“China has 5,000 years of history,” is a popular refrain in Chinese culture. It is a peculiar claim, because it doesn’t trace back to any specific date. What is generally recognised as the first dynasty, the Xia Dynasty, dates back roughly 4,000 years, and the earliest surviving written documents come from the period following, the Shang era, 600 years later. Other archaeological finds suggest societies in China that actually predate the 5,000-year watershed.
At root the saying is supposed to evoke the notion of a singular and civilised people, united across the long span of their history. So why do people from Henan province, where the Xia and Shang dynasties both flourished, face so much prejudice today?
Zhang Xinbin, a researcher at the Henan Provincial Academy of Social Sciences, pontificates that it is precisely because of Henan’s history as the “cradle of Chinese civilisation” that people from the province aren’t trusted by other Chinese. Henan was the political centre of many dynasties, Zhang claims, allowing many local people to take on positions of power and wealth. The longer term impact was a reputation gained by the Henanese as power-hungry and ruthless.
Other theories point to more recent causes for the reputation. The Global Times suggests that Henan’s image began to sour in the 1990s following a string of high-profile scandals, including the production of fake pharmaceuticals. “Every time another case of forgery or cheating involving Henan was reported… this prejudice was further enhanced,” the newspaper writes. (Henan’s reputation for dishonesty – which is a nationwide phenomenon, but felt particularly strongly in Shanghai and Guangdong – has led some employers to warn Henanese not to bother applying for jobs. As we pointed out in our survey of Chinese regional stereotypes in WiC124 the natives of Henan are regarded as potentially violent too, which doesn’t make them any more employable either.)
By the early 2000s, the ridicule of Henan was so endemic that one local wrote a book asking, “Whom have people from Henan offended?” Much of the prejudice was boiled down to a wealth divide. Henan was once one of China’s poorest provinces and it has suffered alternately from severe drought and severe flooding in the past, forcing many to flee their homes. As an agricultural district, many farm workers were enticed to seek higher-paying and more stable jobs in the industrial cities on China’s coast. This means that for many Chinese, their first introduction to Henanese was likely to be a migrant of lower income, lower education, and consequently, a lower social class.
Henan has climbed up China’s GDP rankings in the years since and it now has the fifth largest provincial economy (in per capita terms it ranks much lower, because of its large population). Nevertheless, prejudice has persisted and one man has had enough, taking another to court over alleged slurs on the province’s reputation.
The defendant is Hu Wei, a popular microblogger on weibo. During the very public divorce proceedings of celebrities Wang Baoqiang and Ma Rong in August (see WiC337), Hu posted: “Ma Rong is shameless, like a person from Henan”. This was enough to incur the wrath of Jing Changshui, who had also noticed that Hu Wei had repeatedly slandered the Henan people.
“As a Henanese, I’m duty-bound to defend the image of Henan,” Jing told the New York Times. “He’s been insulting Henanese for a long time!”
A peculiarity of this case, however, is that Jing isn’t Henanese: he was born in Shandong and moved to Henan when he was about 16 years-old. “I’m also Henanese now, a first-generation migrant,” Jing explained. “The hospitality and acceptance you find in Henan has changed my personality, and made me less irritable.”
“Less irritable” might not be how you choose to describe a man who is suing another over insults to his adopted home. Jing filed his complaint in August and it was accepted by a court in October, but no date has been set for a hearing.
The chances that Jing’s legal action will put an end to anti-Henan rhetoric are low. Indeed, the court case isn’t the first on the subject. In 2005, two Henanese locals sued the Shenzhen Public Security Bureau after a local police unit put up posters urging people to help break up a “Henan racketeering gang”. No evidence was provided that Henan people were the key perpetrators. The police then apologised, but the prejudice definitely lives on…
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