Photo 1: Jin Peng near the Student’s Union, HKU MTR entrance is in the back left.

Minorities at HKU #1 – Jin Peng the Manchu

April 30, 2015 / by / 0 Comment

Descending from the now-defeated Mainland Chinese minority that used to rule China in the Qing Dynasty, Jin Peng’s mother was eager to have her background quietly forgotten as she chose to follow the new Han majority masters of China.  Later, on his first trip to Hong Kong, Jin Peng was struck by the rudeness he faced in hotels and restaurants by local Hong Kongers.  It doesn’t seem like the recipe for a happy life.  Yet, now near the end of his master’s degree, and his second trip to Hong Kong, Jin Peng holds no grudges against Hong Kongers and has learnt that unlike his primary school teaching – where things were black and white – at HKU, the world is a place of many wonderful colours.

Series introduction:  In this series I will be interviewing different students at Hong Kong University (HKU) who are also members of ethnic minorities in their home countries.  I’ll be finding out about their lives as members of an ethnic minority, and what their experiences at HKU have been like.

Photo 1: Jin Peng near the Student’s Union, HKU MTR entrance is in the back left.

Photo 1: Jin Peng near the Student’s Union, HKU MTR entrance is in the back left.

After a long class Jin Peng and I got together, sank ten floors in the lift of the Jockey Club Tower to the ground floor and got a drink in Delifrance.  The sky was cloudy and it was a little dim, but it was pleasant to be outside as we sat down to talk.

Jin Peng told me about the origins of his name.  Jin (金) in Mandarin means gold.  Peng (澎) is the start of an island’s name.  His grandmother was clearly heavily influenced by Taoist philosophy.  From the details of his birth she calculated that his element was earth (tu, 土).  Because of this, to gain prosperity and happiness in his life he needed some water (shui, 水) to balance him out.  Hence the left side of his given name, Peng (澎), is two dots and an almost vertical dash which together form the radical (a part of a Chinese character) which represents water (shui, 水).  Jin Peng himself is only half Manchu, his father is Han Chinese.

In Chinese Manchu is man zu (满族), and although it sounds like a place that Chinese women gather different men from various habitats around the world to put them in enclosures outside from which they can safely view (i.e. a man zoo), the original name for the minority before their conquest of China and establishment of the Qing Dynasty in 1644 was in fact nuzhen zu (女真族).  The first character here means “woman”, the second means things like “authentic” and the final character “ethnic group”.

A professional basketballer, Jin Peng’s mother was keen that her son follow in her footsteps.  She had taken him to learn basketball from a young age.  I assume tall genes are in the family as he stands 189cm tall now, which no doubt helps his basketball playing.  In fact, so good was Jin Peng, that when trying to get into university he was offered a lower entry barrier for the formidable Chinese University Entrance Exam (gaokao, 高考).  Instead of needing 649 points, he was given 629 as the requirement.  In fact, as a member of an ethnic minority he also had the option of getting a reduction to the required level here, but he could only choose one – and being a Manchu only gave him a 10 point discount.  Thus, he eventually went to Beijing University – so well renowned in China that it is simply referred to as Bei Da (北大, pronounced like “bay dah”, it is short for Beijing daxue, 北京大学, Beijing University).

Following on from talking about his parents I asked him: “Do you feel like a Manchu or a Han Chinese?  Do you even care?”

“Not really” he replied before looking away with a look on his face that told me he was unsure if he should say what he was going to next.  “Actually, I feel more Han Chinese.  You see, children usually follow their father’s race.  The second reason is that my parents were born in the 1960s, after the founding of new China [1949].  The Manchus were associated with the Qing Dynasty.  In new China, everyone wanted to be Han, so they could get on in life.”

“So how about when you were at school” I continued, “did you have any problems?”

“No problems” he said immediately.  “I never said I was Manchu.  I just fit-in as a Han person.  These days I don’t talk about it.  It’s because of reason one [above, I follow the race of my dad].”

“Do you want to bring back Manchu customs or ways?”

“No.  Mu mum’s mum was a true Manchu, but not my mum.  She lived through the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.  That was 20 years.  At that time she didn’t focus on retaining her ethnic minority identity – she focussed on surviving.  She wasn’t taught about her past.  She was taught to move on from the past and embrace the future.  I wasn’t taught about my past either, so I too just focus on a new future.”

And so it turns out that although Jin Peng is 50% Manchu, this really doesn’t mean anything to him at the moment.  But then his mother and he have only ever been told to move on from the backward times of Imperial China and embrace the future.  Of course the concept of moving on socially and embracing technology, science and modern governance are all laudable goals, I was just surprised that I never smelt the faintest whiff of resentment.  I never saw an angry twitch on his face.  Nor did he want to avoid the topic.  He didn’t even question that his mother and himself have been pressured to regard their ethnic heritage as nothing more than a 10 point reduction for the University Entrance Exam.  I was surprised; but he genuinely held no resentment against China.  He gave me the feeling that he was happy to accept the “new China” and be part of this new world.  I’d certainly rather be living in the new China than the old feudal one.

Photo 2: Jin Peng outside the Student’s Union on Lower University Street

Photo 2: Jin Peng outside the Student’s Union on Lower University Street

At this point I moved on to life in Hong Kong.  This interview was about 7 months into his second stay in Hong Kong.  His first was a one week holiday.

“How are Hong Kongers different from what you expected?”

“On my first visit, in hotels and restaurants, when they saw I was a mainlander they would make me feel uncomfortable.”

“Did they treat you badly?”

“A good example is restaurants, when I talked to waiters they would make it clear to me that they were not happy.  At first I didn’t understand why.  Then I went back to Shenzhen and when I told people there they explained it to me.  ‘Hong Kongers feel like mainlanders occupy their resources, are loud, make house prices go up, make all prices go up.’  Then I understood.  What’s interesting to me is Occupy Central.  I think Hong Kongers don’t understand how much they were damaging themselves.  With the CEPA [Closer Economic Partnership Agreement, between the mainland and Hong Kong], Hong Kong relies so much on the mainland these days, but they disregarded this during Occupy Central.

“But then one day I just changed my mind, I don’t know why.  Now I understand what Hong Konger’s feel like so I can accept their [bad] behaviour.  Actually, since I’ve lived here I’ve noticed that often Hong Kongers give other Hong Kongers shocking service too!

“In Primary school I was always taught what is wrong and what is right, but when I came to Hong Kong I realised it’s just not that simple.  You can’t say this is wrong or right.”

“Do you feel like you’ve made good friends with some Hong Kongers?”

“Yeah!”  He burst out.  Then he mentioned a name and looked away thinking.  He mentioned a couple more names.  “All the Hong Kongers in my class” he finally concluded.

“Do you feel they’ve changed as a result of you helping them understand the mainland, or is it just you that’s changed?”

“I haven’t helped them because they already know.  You know, in China we can only see what the Communist Party allows.  In Hong Kong people can see anything.”

“What’s the best thing about Hong Kong University?”  I wasn’t expecting a terribly insightful answer to this, we were winding the interview down now.  Maybe the cheap coffee, I thought, or beautiful girls, the good sense of humour that Hong Kongers have – something like this.

“The values.  I’ve never experienced so many different values.”

This confused me a little: “Do you mean like different religions?”

“Yes, but all sorts of things, like AA in restaurants.  You know, at Bei Da everyone is Chinese; we’ve all been educated the same way, to think the same things – so we all do the same things.  There’s so much more variation at Hong Kong University.”

“So at one of China’s best universities you all think the same?”

Bei Da isn’t like Qinghua [another one of China’s top 5 universities].  Bei Da represents the Communist Party so it has to be maintained as an example of the best of Communist Education [so it’s more conservative].  It’s not that they don’t teach us different values, they do.  It’s just that they can’t openly promote different values.  As students we decide for ourselves what to think.”

“What’s the worst thing about Hong Kong University?”

“The food.  Hong Kong’s food is healthier [than Beijing’s], but after a month, or two, or three, it’s just not that delicious anymore.”

So before the final question I reflected for a moment on how Jin Peng’s experience is possibly quite similar to other mainland Chinese who go from the censored mainland to the open Self Autonomous Region of Hong Kong.  In years of knowing Chinese people I have often been struck by their acceptance of the way things are with no apparent resentment.  In Europe we seem to get so caught up in regional identities that we lose a strong cohesive sense of a greater community – maybe our history makes us too proud to embrace a new future.

“If you could advise someone thinking about coming to HKU, what would you say to them?”

“Enjoy every minute.  It’s really a short time.”  He reflected quietly for a moment before adding, “I’ll never forget this time.”

Photo 3: After the interview, Jin Peng is on his way home

Photo 3: After the interview, Jin Peng is on his way home


By Martin Archer (20th April 2015)