Accepted paper:

Chinese religions and history in the conceptualization of diaspora


Terry Woo (N/A)

Paper short abstract:

Diasporas may be impermanent and religion influences diasporic identity and settlement. For example, northern Chinese displaced to the south mixed with local peoples and form a part of contemporary Chinese population, suggesting that even settled communities can have diasporic sources within them.

Paper long abstract:

This paper proposes to look broadly at two related diasporas (people and religion over the long history of China) because this can offer a long historical and non-Western perspective in which to conceptualize diaspora. Even as Europeans are dispersed over the globe, one seldom reads about the diaspora of the English, the French and/or the Germans. One does read about the Acadian Expulsion, the Italians and Greeks in New York City or Toronto, or the Hispanics in California. The determining factor as to who is most often described as being in diaspora appears to be the proximity to power, expressed through culture, of western Europeans. In interrogating diaspora, we might remember that the dominance of the Anglo-Saxon west is relatively young; the history of China might thus offer an alternative in the conceptualization of diaspora. Two elements will be highlighted. First, diaspora may not be permanent; second, religion (cultural values) influences notions of identity, settlement and plurality in diaspora. The history of China shows that displaced groups become "undisplaced" as they root themselves in their new homes.1 For example, northern Chinese from the fall of the various dynasties displaced by non-Chinese nomadic groups, settled in southern China with scanty records of return; these mixed ethnicities form a part of the contemporary Chinese population.2 This migration now continues outside of China, echoing early Chinese history, offering an understanding of diaspora that is different from the West Asian-Afro-European ones. This simultaneous separation and integration in people (Han-Chinese, Hui-Chinese, Shanghai-Chinese, Sichuan-Chinese, and so on) is reflected in the diasporic formation of the religions. Shamanistic practices, familial rituals, teachings of the Ru (Confucians), Daoist beliefs, and leaving home to join the Buddhists are all variously separated, assimilated and acculturated in different combinations. These religions, once displaced and still separate but now syncretized and coexisting, would have been carried by the various refugee or missionary groups like the Central Asians, Mongolians, Manchurians, and what we now generally refer to as Han and Tang ren or people; all of them now form a part of what we know as Chinese. The religions like the people have become Chinese, a category which had not existed. Chinese history therefore suggests that not all diasporas are intended to be nor understood as eternal. There are different kinds of diasporas and that over a long time diasporas can become faint memories of a pluralistic society. People and ideas can remain separate from home and host communities alike, like the medieval Jews in China, who were eventually assimilated; or those that are acculturated and influence indigenous communities and form new ones like Buddhism; and those that work invisibly, like Daoism. In short, the case of China shows that even what appears to be the most settled communities likely have in their history dispersal. Footnotes 1) Wang Gungwu talks about luo di sheng gen (growing roots when falling to earth) in Ronald Skeldon (ed.), Reluctant Exiles? Migration from Hong Kong and the New Overseas Chinese. (1994) I apply this idea to the historical settlement of what we now call China. 2) This is difficult to get at from historical records but distinctive physical characteristics amidst the population will speak to the mixing of northerners and southerners. Some refer to being from somewhere else with no intention of return. For example, a family may have memories of fleeing from the north but are firmly settled in the south.

panel W007
Interrogating diaspora