The most deeply rooted and persistent misconception Americans have about China is their too-limited appreciation of China's diversity. This leads to a view that China is populated by people who are all pretty much alike or, at least, can be neatly divided into one large group and a small number of people who stand apart. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The mistaken view of China as a homogeneous land goes back hundreds of years. Between Marco Polo's day and World War II, Western audiences were exposed to books and visual materials that presented China as a land of menacing hordes of faceless and essentially interchangeable people, all of whom were hostile to foreigners. Generations of Europeans and Americans were also periodically influenced by a more positive variant of this motif, brought to cinematic glory via the film The Good Earth, in which the country was portrayed as composed of village after village of poor yet hardworking (but largely indistinguishable) families.
U.S. notions of Chinese homogeneity gained a new lease on life during the first decades of the Cold War. This was a time when many World War II images of Japan, as a militaristic land in which everyone conformed to the wishes of the madmen in charge, were simply transposed to China, while the Japanese, now allies of the United States, were envisioned as diverse and peaceful. Thanks to the way the Western press covered the Korean War and then the Cultural Revolution, the word "China" began to conjure in many Western minds a picture of look-alike men and women who all wore blue "Mao suits" and followed Communist Party dictates without question. This vision of Chinese conformity, rooted in part in efforts by the government in Beijing to create a country where everyone had much in common, but given a decidedly negative spin internationally, showed through in book titles such as Mao Tse-tung: Emperor of the Blue Ants.
This vision of Chinese homogeneity has been challenged recently by news coverage that stresses differences within China, though sometimes only taking the useful but insufficient baby step of moving from presenting all Chinese as belonging to one group to presenting them as falling into just two groups (intellectuals, for instance, are described as having to choose between being "dissidents" and "loyalists," when many fall into other categories). Still, the Emperor of the Blue Ants notion has a long half-life, as was evidenced in 1999 when students took to the streets of cities such as Beijing and Chengdu to express their outrage at NATO bombs hitting the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. While some Western commentators called this a new form of "Boxerism," one conservative U.S. magazine likened the protesters to the Borg of the Star Trek universe, an entity made up of drones without the capacity for independent thought.
In reality, the participants in the demonstrations (which I happened to be in China to witness) took part for varied reasons. They conveyed their anger via approved as well as unapproved means (e.g., some called for a boycott of American goods, even though official spokesmen insisted there should be no boycotts) and sometimes followed but at other times resisted government efforts to turn the movement into one that served the party's goals. The regime, far from feeling comfortable with the students' alleged manipulability, moved quickly to get the youths off the streets and back into the classrooms, lest they begin to raise issues relating to national authorities' failings in addition to NATO's behavior.
One reason that Americans tend to overlook the degree of diversity within China is that ethnicity and race loom so large in U.S. discussions of heterogeneity and homogeneity. And China, it is said, is 90 percent Han. But this widely cited number is a misleading indicator of diversity.
It's true that China can accurately be described as somewhat less heterogeneous than other large countries. It has neither the dizzying religious diversity of India nor the complex linguistic variation of Indonesia, and it does not have as many inhabitants whose parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents were born in distant lands, as the United States does. But there is a world of difference between saying China is somewhat less diverse in specific ways than other countries and suggesting that its people are mostly basically the same. And even when it comes to ethnicity, there turns out to be much that is misleading about even the assumption of relative homogeneity.
Even if one accepts the 90 percent Han number, which is a problematic one (there is always something vexing about trying to define the exact boundaries of such categories), there are many groups of people within this capacious majority catchall group who speak mutually unintelligible dialects and have radically dissimilar customs. To cite just one illustration, the Hakka, or "guest people," scattered around China are considered Han but have many characteristics that, in another context, might easily lead observers to categorize them as "ethnically" distinct from those they live among. There are many historical cases of what would seem typical outbursts of communal violence or "interethnic" conflicts that pit Hakka (who, among many other things that have set them apart from their neighbors, never embraced any form of foot binding, a practice that was far less uniform than outsiders have often suggested) against non-Hakka living nearby.