Seems like a simple enough question. Actually… while the question of what it means to be Chinese is very simple, it is all of the numerous, equally valid answers that make the issue complicated. We have to accept that there are different answers for different people.
Here is one answer, translated from a post written by an American-raised Chinese on MITBBS (原贴):
I was eating lunch with a good friend (both a colleague and a classmate) a few days ago. He’s a true Englishman, having lived in England from birth through university. Although he’s now attending school with me in the United States, he naturally does so with the identity of an Englishman. Whereas I, as an ethnic Chinese person raised in the United States, have in his eyes been categorized as an “American”. And I will often correct him by saying “I’m Chinese”. This time, when the topic popped up again, he laughed and asked: “From your point of view, what is a Chinese person?”
I believe “Chinese” has three different meanings.
1) From a superficial point of view, it would mean the legal definition. If you are a citizen of the People’s Republic of China, if you use a Chinese passport outside of China’s borders, then this person from a legal point of view is Chinese. Based on China’s constitution, if a Chinese citizen acquires foreign citizenship and a foreign passport, they automatically relinquish their Chinese citizenship. So, with this definition, you can only choose one between the identities “Chinese” and “foreigner”. So, if you acquire American citizenship, you’re no longer Chinese. But I don’t believe the definition of “Chinese” is limited to this.
2) “Chinese” can also be defined on the basis of race and blood. If we talk a little loosely, all of the descendants of Yan and Yellow Emperors, all of the heirs of the dragon are Chinese. Just like the song goes, “always an heir of the dragon“.
If we talk a little more tightly, if your bloodlines are 100% Chinese, then using this definition, you are Chinese, and this will never change. It doesn’t matter what passport you hold, it doesn’t matter what citizenship you hold, even if you grow up or are born in a different country and can’t speak Chinese, you’re still Chinese. But I believe that even this definition isn’t the most important.
3) I believe the most important definition is understanding of China’s language, history, and culture. Understanding of China’s way of life. These people, even if they don’t have Chinese citizenship, even if they don’t have Chinese blood-lines, they can also be called Chinese. For example, let’s talk about Dashan (ed: aka Mark Henry Rowswell). He’s completely fluent in all things “China”; even if he doesn’t have a drop of Chinese blood, when compared to those with Chinese blood but can’t speak Hanyu, he’s more Chinese. And from that point of view, someone can both be Chinese and a foreigner. And I believe that because I grew up in the United States and understand American culture, I am Chinese, and also American.
On some discussion boards, some people argue endlessly over whether someone who’s changed passports should still be considered Chinese. But I believe this is too rigidly claiming the first definition of Chinese to be the most important, or even the only definition of the term. Although I can’t accuse them of being wrong, but I have my opinion on this point. Some people raised in China choose to give up their citizenship after going overseas for various reasons; some of these reasons I can understand, some of these reasons I can’t approve of. But this doesn’t represent that they’ve relinquished their Chinese blood, relinquished the Chinese culture that represents a part of themselves. If some people insist they can forget or discard everything that they learned from the age of 20, and can forget the Chinese language, Chinese culture, and all of the traces left on them by their lives in China… then they either have saintly powers, or are only in self-denial. Our China doesn’t give us saints very often, so I don’t think we need to discuss these people too much further.
In many of those threads discussing the changing of passports, someone will mention patriotism. Now, what kind of definition is appropriate? If you have a Chinese passport, that’s proof you’re a Chinese patriot? Maybe, but that’s not a necessary condition. Many people say “I’m proud of being Chinese!” I often say this myself. But what layer of Chinese am I talking about? I believe the meaning of the first and second layers don’t really apply. No one can choose their blood-lines and where they were born. Anyone that believes they and their descendants are superior to others on the basis of their blood-lines or their place of birth… to be honest, that’s both superficial and pathetic. But to a certain degree, we can select our own culture. And I believe that, when I say I’m proud of being Chinese, I’m not expressing pride over my passport (after all, isn’t it just a red-covered little book?), and I’m not expressing pride over my Chinese blood. Instead, it’s because I was raised and live overseas, but have still maintained my Chinese language skills while trying hard to absorb the broad and deep expanses of Chinese culture that I’m proud… it’s because that I still monitor China’s development, and hope to one day contribute to China’s development that I’m proud.
What does everyone think?
Well, I will duplicate his question. What does everyone think? (On MITBBS, the most popular response has been admiration for his excellent writing in Chinese.)