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The differences among regional and linguistic subgroups of Han
Chinese are at least as great as those among many European
nationalities. Han Chinese speak seven or eight mutually
unintelligible dialects, each of which has many local subdialects.
Cultural differences (cuisine, costume, and custom) are equally
great. Modern Chinese history provides many examples of conflict,
up to the level of small-scale regional wars, between linguistic
and regional groups.
Such diversities, however, have not generated exclusive
loyalties, and distinctions in religion or political affiliation
have not reinforced regional differences. Rather, there has been a
consistent tendency in Chinese thought and practice to downplay
intra-Han distinctions, which are regarded as minor and
superficial. What all Han share is more significant than the ways
in which they differ. In conceptual terms, the boundary between Han
and non-Han is absolute and sharp, while boundaries between subsets
of Han are subject to continual shifts, are dictated by local
conditions, and do not produce the isolation inherent in relations
between Han and minority groups.
Han ethnic unity is the result of two ancient and culturally
central Chinese institutions, one of which is the written language.
Chinese is written with ideographs (sometimes called characters)
that represent meanings rather than sounds, and so written Chinese
does not reflect the speech of its author. The disjunction between
written and spoken Chinese means that a newspaper published in
Beijing can be read in Shanghai or Guangzhou, although the
residents of the three cities would not understand each other's
speech. It also means that there can be no specifically Cantonese
(Guangzhou dialect) or Hunanese literature because the local speech
of a region cannot be directly or easily represented in writing.
(It is possible to add local color to fiction, cite colloquialisms,
or transcribe folk songs, but it is not commonly done.) Therefore,
local languages have not become a focus for regional selfconsciousness or nationalism. Educated Chinese tend to regard the
written ideographs as primary, and they regard the seven or eight
spoken Han Chinese dialects as simply variant ways of pronouncing
the same ideographs. This is linguistically inaccurate, but the
attitude has significant political and social consequences. The
uniform written language in 1987 continued to be a powerful force
for Han unity.
The other major force contributing to Han ethnic unity has been
the centralized imperial state. The ethnic group takes its name
from the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220; see
The Imperial Era
, ch. 1).
Although the imperial government never directly controlled the
villages, it did have a strong influence on popular values and
culture. The average peasant could not read and was not familiar
with the details of state administration or national geography, but
he was aware of belonging to a group of subcontinental scope. Being
Han, even for illiterate peasants, has meant conscious
identification with a glorious history and a state of immense
proportions. Peasant folklore and folk religion assumed that the
imperial state, with an emperor and an administrative bureaucracy,
was the normal order of society. In the imperial period, the
highest prestige went to scholar-officials, and every schoolboy had
the possibility, at least theoretically, of passing the civil
service examinations and becoming an official.
The prestige of the state and its popular identification with
the highest values of Chinese civilization were not accidents; they
were the final result of a centuries-long program of indoctrination
and education directed by the Confucian scholar-officials.
Traditional Chinese society can be distinguished from other
premodern civilizations to the extent that the state, rather than
organized religious groups or ethnic segments of society, was able
to appropriate the symbols of wisdom, morality, and the common
good. The legacy for modern Chinese society has been a strong
centralized government that has the right to impose its values on
the population and against which there is no legitimate right of
dissent or secession.
Data as of July 1987