- The Han: China's Diverse Majority by Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi
In contemporary China, the Han as a social category has assumed a life of its own. Villagers whom I encountered in multiethnic regions coined the phrase duoshu minzu to juxtapose the Han majority vis-à-vis the official term shaoshu minzu (minority nationalities). On occasion, the Han were directly referred to as an equivalent to the state (guojia) when government officials visited these minority villages. As Han-ness has been inscribed with so many layers of meaning, how much do we really know about the Han as a majority? How is the Han category an ethnic one, if at all? How do perceptions of the Han relate to the Chinese nationstate? And what do Han individuals think about themselves?
Fully attending to the sociohistorical contingency that is at stake with these questions, Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi offers promising answers in this concisely written book. Not only does it speak to critical studies on Chinese ethnicities, which should not be discussed separately in terms of respective minority groups, but its trenchant analysis of Han-ness also reveals the context of standards, values, and hierarchies set by the "dominant forces" (whether Han/state/urban), which have framed nationwide terms of reference.
A key contribution of Joniak-Lüthi's study lies in its unraveling of the paradoxes in identity formation, as she sees Han-ness as both a new and an old identity, in the sense that it is primordially framed and yet de facto constructed (p. 23). While this can be said for most, if not all, modern collective identities, Joniak-Lüthi explicates the dynamism of Han formation and the social experience of the persons so categorized in her chapters. Han-ness, she strongly suggests, is not solely an empty identity mirroring the minority minzu, nor is it a result of a teleological process of organic evolution. Spotlighting the concurrent coherence and fragmentation among the so-called Hanzu throughout the book, Joniak-Lüthi hence rightly orients her focus toward "the politics of fragmentation and the politics of unity" (p. 140; italics in original). Her multisited research—including fieldwork in the Han-dominated locations of Beijing and Shanghai, as well as in the multiethnic Yunnan-Sichuan borderlands where Han constitute a minority, and in southern Xinjiang where Han have significant minzu "others"—brings to light contemporary narratives of Han-ness through examples of how Han individuals use discursive markers to identify themselves.
Largely drawing upon Benedict Anderson's discussion of "imagined community" (1983), Joniak-Lüthi argues that "the Han" is a historically contingent narration depending on who speaks and enacts it.1 In order to contextualize the temporal and spatial variability of Han-ness, chapter 1 ambitiously traces how imperial and modern political regimes defined the scope and content of Han-ness differently [End Page 40] by means of governing the populations. With a principal focus on the Ming and Qing dynasties, Joniak-Lüthi notes that premodern Han identity was marked by Confucian-influenced ideals of cultural superiority. At the turn of the twentieth century, the rise of racialized nationalism and modern state-making projects both institutionally enforced and rhetorically objectified the prominent role of the Han minzu, based on the imagery of a Han race/Chinese nation. The rest of the book corroborates the main point of this chapter, to wit, the unprecedented institutionalization of Han-ness promoted by modern Chinese states that depend on such reification for the maintenance of social and territorial integrity. Chapter 2, for instance, highlights centralized education and its outcome—language domination—as key channeling processes circulate that contemporary Han markers. Situated at the interface of localized contexts and national politics, Joniak-Lüthi's interviews with Han individuals suggest the association of Han-ness with social positioning and power distribution, especially with imageries of modernity and advancement against which other minzu are measured.
In what follows, Joniak-Lüthi elaborates how Han-ness exists...