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Manoa 17.1 (2005) vii-xiii
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Blood Ties: Writing across Chinese Borders is the latest volume in the Mānoa series of contemporary writing from Asia, the Pacific, and the Americas. For this volume, we have gathered a range of works that are, by one defi-nition or another, Chinese. At the same time, however, each of the works—and the collection as a whole—will cause readers to ponder how useful or accurate a designation such as "Chinese" can be in the modern world.
Writing about the novelist Ha Jin in the New York Review of Books, Ian Buruma recently noted the misleading nature of overly broad categories when applied to individuals and their writing. Buruma observed:
Chineseness is almost as complex and elusive an identity as, say, Jewishness. What, for example, does a peasant in Shandong have in common with a dentist in San Francisco, whose Canontese ancestors came to the U.S. via Hong Kong a hundred years ago? Certainly not a common language, or even really a common culture. They eat different kinds of food, and follow different faiths and customs….They live under utterly different political systems, and do not share a nationality. Even to claim a common ethnicity would be a stretch; southern and northern Chinese are not physically alike. Yet both would still consider themselves to be "Chinese."
As in other countries, identity in the PRC can be complex. Over ninety percent of the population is ethnically Han, while the remaining ten percent are highly diverse. Over four hundred ethnic groups registered as minorities after the civil war ended in 1949. Officially, however, the Communist Party recognizes only fifty-six ethnic groups, including the Han. Some members of these minorities consider themselves not in the least Chinese, but rather ethnically and culturally distinct peoples whose homelands are, for now, controlled by the Han government.
Outside of the PRC and Taiwan (which may or may not be China, and which has its own ethnic minorities), there are more than thirty-five million people of Chinese ancestry. They reside on all continents and in over a hundred countries. Many have lived in their adopted homes for centuries. [End Page vii] [Begin Page ix] The largest populations in order of size are in Southeast Asia, the Americas, Europe, Oceania, and Africa. And within each group, social circumstance, economic status, degree of assimilation, and ethnic identification may vary radically. Some may choose—and others may be compelled to identify with—a Chinese ethnicity. Some may embrace a "situational ethnicity" that shifts according to circumstances, and still others may be indifferent to ethnicity as an aspect of their selfhood.
Blood Ties takes its title from a story that is written by the Tibetan author Alai and that is published in English for the first time here. Magical and cunningly allegorical, the story describes the effects of political and ethnic transformation on three generations of a family in a Tibetan village. The ancestral home is in Sichuan Province, formerly part of Tibet but now subsumed by the PRC. Depending upon the perspective of the characters, the family is either Han Chinese tainted by Tibetan blood, or Tibetan tainted by Chinese blood. One of the characters is a Chinese man who married into the family decades before and who has lived in the village so long that he speaks and looks like an old Tibetan. Shortly after Mao's victory in the civil war, a young Han woman comes to the village in order to open a Chinese school. Startled by the sudden presence of someone of his own ethnicity, and with the hope that his grandson can now be educated as a Chinese and not as a Tibetan, the old man tries to reclaim his identity.
"Comrade Teacher, I'm not a fellow villager. I'm Chinese!" the old man exclaims. Because the man is, by all appearances, Tibetan and not Chinese, the teacher thinks he is simply trying to deny his ethnic inferiority. "Fellow villager," she replies, "don't worry. Party policy doesn't discriminate against minorities." Exasperated, the old man shouts, "I'm not...