Ancestry and the ambiguity of the word “Chinese”

In Chinese culture there is the concept of an “ancestral home” or 鄉下 in Cantonese.  But how is this defined?  My father was born in Hong Kong.  Is that my 鄉下?  My father’s father was born in Dongguan.  Is that my 鄉下?  The first Chans were originally from the state of Chen, near present-day Zhoukou, Henan.  Is that my 鄉下? How many generations does one go back?

A memorial to the alleged founder of the Chan clan.

A memorial to the alleged founder of the Chan clan.  The left column says “Founder [of the] Chan surname, [his] numerous descendants [are now] scattered [among all the] Five Continents.”

Seeing that my granddad came from the PRC, and his dad was born in “China”, and so on and so on back to before the founding of the Qin state itself (never mind that the idea of a Chinese entity transcending the change of dynasties is a relatively new concept), one may say that I am Chinese.  But if we consider anyone with “Chinese” ancestry to be Chinese, we start running into problems.  Looking at just the surname Chan, we will find that the character is also the origin of the Vietnamese surname Tran, as in the Tran dynasty emperors, and the Korean surname Jin, as in South Korean athlete Jin Sun-Yu (진선유/陳善有), who won 3 Olympic gold medals for her country in 2006 in speed skating.  Would one, based on her surname, conclude that she is “Chinese”?

We also have, of course, the Tans of Singapore (from the Hokkien pronunciation), for example current President Tony Tan Keng Yam (陳慶炎).  While irrefutably of Chinese descent, having once been the CEO of Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation, he and other “Chinese” Singaporeans are not Chinese citizens.  This is the problem of confounding ethnicity with nationality by using the term “Chinese” to refer to both.  Thus Tibetans and Uyghurs in China are “Chinese” despite their ethnicity (and the fact they are heavily oppressed by the Han majority), while people like Vancouver broadcast journalist Cindy Leong, whose father, father’s mother, and father’s mother’s father all lived in Canada, are “Chinese” despite their nationality and long history outside of China.

This ambiguity of the word “Chinese” is a major problem in Hong Kong when PRC Chinese use the phrases “we are all Chinese” and “blood is thicker than water” to silence critics of the CCP regime.  It is worth noting that Hong Kong was primarily built by refugees from the CCP.  Why should Hong Kongers be expected to show any loyalty to the entity that they and their forefathers came here to escape in the first place?  Most post-handover immigrants, on the other hand, are CCP loyalists (how else do they get priority under the 150 daily quota?).  They have come not to become Hong Kongers, but instead to make Hong Kong more and more Chinese.

I have been to my grandfather’s home in Dongguan as a kid, but I don’t remember much about it.  I don’t have any ties to the place, I don’t know anyone from that place other than my grandpa, and I have absolutely zero emotional attachment to that place.  Truth be told, I don’t feel much attachment to the man himself, who currently spends most of his time back in his place of birth.  To me, the idea that I am “from” Dongguan simply because my grandfather was born there is quite absurd.

The CCP have made it so that Chinese ancestry = “Chinese” = PRC Chinese and loyalty to “the Chinese” = loyalty to the PRC = loyalty to the CCP.  Anyone who denies these equalities is seen as a traitor of “the Chinese”, a 漢奸.  So call me a 漢奸.  I don’t care.

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5 thoughts on “Ancestry and the ambiguity of the word “Chinese”

  1. freehongkong September 11, 2013 at 9:51 am Reply

    Reblogged this on Free Hong Kong and commented:
    Great piece!
    Proudly and loudly: I am a Hong Konger! Not Chinese!

  2. baiyueh September 15, 2013 at 12:57 pm Reply

    By descent I am Cantonese or technically “Han”, but according to a Mainlander my “true” ancestors were “Vietnamese”! My family supposedly came from Shanxi in ancient times, but then again family history can be changed a lot for different agendas. I seen Zhuang and Yao people from Guangxi/Guangdong and I found a uncanny similarity to my own relatives, in order for HK to embrace their own independent identity we must rediscover our “hidden” ancient past.

  3. hkpeopleR9 September 23, 2013 at 7:22 am Reply

    All hong konger need do is completely 去中國化,yes that include get rid of Chinese new year and Chinese character then people won’t confuse hong konger as ”Chinese”

    • justanotherhker September 23, 2013 at 2:14 pm Reply

      Ngóh jūngyi néihge tàihyíh!

      However, I doubt that stripping away our Chinese heritage will do much to change how outsiders see us. There are still too many Westerners that lump all yellow-skinned peoples into one big “Ching chang chong” sterotype.

      • hkpeopleR9 September 30, 2013 at 11:23 am

        Like i said Simple completely 去中國化,change your han surname and get rid anything related to Chinese culture.Western still can tell difference between japanese,korean,and vietnamese since most of their culture already 去中國化.

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