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Interview with the Author: Professor Loretta Kim

March 12, 2019

Prof. Loretta Kim’s latest book Ethnic Chrysalis: China’s Orochen People and the Legacy of Qing Borderland Administration is “the first book in English to cover the early modern history of the Orochen, an ethnic group that has for centuries inhabited areas now belonging to the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China” (Harvard University Press, 2019). Prior to her talk at the University of Washington, Prof. Kim generously took time to answer a few questions about her new book and her research in general.

Professor Kim will be speaking at the University of Washington on Thursday, March 14 from 3:30 PM to 5: 00 PM in Communications Building 202. We hope to see you there!


In your new book Ethnic Chrysalis: China’s Orochen People and the Legacy of Qing Borderland Administration, Orochen People are your focus. Besides Orochen people, do you also research on other Non-Han ethnicity or people in other regions besides Northeast China? 

Yes, I have also maintained long-standing interest in the histories, languages, and cultures of the Daur, Heje, Ewenki, and Sibe peoples. I started my research career with a dual focus on Northeast China, including Inner Mongolia, and Xinjiang, but because of the political constraints (which renders my topics to be considered as too sensitive), I have to put my work regarding Xinjiang on hold and hope that I can continue it sometime in the future.

The digital lexicon compilation of non-Han names traced back to the Ming dynasty. Are there materials even prior to Ming?

There are pre-Ming materials about Northeast China (or what we may call that region), but they contain very few details about individual persons’ names. I would like to expand the lexicon someday to go back prior to the Ming, but that will be challenging.

How do you view the relationship between naming patterns and ethnic consciousness?  

This is a very good question, and precisely the “puzzle” that motivates me to do this research. So far, I am developing two contradictory conclusions – one, that there is a close relationship between naming patterns and ethnic consciousness (including the interesting phenomenon of people being identified as belonging to a particular ethnic group but choosing names for themselves or their descendants from another ethnolinguistic tradition) and two, that we should not overestimate this connection – that names are flexible tools that people use to identify themselves, and should not be “read deeply” as reflecting ethnicity or any other highly mutable trait.

We know that non-Han people’s naming patterns are influenced Han practices. Are there cases that Han people’s naming is influenced by non-Han practices?

Another very good question – logic would dictate that yes, influence is generally mutual in cases of cross-cultural interaction. How Han people have been influenced is a question that I am still pondering. I have heard from many Han people that they know if a name (rendered in Chinese characters) is Han or non-Han, and similarly, non-Han people tell me that there are “Han names” (primarily or exclusively for Han people) which are different from “Chinese names” so there are certainly intangible differences that are important to explore.

One of the significances of the research on non-Han names is to promote the option of choosing non-Han names in the future. In addition to non-Han names becoming rarer in the PRC today, what are other factors important for promoting non-Han names? 

Being a lifelong member of an ethnic minority group, first as a Korean-American, and now as a Korean-American-Hong Konger, I understand that it’s easy to feel ashamed of being an ethnic minority person. I receive direct and indirect feedback from non-Han people in Northeast China that they do not know much about their ancestors and that they do not care (as a result of their ignorance). So, I hope that providing public access to the name lexicon will motivate non-Han people to think about their families’ pasts and to view themselves as members of groups with histories worth remembering, not just as “ethnic minorities.”

I also hope that cultural elements like names will outlast “ethnicity” and other forms of identity that will inevitably change with the passage of time. I do not think that ethnic identities will always be important to people in China (or anywhere else in the world) but as historical relics, names are rich keys to the linguistic and social traditions from which they were generated and of which they are essential parts. We may not know anything else about the people who had these names, but the names alone are very interesting and hold profound meaning.