A stranger at home

Johannesburg-based sociologist Yoon Jung Park examines the intriguing problem of Chinese identity in her book A Matter of Honour: Being Chinese in South Africa (Jacana). This edited extract looks at connections to a mythical China

The China of the hearts and minds of the Chinese South Africans has taken on mythical proportions, especially with their sense of belonging to an imagined “great China”. This is, perhaps, the most important aspect of their China connection for their identity and their sense of Chineseness.

This myth of a former great China, which exists in most overseas Chinese communities, seems to ignore the last one and a half centuries of Chinese history — the collapse of the Manchu dynasty, warlord struggles, Japanese aggression, the conflict between the Nationalists and the Communists, the misguided principles of the PRC and the struggle between the two Chinas.

Instead, the mythologised China evokes a historical consciousness, cultural continuity, social harmony and a sense of rootedness and centredness. Other overseas scholars, too, have observed this imagined China’s “power to generate a sense of identity and allegiance”, but note that the ability is not consistent.

This mythical China continues to hold sway over Chinese South African identities, albeit with decreasing power over time and generations. The apartheid state’s treatment of local Chinese as foreigners or second-class citizens and the continued claims of the Chinese state over them are the two key factors affecting the lasting power of “China’s glorious past” and imagined kinship ties to an imagined great China for the Chinese in South Africa.

Countless China scholars have written about the particular nature of Chinese ethnic bonds. Part of the strength of Chinese nationalisms, through years of changing dynasties and political leaders, is the sheer length of Chinese recorded history.

China, it has been said, is not merely a state, but a civilisation — and one that many ordinary Chinese still believe to be superior. “To ordinary Chinese, the traditional view of being at the centre of existence has always been an important aspect of being Chinese. This anthropocentric view is based on a deep-rooted sense of belonging to a unified civilisation that can boast several thousand years of uninterrupted history” (Pan).

China’s myth of descent from the Yellow Emperor continues to wield power over millions of Chinese, both in and outside China. “Surely a salient feature of being Chinese is to belong to a biological line traceable, as the legend goes, to the Yellow Emperor. This ethnic identification, mythologised in the idea of the ‘dragon’s seed’, evokes strong sentiments of originating from the same progenitor” (Tu).

Recent studies have shown that the existence of a superior Chinese culture is, at best, a myth. “In truth, the Chinese people and Chinese culture have been constantly amalgamating, restructuring, reinventing and reinterpreting themselves. However, the Chinese people have not been conscious of using such a cultural construction” (Tu). The truth of myths of origin is not as important as the belief that they are true or the sentiments that they evoke.

For those far from the “motherland” these beliefs have carried great weight, particularly if the circumstances of their adopted or temporary homes were difficult. For overseas Chinese, this sense of shared origin provided comfort. “A consciousness of shared origin no doubt compensated for the feeling of being lost in a new country” (Pan). Similarly, the notion of “home” in Asian American literature reveals that the view of Asia is ambivalent but filled with longing “for all that the adopted home is not”. Further: “That far-off place becomes a way of dealing with displacement, assuming a curative, revitalising role … The country left behind … acts as a solid counterweight to the feelings akin to weightlessness” (Francia).

China as a place of one’s roots and one’s heritage certainly held a great deal of importance for many of the older Chinese South Africans. — Their Chineseness, when they spoke about it in these terms, took on almost mythical elements. China was referred to as “home” or “motherland” and China was always imagined as powerful, advanced and superior.

The myth of a “great China” lasted in South Africa for at least three generations, in part because of the particular circumstances of the local Chinese. While they were born in South Africa, it was a state that treated them initially as foreigners or second-class citizens. Feeling rejected by and excluded from South Africa, China became a refuge and a place of belonging.

The Chinese state, on its part, embraced the South African Chinese and claimed them as its own. The distant state of their ancestors encouraged identification with China in real and practical ways, by offering support and protection at times when Chinese South Africans felt most vulnerable. This support validated their beliefs that they were “sons of the Yellow Emperor” with a rich and ancient heritage in a mythical great China; in the face of exclusion, this China could be imagined as “home”.

Their Chinese South African identity, and in particular the unique, “superior” Chinese aspects of their identity, were both a form of protest and a matter of survival. The intentions were to set themselves apart from other South Africans, to remind themselves of their heritage, and to become socially acceptable to those in power.

Racial discrimination affected the daily lives of the Chinese, particularly the older members of the community. It limited their opportunities, it influenced their sense of self and it hindered their sense of possibility and imagination. South Africa denied them full citizenship although they were born in South Africa. As discrimination against the Chinese community eased and they were granted greater concessions and privileges, the need for an imagined alternative “home” decreased, resulting in shifting identities over time. Decreasing levels of discrimination and increasing levels of acceptance by white society diminished the need to resite “home” away from South Africa. Younger people reported feeling “less Chinese”; the more they succeeded in becoming acceptable to white society, the less they needed their imagined China. But for several generations, their Chineseness — the sense of belonging to the great, imagined nation of China — was a peg upon which to hang their identity. China, both political and cultural, the real and the imagined, provided the Chinese South Africans with an identity “refuge” and fulfilled their need to belong.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories


press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday