Who or what is a Chinese person? Scholars think the word 'China' comes from the short-lived Ch'in dynasty (now romanised as Qin), founded by the first emperor more than 2,200 years ago. As movie fans who saw the hit film Hero will know, the first emperor created a unified country by conquering all rival states. So today's Chinese are the people who live in China, all 1.3 billion of them, regardless of ethnicity.
My musings were prompted by Anthony Kuhn's article in the Los Angeles Times, reporting that it is no longer politically correct to revere an age-old nationalistic hero, General Yue Fei, of the Southern Song dynasty. Yue Fei - whose name is known to all Chinese children - fought against the Jurchen tribes, who had seized the northern half of the country. He was executed by Prime Minister Qin Kui, who has gone down in history as the evil statesman who betrayed his own country.
Throughout the centuries, the name Yue Fei has stood for valour and patriotism, while that of Qin Kui has been synonymous with treachery and treason. Even today, in Hangzhou, capital of the Southern Song dynasty, statues of Qin Kui and his wife are spat upon by visitors. The two figures kneel perpetually in front of Yue Fei's tomb.
I have a special interest in Yue Fei and Qin Kui. In the 1970s, when I was working at the New York Times, I wrote an article on the changing attitudes of the Chinese-American community towards Taiwan and the mainland. This drew the wrath of the pro-Taiwan Chinatown establishment. A Chinese-language newspaper declared that 'a descendant of Qin Kui is stirring up trouble'.
Then, some years later, when I was researching my family history for my book Ancestors, I discovered that our family in Wuxi had gone to great lengths in the genealogies to deny any connection with Qin Kui, with whom we share a common surname but which we spell 'Ching'. For one thing, Qin Kui's family is from Nanjing, not Wuxi. But so vilified was Qin Kui that almost anyone bearing the surname took pains to dissociate themselves from him. In the Qing dynasty, Qin Dashi, who was from Qin Kui's home town, went to Hangzhou and knelt before the tomb of Yue Fei. Reflecting the common hatred for Qin Kui, he composed a couplet:
'Ever since the Song, no one has been named Kui,
Now before this grave, I am ashamed to be a Qin.'
The belief that our family was connected to Qin Kui was fuelled by the Yongzheng emperor. In the Vermilion Edicts of the Yongzheng emperor, I found the following quote, from July 24, 1727: 'Now Qin Daoran is actually descended from Qin Kui, and everybody knows this.'
Qin Daoran was my direct ancestor from nine generations ago. He was the tutor of Yongzheng's ninth brother, who was a rival for the throne. Because of Yongzheng's remarks, the belief that our family was descended from Qin Kui became widespread.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the debate over Qin Kui and Yue Fei resumed last December 'when front-page media reports revealed that the education ministry had issued secondary school curriculums instructing that Yue was no longer to be considered a national hero'.
The government's logic, according to the paper, was that centuries of wars against nomads of the Central Asian steppes were little more than 'domestic squabbles' among China's own ethnic groups. At the time of Yue Fei, the Jurchen tribes were indeed considered foreigners. The Jurchen even established their own dynasty, the Jin, in northern China, while the Song ruled the south. Characterising their war as a 'domestic conflict' is like calling the fighting between white settlers and American Indians before the United States came into existence 'domestic squabbles' because the descendants of both are now American citizens.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator