What is ‘Home’ and Who are the ‘Overseas Chinese’?

Written by Yun Seh Lee.

Image credit: The author’s paternal family – observing two generations of local-born Chinese in Miri City, Sarawak State, Malaysia, in the 1970s.

With the Olympics Games in Tokyo playing on TV screens for three weeks in July/August, the world was full of “Olympian Fever.” While most of the audiences were busy cheering for their own nations and even perhaps inspired to send their children for training, hoping they could represent their nation one day; the Games fuelled the latest episode of the decades-long dispute over the legitimacy of the name, Chinese Taipeia name used since 1979. This designated term is used in various international organisations and sporting tournaments to represent the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan.

Starring the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan in this soap opera, both actors have been fighting for sovereignty over Taiwan in their own ways: with the PRC claiming Taiwan as part of its own territory. At the same time, the latter continues to assert its own sovereignty. This unsolved drama can be traced back to the first coalitions between the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the 1920s. This was otherwise known as the First United Front, which had the sole purpose of defeating the Beiyang Army led by Yuan Shi-kai, who wanted to revive the overthrown Qing Dynasty. This action was perceived as reaping the fruits of a revolution – referring to the 1911 Xinhai Revolution (which ended the Qing dynasty). KMT-CCP coalitions went through several stages of parting ways and reconciliation before sparking the Civil War from which the CCP successfully claimed China under the PRC on 1st October 1945. This left Chiang Kai-shek no choice but to relocate the KMT and its supporters to Taiwan and establish his own government to rule the Island under Martial Law.

Since then, the world has become the two players’ arena for gaining international support and recruiting allies. This year marks the 100th anniversary of that first KMT-CCP coalition, and the competition across the Taiwan Strait is still going strong. Focusing on the Overseas Chinese communities across the globe – a term populated by the prominent scholar Wang Gungwu – both players have been enthusiastically trying to win the hearts and minds of this diaspora. The label ‘Overseas Chinese’ itself hints at an ongoing link to China, but the PRC and Taiwan dispute the nature of that link and its contemporary manifestation.

The PRC, in particular, is welcoming the Overseas Chinese communities back to their ‘motherland’, ‘fatherland’ or ‘homeland.’ This cultural/political claim of the PRC aims to connect Overseas Chinese communities rather like an umbilical cord (a concept put forward by Huang Jianli in 2011) to the PRC. It is yearning for the patriotic devotion of these Chinese living abroad regardless of their current residence. But do these Overseas Chinese communities have mutual feelings of attachment to China? Being an Overseas Chinese himself and having lived in multiple countries, Wang Gungwu combined a package of culture, nationality, and space in his definition of ‘home’.

Sharing Wang’s perception of home, Chinese communities residing in Southeast Asia today or Nanyang (an old name which means “South Sea”) would probably echo his views. Many generations have passed since the pioneer migrants from China settled down in the region. Taking the local Chinese communities in Malaysia for an example, they now have Malaysian citizenship and practice their own local cultures – though still celebrating similar festivals to those in the PRC and Taiwan, such as Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), the Dragon Boat Festival and Mooncake Festival – to name a few.

In 2015, to strengthen its home-calling efforts, the PRC renewed ‘Overseas Chinese’ definitions to include the descendants of Overseas Chinese residing outside China. As a result, the PRC has defined Overseas Chinese as: (i) 华侨 (‘Overseas Chinese’ who are citizens of PRC but residing in a different country); (ii) 外籍华 (descendants of PRC’s citizens with a different nationality); (iii) 归侨 (Chinese returnee); and (iv) 侨眷 (immediate family of all other categories of ‘Overseas Chinese’).

Likewise, for Taiwan, ‘overseas’ refers to those residing outside Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and the PRC. In an educational context, the Taiwan government uses 僑生 or Overseas Compatriot Student to define those of Chinese/Taiwan descent studying in Taiwan. Regardless of whether they are by the PRC or Taiwan, these definitions are used to include as many potential allies as possible to their respective advantage. Most importantly, these efforts are essential to achieve the ultimate goal of claiming the Overseas Chinese as part of their own community – and are reflected through their definitions of Overseas Chinese.

Putting aside the PRC-Taiwan soap opera, is that really the case? How do these Overseas Chinese perceive themselves? There is one potential mismatch as neither the PRC nor Taiwan truly understands local Chinese, just as when 庄子 (Zhuang Zi), a Chinese philosopher, was questioned by his friend about how he knew if a fish is happy when he was not a fish himself. Since the first out-migration from China, many generations have passed, and the Overseas Chinese have developed their own views and identities. Descendants of the first Overseas Chinese in Malaysia have been locally born and granted Malaysian citizenship.

The ‘local’ Chinese communities have adopted a different perspective from those residing in China and Taiwan. Moreover, they do not necessarily regard China (now the PRC) as their own fatherland/motherland or home. There was no “umbilical cord” to the PRC because the PRC did not ‘give birth’ to the local Chinese. Quoting from 沈明信 (Shen Ming Xin), the Chief Editor of Pumen Magazine, he was told to have a motherland in the North (referring to the PRC), but the truth was, his birth mother was buried in Melaka State in Malaysia. This perspective comes from a Malaysian with Chinese ethnicity and is a mismatch to the PRC’s imagination of a motherland. The PRC was only established in 1949, whereas the ancestors of these local Chinese had been in Malaysia even before establishing the Republic of China in 1911. The Sarawak Free School built by the Hokkien community in Kuching City as early as 1912 is evidence of Chinese communities living in Sarawak State of Malaysia at this time.

The Chinese identities in Sarawak were perhaps more complex in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when ‘sub’-identities can be further recognised according to various dialect groups, as first introduced by Ti’en Ju-K’ang in his 1953 book, The Chinese of Sarawak. The different dialect groups were fundamental to building different ‘Chinese’ schools back in the 1910s and 1920s. These Chinese schools did not use the standard Chinese/Mandarin – neither the subsequent PRC nor Taiwan versions, as a teaching medium, but different dialects from those more common today. These dialects can be recognised as originating in the languages from other provinces in China.

Furthermore, the local Malay term, tanah air (earth/soil and water), describes a person’s birthplace and nationality – a sense of belonging where one is born, brought up and eventually buried in the same locale. Thus, by being a native to Malaysia, the local Chinese were unlikely to call another country ‘home’ but instead acknowledged this ‘foreign’ home as a home to their ancestors, extended families, and relatives related to them by blood. In effect, Malaysia is the motherland of the local Chinese, giving birth to local culture and identity.

Yun Seh Lee is currently a PhD candidate based in Australia working on the impact of policies pursued by the PRC and Taiwan on local Chinese communities in Sarawak, Malaysia. She can speak and write Chinese/Mandarin, English, and Malay; and is familiar with Chinese dialects such as Hokkien, Hakka, and Cantonese. She is also a keen observer of international relations and societal change – feel free to drop a message via the Twitter handle. She tweets @yunseh


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s