ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Wrestling with the Connotation of Chinese Minzu

of Chinese 'Minzu' Zhang Haiyang The concept of linguistic relativity is helpful in an inquiry into the diverse meanings of nationhood. This article traces the concept of 'zhongua minzu' (Chinese nation) through history. At face value and taken out of the international context, minzu conveys the cognitive meaning of ethnic group today, with no connotation of popular sovereignty at all. However, it is the time agency and international circumstances of its first usage that determines the real connotation of the word. It was first used by the Han Chinese elites in the 1870s. The newly loaned minzu internally denoted the Han Chinese as a minzu that aimed to topple the Manchu regime and establish a more capable self-government. Externally it denoted China as a minzu aiming at restoring its respectable position in the world if not as the central country. This double connotation has given rise in modern times to a chronic endless and hopeless debate over the definition of minzu. The linguistic fact that a word for minzu was absent until the turn of the century, and its muddling connotation since then shows that China was not and did not conceive itself as a nation until it faced the power of western nations. If one of the criteria of a nation is that it recognises its equals in the world, China did not reach the perception until the late 19th century.
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