Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China by Thomas S. Mullaney

Mullaney, T. (2011). Coming to terms with the nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Nation-building activities in the wake of China’s political transition heralded the nation’s coming-of-age as a modern state in the early twentieth century. A multi-ethnic empire prior to the end of the Qing Dynasty, China had long been ruled by a Manchu minority elite. Yet from its post-1912 transition emerged a modern nation-state unified under one national identity subsuming a multiplicity of indigenous ethnicities. By the mid-twentieth century, however, an official effort to understand the ethnic diversity contained within China’s borders was not only an important political project; it served also as an early embrace of the social scientific approach to marrying polity and ethnicity. China’s transformation from multi-ethnic empire to modern nation-state is now a subject of inquiry among China scholars.

Mullaney’s timely assessment of ethnic classification mechanisms in China addresses this question and in so doing, lends critical insight to the identity politics discourse. Shedding light on newly declassified census data and mid-century field reports, Mullaney makes an extensive examination of the process by which minority ethnicities in China came to be classified and recognized by the state. At the heart of this work is the problem of how modern China reconciled the ethnic diversity contained within its borders and the need to foster a unified national identity.

Mullaney undertakes a broad survey of ethnic crisis during each major historical period of the twentieth century from the end of the Qing Dynasty through the post-Mao era in China. When the 1953 Election Law reserved one seat in the National People’s Congress for a representative of each minority, there arose an immediate need to identify communities and individuals who might fit such a classification. The state’s initial solution was a population census conducted between 1953 and 1954. A question asking individuals to identify their ethnicity, however, employed an open-ended format allowing respondents to write in a unique response. Resulting data indicated as many as four hundred minority groups. In order to achieve a more manageable system of minority identification, the state moved to institute the 1954 Ethnic Classification Project.

The Ethnic Classification Project (minzu shibie, ECP) began as an official directive to investigate diversity within the Chinese population. Project administrators scrutinized historical, linguistic, and anthropological evidence to develop an extensive classification system; yet the fifty-six minzu model which resulted from their efforts also served a political purpose. The ECP was intended not only to provide the state with a clearer sense of its ethnic makeup but also to serve as the basis on which “territorially stable polities” might be delineated.

In Coming to Terms with the Nation, Mullaney makes the argument that the system for ethnic classification eventually adopted by the state was not a product of Chinese Communist Party politics; rather, it was a system promulgated by a group of Chinese social scientists working with a taxonomic system of British colonial origin. One of Mullaney’s most important contributions is his observation that, contrary to what was previously thought, the ECP bore greater similarity to the ethnotaxonomic system utilized by Britain than by the Soviet Union.  Mullaney hones in specifically on the classification process undertaken in Yunnan in 1954, one of the most diverse regions of China where eventually state agents identified twenty-five unique ethnicities. Individuals assigned to conduct the survey, many of whom had studied at foreign universities, referenced the ethnological works of British colonial officer Henry Rodolph Davies (1865-1950). Writing in 1909, Davies reported on his fact-finding trip from India to Yunnan in what was one of the first attempts to identify ethnolinguistic groups in this part of the world. These writings strongly informed the ethnotaxonomic frameworks eventually adopted by ECP research teams.

Interestingly, Mullaney discusses the conflict between social scientists and members of the Chinese Communist Party who called for terminology based on the Stalinist conception of nationality. Rather than adopt Stalinist ethnic categories, however, Chinese scholars in the 1950s developed a system based on ‘ethnic potential’. This approach to taxonomy considered, in addition to a community’s ethnological characteristics, the likelihood that the state would be successful in convincing the community to embrace its official minzu. The adoption of this system, Mullaney argues, is an example of a case in ECP social scientists prevailed upon Communist Party decision-makers to reject the Stalinist approach which had initially been proposed for the Project. Eventually, the collaboration of state fiduciaries and academia resulted in a hybrid categorization system which drew on both social science and state socialist values. Mullaney also notes the significance of the commutation of terminology from the Nationalist “Zhonghua minzu” to the later “multi-minzu China” which was adopted by the Communist state.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Mullaney’s argument is made in the fifth chapter. There, he contends that by the late 1950s, China after the completion of the ECP came to see itself as an ethnographic mosaic. Minority representation surpassed previous eras in Chinese history. This acceptance of diversity within China constituted a major departure from nationalist policy under Chiang Kai-shek who promoted the idea of a singular unified Chinese people. Sun Yat-sen too had earlier espoused a more narrow understanding of China’s ethnographic landscape with his “five people” doctrine which, Mullaney points out, had a northern-centric bias. In post-Mao China, the fifty-six minzu system, a product of the original 1950s research project, remains the predominant conception of ethnicity.

Though the fifty-six minzu model remains unchanged, it does not remain unchallenged. Just as in the 1950s, individuals self-identifying as one ethnicity often find themselves assigned to a different category by the official classification system. Furthermore, previously unrecognized groups have made bids for recognition by the state in recent years, only to be classified as zuqun (ethnic groups) rather than minzu (nationalities). In addition to challenges to the fifty-six minzu system, also problematic is the schism between ethnic self-identification and official ethnographic categorization as assigned by agents of the state. In wider view, Mullaney brings up the question of how the Chinese state reconciles ethnic diversity with the more nationalistic vision of a strongly unified Chinese people. Though the classification process of the 1950s began as an apolitical project, the result was a fusion between socialist party values and social scientific strategies based on Western conceptions of ethnotaxonomy.

Mullaney has without a doubt succeeded in weaving an informative and intriguing argument in Coming to Terms with the Nation. That the Ethnic Classification Project’s collaborative nature infused the state socialist agenda (in regard to minorities) with an academic perspective drawing on Western ethnotaxonomic texts is indeed a persuasive claim. As an instance in which the Chinese Communist Party yielded to scholars and as an early example of how social science was successfully incorporated into the nation-building process, Coming to Terms with the Nation is essential reading for both historians and social scientists.