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Misconception of Identifying Ethnicity by Cultural Elements

Categories: EthnicityMalaysia

The common misconception in relating ethnicity and culture is to define ethnic groups by cultural elements.

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Firstly, ethnic group is a category of people which is bound together by common characteristics that differentiate them from other groups. On the other hand, culture is a system of knowledge shared by a relatively large group of people. Culture consists of values, beliefs, religion, experiences, behaviours and traditions acquired by a group of people that is passed down generations by generations (Browaeys & Price, 2008).

In my essay, I would like to clarify that ethnic groups cannot be defined by their cultural elements with several examples. Commonly, characteristics and traits of an ethnic group is identified by its cultural elements. Elements such as language, religion and customs are used to differentiate a group and another. Specified cultural elements are categorized to represent different types of ethnic groups. However this assumption is not suitable to apply in many situations. It is troublesome to identify ethnic group by cultural elements.

This is because the people within an ethnic group does not necessarily possess the identical cultural elements. For instance, the Cham people in Vietnam belong to one ethnic entity, however in different areas this group of people possess different cultural elements. The Cham people in south central of Vietnam and in Mekong Delta have distinctive differences in religion, language and customs. In the south central Vietnam, the Cham practise localized Hinduism and Islam as religion.

They speak south central dialect and their writing is originated from a script in Sanskrit.

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In term of custom, these Cham people are considered matrilineal and practice exogamy. On the contrary, the Cham in Mekong Delta majorly practise Islam. They speak in Mekong Delta dialect and their writing derived from the Jawi script. In their custom, they are loosely matrilineal and practice endogamy(1). This shows that cultural elements are not suitable to determine an ethnic group. People of the same ethnic group may not necessarily practice the same culture.

In the study of the Kachin people from Burma, Edmund Leach mentioned “the mere fact that two groups of people are of different culture does not necessarily imply – as has nearly always been assumed – that they belong to two quite different social systems (Leach 1954: 17)(2). To consider ethnic group as cultural group will fail to address many aspects of ethnic phenomena. Large population of the Kachin people lives in the Kachin Hill in northern Burma’s Kachin State and in neighbouring areas of China and India.

They speak different languages and dialects; there is a wide difference in cultures between the same ethnic group in different area. To support this statement, I would like to provide an example; the Malay people who belonged to one ethnic entity in Malaysia are influenced by different customs. Malay people practice two distinct types of customs, the Adat Temenggung and Adat Pepatih. The former is originated from Minangkabau and widely practiced by most of the Malay states. Adat Temenggung emphasizes on patrilineal kinship structure in matters such as inheritance.

In contrast, the Adat Pepatih is only practiced in Negeri Sembilan. It emphasizes more on matrilineal kinship structure, in which women gain benefit in matters such as inheritance and marriage (Shuid, Osman & Othman, 2006). This depicts that people of the same ethnic group practise various and wide range of customs. Thus, it is difficult to define ethnic group by cultural elements. In the 19th and 20th century, large wave of immigrants from China came to Malaya. Now, Chinese people are the second largest ethnic in Malaysia.

Majority of these Chinese are Han Chinese. There is wide spread of Chinese people in every state of Malaysia, espeacially in the town areas. Even though they are grouped as one ethnic entity, their cultural elements varied widely. Most of the local Chinese practise Buddhism and a small number of them have faith in Christianity and Islam. Futhermore, they speak variety of dialects such as Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, Teochew and many more. For example, most of the Chinese in Penang speak Hokkien whereas most of the Chinese in Kuala Lumpur speak Cantonese.

Thus, the cultural elements of an ethnic are not fixed, the elements varied greatly to the extent that it is difficult to determine an ethnic group by its cultural elements. Besides that, the influence of political and economical circumstances has changes the cultural elements of the people while the ethnic identity remains. As time passes by, people within an ethnic group spread, share, learn and adapt cultures of other ethnic groups. There is the tendency for different cultures to overlapse in a society. For instance, the Chinese immigrants that came to Malaya in the late 15th to 16th century were known as Peranakan Chinese.

This group of immigrants consists of merchants, traders, and those who came to escape economic hardships in mainland China. They embraced the Malay customs and cultures. Most of the Peranakan Chinese engaged in intermarriage with the local Malay. However, there are part of Peranakan Chinese people without Malay ancestry. They belong to Chinese ethnic but adopted the combination of Chinese and Malay cultures. The Malay language and cultures are assimilated into their daily lives, however their ethnic and religious origins still remain.

These Peranakan Chinese speak Malay language, wear the baju kebaya, a Malay traditional clothing, and developed their cuisine with mainly Malay spices in their every day lives, they still belong to Chinese ethnic (Tan Chee Beng, 1993). Their ethnic identity cannot be determined by merely identifying their cultural elements. In conclusion, I would like to emphasize my point that ethnic groups cannot be defined by their cultural elements. Ethnic groups can hardly be measured by cultural traits as a matter of fact cultural boundaries do no always go accordingly with ethnic boundaries.

Cultural traits of an ethnic group is not always fixed, people of the same ethnic group do not necessarily possess the same cultural elements. To determine ones ethnic identity by identifying his or her cultural elements with the typical cultural elements of an ethnic group is not right. The ethnic identity of a person will still remain unchanged even if his cultural elements have changed. As stated by Michael Moerman, “Someone is Lue by virtue of believing and calling himself Lue and of acting in ways that validate his Lueness” (Moerman, 1965:1219)(3). Ethnic identity can be claimed by one’s self but not by determining its cultural elements.

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Misconception of Identifying Ethnicity by Cultural Elements. (2016, Oct 01). Retrieved from

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