The Qiang, which are now one of 55 recognized “nationalities” in China, with a population of about 220,000, have connected themselves historically to the much broader Han historical category which until very recently referred to a broad range of ethnic groups classified as barbarians on China’s periphery. While I can think of a few other potential examples, this is a nice twist on a common theme in the formation of national identity. Instead of linking itself to an empire, a language, an island, etc. that could help the newborn Qiang nationality to distinguish itself from some Other, the Qiang nationality was born out [of] Han China’s own “Other.” The fact that there was no linguistically, culturally, or even geographically consistent historical community which corresponded to what the Han called the Qiang is, like all formations of national identity from Norwegians to Japanese, pretty much irrelevant.
According to Wang, from the late Han to the Ming periods, the concept of the Qiang was something close to “those people in the west who are not one of us” and included a huge range of people along [the] eastern edges of [the] Tibetan Plateau. Over time, the Chinese empires would come to classify these peoples into smaller and smaller distinct groups and those who were called the Qiang by the Han shifted (linguistically, not physically) further and further to the West until this bumped into Tibetan cultural communities that the Chinese categorized as the Fan 番. Ultimately, the Qiang ended up being the small group of mountain dwellers in the small geographic area they occupy today (the upper Min River Valley).
Anyone at all interested in ethnicity and the “invention of tradition” should read it.
Lawson also has an excellent post on the history of Chinese character reform movements in Taiwan. Like him, I had thought the story of character reform was “the mainland Communist regime pointing to their characters as ‘progressive’ and a contribution to increased literacy through simplification,… the Taiwanese, with their more complicated characters boasting that they alone preserve China’s written culture with its beautiful and semantically rich characters.” But it turns out that there was a movement for character reform in Taiwan as well—supported by Chiang Kai-shek! A survey by “the Taiwanese newspaper 聯合報 from April 1954” showed that “a solid majority of Taiwanese supported the reform movement, which collapsed shortly thereafter.” I’d like to know more about that episode, which has been pretty much forgotten (at least nobody mentioned it when I lived in Taiwan in the ’70s).
Update. See Joel’s Far Outliers entry on why alphabetization, which Mao favored, never happened on the mainland:
The Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976, represents the climax of China’s disillusionment with its traditions. But, ironically, the upheaval helped protect the characters. When the chaos finally ended, the Chinese no longer had an appetite for radical cultural change, and both the public and the government rejected further attempts at writing reform.