The boundaries of ''Zhonghua minzu'' are fuzzy but most Chinese today use the term to include all peoples within the territorial boundaries of China integrated as one national, political, cultural and perhaps even ideological-moral group. It is sometimes also extended to overseas Chinese.
''Zhonghua'' refers to the concept of "China" and is the term used in the formal names for both the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China. ''Minzu'' can be translated as "nation", "people", or "ethnic group".
Confusion can arise because the term "Chinese" in Western languages is often used to refer both to Zhonghua minzu and to the ethnicity, two concepts which are usually kept distinct among modern Chinese speakers.
The immediate roots of the ''Zhonghua minzu'' lie in the Qing Empire, a multi-ethnic empire created in the 17th century by the Manchus. Faced with the necessity to legitimize their rule over the different peoples that they had conquered, the Manchus sought to portray themselves as ideal Confucian rulers for the Chinese, Grand khans for the Mongols, and Chakravartin kings for Tibetan Buddhists. This involved developing clear ethnic or religious identities within the empire. Administratively, the empire was divided into the provinces of China and the territories of Mongols, Tibetans, and Muslims, which were not subject to the control of the Chinese bureaucracy. Settlement of Han Chinese in these territories was forbidden, the law was later revise to allow resettlement in areas of disputed border to solidify chinese claim. In this fashion, the Qing court intended and to a large part succeeded in gaining the loyalty of the large Han Chinese , whose cooperation was essential to govern China, as well as other groups such as the Mongols, who acknowledged the Qing as successors to Chinggis Khan. Qing policy on these territories only changed with the establishment of Xinjiang as a province of China in 1884.
In the late 19th century, the identities which the Qing promoted were modified under the influence of Western concepts of ethnicity and nationality. Chinese nationalists such as Sun Yat-sen initially planned to expel the Manchus as "foreign invaders" and establish a Chinese nation-state modelled closely after Germany and Japan. Fearing, however, that this restrictive view of the ethnic nation-state would result in the dismemberment and domination of the Qing empire by Western powers, Chinese nationalists discarded this concept and extended the scope of China to cover the entire territory of the Qing state. The abdication of the Qing emperor inevitably led to controversy about the status of territories in Tibet and Mongolia. While the emperor formally bequeathed all the Qing territories to the new republic, it was the position of Mongols and Tibetans that their allegiance had been to the Qing monarch; with the abdication of the Qing, they owed no allegiance to the new Chinese state. This was rejected by the Republic of China and subsequently the People's Republic of China.
This development in Chinese thinking was mirrored in the expansion of the meaning of the term ''Zhonghua minzu''. Originally coined by the late Qing philologist Liang Qichao, ''Zhonghua minzu'' initially referred only to the Han Chinese. It was then expanded to include the Five Races Under One Union, based on the ethnic categories of the Qing. Sun Yatsen further expanded this concept when he wrote,
The concept of ''Zhonghua minzu'' was first publicly espoused by President Yuan Shikai in 1912, shortly after the overthrow of the Qing Empire and the founding of the Republic of China. Facing the imminent independence of Outer Mongolia from China, Yuan Shikai stated, "Outer Mongolia is part of ''Zhonghua minzu'' and has been of one family for centuries" .
After the founding of the People's Republic of China, the concept of ''Zhonghua minzu'' became influenced by Soviet nationalities policy. Officially, the PRC is a unitary state composed of , of which the is by far the largest. The concept of ''Zhonghua minzu'' is seen as an all-encompassing category consisting of people within the borders of the PRC.
This term has continued to be invoked and remains a powerful concept in China into the 21st century. In mainland China, it continues to hold use as the leaders of China need to unify into one political entity a highly diverse set of ethnic and social groups as well as to mobilize the support of overseas Chinese in developing China.
In Taiwan, it is invoked as a unifying concept that includes the people of both Taiwan and mainland China without a possible interpretation that Taiwan is part the People's Republic of China, whereas terms such as "Chinese people" can be, given that the PRC is commonly known as "China".
The adoption of the ''Zhonghua minzu'' concept has given rise to the reinterpretation or rewriting of Chinese history. For example, the Manchu Dynasty was originally often characterized as a "conquering regime" or a "non-Han" regime. Following the adoption of the ''Zhonghua minzu'' ideology, which regards the Manchus as a member of the ''Zhonghua minzu'', the distinction between non-native and native dynasties had to be abandoned. In the new orthodoxy, the Manchus, being as "Chinese" as the Han, could no longer be regarded as "barbarian conquerors", and the Qing empire could no longer be regarded as a "conquering empire".
Rewriting history also meant reassessing the role of many traditional hero figures. Heroes such as Yue Fei and Koxinga, who were originally considered to have fought for China against barbarian incursions, have been recharacterized by some as ''minzu yingxiong'' who fought not against barbarians but against other members of the ''Zhonghua minzu'' . At the same time, China exemplified heroes such as Genghis Khan, who became a "Chinese hero" by virtue of the fact that the Mongols are considered part of the ''Zhonghua minzu''.
Genghis Khan himself was an early precursor of some elements of the ''Zhonghua Minzu'', adopting the principle of meritocracy and employing a multi-ethnic contingent in his administrative entourage and military ranks, such as the Khitan statesman and Han Chinese general Guo Kan; the Mongol empire encompassed cultures and ethnicities from the Yellow Sea to the Black Sea. This concept was further extrapolated by Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai Khan, who finally defeated the Southern Song, and unified China under the Yuan Dynasty with a multi-ethnic governmental administration.
The ''Zhonghua Minzu'' concept in practice is a model of affirmative action, in which Chinese nationals who are not of the ethnic Han majority, are entitled to preferential university entry status, favorable tax laws, non-compliance to the one-child policy, among many other preferential conditions under Chinese law for ethnic minorities.This has in fact led to a tremendous surge in the population of ethnic minorities in China, which number about 5% of the total Chinese population in the 1950s, to about 10% in 2006 of the total in the year 2007; a birth rate about three times that of the ethnic Han majority group in the last half-century.
Despite the superficial application of the ''Zhonghua Minzu'' concept to ethnic groups and history, the older concept of China as largely synonymous with the Han ethnic group is still widespread, even in China. For instance, discussions of Chinese cuisine usually refer to the culinary practices of and subdivisions within the Han majority, and do not seriously pretend to categorize "Chinese" food according to the theoretical framework of ''Zhonghua minzu''.
The theory behind the ideology of ''Zhonghua minzu'' is that it includes not only the Han but also other within China, such as the Mongols, Manchus, , Tibetans, Tuvans, etc. Supporters of the separate historical identities of different ethnic groups reject the notion these ethnic groups are part of a single people with Han Chinese. Proponents of Tibetan independence or Uighur independence reject the concept of ''Zhonghua minzu'' as grounds for a unified nation-state, with some argue that their peoples have a culture, history of political independence, and sense of nationhood which is quite distinct from that of the Han Chinese or China.
The boundaries of who is or is not a member of the Chinese nation are not necessarily consistent. A person of Russian , Korean , Vietnamese , Kyrgyz , Hmong , or Mongol ethnicity with Chinese citizenship would be considered a full member of the Zhonghua Minzu. A Russian living in Russia, a Korean living in Korea, a Vietnamese living in Vietnam, a Kyrgyz living in Kyrgyzstan, a Hmong person living in Southeast Asia, or a Mongol living in Mongolia would almost universally be considered not to be. On the other hand, ''Cháoxiǎn Zú'' living and working in Korea or Mongolian from Inner Mongolia living and working in the independent state of Mongolia would be considered members of the ''Zhonghua Minzu'', which can give rise to potential issues of identity.
Whether ethnic Han Chinese living and not having Chinese citizenship are considered part of this Chinese nationality depends on the speaker and the context. More often than not, overseas Chinese in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore make a clear distinction between being Chinese in a political sense and being Chinese in an ethnic sense, making it unclear whether or not they belong to such a group that contains both political and ethnic connotations.
The conceptual boundaries of the ''Zhonghua minzu'' may be complicated by independent countries such as Mongolia and Korea, with their differing interpretations of historical peoples and states. For instance, the idea of as a "Chinese hero" is contested by Mongolia, which since the fall of socialism has explicitly positioned Chinggis Khan as the father of the Mongolian state. In opposition to this, it is common to point out that there are more ethnic Mongolians in China than in the state of Mongolia.
A dispute of a similar nature has arisen over the status of the state of Goguryeo in ancient history, with the Chinese claiming it as Chinese on the grounds that much of it existed within the current borders of China. Some of historical territories of the kingdom of Goguryeo were within current borders of China, and is on that Chinese nationalists say they are part of the heterogeneous origin of the Chinese nation in China. This claim is generally rejected outside of China.
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