Thursday, May 10, 2012

A World of Minorities

It always irks me a little when I hear the people of several countries within the African continent being designated under the broad term of “Africans”.

Human language abounds with stereotypical definitions that serve our laziness and relative refusal to inquire about the unknown “other”. We use what social psychologists term as heuristics or mental shortcuts to make judgments, precisely because they allow us to quickly map and speak of our environments. They allow us to define our environment based on our experiences, often not in an empirical way. These do not spring from malicious intent. They are used to save time, mental effort and to serve our already shaped attitudes with minimum impact to our identity.

The more unknown and dissimilar a group of people are to us, the more likely we will apply to them what is called the outgroup homogeneity effect. This is defined as the tendency to perceive outgroup members (people who differ from us through their gender, their status or their social and cultural background) as more similar to one another than are ingroup members. In simpler terms, this is best described as the "they all look the same" mentality that we apply, even subconsciously, to outgroup members.

I am not sure if it is because I was born in Senegal but I am aware of the difference between a Serer, a Toucouleur, a Dyula or a Wolof person. Already my perception of Senegal has been refined by my experience and I would be ashamed to call a Senegalese an “African” no matter how positive my attributions are towards a said “African”.

I really think the terminology we use reflects the knowledge and respect we have for people in the world. Obviously I would not expect that everyone starts to refer to a Western France person as a Breton or that we all list the different Aboriginal tribes that exist in Australia.

But ultimately it is true that the correct naming and identification of certain groups brings us closer to understanding who they are.

Surprisingly, one of the most stereotyped groups of people in our modern age is the Chinese. With China's growing presence in the global sphere and the advent of more Chinese related subjects in the media, we read a lot about China these days. But when we think of China and the Chinese, the image that comes to mind will be directly influenced by our experiences however limited. If we have never been to China, the only information we will have is from the media.

I cannot answer the question of what it means to be Chinese in such a short post, let alone attempt to do justice to its broad scope.

But at the simplest level, it is worth painting this Chinese face a little more sharply than is currently done by the media.

If you are a Uyghur from Xinjiang province, you might be Muslim and your heritage might encompass more Turkic rather than Sino influences. If you are a Hakka from Fujian province, your ancestors would have never suffered the painful tradition of footbinding. If you are a Nakhi from Lijiang, your heritage includes the world’s only still-in-use pictographic writing system which looks akin to Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Nakhi Pictographs (center)
Chinese characters shown on each side
Source: blogger's own scroll, Lijiang

 If you are a Mosuo, a cousin of the Nakhi, your society is matrilineal and you are a descendant of Tibetan nomads. If you are a Manchu or Jurchen, your people once ruled China under the Qing dynasty and it was your imposed dress code which the colonial Europeans came to identify as “Chinese” even though this could not be further from the truth. If you are a Hue then your ancestors may come from Uzbekistan or you may yourself be mixed after many generations of intermarriage within China, whether this be a marriage with the ruling Mongols during the 13th century, or with people of the Han majority, or with other groups. But you are first and foremost a Hue because you follow Islamic teachings.

Finally if you are a Han then you are in the majority Chinese ethnic group and might possibly be the group most Westerners refer to when they lump the people of China into the one stereotype.

 As it stands, China has 55 recognised ethnic minorities. Many of them are in China's Yunnan province, the area bordering Vietnam, Burma, Laos and Tibet. The cultural heritage in Yunnan is outstanding. It is not a surprise that I chose to feature Yunnan and its people in my novel, The Ming Storytellers.

I was still a novice on China when I began writing but my approach was to recognise its cultural richness and depict a China where borders are elusive and where for centuries a flow of people has existed either from Uzbekistan, Mongolia, the Northern area known as Manchuria, Vietnam, Burma, Laos, Thailand or Tibet.

Of course, internally, the Chinese government aims to strengthen its country's nationalism and will encourage identification under one umbrella group: the Chinese. But this government also recognizes the 55 different ethnic groups because this dual identity is crucial to avoiding group conflict especially when there are so many different groups in one country. That is, some social psychologists have found that to avoid inter group conflict and to ensure individuals do not become dissatisfied, they must have a common group or goal to identify with as well as a means to differentiate themselves and derive cultural pride. Having said this, there is still much to be done (in many countries, not just China) to ensure that the voice of minorities is not extinguished in the favour of the majority.

One of the ways we can listen to and support minorities is by first knowing that they exist. Lumping a group of people into an umbrella term, for example, using the term, “Africans” is a sure way of forgetting that minorities exist.

No sooner does our vision of a country begin to encompass the richness and granularity of its people, the more these people cease to be unknown. They become familiar and understood. Our perception then no longer conjures fear, nor objectifies nor alienates this outgroup; suddenly these people acquire human qualities, each with their own culture, their own ways of seeing, their own story. I cannot stress the importance of this phenomenon. It is being able to see others as human which keeps us human.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

A Historical Novel of Ming China

Publishing Perspectives presented an interesting article about the complexity of translating Chinese books into English, together with the cultural nuances that were lost on, or almost impossible to convey to English readers.

With the rise of China as the world's second largest economy and the growing exposure to Chinese film and Chinese-related media, there has also been an increasing interest in Chinese books.

The world is watching this Red Dragon unfurl; some with sinister apprehension, others with misinformed prejudice and still there are some, these ever avid sinophiles and sinologists, who embrace whatever they can learn about China's fascinating growth, its culture, its history and its people, and who march in the footsteps of pioneers like Marco Polo, Matteo Ricci, Sommerset Maugham and even our own Kevin Rudd.

Unfortunately for the non-Chinese speaking world where literary content is produced about China it has, according to the aforementioned article, often fallen into two camps. I quote from Publishing Perspectives:

“The two hoary old themes are the Cultural Revolution, and ‘sexy China.’  For a while it seemed like everything fell into those two camps, and then all at once publishers got tired of them.

Coincidentally (or perhaps since I flatter myself to be visionary) I voiced my contempt for the overdone Cultural Revolution and communist themes about six years ago when I began researching my historical novel, The Ming Storytellers. They say you should write what you want to read. I did just that.

What I sought to do then was write a book about China that combined all the genre elements I had personally loved in Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose and Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits. At the non-narrative level, this novel, if I ever got around to finishing it, would speak of a different China, one that reflected its broad history, its global role several centuries ago, its complex multi-ethnic population and more importantly, a psyche predating the Colonial and Communist eras. Because my narrative was dark and contained many Gothic elements, I created the Ming Gothic genre.

Not surprisingly, I have been told by agents and publishers alike that my novel would be 'difficult to place'.
Hence the risk involved in endorsing this, a first time author's work.

Yet I stand fast by The Ming Storytellers and feel greatly satisfied with its to-date unique approach to writing about China. I am planning to translate it in French so that the many French sinophiles I know are out there can also enjoy it.

In the meantime, at least an English version of The Ming Storytellers will be released in August this year.

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