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:

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 posited in defense of central government policy towards the region. Who defines acceptable boundaries of ethnic identity? Why are the questions listed above so subversive?

In 2021, CGTN released a documentary about other "extremist" textbooks, one with thoroughly disturbing implications. Those imprisoned for the textbooks included a former poet, Wahitjan Osman, whose poetry had won China's most prestigious ethnic minority literary award in 2012.

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”?


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").


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.


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.

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


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. [N.b These are all non-Uyghur, likely Han names] After the conference, Ji Guangnan summarized the points raised in a brief report that was submitted to the Autonomous Region’s Department of Education.


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.


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.


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 then-General Secretary of the Party Jiang Zemin in 1990.


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.


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.)


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.


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.