When Westerners think or study about China, or travel there, much of their attention goes to Beijing and Shanghai, and other areas in the north. Mostly overlooked is the southern Chinese coast. That, according to Connie So, a senior lecturer in AES, bypasses a culturally and historically important region that is the ancestral homeland of most Chinese Americans, including So and many of her students.
Calling attention to and increasing understanding of southern China’s past and present was the goal of a summer 2014 exploration seminar — Finding Chinese Roots: Exploring the Cantonese and Hokkien Overseas Chinese Diaspora. As the first AES seminar in China, the three-week program to Hong Kong, Macau, Guangzhou (Canton), Sanya, and Xiamen expanded on material about early Chinese immigration to the U.S. taught in four AES courses.
“In emphasizing the north we miss so much Chinese history and the reasons for the cultural and language differences between north and south, which partly trace to the ancient Yue people of Chinese ethnicity who migrated to the south China region and to southeast Asia,” So says. “Even today, people in Guangzhou refer to themselves as Yue yun (Yue people) and ask if someone speaks Baak Yue hua; they don’t use the term Cantonese. In Xiamen, they refer to their culture as “Minnan” and their language group is Hokkien.”
In ancient China, Confucian philosophy and the central role of the emperor strongly shaped the society and values of the northern Han people. Taoist beliefs, with an emphasis on nature and individualism, were more dominant in the south, along with a merchant culture and economy. For these and other reasons, northerners long considered southerners to be “barbarians.” Particular concerns for So are official attempts to rewrite the history of the south, ignoring its indigenous people, traditional roots, and long independence in favor of Han narratives and government control over the region.
“During the trip I wanted students to see and notice what I saw when growing up there, why people feel the way they do, and why the Cantonese people work so hard, and how they contributed to the modernization of China,” So says.
And see they did. The 24 students of diverse Asian and other ethnic backgrounds met with university students and visited history museums and memorials, temples, parks and other places of cultural interest. They absorbed the sights and sounds of contemporary life and commerce, and enjoyed the annual Mid-Autumn Moon Festival in a Guangzhou park aglow with colorful lantern displays.
Student Perspectives (excerpts). See photo of these students in the gallery:
Jony Phan (AES ’15)
From my experience with both the Chinese in America and China I have come to realize that Chinese culture is enduring and is not easily influenced by other cultures. You can see that even though China is becoming more modern, it is not trying to be more Western. Also as a future entrepreneur, I was intrigued by all the economic activities. After seeing people work countless hours, day and night, it does not surprise to see why China is rapidly growing. I see the same work ethic in America and can understand why they work so hard.
Siyuan Liu (Electrical Engineering/American EES ’16)
My roots are in Nanjing and I never traveled to Canton before. Beneath the common Chinese characters lies a different mechanism of understanding, and I challenged myself to dig deeper into southern China and find these mechanisms. Here I truly feel the culture of flexibility. They absorb new and valuable ideas into Chinese culture so it lives on. This is the source of vitality that fosters and carries forward this great culture. As an entry point, this region also became the first city in modern China to allow large African immigration and settlement. A history of diversity made Canton the port of cultural exchange.
Tuyen Truong (Human Centered Design and Engineering, '17)
My motivation to participate in the seminar stemmed from my family’s rich immigration history beginning from China, to Vietnam, and to the United States in 1997. Since then, much of my awareness, language, and holiday traditions of the Chinese heritage has diminished. In Hong Kong I was intrigued by the Cantonese voices and the middle-aged women who dressed casually like my mother. I had never seen anything that reminded me so much of my family, and every single person seemed to proudly embrace their culture.
It was a shock that natives of Guangzhou (Canton) don’t all speak or understand Cantonese even though it is considered the official language. Immigration within China has grown immensely, resulting in the spread of Mandarin as the nation’s official language. This saddened me because Cantonese is my family’s language and it feels like our culture is becoming extinct. (Attending a ceremony at a local temple) motivated me to never forget who I am and inspired me to continue practicing cultural traditions because at the end of the day, it defines who we are, and what relates us to one another, not just the families we were born into.