Sunday, February 8, 2009

Steven Chu, the first Energy Secretary of Chinese origins

I was pleased when I learned that Barack Obama planned to nominate Steven Chu to the position of Secretary of Energy. A Nobel Prize winner, Secretary Chu has, so far, attacked the problem of global warming with vigor, emphasizing cooperation between greenhouse gas-producing countries rather than a go-it-alone attitude—a welcome change in American policy. I was also pleased for a completely different reason: Steven Chu is ethnically Chinese.

How people of any particular self-identified nation decide who belongs and who doesn’t is one of the major issues in nationalism studies, and I’ve long been fascinated by the differences in how the terms “American” and “Chinese” are defined. In China, being Chinese is generally based on race—Uyghurs and other non-Han Chinese groups aside, it’s very difficult to imagine someone who is not ethnically Chinese becoming a Chinese citizen, let alone serving as an important official in the government. This was not always the case. Matteo Ricci famously became the first Westerner to enter the Forbidden City in the early 17th century, acting as an advisor on astronomical matters to the emperor. Later Western missionaries were actually appointed to be Chinese officials: Adam Schall, a Jesuit missionary, was appointed to be the director of the Bureau of Astronomy by the first Qing emperor (one way he persuaded the Manchus to let him stay in Beijing was by telling them he was “a foreigner like you”), and Ferdinand Verbiest, following in his footsteps, was appointed to the same post in 1669.*

In dynastic China this was possible because race and ethnicity had not yet entered the definition of being Chinese; indeed, dynastic China was remarkable for its ability to pull people in from surrounding areas and integrate them into the melting pot of central Chinese culture. In the modern period, with a growing awareness of ethnicity, a racial understanding of China’s history, and the advent of social Darwinism, all that changed drastically.

There are several Chinese words that mean a Chinese abroad—huaqiao 华侨 means overseas Chinese, huayi 华裔 means a foreign citizen of Chinese origin—and there often seems to be a constant awareness of one’s Chinese origins among ethnic Chinese living overseas. Leslie Chang has written of “the pull of the village,” referring to her ancestral hometown in Jilin province; in China, news reports of Steven Chu’s appointment to be Secretary of Energy invariably mentioned his ethnic status. One such report, for example, was headlined “Zhu Diwen [Steven Chu] to be America’s first Secretary of Energy of Chinese origins [huayi].” American news reports that I’ve seen haven’t remarked on his Chinese origins at all.

It is one of those strange twists of history that it is now easy to imagine the United States having people of various ethnic backgrounds serving in its government, while China, which throughout its dynastic history was as ethnically diverse as anywhere, now defines itself largely based on race. Perhaps Steven Chu’s appointment will complicate people’s notions of what it means to be Chinese and what it means to be American. These terms, after all, are hardly set in stone, thank goodness.

*See Jonathan Spence’s To Change China for an overview of these extraordinary missionaries.