We the People’s Republic of China

January 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

by Chieh-Ting Yeh

Some years ago, it seemed like every tourist visiting China was on the lookout for the same souvenir: the canvas bag emblazoned with the words wei renmin fuwu, “Serve the People,” in none other than Chairman Mao’s own handwriting. Was it the nonconformist symbolism of the Chinese Communist propaganda style that caught the foreigners’ eyes? Or was it the historical significance of Chairman Mao’s words that resonated? Who knows, and no one really cares. Not to the Chinese, anyway, as long as money is to be made.

Except the Chinese do care about what the word renmin means. There is China’s formal name, Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo (中華人民共和國, “The People’s Republic of China”); Renmin Univeristy (人民大學); China’s legislative venue the Renmin Dahuitang (人民大會堂, “The Great Hall of the People”); China’s high court the Zuigao Renmin Fayuan (最高人民法院, “The Supreme People’s Court”), and on and on. Renmin translates into “people,” here used liberally to denote the members of the classless society established after the proletariat revolution, as if the people need some sort of constant reminder that the government belongs to them (nominally, anyway). Point being, the concept of the renmin goes back deep into the origins of China.

Renmin is made up of two more basic parts, ren and min. Just to confuse our non-Chinese readers, ren, min, and renmin can all be translated as “people.” Good people, bad people, tall people, short people, French people, indigenous people, etc. However, the connotations between ren and min are distinct. Ren denotes individual persons, describing a person as just him or herself, closer to the concept of a “human being” in English. A good person is a haoren; a benefactor is a guiren, a beauty is a meiren, and so forth. Hanren, is the Han ethnicity. Zangren, Tibetans. Ribenren, Japanese. Min, on the other hand, refers to a group of people under political rule. The Chinese word zimin literally means a prince’s people, or the English word “subject”; nanmin means people in crisis, or “refugee”; gongmin means people in public, or “citizen.” The people denoted by min is more like “We the People” with the capital P.

Perhaps, then, we can say, the Chinese language differentiates between “people” as simply a group of persons with distinct identities and characteristics, and “people” as one collective body subject to a common political fate. In other words, the people comprising a “nation” and the people under a “state.”

This offers some clues as to how China thinks of herself as a nation, a state, and a nation-state. The Chinese usually like to think of themselves as one nation and one state since the beginning of time. When a Chinese person talks about his heritage, it’s not uncommon to mention China’s “5,000 year history” and all Chinese being “heirs of the dragon.” However, beginning with the Qin Dynasty and much more so in the Han Dynasty in 206 BC, China was already an empire encompassing all sorts of ren—a variety of nations under one state. The state came first through war and continued to preside over a mixture of ethnicities and tribal clans.

To rule over all these different ren, the state must turn them into min. The Han rulers established a system of imperial examinations, through which social advancement was based on mastery of Confucian thought. This effectively established one philosophical and political system of thought for the entire populace, not just by brute cultural assimilation (though there was certainly no shortage of that) but, more importantly, by political indoctrination. Throughout China’s history, the imperial examination system had been one hallmark of all of the dynasties that ruled China. This includes the proud cosmopolitan dynasties like the Tang, the Song and the Ming (partially anyway), but also the non-ethnic-Han dynasties of the Yuan and the Qing. We may not be sure whether the people living in southeastern coastal areas felt a cultural connection with those living near the northern deserts, but they were all hoping to secure a seat in government and a mansion in the capital by taking the test. In this way, the succession of empires in China conducted nation-building within their borders, but I would argue that up until the end of the Qing in 1911, China was not a nation-state. It was much bigger than a nation-state.

Certainly, during the turn of the 20th Century, when ancient Asian empires clashed with modern European nation-states, China had to avoid the fates suffered by the Ottoman Empire (which shattered into many pieces) and India (which became a colony under a European power). Through violent revolutions, China guzzled up Western ideologies and tried to masquerade itself as a singular nation-state. Sun Yat-sen himself envisioned a purely ethnic Han nation-state in the beginning and only later acquiesced to “Hans, Manchus, Mongols, Uighurs and Tibetans” as part of the “Chinese nation.” Thus, in an utterly hasty fashion, a new nation-building and a new state-building project began in the ruins of the old Qing Empire. The process was anything but civilized (just ask the Tibetans), but the means justified the ultimate end: to create an united front in order to vindicate the humiliation suffered at the hands of 19th Century imperialists.

In 2013, after every Western ideology has run its course in China, all that is left of this messy and bloody modern China project is a nation-state with long dilapidated foundations. Its government’s legitimacy to rule still exclusively comes from saving and modernizing China from the threats of imperialism. China’s rabid nationalists still rationalize their behavior as a defense against the wrongs by European and Japanese aggressors perpetrated more a hundred years ago. Border disputes get placed into this context of national affront. Sure, all this reactionary energy had propelled China back onto the world stage, but we are well on our way into the 21st Century already. Are long-gone grudges really sufficient to justify the contours of China’s current nation-state, especially when China has historically been more than a nation-state?

And if the old imperial rulers of China had already figured out something bigger than nation-states, then why constrain what it means to be Chinese to a singular culture represented by cheap pagodas, dragons and scallion pancakes, when the various Chinese empires had already come to encompass a dazzling array of cultures and languages? Why restrict China within political borders to one geographic area on the globe, when China itself has morphed and shifted its shape over time? Why clench onto the notion of China to be nothing but one singular state under one government, when the ren of China has coexisted as the min of many states?

In China, from the dichotomy between ren and min, the Chinese ancestors had already figured out that nations and states need not be exclusively mapped to one another, and have conducted themselves accordingly. It’s time for China to be more than its nation-state Band-Aid. The people who had the foresight to know that people exist both as an end to themselves and as parts of a greater vision, the people who established multinational empires through coercion and violence but also through philosophy and trade, the people who brought to the world artistic, religious, and technological advancements, the people who hold themselves to be the heirs of one of the oldest civilizations on the planet, can be much more than a reactionary and defensive nation-state stuck in the past. Then maybe it wouldn’t have to constantly remind itself that its state really does belong to the renmin.

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