I’ve been doing some reading on the concept of Sinicization. It’s interesting to see that while the term has been widely used, very little effort (until recently) has been done to clearly define what it means.

This Wikipedia definition is indicative of this problem:

“Sinicization, Sinicisation or Sinification, (Chinese: 汉化; pinyin: Hànhuà), also called Chinalization (Chinese: 中国化; pinyin: Zhōngguóhuà), is a process whereby non-Han Chinese societies come under the influence of [the] dominant Han Chinese state and society. Areas of influence include alphabet, diet, economics, industry, language, law, lifestyle, politics, religion, sartorial choices, technology, culture, and cultural values. More broadly, ‘Sinicization’ may refer to policies of acculturation, assimilation, or cultural imperialism of neighboring cultures to China, depending on historical political relations. This is reflected in the histories of Korea, Vietnam and Japan in the East Asian cultural sphere, for example, in the adoption of the Chinese writing system.”

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The above definition includes so many factors and ideas that it makes the term “Sincization” meaningless. For instance, acculturation, assimilation and cultural imperialism are all very different phenomena. One term can not refer to all three of these separate concepts and still make sense. So what does “Sinicization” actually mean?

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In looking at how the term has been used, I was surprised to find that it only came into common usage in the 1940s and 1950s. At that time, it was connected to fears about Communist Chinese expansion.

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We can see this sense of fear in the opening page of one of the first books to examine the history of the southward spread of Chinese peoples, Herold Wiens’ 1954 work, China’s March Toward the Tropics, which contains the following comments on its opening page:

“To the Communist strategists this [i.e., the southern edge of the Chinese world] is the base for launching political and military assaults upon the old colonial powers in Southeast Asia and for the building of the new Soviet colonialism. To the Western Powers this region poses the gravest threat of the loss of a valuable and strategic part of the Free World.

“To the overpopulated Chinese nation, her southern frontiers not only offer large areas of unexploited agricultural and mineral lands, but furnish direct land routes to the empty, underdeveloped lands of northeast Burma, northern Thailand, and northern Vietnam-Laos.

“Finally, to the indigenous peoples of Southeast Asia this frontier presents the menace not only of political domination, but perhaps of ultimate national extinction under the historical tide of Chinese migration.”

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In other words, China’s southern frontier was an incredibly strategic region for both the Communist Chinese and their opponents, and Wiens was helping the opponents of Chinese Communist expansion by educating them about the history of the southward spread of Chinese peoples and their rule over the course of history.

It is in this context of fear that the term “Sinicization” started to be used. This then makes me wonder about “Hán hóa,” the Vietnamese equivalent of “Sinicization.” When did that term come into use?

It certainly wasn’t used before the twentieth century, so what was the twentieth-century context in which it started to be used?

Also, has the concept of “Hán hóa” been more clearly defined than “Sinicization”? Or is it so vague and broad as to be as problematic as the term “Sinicization” is?