Who is “Chinese”?

Author: Daniel Lee

On my business trip to Malaysia, I asked my colleague whether she was Chinese-Malay. She smiled and politely corrected me that she was Malay-Chinese. In an instant I knew the significant difference the two.

Having grown up in the United Kingdom, I had many friends who were from Hong Kong due to the political ties between them. They called themselves “from Hong Kong” and differentiated themselves from the “Mainland Chinese”. The difference was clear too, not just in language but also the way they dressed and socialized. Again, when I met my “Mainland” friends at school, they wanted to differentiate themselves by regions and cities.

This division gets even more confusing. Upon graduating college, I went back home to Korea where I joined a global consulting firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers. I was fortunate to travel the world on business trips and more than half of them took me to Southeast Asia. I met and worked with many “Chinese” at Singapore and Malaysia. In Korea, we call them “Hwa-gyo” (華僑) which literally means “Overseas Chinese”. It made me wonder, what does it mean to be “Chinese”?

In my favorite movie “Hero” starring Jet Li or Li Lianjie (李连杰), the main protagonist is a nameless assassin who vows to assassinate a ruthless king on his conquest to unify China during the Warring States Period. Just before Jet Li sets out on his mission, his comrade writes him a letter. The letter writes the characters “Tianxia” (天下) which literally means under heaven but “Our Land” is given as a translation for the movie. Persuaded by his comrade, Jet Li withdraws his sword on the king. The king reluctantly executes Jet Li to uphold the law. Although executed, he is buried a “hero” for “saving” the king who would eventually unify all of China.

Some of my best Chinese friends come from all over the world. I love to celebrate together with them on Chinese New Year’s and see red envelopes and enjoy a nice Chinese meal. They have different passports and although they come from different parts of the world, celebrating their cultural heritage and identity is what makes them “Chinese”. This to me is why the letters “Our Land” in the movie had an impactful meaning to the word “Chinese”.