Visualizing minority: Images of ethnic minority groups in Chinese elementary social studies textbooks

Chu, Y. (2017). Visualizing minority: Images of ethnic minority groups in Chinese elementary social studies textbooks. The Journal of Social Studies Research. Link


This study investigates the visual representation of ethnic minority groups in Chinese elementary social studies textbooks. The author conducts a content analysis to examine the extent to which ethnic minority groups are visually represented and to explore the ways in which they are portrayed in some of the most popular social studies textbooks in China. A total of 6075 visuals drawn from 36 books were electronically coded and analyzed using SPSS. The findings reveal the dearth of ethnic minority-related visuals and show that ethnic minority individuals are visually represented in significantly different ways in many important aspects than non-minority people in these textbooks. The author concludes that the visual representations of ethnic minority groups in these textbooks contributes to a binary understanding of minority and majority by limiting the images of ethnic minority groups to selected cultural markers.


A look at how minorities in China are presented in social studies textbooks. Here’s an interesting excerpt on the perception of certain groups:

Tibetans, Uyghurs, Mongols, Dai, Manchu, and Hui were most frequently presented in visuals in the examined MEL/S textbooks. However, Mongols, Tibetans, and Dai are not even among the largest six ethnic minority of China in terms of population and the Dai is only the 18th largest ethnic minority in China. In contrast, some of the larger ethnic minority in China, for example, the Zhuang and Yi, were not as frequently covered as some much smaller ethnic groups. McCarthy (2009) offered a possible explanation by classifying ethnic minority in China into a two-dimensional schema. The two ends of the horizontal axis are “exotic” and “assimilated” that describe the level of cultural distinctiveness possessed by an ethnic minority group compared with the supposedly “normative” Han Chinese. The two ends of the vertical axis are “docile” and “restive” that indicate how an ethnic minority group responds to the state control. This schema can be illustrated as a four-cell matrix shown in Table 12.

Table 12. Categorization of ethnic minority groups in China.

Exotic Assimilated
Docile Dai Bai
Mongol Zhuang
Korean Tujia
Restive Tibetan
Uyghur Hui

Adapted from McCarthy (2009, p. 13).


The ethnic group in bold face are original examples given by McCarthy (2009) and those in italics are the six most frequently represented ethnic minority groups identified in this study, four of which are in the “Exotic” column. It appears that ethnic minority content has been narrowly understood by textbook editors as selected, “exotic” markers, such as traditional clothes, food, festivals, songs and dances, and architecture, which were the focus of minority-related visuals in these textbooks. This preference of “exotic” ethnic characteristics may explain why there was very little content in the textbooks about the Zhuang, who are possibly considered by textbook editors as culturally indistinctive (to the Han Chinese), despite the fact that they are the largest ethnic minority group in China. Perhaps for the same reason of lacking visible cultural distinctiveness, Tujia, the 8th largest ethnic minority group in China did not even make the list. Although the Manchu is nowadays a much assimilated ethnic minority group in terms of language and life styles, Cheongsam was presented multiple times in these textbooks as a characteristic dress of China. These “exotic” cultural representation contrasts directly with the majority Han Chinese who are presented as the unmarked, cultural norm (Gladney, 1994). That׳s why I insist using the category “unmarked Chinese” when the depicted individuals’ cultural characteristics were not discernible. As a matter of fact, almost every nine in ten (89.06%) of the human characters visually represented in the examined textbooks fell into this category, albeit many, if not all, of them could have been coded as and were “Han Chinese.” The non-representation of Han Chinese as an ethnic group contributes to institutionalizing the Otherness of ethnic minority groups, who are visually represented as a collective, unified category of minority. Such a representational practice disguises the diverse reality within ethnic minority groups and constructs a monoethnic minority image that is made only distinguishable from the majority, supposedly non-ethnic Han Chinese. The fact that the Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Hui—despite its perceived lack of cultural distinction— were considered as “restive” also provided the strategic reason to have a relatively extensive recognition of these groups in the textbooks.


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