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Zhonghua minzu (simplified Chinese: 中华民族; traditional Chinese: 中華民族; pinyin: Zhōnghuá Mínzú), usually translated as Chinese ethnic groups or Chinese nationality, refers to the modern notion of a Chinese nationality transcending ethnic divisions, with a central identity to China as a whole. It includes people of all ethnic groups in China who have historically interacted, contributed and assimilated to various extents with Chinese civilization.
Professor Suisheng Zhao, University of Denver, using extensive reading of primary sources noted that because "Chinese" or Zhonghua minzu as a conscious national identity (zijue de minzu shiti)only arose in the 19th century, since nationalism in the modern sense only appeared with the emergence of the nation-state system (Westphalian system) in Europe. Although the Chinese empire stretched back two millennia, it was largely a universalistic empire and not a nation-state before the 19th century.
The boundaries of Zhonghua minzu are fuzzy and controversial, but most Chinese today use the term to include all peoples within the territorial boundaries of China integrated as one national, political, cultural and perhaps even ideological-moral group. It is sometimes also extended to overseas Chinese.
Zhonghua refers to the concept of "China" and is the term used in the formal names for both the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China. (See: Names of China) Minzu can be translated as "nationality", "people", or "ethnic groups".
Confusion can arise because the term "Chinese" in Western languages is often used to refer both to Zhonghua minzu and to the Han ethnicity, two concepts which are usually (although not always successfully) kept distinct among modern Chinese speakers.
The immediate roots of the Zhonghua minzu lie in the Qing dynasty founded by the Manchu clan Aisin Gioro in what is today northeast China. The Qing Emperors sought to portray themselves as ideal Confucian rulers for the Han Chinese, Grand khans for the Mongols, and Chakravartin kings for Tibetan Buddhists. Before the rise of nationalism people were generally loyal to the city-state, the feudal fief and its lord or, in the case of China, to the dynastic state.  The French Revolution paved the way for the modern nation-state and nationalism has become one of the most significant political and social forces in history. Nationalism spread in the early 19th century to central Europe and from there to eastern and southeastern Europe and in the early 20th century nationalism began to appear in China. Han Chinese nationalists such as Sun Yat-sen initially planned to expel the Manchus as "foreign invaders"  and establish a Chinese nation-state modelled closely after Germany and Japan. Fearing, however, that this restrictive view of the ethnic nation-state would result in the dismemberment and domination of the Qing empire by Western powers, Chinese nationalists discarded this concept. The abdication of the Qing emperor inevitably led to controversy about the status of territories in Tibet and Mongolia. While the emperor formally bequeathed all the Qing territories to the new republic, it was the position of Mongols and Tibetans that their allegiance had been to the Qing monarch; with the abdication of the Qing, they owed no allegiance to the new Chinese state. This was rejected by the Republic of China and subsequently the People's Republic of China.
This development in Chinese thinking was mirrored in the expansion of the meaning of the term Zhonghua minzu. Originally coined by the late Qing philologist Liang Qichao, Zhonghua minzu initially referred only to the Han Chinese. It was then expanded to include the Five Races Under One Union, based on the ethnic categories of the Qing. Sun Yatsen further expanded this concept when he wrote,
Some people say, after the overthrow of the Qing, we will have no further need of nationalism. Those words are certainly wrong... At the present we speak of unifying the 'five nationalities' (Han, Manchu, Mongol, Hui, and Tibetan), yet surely our country has far more than five nationalities? My stand is that we should unite all the peoples of China into one Chinese nation (Zhonghua minzu)...and, furthermore, develop that nation into an advanced, civilized nation; only then will nationalism be finished.
The concept of Zhonghua minzu was first publicly espoused by President Yuan Shikai in 1912, shortly after the overthrow of the Qing Empire and the founding of the Republic of China. Facing the imminent independence of Outer Mongolia from China, Yuan Shikai stated, "Outer Mongolia is part of Zhonghua minzu [the Chinese nation] and has been of one family for centuries" (外蒙同為中華民族，數百年來儼如一家).
After the founding of the People's Republic of China, the concept of Zhonghua minzu became influenced by Soviet nationalities policy. Officially, the PRC is a unitary state composed of 56 ethnic groups, of which the Han ethnic group is by far the largest. The concept of Zhonghua minzu is seen as an all-encompassing category consisting of people within the borders of the PRC.
This term has continued to be invoked and remains a powerful concept in China into the 21st century. In mainland China, it continues to hold use as the leaders of China need to unify into one political entity a highly diverse set of ethnic and social groups as well as to mobilize the support of overseas Chinese in developing China.
In Taiwan, it is invoked as a unifying concept that includes the people of both Taiwan and mainland China without a possible interpretation that Taiwan is part the People's Republic of China, whereas terms such as "Chinese people" can be, given that the PRC is commonly known as "China".
The adoption of the Zhonghua minzu concept has given rise to the reinterpretation or rewriting of Chinese history. For example, the Manchu Dynasty was originally often characterized as a "conquering regime" or a "non-Han" regime. Following the adoption of the Zhonghua minzu ideology, which regards the Manchus as a member of the Zhonghua minzu, the distinction between non-native and native dynasties had to be abandoned. In the new orthodoxy, the Manchus, being as "Chinese" as the Han, could no longer be regarded as "barbarian conquerors", and the Qing empire could no longer be regarded as a "conquering empire".
Rewriting history also meant reassessing the role of many traditional hero figures. Heroes such as Yue Fei and Koxinga, who were originally considered to have fought for China against barbarian incursions, have been recharacterized by some as minzu yingxiong (ethnic heroes) who fought not against barbarians but against other members of the Zhonghua minzu (the Jurchens and Manchus respectively). At the same time, China exemplified heroes such as Genghis Khan, who became a "Chinese hero" by virtue of the fact that the Mongols are considered part of the Zhonghua minzu.
Despite the superficial application of the Zhonghua Minzu concept to ethnic groups and history, the older concept of China as largely synonymous with the Han ethnic group is still widespread, even in China. For instance, discussions of Chinese cuisine usually refer to the culinary practices of and subdivisions within the Han majority, and do not seriously pretend to categorize "Chinese" food according to the theoretical framework of Zhonghua minzu.
The Zhonghua Minzu concept in practice gives Chinese nationals who are not of the ethnic Han majority preferential university entry status, favorable tax laws, non-compliance with the one-child policy, among other preferential conditions under Chinese law for ethnic minorities. This has in fact led to a tremendous surge in the population of ethnic minorities in China, which number about 5% of the total Chinese population in the 1950s, to about 10% in 2006 of the total in the year 2007; a birth rate about three times that of the ethnic Han majority group in the last half-century.
The theory behind the ideology of Zhonghua minzu is that it includes not only the Han but also other minority ethnic groups within China, such as the Mongols, Manchus, Hmong, Tibetans, Tuvans, etc. Supporters of the separate historical identities of different ethnic groups reject the notion these ethnic groups are part of a single people with Han Chinese. Proponents of Tibetan independence or Uighur independence reject the concept of Zhonghua minzu as grounds for a unified nation-state, arguing that their peoples have a culture, history of political independence, and sense of nationhood which is quite distinct from that of the Han Chinese or China.
The boundaries of who is or is not a member of the Chinese nation are not necessarily consistent. A person of Russian (Éluósī Zú), Korean (Cháoxiǎn Zú), Vietnamese (Jīng Zú), Kyrgyz (Kē'ěrkèzī Zú), Hmong (Miáo Zú), or Mongol (Měnggǔ Zú) ethnicity with Chinese citizenship would be considered a full member of the Zhonghua Minzu. A Russian living in Russia, a Korean living in Korea, a Vietnamese living in Vietnam, a Kyrgyz living in Kyrgyzstan, a Hmong person living in Southeast Asia, or a Mongol living in Mongolia would almost universally be considered not to be. On the other hand, Cháoxiǎn Zú living and working in Korea or Mongolian from Inner Mongolia living and working in the independent state of Mongolia would be considered members of the Zhonghua Minzu, which can give rise to potential issues of identity.
Whether ethnic Han Chinese living overseas and not having Chinese citizenship are considered part of this Chinese nationality depends on the speaker and the context. More often than not, overseas Chinese in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore make a clear distinction between being Chinese in a political sense and being Chinese in an ethnic sense, making it unclear whether or not they belong to such a group that contains both political and ethnic connotations.
The conceptual boundaries of the Zhonghua minzu may be complicated by independent countries such as Mongolia and Korea, with their differing interpretations of historical peoples and states. For instance, the idea of Chinggis Khan as a "Chinese hero" is contested by Mongolia, which since the fall of socialism has explicitly positioned Chinggis Khan as the father of the Mongolian state. In opposition to this, it is common to point out that there are more ethnic Mongolians in China than in the state of Mongolia.
A dispute of a similar nature has arisen over the status of the state of Goguryeo in ancient history, with the Chinese claiming it as Chinese on the grounds that much of it existed within the current borders of China as well as the ancient borders of China. On that basis Chinese nationalists maintain that these territories belong to the heterogeneous origin of the Chinese nation. This view is generally rejected by historians from South Korea and North Korea, as well as experts on Goguryeo history from various countries such as the United States, Russia, Mongolia, and Australia. It has also received criticism from certain domestic scholars, such as a senior scholar from Peking University who likewise considered Goguryeo as a part of Korean history and denied Chinese connections.