Until the mid-twentieth century, the written Chinese names for China's “barbarian” others included components that purposefully classified such people with animals. This long-lived official definition of ethnic others as subhuman was accomplished by using a range of standard orthographic building blocks for Chinese writing that have the form of bugs, beasts, or dogs, in combination with phonetic indicators. This article explains how, when, and why this Chinese ethnonymy (system of names of peoples) for China's barbarians was constructed and standardized as part of the formation of the first Chinese empires. It also explains how, in the 1930s, the Nationalist government—and not the post-1949 Communist regime, as is often mistakenly assumed—first launched a project to rectify the Chinese names of the barbarians and replace the derogatory animal classifiers with the standard human form, indicating the new official status of the former barbarians as ethnic minorities, fully human, complete with modern citizenship. Written as a tribute to the great Chinese ethnologist Ruey Yih-fu, who had a leading role in this remarkable project, the article also develops a new theory regarding this curious convergence of modern Chinese Nationalist and Communist ethnopolitics. This includes, not least, the thorny problem of just why it should have been that the former barbarians were even preserved in this new form, as ethnic minorities, in the twentieth century—instead of becoming the target of nationalistic denial, eradication, or rapid forced assimilation, as could well have been the case.

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