Some would think Chinese as a very particular population, where everybody looks and behaves in the same way, but it is extremely far from the truth. It is a stereotype, and as such it has a base that make it believable, although it is still wrong. Before we analyze the reasons of the stereotype, though, we need to provide some info about what it means to “be Chinese”.
First of all, in Chinese language, being of “Chinese nationality” (中国人) and of “Chinese ethnic” (华人) are two different things. There are Chinese ethnics with Singaporean or Malaysian nationality, for example, or the so called ABC (American Born Chinese) or CBC (Canadian Born Chinese), which are second or third generation immigrants. Chinese ethnics may not understand well the Chinese culture or language as Chinese nationals, and still will be considered Chinese ethnics in their country and in China.
Even though Chinese distinguish between Chinese ethnics and Chinese nationals, Chinese ethnics are divided into 56 different ethnics. In such a context, it can only make sense that one of the most important traditional values for Chinese (in both society and religion) is harmony: when the population of a country is so diverse, harmony is the only thing that can prevent total chaos.
For Chinese, being a Chinese ethnic does not require just to belong to one of those 56 ethnics: some of those ethnics are, for example, Korean, Russian and Vietnamese: it would be very strange if they considered the Korean nationals or Vietnam nationals as Chinese ethnics!
For this reason, Chinese people tend to consider another person as a Chinese ethnic when he or she is born from a Chinese national, even though his or her passport and culture may say otherwise.
As mentioned before, there is not a single, compact Chinese population or ethnic. Although many assimilate “Chinese” to the Han ethnicity, it is wrong to consider Han just as a specific ethnicity. It is actually in itself a melting pot of several different strains, which means that even the major ethnicity of China is actually not that unified. Due to the strong mixtures between the Han and other ethnics as well as the massive Han immigration waves in the history, appearance, behavior and beliefs may change a lot between two Han individuals, and, of course, this is even more true for two individuals belonging to different ethnic groups.
Often the characteristics of the people living in a province are actually related to the specific sub-ethnicity, and some ethnics have their own subgroups, each with features that are not mutually intelligible for the others. An example of those subgroups can be taken from the Wu group (which is part of Han): there are three subgroups, respectively belonging to the areas of Shanghai, Ningbo and Wenzhou.
People’s Republic of China recognizes a total of 55 ethnic minorities (some with their own subgroups), which means the idea that all Chinese look the same or behave in the same way is a myth.
But why in the West so many have such a radical stereotype?
The reasons, we believe, is the immigration of Chinese in the West. For example, in Italy, 90% of the Chinese immigrants are from the same city (Wenzhou), and for this reason most of the knowledge Italians have about Chinese is actually about Wenzhou people – which, sure, are Chinese, but do not represent any of the other minorities inside the Han ethnic, and of course the other 55 minorities.
No wonder some Chinese like to joke by naming Italy as Little Wenzhou.
Wenzhou immigration is pretty particular as many in China compared them to the “Jews of China“, due to their business skill both in and outside China.
Of course, Wenzhou people are not the only emigrants: in general, those who immigrated in the West come from specific areas – Guangdong, for example, was the source of the early immigration waves done in XIX century, while more recently, as Guangdong’s economy thrived, emigrants are more likely to be from poorer provinces. Many in USA (especially in New York City) are from Fuzhou (in Fujian) and, again, from Wenzhou.
This will limit a lot the understanding of Chinese culture (and even business style) of those who get in touch with Chinese only in their own country, which are the vast majority of the world population. For this reason, some stereotypes about Chinese as hardworking, generally colder in the relationships, reluctant to trust foreigners, remaining inside their own social circle even after many years and with specific physical features are actually meaningless when applied to the entirety of the Chinese population.