What makes the Chinese, Chinese?A friend of mine asked me this question the other day (probably because I'm half Chinese), but I had no clue how to answer his question. I got to thinking about it...

What makes the Chinese, Chinese?

A friend of mine asked me this question the other day (probably because I'm half Chinese), but I had no clue how to answer his question. I got to thinking about it and I can not come up with one idea of what makes me Chinese other than I was born this way. I know a lot has to do with me not knowing too much about Chinese history also. Any ideas or enlightenment on this subject?

Expert Answers
pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I don't agree that China was isolated.  Buddhism came in from India.  The Silk Road brought trade from the West.  There were invasions of Mongols.  So I don't agree at all with the idea that China was isolated.

If you're talking about what makes a person Chinese it's at least mostly cultural, I'd say.  Like you, I'm half Asian, but I grew up as an American and so my "Asianess" is only skin deep with the exception of things like a weakness for rice and soy sauce and such.

For people who are truly Chinese, what makes them that way is their culture.  It is a set of attitudes that began with the idea that China was the "Middle Kingdom" and was therefore superior to all others.  That was then overlaid with a helping of anger against the West because of things like the Opium Wars and the unequal treaties imposed on China.  Nowadays, there's pride in China's deep history and its current success mixed with resentment of the West because of history and because of issues like Taiwan and Tibet.

To me, that's what makes a person truly Chinese -- yes, it's genetic, but I think that it's also largely cultural, beginning with the sorts of attitudes I've identified.

What do you think?  Are you really Chinese?  I'm never sure if I'm truly Asian or if I'm just a coconut -- brown on the outside and white on the inside.

pacorz eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Well, this is a great question,on both the physical and behavioral sides. Physically, your ancestors were shaped by their environment and probably by the evolutionary force known as genetic drift.

Behaviorally, you are a descendant of a very ancient society, which developed formal rules of culture beginning more than 5,000 years ago. For a very long time the Chinese kept to themselves, primarily because their land was physically isolated from other civilizations by the Himalayas. With no input from other places, the language, religious beliefs and social mores that developed there took their own course. Only in the past few centuries have people from other cultures begun to learn enough of the Chinese language to really facilitate an exchange of ideas.

lmetcalf eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As stated above, there is a genetic component for you, but I too would say what makes a person Chinese is a connection to the ideas of Chinese culture. If your family celebrates Chinese holidays, eats traditional Chinese foods, practices their religion in a Chinese tradition, reads Chinese literature (even in translation) then it is those types of things that make you Chinese. If you honestly assess your life and think that the only thing  Chinese about you is a phsyical feature and every other aspect of your life is westernized (for example), then that is your answer.

literaturenerd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I would have to say that a person is what they are based on a couple of factors. First, children inherit their ethnicity from their parents. Second, culture has a lot to do with one's identity as well. Lastly, some people simply declare themselves to be a certain ethnicity. People who are born in America are, by birth, American. But, based upon the factors mentioned above, they may identify themselves with an ethnicity other than American.

I know this is simplistic, but sometimes simplicity is the best.

vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

You may want to read The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan, since it is very much concerned with trying to determine the "essence," if there is one, of being Chinese. The final chapter of the book is especially pertinent to your question.  I've also just finished reading a new book called China in Ten Words, which is a series of essays discussing the similarities and differences between the China of fifty years ago and the China of today.

rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One other aspect to this discussion is that many people in China itself do not consider themselves Chinese. The Han are by far the biggest ethnic group, but there are millions of people, especially on the frontiers, that don't belong to that group, including Mongols, Kazakhs, Uyghurs, Tajiks, Russians, and others. This is in addition to millions of Koreans. While we tend to think of China as a pretty homogeonous place, it's actually very diverse.

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the central aspects of what makes a Chinese person Chinese is a distinctive cultural identity that separates a Chinese person from others. This is far more than simply using chopsticks and eating a lot of rice. It relates to China's sense of itself as the middle kingdom and also cultural concepts such as guanxi, which basically means reciprocity.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Genetics and culture, indeed, play a large role in whatever ethicity one is.  However, there is also another factor: the way of processing thought which is influenced by culture, of course.  For, there seems a great difference between the way in which people analyze ideas in the Occidental mind and in the Eastern mind.

faithblue | Student

Im from the UK, my mother is "Malaysian Chinese", though her blood is Thai Chinese and my father is "Indonesian Chinese". I get the question so where am I from? Do I say I am Indonesian or Malaysian, Thai Chinese or British... To be honest it really doesnt bother, I use different terms depending on the occasion. When I was living with a Chinese family in Shanghai, I would say I am British. When I am at home in the UK, I say I am Chinese (albeit British Chinese). Just depends on the occasion really...

iabulldogs | Student

@Pohnpei397 You hit the nail right on the head about being truly Asian. I was born here in the United States and its all I know. I don't even know how to speak my native language, yet my mother and father do. I do feel awkward sometimes when I get the ugly stare for not knowing how to speak the language from other Chinese people, but I just shrug it off.


I want to thank everyone for their input on this matter. It has definitely shed some new light.