STAFF WRITER AT HOPKINS-NANJING CENTER
“Han exceptionalism” may be a better word to use than “Han chauvinism” when discussing race and ethnicity problems in China today. In other words, Chinese people tend to believe the Han occupy a very special place among different racial and ethnic groups existing in the world today.
The glory of the ancient Chinese empire has long encouraged the Chinese people to see themselves as above all other races. The “civilized/barbarian” distinction (“蛮夷之辩”) of ancient China is a perfect example of this attitude of racial superiority. It was China’s encounter with the Western civilization during the 19th and 20th centuries that forced Chinese people to change such conceptions of themselves. They came to realize their self-pride could not hide the backwardness of Chinese society in the face of the advanced Western technologies. However, a sense of self-shame did not erase a sense of uniqueness. Chinese people still believe that despite all the lessons they may learn from the developed West, there is something special about “the Chinese way,” which the West could never understand and appreciate. Moreover, they still see themselves as superior to other non-white races, which include Africans, Indians and people from other East Asian countries. What exists in Chinese people’s minds today is a hierarchical order of racial relations. There are peoples who are considered as superior or inferior to Han, but a group of people who could enjoy equal status with the Han simply does not exist. According to this interpretation, Han is an exceptional ethnical group which cannot find an equal counterpart in this globalized world.
“Laowai” (老外), which literally means people from foreign countries, is a Chinese word used to address foreigners. However, an interesting fact about this word is that it is not applied to all foreigners: only white people will find themselves being called “laowai” in China. Africans will mostly be called “blacks,” which directly reflects their skin color while Filipinos and Vietnamese will only be referred to as people from the Philippines and Vietnam. It is hence clear that the usage of “laowai” in China does not accord with its literal meaning in Chinese. This makes us wonder whether such a word reflects the hierarchical racial order held by Chinese people. Accordingly, not all foreigners are equal, so they have to be addressed differently.
Another worthy consideration regarding the usage of this word is the choice to emphasize the “foreignness” of certain foreigners. “Laowai” also conveys the idea that foreigners will remain foreign and will never become Chinese or experts on Chinese culture during their stay in China. It is my view that both these points reinforce the existence of “Han exceptionalism” in China today.