“I think it would be easier for Chinese ethnic minorities to find themselves as a minority if they go abroad”: Chinese Minzu individuals’ identity and the study abroad experience

Research Highlighted

Sude, Yuan, M., Chen, N., & Dervin, F. (2020). “I think it would be easier for Chinese ethnic minorities to find themselves as a minority if they go abroad”: Chinese Minzu individuals’ identity and the study abroad experience. International Journal of Educational Research, 102. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijer.2020.101584

This paper is the result of cooperation between scholars from Europe and Mainland China who specialize in intercultural and minority (Minzu) education and who wish to contribute to research on the Chinese international student beyond the usual monolithic mass of undifferentiated individuals. Through our discussions of research on the Chinese international student, we discovered that one particular aspect had been entirely ignored: Mainland China’s Minzu groups (often referred to as ‘ethnic minorities’ in English), which represent around 120 million individuals. These ‘ethnic minorities’ speak at least 130 different languages. In none of the studies on Chinese international students abroad that we consulted did the authors concentrate on the Minzu identity of the students and on the potential influence it might have on the topic they were researching. The Chinese international student always appears to be an undifferentiated monolith, although his/her ethnicity might go beyond the majority Han; he/she might have a first language other than Putonghua (Chinese Mandarin); he/she might have a specific religion/worldview. In this paper we use the case of students and former students from Minzu University of China (MUC) in Beijing. This interdisciplinary university is designated for Chinese Minzus and has students from all the 56 official Minzus of China. Like all universities around the world, MUC sends students abroad every year for exchange. To our knowledge, no previous study has been published on the international mobility of these students. Since MUC is a hyper-diverse university, representing a China microcosm, where students from all parts of China live and study together, we are interested in the way MUC students reflect on identity and interculturality issues after their stays abroad.

Our paper thus calls for taking into account students’ many and varied Chinese ethnic identities in the description of the study abroad experience. Based on interviews with 13 members of different ethnic minorities from Minzu University of China, who spent time abroad as part of their studies, we analyse the way they express and construct different aspects of their identity while reminiscing about their time abroad. The study is based on a poststructuralist approach to identity and interculturality abroad. A form of dialogical discourse analysis is used to examine the respondents’ identity.

What our study shows is that the phenomena related to identity as reported by the participants are not as straightforward as one could imagine. Different Minzus can have different experiences of self and other in another country, depending on the country itself, their relation to it, the languages they can speak (mother tongues other than Putonghua included). Our study confirms that encounters, confrontations with and differentiations from the people the students met abroad make them realize, negate but also reinforce certain aspects of their identity as ‘special’ Chinese. While for some students, study abroad comforted and reinforced this identity, for others it left them indifferent or it allowed them to reinforce their Chinese identity.

The importance of our study lays in the fact that we show that the figure of ‘the Chinese international student’ is a figure that needs to be questioned and revised. It is important for both Chinese and Western scholars to diversify their take on this figure and to take into account the internal diversity of the Chinese Nation in their analyses. We thus suggest that the following aspects become part of bread and butter of research on the Chinese international student in order to make research on study abroad fairer and less generalizing, beyond methodological nationalism:

– Ethnicity

– Identification with Han-ness

– Language

– Experience within China (mobility)

– Religion/worldview.

Although our study has focused mostly on aspects of culture, ethnicity and race, it was clear in some of the excerpts that other facets of identity such as gender, religion and social class also have an influence on identity construction in relation to study abroad. This aspect needs to be explored further in a future study. These could help individualise analyses of study abroad experiences and to broaden analytical frameworks. Work on diversity from the Chinese context is a good example that can be used as an inspiration to examine people from other contexts (‘The American student’, the ‘European student’, etc.). It is only through diversification and fine-grained analyses of the experiences of educational movers that educators, researchers and decision-makers alike could make the study abroad experience more fruitful in terms of interculturality and identity construction.

The authors have also published the followings (which work as companions to this article):

Sude, Yuan, M. & F. Dervin (2020). An Introduction to Ethnic Minority Education in China: Policies and Practices. London: Springer.

Yuan, M., Sude, Wang, T., Zhang, W., Chen, N., Simpson, A. & F. Dervin (2020). Chinese Minzu education in higher education: An inspiration for ‘Western’ diversity education?, British Journal of Educational Studies, DOI: 10.1080/00071005.2020.1712323


Fred Dervin is Professor of Multicultural Education at the University of Helsinki (Finland) and hold honorary and visiting positions around the world. Prof. Dervin specializes in intercultural education, the sociology of multiculturalism and student and academic mobility. Dervin is one of the most influential scholars and critical voices on intercultural communication education in Europe. More information: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-9371-2717


Sude is a Professor at the School of Education, Minzu University of China. He is one of the most influential scholars in the field of Minzu education.


Mei Yuan is an Associate Professor at the School of Education, Minzu University of China. She specializes in Minzu and intercultural education.


Ning Chen is a Lecturer at Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts (China) and a visiting scholar at the University of Helsinki (Finland). His research interests include Minzu education and well-being in higher education. More information: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-6958-2182

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