Asia Life

The Evolution and Preservation of Chinese-Peruvian Identity

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Asia Life

The Evolution and Preservation of Chinese-Peruvian Identity

Peruvians yearn to learn more about China, some to rediscover their ancestry but many out of a genuine interest in the Asian giant.

The Evolution and Preservation of Chinese-Peruvian Identity
Credit: Flickr / pmatamoros

While China is currently expanding its influence in the global south through hefty investment, some of its present relationships predate its own economic success and are instead founded on the building blocks of cultural intermixing. The resulting generation of youth with Chinese heritage produces another pillar for Chinese dominance.

Peru is a clear example of how China’s early involvement with a country has reaped both cultural and economic support. Economically, China first sent laborers to Peru in the mid-1800s, when Peru’s economy was prospering. Peru was one of the first Latin American nations to establish diplomatic relations with China following its reopening in 1971, and in 2010 China and Peru signed a free trade agreement. Since then, China has become not only Peru’s top trade partner, but also one of the largest investors in Peru.

Socially, following 150 years of Peruvian and Chinese cultural blending, Chinese identity has become a greater point of pride for the descendants of many immigrants. A number of Peruvians claim at least partial Chinese heritage, despite lacking the surnames, cultural, and language traditions, or even physical features to link them directly to common “Chinese” traits.

The first wave of Chinese immigrants came from the southern Guangdong and Hong Kong regions of China as laborers in 1849. In the early years of Chinese immigration to Peru, between 100,000 and 120,000 immigrants arrived. Considering most of the immigrants were male laborers, cultures quickly intermixed as they married and settled down with Peruvian women. A second wave of immigration occurred after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In comparison to their predecessors, these immigrants were well-educated, relatively wealthy, wanted to start businesses, and came from Taiwan instead of hailing from Guangdong and Hong Kong. The most recent wave between 1980 and 1990 brought rich, educated immigrants that had grown up in Communist China with different motives for immigration. Peru was a safe prospect considering its pre-existing Chinese population, and the long relationship and history of cultural mixing between Peru and China meant Chinese immigrants did not experience as much prejudice as in other destination countries, like Argentina. More importantly, these immigrants’ awareness of China’s growing power meant they did not necessarily want to resettle in Peru, but rather sought to use Peru as a sort of “trampoline” to get to the United States for better business opportunities.

As China’s economic prosperity has grown into the global spotlight, so has the national pride of Chinese expatriates. Prior to 1971, this variety of national pride within the Chinese-Peruvian community did not exist quite so strongly; Chinese immigrants believed they were leaving their impoverished country for a better life in the more prosperous land of Peru. Now, over 150 years later, through China’s rapid economic ascent and support from the Chinese government, Chinese identity has become much more a point of pride. Despite this, the split in identities created by several waves of fragmented immigration has stunted the possibility of a strong Chinese-Peruvian community. The first wave in the mid-1800s lost their most prominent cultural links to China through cultural intermixing. While illiteracy complicated the official transmission of Chinese immigrants’ identities, social discrimination further led Chinese immigrants to change their names. Over time, the names and backgrounds of the first wave of Chinese who came to Peru as laborers have become nearly untraceable.

Some descendants of later waves of Chinese immigration can still recall the Chinese hometown of their ancestors and now retroactively take pride in being Chinese; however, their connection to China is distinct from that which has been forged by recent immigrants. These more recent arrivals now have the money and the power to form elite, community-building clubs. These clubs echo Japanese immigrants in the 19th century, who used similar community building to maintain a sense of Japanese identity after arriving in Peru. For example, particularly well-off Chinese-Peruvians are able to gather together through Chinese-only business associations.

Chinese schools are another avenue for the descendants of Chinese immigrants to share in Chinese culture and maintain national pride abroad. China has increasingly showed interest in generating this space for cultural diffusion by opening Confucius Institutes around the world. There are now four Confucius Institutes in Peru, two of which are in the capital, Lima. Lima also is home to two well known Chinese schools that teach Chinese as one of the primary languages: Colegio Peruano Chino Juan XXIII (founded by Italian missionaries coming from China) and Colegio 10 de Octubre (which has more Taiwanese influence). However, according to Professor Carlos Aquino, who heads the University of San Marcos’ Center of Asian Studies, the number one priority for most present-day Chinese-Peruvian parents in selecting their children’s school is not whether or not the curriculum includes the Chinese language. Rather, as is the case in China, the goal of most parents is for their children to attend the school with the best overall education, regardless of the school’s cultural background. There are still some Chinese parents who send their children to these two Chinese schools in Lima, but much cultural learning on China comes from within the home.

Confucius centers are the most popular means of learning about Chinese language and culture in Peru, but ironically, the majority of the students, according to Aquino, are Peruvians with no direct link to China. Aquino has seen generally more interest in Chinese culture in Peru over the past several years, such as targeted interest in the traditional Chinese dragon dance. Although the number of Peruvians studying in China continuously increased from 2011 to 2016 (in part due to a number of Chinese-sponsored scholarship programs), many of these scholarship recipients have no direct ancestral link to China.

Today, Peruvians yearn to learn more about China not only to recover their ancestry, but also out of a genuine interest in the Asian giant that has rapidly risen to global superpower status and had such a visible impact on their own country. Given both the historical foundation of the Chinese presence in Peru and the current wave of increased Chinese trade with, and investment in, Peru, Chinese influence will continue to play a role in the country’s ongoing cultural and economic development. Although Chinese-Peruvian identity will undoubtedly continue to change as it has over the past 150 years, Chinese-Peruvians will not be forced to choose between being Chinese and assimilating to Peru. With China’s newfound pride in its culture and history, Chinese immigrants can feel free to embrace both identities — Peruvian and Chinese —  fully at once.

Teresa Kennedy holds a BA in Anthropology & Peace Studies from the University of Notre Dame and is currently in her second year as a master’s student at Peking University’s Yenching Academy. Her research focuses on China-Latin America relations, specifically in the areas of corporate social responsibility, environmental protection, and human rights.

Layne Vandenberg is a Ph.D. candidate in the King’s College London and University of Hong Kong Joint Ph.D. Programme. She graduated from the Yenching Academy at Peking University with a Master of Laws in International Relations.

The authors would like to thank Carlos Aquino Rodriguez, Coordinator of the Center for Asian Studies at the Universidad de San Marcos in Lima, for providing his insights on this subject.