Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China

Paperback (Print)
Buy Used
Buy Used from
(Save 28%)
Item is in good condition but packaging may have signs of shelf wear/aging or torn packaging.
Condition: Used – Good details
Used and New from Other Sellers
Used and New from Other Sellers
from $18.80
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
(Save 41%)
Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (11) from $18.80   
  • New (5) from $22.91   
  • Used (6) from $18.80   


China is a vast nation comprised of hundreds of distinct ethnic communities, each with its own language, history, and culture. Today the government of China recognizes just 56 ethnic nationalities, or minzu, as groups entitled to representation. This controversial new book recounts the history of the most sweeping attempt to sort and categorize the nation's enormous population: the 1954 Ethnic Classification project (minzu shibie). Thomas S. Mullaney draws on recently declassified material and extensive oral histories to describe how the communist government, in power less than a decade, launched this process in ethnically diverse Yunnan. Mullaney shows how the government drew on Republican-era scholarship for conceptual and methodological inspiration as it developed a strategy for identifying minzu and how non-Party-member Chinese ethnologists produced a “scientific” survey that would become the basis for a policy on nationalities.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This rich, nuanced and erudite book is a great accomplishment."--The China Journal

"A very important contribution to our understanding of the birth of the modern Chinese nation."--Journal of World History

"An exemplary piece of scholarship. . . . Tackles broad historiographical questions with a manageable and concrete set of new data."--British Jrnl For the History of Science

"Brief but elegantly argued. . . . Mullaney makes brilliant sense of mountains of data."--Hist Stds In the Natural Sciences

The China Journal - Elena Barabantseva University of Manchester
“This rich, nuanced and erudite book is a great accomplishment.”
Journal Of World History - Jeff Kyong-McClain
“A very important contribution to our understanding of the birth of the modern Chinese nation.”
British Jrnl For The History Of Science - Howard Chiang
“An exemplary piece of scholarship. . . . Tackles broad historiographical questions with a manageable and concrete set of new data.”
Hist Stds In The Natural Sciences - Ruth Rogaski
“Brief but elegantly argued. . . . Mullaney makes brilliant sense of mountains of data.”
Pacific Affairs - Sara A. Newland
"Mullaney's excellent book teaches us a great deal about the genesis of multiethnic China..."
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520272743
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 12/27/2011
  • Series: Asia: Local Studies / Global Themes Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas S. Mullaney is Assistant Professor of History at Stanford University.

Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt

Coming to Terms with the Nation

Ethnic Classification in Modern China

By Thomas S. Mullaney


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94763-4


Identity Crisis in Postimperial China

We say China is a country vast in territory, rich in resources and large in population; as a matter of fact, it is the Han nationality whose population is large and the minority nationalities whose territory is vast and whose resources are rich. —MAO ZEDONG, "ON THE TEN MAJOR RELATIONSHIPS"

In 1952, the newly established Communist regime in Beijing announced plans to convene the inaugural session of the National People's Congress (NPC). The congress was scheduled for autumn 1954, in time for the fifth anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC), and would herald the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) transition from a revolutionary force to the legitimate government of mainland China. Here, the party would promulgate the first state constitution and implement a national system of representative government, which thus far had only been undertaken at the local level. The CCP began laying the groundwork for this political debut in February 1953 with the ratification of a unified election Law. The law standardized electoral procedures and detailed the calculus of congressional representation at the county, provincial, and national levels.

As Deng Xiaoping outlined in a speech delivered on February 11, 1953, the election Law also contained certain preferential policies toward national minorities. For one, the law guaranteed a minimum of 150 minority delegates in the first NPC. Authors of the law expected even more than this number, however, anticipating that approximately 170 of the scheduled twelve hundred representatives—or, one in seven—would hail from one of the country's non-Han minority communities. Whereas this exceeded the actual relative population of minorities, estimated at the time to constitute somewhere in the range of one in ten, Deng defended the preferential multiplier. "We feel that this number is reasonable," he explained, "because there are many nationalities in China, distributed over a wide area, and they need this sort of treatment. This is the only way we can get a considerable number of delegates of the minority nationalities at the National People's Congress."

More importantly, the 1953 election Law promised that at least one representative seat would be awarded to each minority group regardless of population size. is was designed to safeguard smaller minorities who might fall under the political influence of larger groups should congressional representation be based strictly on proportionality. To protect these smaller groups, defined as those whose populations fell below 10 percent of the total population of a given administrative unit, the ratio of representation was calculated preferentially. At the county level, for example, where each Han delegate represented one thousand Han individuals, each minority delegate represented as few as five hundred, provided that the total population of that minority was less than 10 percent of the total population of the county.

One major obstacle stood in the way of this otherwise sound policy: before minority representatives could be apportioned, it remained to be determined who the minorities of China were, in terms of their names, their populations, and their geographicaldistributions.FocusingonYunnan,onefindsanumberofanswerstothese questions, none of them consistent. In a report dating to 1951, published for internal circulation, the Central Nationalities Affairs Commission in Beijing listed 107 groups in the province. While many of the minzu names listed therein are familiar to us today—such as the Hui, Lisu, Nu, Yao, and Yi—far more correlate in no way to those minorities now understood as populating the province—such as the Axi, Chashan, Heihua, Mingji, Nazha, and so forth. At the provincial level, the figures were different still. In a distribution map published in 1951 for internal circulation, the Yunnan Province Nationalities Affairs Commission listed 132 groups. In 1953, the commission revised this map somewhat, reducing the total number of groups to 125. The groups listed in this document exhibit a remarkable range in terms of population size. Five groups were listed with populations of less than one hundred people; twenty-nine groups with populations between one hundred and one thousand; fifty groups with populations between one and ten thousand; twenty-three groups with populations between ten and one hundred thousand; eleven with populations between one hundred thousand and one million; and one with a population greater than one million. is largest group (the Yi, with a population of 1,145,840 people) was thirty-one thousand times larger than the smallest (the Alu, with a population of thirty-seven). The map itself showed how this long tail of miniscule groups posed a challenge to the provincial Nationalities Affairs Commission (NAC). Out of necessity, the map was immense, for any smaller size would have rendered it impossible to represent these small minzu to scale. The profusion of groups also rendered simple color-coding insufficient. In addition to coding the distribution of groups using solid colors, the mapmakers had to design a series of finely variegated hash-mark patterns in order to accommodate all the different groups.

As evidenced by these official sources from the early PRC, no consensus existed as to the precise number of groups in Yunnan. With an eye to this question, the Communists launched a nationwide census and voter registration campaign in the summer of 1953. Between July 1953 and may 1954, two and a half million census takers were enrolled throughout the country to undertake an enumeration of the mainland population. because of the colossal scope of the registration campaign, Communist authorities were parsimonious when it came to the design of the census schedule. After debating which questions should be posed to their nearly six hundred million respondents, officials ultimately decided upon only five. The first four of these involved the most basic of demographic information, including name, age, gender, and relationship to the head of one's household. The selection of a fifth question was a more complicated issue, however. Certain dimensions of identity, such as occupation, literacy, and place of work were considered but dismissed, deemed impertinent to the forthcoming NPC. Interestingly, one of the possibilities that was ultimately excluded was that of economic class, an axis of identity that seemingly would have been preserved, given the party's revolutionary ethos and the land reform process. Instead of class, occupation, literacy, or place of work, authorities ultimately settled upon a question that no modern Chinese census had ever posed before: that of nationality or minzu.

The outcome of the census, as we will soon see, proved shocking to Communist authorities and ultimately precipitated the Ethnic Classification Project that constitutes the focus of this book. Before examining the census results, it is necessary to pause for a moment and understand why the Communists wished to include minzu on the census schedule in the first place. As Walker Connor has noted, Marxist writings tell us that nationalities are parts of the superstructure, ideational manifestations of underlying economic relationships and processes that are destined to wither away once the inherent contradictions within the economic structure resolve themselves dialectically. Why, then, go about categorically recognizing that which is going to disappear in time?

Is chapter argues that there were three reasons for the Communist's recognition of minzu with in its new political structure, and thus, for their inclusion of minzu identity on the first national census. The first reason is the deeply historical problem of maintaining the territorial integrity of a highly diverse empire. Well before the Communist revolution, regimes based in the northeast of China had struggled to incorporate the diverse peoples of the west into a stable and unified polity. One method for doing so had been to interface with these peoples through a carefully constructed network of policies and modes that in one way or another drew upon and carefully manipulated the practices of those peoples being ruled. In this respect, the Classification needs to be situated within the broader history of China's postimperial transition.

The second problem is more proximate, and originates in the ongoing rivalry between the Communists and the Nationalists during the first half of the twentieth century. starting in the 1930s, the Chinese Communists began to develop an ethnopolitical platform that set them apart in many regards from their Nationalist rivals. They argued that in contrast to the Nationalists' growing commitment to the concept of a mono-minzu China, China was in fact a composite of a multiplicity of distinct minzu communities, and that the territorial integrity of the country depended upon the recognition and political integration of such communities.

Third, with regards to categorization, the advent of the Classification is attributable to a political crisis prompted by the failure of the state's initial experiment with a highly noninterventionist policy of self-categorization. In their inaugural census of 1953–54, the Communists' initial policy with regards to ethnic categorization was to permit individuals to determine their own ethnonyms, a policy that resulted in an astonishing proliferation of minzu categories and threatened to render impossible the state's promise of proportional representation for non-Han communities in the first National People's Congress.

To understand each of these questions, we must explore the history of the term minzu itself, one of those most controversial and pivotal concepts in modern Chinese history. As we will see, the very inclusion of minzu in the 1953–54 census schedule was itself the culmination of a complex history dating back to the fall of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) and the formation of the first Chinese republic.


scholars have long debated the applicability of the terms ethnicity and nationality to the premodern period, with some scholars advocating its extension into the distant past, and others regarding it as a concept unique to the modern nation-state. Fortunately, we do not require either of these terms to note that the region in question—Yunnan—has long encompassed a wide plurality of languages, cultural traditions, religions, and peoples. This plurality, moreover, has proven to be a perennial problem for empires in their efforts to incorporate the territory and its people more fully into their domains.

The region was first brought into the eastern imperial orbit when the kingdom of Dali was overtaken by the Mongols in 1253 and incorporated into the Chinese administered area that would become known as the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368). The Yuan garrisoned multiple towns in the newly formed province of Yunnan, which thereafter became magnets for Chinese merchants. In those areas where opposition was strongest, the court developed relationships with powerful local leaders and shored up a system of indirect rule. under the subsequent Chinese Ming dynasty (1368–1644), this embryonic system of indirect rule was systematized further, as the central court bestowed official titles upon native chieftains in return for their loyalty and maintenance of regional order.

The Manchu Qing dynasty (1644–1911) addressed the problem of diversity with a much more complex system than that of the Yuan or Ming, while at the same time drawing on dimensions of each. Referred to by Mark Elliott as "Qing universalism," the Manchu system of rule was maintained through the balance of three interrelated components. The first was Manchu military prowess, through which the Qing was able to extend its imperial boundaries far beyond the Great Wall to the distant territories of the present-day Chinese interior. Martial expertise alone could not insure territorial integrity, however. us, a second vital component of Qing universalism was the eight banner system, a sophisticated political and demographic framework that incorporated each of the Qing's potential rivals within a centralized, bureaucratic hierarchy, and helped to dismantle existing power structures. Third, in order to preserve boundaries between the Manchu elite and the numerically superior non-Manchu subject population, the Qing undertook a series of long-term social engineering projects designed to develop and fortify a uniquely Manchu identity among members of the imperial court. These included the development of a written Manchu language and the promotion of a basket of sociocultural practices that together came to be reified as the "Manchu way" (involving martial skill, equestrianism, and frugality, among other characteristics).

What is striking for our purposes, however, is the extent to which "Qing universalism" was not universalist at all, at least not with regards to the empire's southwestern frontier regions. The "barbarians" of Yunnan, for example, did not constitute a category within the banner system, nor were they the focus of the court's elaborate system of "simultaneous" emperorship. Unlike the famous portrait of the Qianlong emperor in which he is presented to a Tibetan audience as an emanation of the bodhisattva Manjusri, we have no evidence of parallel efforts by Qing emperors to present themselves as, for example, descendants of a Miao or "Lolo" line. The reasons for this have been amply demonstrated by Nicola di Cosmo, James Millward, Peter Perdue, and others. As a conquest alliance that emerged in the north, the Manchus would not easily abandon this regional focus, particularly in the face of powerful Mongolian, and later Russian, rivals. Furthermore, the system of governance in Yunnan remained, with few exceptions, largely indirect during not only the Qing, but also the Yuan and Ming dynasties. Following Ming precedent, the Kangxi emperor (1662–1723) bestowed official titles upon a select group of native rulers in the southwest, entrusting them with the preservation of order, the submission of tribute, and the provision of troops in support of imperial campaigns. starting in 1659, the court further systematized this mode of indirect rule by reorganizing the inheritance laws of native officials. Moving away from customary systems of inheritance, native rule would now descend along strict, patrilineal lines, with inheritors required to submit family genealogies as verification.

Efforts to enforce a more direct form of rule were largely disruptive and short-lived. The reign of the Yongzheng emperor (r. 1723–35), for example, witnessed a departure from the indirect rule of the Qianlong period and the initiation of what C. Patterson Giersch has referred to as "new frontier militarism." With the successive appointment of three aggressive provincial and regional administrators—Li Wei, Gao Qizhuo, and E'ertai (ortai)—the Qing court removed powerful native rulers from multiple cities, wrested control of key industries, and established powerbases in key locales throughout the province. is expansion of power was not met unchecked however, as the court's intrusion into the complex and longstanding system of local rule resulted in frequent and bloody uprisings. Consequently, Yongzheng's aggressive policy of frontier activism was in large part repealed by his son, the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736–95). Yinjishan, appointed to succeed E'ertai, set about reestablishing stable relations with local powerholders and repairing the system of indirect rule of the pre-Yongzheng period. Once again, the Qing court became concerned with policing in-migration and intermarriage, so as to prevent local level processes of acculturation from obscuring the lines that divided the different constituents of the multi ethnic empire. The court wished to maintain its ability to "distinguish the barbarians from the Chinese."


Excerpted from Coming to Terms with the Nation by Thomas S. Mullaney. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Tables


1. Identity Crisis in Postimperial China
2. Ethnicity as Language
3. Plausible Communities
4. The Consent of the Categorized
5. Counting to Fifty-Six

Conclusion: A History of the Future

Appendix A: Ethnotaxonomy of Yunnan, 1951, According to the Yunnan Nationalities Affairs Commission
Appendix B: Ethnotaxonomy of Yunnan, 1953, According to the Yunnan Nationalities Affairs Commission
Appendix C: Minzu Entries, 1953–1954 Census, by Population
Appendix D: Classification Squads, Phases One and Two
Appendix E: Population Sizes of Groups Researched during Phase One and Phase Two

Character Glossary


Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)