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Who is an Ethnic Chinese, Anyway?

New America Media, Commentary, George Koo Posted: Aug 30, 2009

Editor's Note: Yellow Face is currently being presented by TheatreWorks of Silicon Valley at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center through September 26.

As David Henry Hwang tells it in his latest award-winning play, Yellow Face, Hollywood has for years, up to today, freely portrayed Asians with Caucasian actors abetted by yellow make-up and perhaps artificially slanted eyes with or without buck teeth.

Some of the most accomplished actors and actresses have been cast in Asian roles as if such credits in their repertoires testified to their acting prowess. Luminaries that underwent the Heath Ledger/Joker transformation of their days included Loretta Young, Katharine Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Marlon Brando, Alec Guinness, Linda Hunt and Leonard Nimoy.

The reverse has yet to happen in Hollywood, i.e., using an Asian actor to play a white character, whether in earnest or in caricature. Hwangs point seems to be that in a Hollywood where all Asians look alike and any white can play the role, getting an Asian to play an Asian character is already a win against industry practice.

The germ for Hwangs play, Yellow Face, came when he protested giving the lead role in Miss Saigon to a white actor. He then turned the play into a study of racial identity and human nature. The play features lyrical music from the Dong culture, one of the ethnic minorities of China, and acting tours de force by five actors who take on more than 80 roles over the course of the performance.

The only time Ive seen Asians portraying Caucasians was a production of Mozarts "Figaro" in Beijing. The Chinese actors and actresses wore blond wigs and big false noses but they did not use pasty white make-up. Most productions in China, however, seem to be able find white actors to play white roles.

It used to be, ironically, that in China only the Han Chinese were considered real Chinese. All the other ethnic groups were generically lumped as fan, meaning that these people were less cultured, perhaps even barbarians. In their own condescending way, the Chinese used to consider all foreigners as barbarians. When Lord McCartney, King Georges emissary, kneeled before Emperor Qianlong instead of the customary kowtow, it was considered a magnanimous gesture by Qianlong.

Indeed, there was some basis to justify such chauvinism. Throughout the centuries, China was invaded by nomadic tribes along its northern border, sometimes even totally occupied by non-Han nationalities. The Yuan dynasty founded by Mongols (13th century AD) and Qing dynasty by Manchus (17th century AD) were two examples in Chinas relatively recent history.

Inevitably, the invaders took on Chinese customs, ceremony, beliefs and values. They inter-married with the local population and in a matter of few generations lost their original ethnic identity and became Chinese.

In the 4th to 6th centuries AD, northern China was dominated by Xianbei people. One tribe even founded the northern Wei dynasty with its seat at Datong and ruled for nearly 200 years. Today there is plenty of physical evidence of their existence, but there is nobody known as Xianbei anymore. The Xianbeis along with many other ethnic groups that came to China were assimilated and absorbed.

In addition to marauders who came to plunder, people from Persia, Central Asia, the Middle East and beyond came to China to trade. Still others in neighboring countries such as Korea, Japan, Vietnam and other parts of Asia came to study. Along with the historic ebb and flow of imperial Chinas boundaries with Korea, Vietnam, Mongolia and ethnic Miaos and Tibetans, it would be hard to conceive of a Chinese gene pool undisturbed by periodic infusions.

Todays China has identified 56 separate ethnic groups living inside China with Han Chinese make up nearly 92 percent. The Beijing government has shed the historical biases and considers all of them as Chinese. Some policies are even tilted in favor of non-Han Chinese such as permission to have more than one child and assistance in access to education.

It doesnt make any sense to me to make a distinction between Hans and other people of China. Unless the ethnic minorities are dressed in their colorful traditional native costumes, it would be a challenge, for the most part, to tell a Han apart from a non-Han Chinese. Intuitively, I believe there is as much genetic variation among the Hans as there is between the Hans and other ethnic minorities in China.

The Chinese civilization has been a long and enduring one. Its richness attracts many ethnic groups and nationalities. Its cultural values are so strong that China has repeatedly assimilated its invaders and conquerors. I believe this is a hidden strength not widely recognized. Namely, China has been able to continuously renew its vitality by absorbing the inflow of new people and new blood.

In this respect, China and America are very much alike. America has been a land of opportunity, attracting many from all over the world and thus allowing American society to retain its vigor and continue its spirit of innovation. Hwangs play, it seems to me, is another way to celebrate the diversity in America.

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