “great Chinese family”. This kind of one-sided narrative is harmful to building up the cohesiveness of the Chinese nation and diverges from genuine ethnic unity thought and the principles of the “Three Inseparables”.**

* Ethnic title [民族]权属意识—This term appears to be a reference to the sense of ownership and belonging to/of an ethnic group outside the Chinese nation-state. 'Title' is a term generally seen in a legal context, so its usage here is interesting. ** Translator's note: That is, that “the Han are inseparable from ethnic minorities, ethnic minorities are inseparable from the Han, and ethnic minorities are inseparable from each other.” (汉族离不开少数民族,少数民族离不开汉族,各少数民族之间也互相离不开。) Coined by Jiang Zemin in 1990.

建议文还进一步指出了该教材对宗教方面的阐述把握不准、表述不恰当,文字表述不严谨、出现多处(至少18处)表述错误等问题。比如教材中有这样一段话“桂林位于广西壮族自治区东北部,这里生活着壮、瑶、苗、侗等少数民族兄弟姐妹,他们共同建设着这座著名的风景城市。”——如此看来桂林与汉族毫无关系。读了这些,学生是很容易得出广西桂林不是汉族的、现在人口居多数的汉族桂林人是移民、是外来客居者、汉族是少数民族资源的侵占者这样的错误结论。

The report further pointed out that the textbooks’ treatment of religion had an insufficiently accurate grasp [of the subject], with an inappropriate interpretation, an unrigorous use of language and many errors (at least 18), among other problems. For example, in the textbooks there are passages such as “Guilin is located in the northeastern part of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, and is home to Zhuang, Yao, Miao, Dong and other ethnic minority brothers and sisters, all of whom built this famous and scenic city together.” From this, it appears that Guilin has no connection with Han people whatsoever. After reading these kinds of passages, students could very easily come away with the notion that Guilin is not a city for Han people, and that all of the Han people living in Guilin (who presently form the majority of the population there) are migrants or guests from other lands. They might come to the false conclusion that Han people are invaders and occupiers of the resources belonging to ethnic minorities.

《民族常识》第68页:“我国西北的新疆一带,历史上被称作西域,居住着维吾尔、回、哈萨克、柯尔克孜、塔吉克等少数民族,他们发明了坎儿井用来灌溉农田,在干旱的戈壁滩上开垦出一片片绿洲。”——这给人的印象是历史上新疆的传统居民、新疆的开发建设没有汉族,这不是有违我们多年熟知的“新疆自古以来就是中国的一部分、汉族自古以来就是长期在新疆开发建设和居住的民族”这样的基本历史事实吗?!

On page 68 of General Knowledge on Ethnicity, it is written: “In the Xinjiang region of our country’s northwest, called the ‘Western Regions’ in ancient times, there live Uyghurs, Hui, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajiks and other ethnic minorities. They invented the karez horizontal well system to irrigate fields, carving out green oases in the arid Gobi desert.” This gives readers the impression that the traditional residents of Xinjiang throughout history, and [the people involved in] the construction and development of Xinjiang, do not include Han people.* Is this not going against the basic historical fact that “Xinjiang has been a part of China since ancient times, and Han people have lived in, built and developed Xinjiang over a long period of time since antiquity” which we have become so well acquainted with over many years?!

* There have historically been very few Han in Xinjiang. In a 1949 cable to Mao Zedong, Josef Stalin urged him to hurry with the occupation of the region. Stalin further wrote: "The Chinese population in Xinjiang does not exceed 5%, after taking Xinjiang one should bring the percentage of the Chinese population to 30% by means of resettling the Chinese for all-sided development of this huge and rich region and for strengthening China's border protection." This is colonialism. See e.g. Liu & Peters 2017, "The Hanification of Xinjiang, China: The Economic Effects of the Great Leap West." (A rather spurious objection on Twitter argues "occupy" is a mistranslation of the Russian verb занимать; the subsequent cables detailing Stalin's provision of airplanes, jet fuel and supplies for the tens of thousands of invading PLA troops should make the accuracy of the translation clear.)

作者一针见血地指出:在统一的中华民族内,如果不讲共同性,而是片面强调本民族所属,强化本民族意识,强化分界意识,不利于中华认同、国家认同,不利于“建设中华民族共有精神家园”,势必淡化国家意识、公民意识,有害于中华民族大团结的思想基础,其潜在危险不容低估。

The authors hit the nail on the head in pointing out this: Within the united Chinese nation, if we do not talk about commonalities, but rather emphasize one-sidedly our own ethnic affiliation, strengthen our own ethnic consciousness and harden ethnic boundaries, it is disadvantageous to the acceptance of the Chinese identity and the feeling of national belonging. This is detrimental to “building the common spiritual homeland of the Chinese nation” and undoubtedly will lead to the weakening of the feeling of national belonging and the spirit of citizenship. This is destructive to the ideological foundation of the great unity of the Chinese nation. We must not underestimate the potential danger that this poses.

最后作者认为该教材在若干重要问题上存在严重偏差,科学性也不足,作为教材是不适合新疆等民族地区的。因而明确建议:1、新疆停用此套教材;2、建议教育部重新审查、重新编写; 3、建议国家有关部门按照十七大报告提出的“建设中华民族共有精神家园”要求,纠正某些偏向,正确地开展民族团结教育。

Lastly, the authors believed that these textbooks exhibit serious bias regarding a number of important issues and do not pass scientific muster. They are therefore inappropriate to serve as textbooks for Xinjiang and other ethnic regions. Thus, they gave the following suggestions: (1) Xinjiang should stop using this textbook series; (2) the Ministry of Education should re-evaluate and produce a new edition of this textbook series; (3) relevant government departments should adhere to the requirement of “building the common spiritual homeland of the Chinese nation” as stipulated in the Report to the 17th National Party Congress, correct any erroneous tendencies and develop ethnic unity education in a correct, proper way.

文章有理有据,内容充分,说理透彻。自治区教育厅据此上报教育部。同时,该内参被刊登在新疆社科院《专报》2010年第8期,上报给中宣部、中央新疆办,很快得到了中央领导的批示。中央领导李长春(时任中共中央政治局常委)、周永康(时任中央政治局常委、中央政法委书记)、刘云山(时任中央政治局委员、中宣部长)、刘延东(中央政治局委员、国务委员)很快作出批示,决定由中宣部、教育部重新组织审查,重新编写,并将该教材编写工作纳入中央马克思主义理论研究与建设工程。中央新疆办专门发函新疆社科院:中央领导同志阅后,肯定了此文的观点,并指示教育部门对教材作出修改。并要求新疆方面继续关注这方面工作。刘延东同志批示:此文分析的很有道理。民族团结教育教材一定要坚持马克思主义的国家观、民族观,体现中华民族多元一体和各民族“两个共同”的指导方针。请教育部立即审读,商有关部门重新编写。

The report was well reasoned and evidenced, with a thorough expounding of the details and logic behind the proposals therein. The Autonomous Region’s Department of Education accordingly referred this report to the national Ministry of Education. At the same time, this internal document was published in the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences’ Special Report 2010 no. 8, and was delivered to the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China and the Office of the Central Work Coordinating Group on Xinjiang, and shortly thereafter was reviewed and commented on by central leadership. Several central Party leaders, i.e., Li Changchun, Zhou Yongkang, Liu Yunshan, and Liu Yandong, soon reviewed and commented on the report.* They decided that the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China and the Ministry of Education should re-evaluate and compile a new edition of the textbook series, and further decided to integrate this textbook editing project into the Central Marxism Theory Research and Building Project. The Office of the Central Work Coordinating Group on Xinjiang then sent a letter to the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences, informing the Academy that central Party leadership agreed with the opinions in the report after reading it and instructed the Ministry of Education to revise the textbook series. They further requested that Xinjiang authorities continue to follow this work closely. Comrade Liu Yandong commented: “The analysis in the report is well-reasoned. Curricular materials for ethnic unity education must adhere to the Marxist perspective on the state and the national question, and should embody the guiding principles of the unity-in-diversity of the Chinese nation and of each ethnic group striving for the 'Two Togethers'.** We have requested the Ministry of Education to immediately conduct a review and discuss with relevant departments to compile a new edition of the textbooks.”

* Translator's note: All four are members of the Politburo. Li and Zhou were members of the Politburo Standing Committee as well. ** Translator's note: “Together struggle in unity, together develop toward prosperity”, as pronounced by Hu Jintao in 2003.