China’s Diversity – A Look Beyond What Meets the Eye

Merriam-Webster defines diversity as “the state of having people who are different races or who have different cultures in a group or organization.” It’s instinctual to generalize across unfamiliar cultures, especially when it comes to a country like China. Here in the United States, your neighbor may be African-American, your dentist of Latino descent, your server Caucasian, and the person in the car next to you from India. America is a genuine melting pot of cultures and ethnicities. For several reasons, we may unconsciously describe those of Asian descent using broad brushstrokes and generalize across several different cultures. While Korea, China, Japan are often the first countries that come to mind when we think about Asia, we should not assume that these cultures are alike or apply our assumptions to other Asian cultures. Even within China, regional and cultural differences can be found and may run deeper than one might expect.

In regards to land area, China and the United States are very similar with each country having about 3.8 million square miles. Geographically, China features more diverse terrains ranging from rain forest to desert and from plateaus to plains. People living in these regions have varying cultures. Just as the U.S. is divided into areas like New England, California, the Pacific Northwest, etc. so too can China. Some of the regions include Dongbei (Northeastern China), Huanan (Southern China), Huabei (Northeastern China), and many more. Each of these regions is different regarding traditions, cuisine, and even language.

Another way to demonstrate the diversity of China is to see what Chinese people in different regions or nationalities like to eat. While traditional American foods can be found prepared in similar ways from state to state, in China, you may find the same dish in Beijing as you might in Shenzhen, but the odds are that they are prepared quite differently as each region is known for its distinctive flavor. Also as Florida is known for oranges or parts of California for wine, each piece of China has its foods to claim. Shanxi, a northeast province, is famous for its vinegar, and Xi’an has world-renowned noodles. Traditionally, people in the south enjoy rice (which comes in several different varieties if you weren’t already aware) while those in the north prefer noodles.

Outside of food, the people and traditions that make up each region also differ quite a bit. Southern China tends to be commercially oriented, where the north tends to be more involved in government. There are seven main kinds of Chinese dialects, including the most common Mandarin, there’s also Wu Chinese, Hakka Chinese, Min Chinese, Gan Chinese, Xiang Chinese, and the second most common, Cantonese. Each one of these has many other variations. The differences between dialects are much more distinct than our regional accents like the Boston or Southern accents.

There are 56 ethnicities officially recognized by the Chinese government, and many of those ethnicities have their respective languages. For context, to understand China’s diversity, we can think of Europe as analogous to China. Where English is widely spoken and taught across many countries like Mandarin, but each state also maintains their language and identity. China’s land area is comparable to Europe, and each region’s ethnic and cultural differences are quite apparent. When comparing China’s regional distinctions, we can think of comparing different countries in Europe.

Now you can start to see how diverse China can be. China also has two Special Administrative Regions in Hong Kong and Macau. While they’re officially part of China, they are autonomously governed regions due to their unique history with the west as formal colonies of Great Britain and Portugal. These two territories blend the rich traditions and cultures of the East with the Western world. They are politically and economically different from any other place in China. Even in the Olympics, both Hong Kong and Macau are allowed to have separate representatives.

The next time you get Chinese students together, provided they are from different regions of China, allow them to present on what the differences between their home provinces are. I’m sure it will be an interesting conversation and hopefully an excellent teaching moment for your domestic students.

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