Posted by: Bob Fisher | March 29, 2013

The Chinese Diaspora: A Brief Look at the Power of Culture


There is little doubt that human beings are a migratory species.

However, even though most of us moved beyond the transient stage in our evolution and “settled down” in permanent communities – in which our diverse cultures soon began to take root – many of us continued, of necessity, to migrate throughout the world.

There are of course many historical, economic, and sociological reasons why human culture (in its various hues and shades) continued to spread far from and beyond the initial “borders” in which it developed; but history shows how these migrations also contributed to the mosaic of other indigenous cultures, and to human culture in general.

It is worthwhile attempting to get an overview of the enormous contributions that Chinese culture has made to global culture – and to many of our individual national cultures.

The numbers speak for themselves

Worldwide, there are an estimated 40,000,000 “Overseas Chinese.” These are people of Chinese birth or descent; and we must not forget the additional numbers of individuals of partial Chinese ancestry who may also consider themselves as belonging to the Chinese diaspora.

The latter term, by the way, is from the Greek and means dispersion. It also has connotations of forced exile, and a collective migration out of the traditional homeland. Also implied in the term is the immigrant experience of living as a minority in a majority culture.

In many nations around the world, this minority cultural experience has often been the norm for Overseas Chinese, and a significant hardship.

In Canada for example, where I live, people of Chinese descent are the largest non-European ethnic origin in our nation today; and the fifth largest of any ethnic origin in Canada other than English or French.

Most were also born outside Canada. In fact, when you include all Chinese dialects and the two principal languages of Mandarin and Cantonese, Chinese is the third largest mother tongue in Canada after English and French.

But we have a number of skeletons in the Canadian historical closet, one of them being the Chinese Head Tax.

Although Chinese workers (male primarily) were the main immigrant group that built our transcontinental railway – the “national dream” that united Canada east to west and was one of the most important factors in our becoming an independent nation – the head tax was first imposed when the Canadian Government passed the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 whose purpose was to discourage Chinese from entering Canada once the railway was completed.

A blatant example of discrimination, it took until June 22, 2006 for the Canadian government to issue a formal apology (via our current Prime Minister Steven Harper) to the Chinese Canadian community for the prejudicial use of a head tax and the exclusion of Chinese immigrants to Canada. In his speech to Parliament he said, “… we fully accept the moral responsibility to acknowledge these shameful polices of our past.”

And although people of Chinese descent are the communicators of one of the world’s greatest cultures, many have experienced similar negative experiences elsewhere on the planet.

For reasons that are of course complex but nonetheless problematic, Chinese culture – which is often highly misunderstood in terms of its extraordinary diversity – the cultural “gifts” that the Chinese people collectively have contributed to human society may be unparalleled.

Integration and heritage preservation

The Chinese people have always been a migratory culture. As early as the Ming Dynasty they were exploring trade opportunities in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.

Different waves of emigration (and subsequently immigration) followed to regions as diverse as North America, Oceania, the Caribbean, Latin America, South Africa, Russia, and Southeast Asia.

In the 19th century, the age of colonialism was at its height and the many multinational colonies far from their cultural homelands required labourers, and China often supplied a pool of such workers.

These people of course were most often economic refugees and frequently they worked in backbreaking and dangerous jobs such as the building of railroads and mining. This, as I have indicated, was how Canada’s transcontinental railways completed the east-west natural flow of which the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes were the first stage in the longest freshwater waterway to the interior of the North American continent.

As economic refugees, these migrant Chinese struggled long and hard to improve their lives and to successfully integrate into the “host” nation. This was not always easy as racism and other forms of discrimination often relegated them to the status of second class citizens. However, as difficult as their lives were overseas (often living isolated existences; for example along the route of the aptly named Canadian Pacific Railway where even today you can find small Chinese businesses in the smallest of communities) what they did manage to do was to hang on to their culture.

And as we all know, language is the core of any culture. In many ways the Chinese who emigrated throughout the world became role models for preserving thousands of years of history and art, while at the same time contributing to infrastructure-building far from “home.” And they continued to speak Chinese.

Subsequent historic events both slowed and precipitated further emgiration. Following challenges posed by emigration regulations in the 1950s, the first steps to the transformation of Hong Kong from a British colony to a Chinese territory began in 1984. New waves of emigration began again but slowed by 1997 when China reclaimed sovereignty over the colony.

And as we now know, China has emerged (along with India) as one of the most important “business partners” in the global marketplace, especially in certain countries of Africa where development is the highest priority.

The entry (or re-entry) of China as a major player in the global economy has also led to a renewed interest in all things Chinese, especially in the field of the arts. However, as is the case with any national group that leaves its cultural homeland, the Chinese have assimilated to a lesser or greater extent into the mainstream culture of the host nation. But assimilation can be a two-way street.

While assimilating and accommodating themselves to their overseas adopted nations, the Chinese also contribute to the overall “persona” of the host nation’s culture.

And as we travel journalists know full well, human culture is not a static entity; it is dynamic and constantly evolving.

What is interesting however, and this would appear to be global phenomenon, is that cultural diversity, multiculturalism, and the transcending of borders (both geographical, cultural, and conceptual) is becoming the new mainstream.

This is especially true, for example, in Toronto which many people consider to be the the most multicultural city on the North American continent.

A question of identity

In my belief, one of the strongest attributes of travel journalists is our ability to identify with “the other.”

Like all skills, this ability to relate comes with practice; with frequently “getting up close and personal” with the subject matter. In our business, that subject matter is human culture. And at this point I would like to leave the last word to Margaret Mead, the well-known American anthropolgist who said:

“If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse gift will find a fitting place.”

Other China stories from The Philosophical Traveller

An Evening of Traditional Chinese Music — and Eldership

China Then China Now

Three Interesting and Related Resources

Chinatown Europe: An Exploration of Chinese Identity in the 1990s
The Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Toronto
World Tourism Day

The annual World Congress of the World Federation of Journalists and Travel Writers (FIJET) took place in Shanghai, China.

FIJET (Fédération Internationale des Journalistes et Écrivains du Tourisme/World Federation of Journalists and Travel Writers) is an official member of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).



  1. Hi Bob,

    It appears from your photographs that you enjoyed China. I would like to quote you: one of the strongest attributes of travel journalists is our ability to identify with “the other.” Like all skills, this ability to relate comes with practice; with frequently “getting up close and personal” with the subject matter.

    Thanks for the above comment Bob.

    A fellow traveller in spirit if not in time.


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