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Almost all Medan Chinese are not happy with the term “Cina” for their people, although there are also those who do not question it, especially some of the younger generation.

Indeed, almost all ethnic Chinese in Medan who do not object to the term “Cina” are those aged 40 years and under. On the other hand, the majority of Medan Chinese, aged 50 and over, objected to the term. However, almost all of them answered that if they could choose to be called “Cina” or “Tionghoa”, they preferred the latter.

What is certain is that the percentage of Medan Chinese who do not like to be called “Cina” is greater than the Chinese ethnic in Jakarta and other areas on Java island. Some even prefer to be referred to as “Cina” rather than “Tionghoa”, because they think that the term “Cina” is more popular in the community.

Amir Shidarta, Curator of Pelita Harapan University Museum, once wrote in a magazine that he also prefers the term “Cina”. He admitted that he felt awkward when he answered: "I am ‘Tionghoa (Chinese ethnic)’", and felt more comfortable with the answer: "I am ‘Cina (Chinese ethnic)’".

But, of course, the Medan Chinese are different from the Chinese ethnic on Java island, who are generally more moderate and have a stronger "Indonesianness".

But this trend seems to be unknown to all people in Medan. Among other ethnic groups in Medan, the choice of the word “Tionghoa” or “Cina” may partly depend on the customs in question. Some people use the two words together. There are also those who choose a third word as an alternative, namely “Chinese”.

One thing is for sure, almost everyone who has an emotional closeness or a work/ business relationship with Medan Chinese always chooses the word “Tionghoa”. This is because they know that in general we prefer to be called “Tionghoa”. Meanwhile, those who have "roots of bitterness" for one reason or another are more likely to mention “Cina”.

But, again, of course, not all other ethnicities who routinely use the term “Cina” come from displeasure or a sense of sentiment. Many more use this term out of habit and without any negative intentions. Some argue that the word “Cina” is easier to pronounce than “Tionghoa”. There are also those who call it “Cina” because people around them call it that way. So they find it strange to change it with “Tionghoa”. The rest used to say “Cina” because they had heard their parents say that since they were little.


Actually, literally the word “Cina” does not contain an element of insult, especially when referring to the word “China” which comes from English and means China. The word “Cina” is a form of adaptation of the word “China” into Indonesian.

Historical data shows that until the end of the 19th century, the standard term used by the Malay language to refer to China and the Chinese in the Dutch East Indies was Tjina (old spelling). At that time the term Tjina was considered as something natural, because “China” if read according to Indonesian rules, was indeed “Cina”. The use of the word “Cina” has a negative connotation after being said in a mocking tone by people who don't like Chinese people.

In the Dutch era, the colonialists referred to the Chinese garden workers as “Cina” in a derogatory tone. “Ci” in Cantonese means pig, and “na” in Hokkien refers to people. During the Japanese colonial period, the authorities mocked ethnic Chinese as "cu na jen". It is not known what “cu na jen” means, but “cu na” has a similar sound to “Chinese”.

Leo Suryadinata in his book "Negara dan Etnis Tionghoa, Kasus Indonesia (State and Ethnic Chinese, Cases of Indonesia)", quoting western writers, namely JW van der Kroef and Mary Somers Heidhues, said that since the Dutch colonial era the term “Cina” had a derogatory meaning. Since ancient times, the Chinese have considered the term “Cina” to be an insulting and disparaging call.

Charles Coppel, an American sociologist, also argues that the term “Cina” carries the same negative connotations as the word "Nigger" for African Americans. When his book entitled "Indonesia Chinese in Crisis" was about to be published by the publisher Sinar Harapan in an Indonesian version in 1994, Coppel requested that the term “Tionghoa” be used both for the title of the book and throughout its contents.

It's no wonder that most of the Medan Chinese feel offended if they are called “Cina”. Moreover, in racial conflicts that occur in the country, the term “Cina” is always spoken in a tone of hostility and contempt. In every quarrel involving Chinese people with other ethnic groups in this area, the swear words "dasar Cina (darn Chinese)" and similar sentences are always heard.

A number of Chinese figures in Medan strongly opposed the mention of the word “Cina”. Even the Chinese community leader and former chairman of the INTI (Chinese Indonesian) Association of North Sumatra, Indra Wahidin, did not hesitate to strongly criticize regional officials who in his remarks referred to ethnic Chinese as “Cina”. For Indra Wahidin, the mention of “Cina” contains an element of humiliation and creates distance between the two sides.

The word “Tionghoa” itself comes from the Hokkien language, which in Mandarin is called Cung Hua which means Chinese. The term “Tionghoa” has been known for centuries in China, but only became popular at the end of the 19th century with the rise of nationalism in that country. “Tiongkok (China)” itself is also a Hokkien language, whose Mandarin is Cung Kuo and means "middle country". In the Dutch East Indies, the terms “Tionghoa” and “Tiongkok” were used because Chinese immigrants who proliferated there generally came from the Hokkien province (Fujian) in South China.

This is the basis why the Medan Chinese refer to themselves as teng lang (in Medan the pronunciation is often simplified to “te nang”). The word teng lang in Hokkien language means southern people (lang = people, teng = south). Chinese people who come from Southern China do call themselves as tang jen (it means southern people in Mandarin). This is in contrast to northern Chinese people who refer to themselves as han jen (Han people).

In China, the discourse on the term Cung Hua or “Tionghoa” began in 1880, which started from the desire of the Chinese people to be free from the power of the royal dynasty and form a more democratic and strong country. This discourse then spread to the Chinese community living in the Dutch East Indies, who at that time were called “Cina”. After the Republic of China was formed in 1911, Chinese people in Indonesia began to refer to themselves as “Tionghoa” and felt insulted to be called “Cina”.

The "struggle" of the Chinese in the Dutch East Indies to erase the term “Cina” has a long history. On March 17, 1900, the Chinese established a school under the auspices of a body called Tiong Hoa Hue Kuan (THHK) in Batavia, which in Mandarin was called Cung Hua Hui Kuan. This organization aims to fight for the equal rights of the Chinese with Europeans and to promote the unity of the Chinese in the Dutch East Indies. It was through this organization that the use of the term “Tionghoa” was disseminated, even though the schools established by THHK were initially given the name "Tjina School".

In 1928, THHK made amendments to its articles of association by officially changing the term Tjina to “Tionghoa”. In the same year the Governor-General of the Netherlands began to use the term “Tionghoa” in official events.

The term “Tionghoa” continued until the Japanese occupation. The term “Cina” was only used by the Japanese army when cursing the Chinese ethnic. In the early days of Indonesian independence, the term “Tionghoa” was also widely used in the country, including by the press. Even Leo Suryadinata wrote that at that time even the most anti-Chinese publications used the term “Tionghoa”. He noted that the use of the term “Tionghoa” experienced a setback after the 1965 movement of the G-30-S-PKI, which was followed by the anti-China and anti-Chinese movements. However, the term “Tionghoa” was still used by the Indonesian government until August 1966.

The term “Cina” only emerged after on August 25-31 1966 the Army held a seminar in Bandung, where the decision was taken "to return to using the designation for the ‘Republik Rakyat Tiongkok (People's Republic of China) and its citizens, changed to the ‘Republik Rakyat Tjina (People's Republic of China)’ and citizens of ‘Negara Tjina’". The following year, the Ampera Cabinet Presidium Circular Number SE-06/Pred.Kab/6/1967 dated 28 June 1967 was issued recommending that the terms “Tiongkok” and “Tionghoa” should be abandoned and replaced with the term “Cina”. Simultaneously, since then the press and government agencies have also referred to the Chinese as “Cina”, which continued during the New Order government.

The use of the term “Tionghoa” was reverberated during the Habibie administration after the May 1998 riots. Almost all government officials, including President Habibie, began to use the term “Tionghoa” again. In the view of sociologist DR Melly G Tan, Chair of the Atma Jaya Unika Research Institute, the reuse of the term “Tionghoa” can be seen as a political statement from the government that "people from this group are also human beings who must be respected".

But this spirit does not extend continuously. In the course of time, the use of the term “Cina” was more widely used than “Tionghoa” by all levels of society in various regions, including Medan. Even in the official publication of the data "Conditions of the People's Welfare and Economy of North Sumatra Province in 2004-2008" published in the 2009 Central Statistics Agency of North Sumatra still uses the term “Cina” to refer to ethnic Chinese.

It seems that the Medan Chinese desire not to be referred to as “Cina” still has to wait for a fairly long process, even though on March 14, 2014 Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono through Presidential Decree No. 12 year 2014 revoked the Circular of the Presidium of the Ampera Cabinet Number SE-06/Pred.Kab/6/1967 dated June 28, 1967 and officially stipulates the use of the terms “Tionghoa” and “Tiongkok”. The Circular of the Presidium of the Ampera Cabinet is considered to have a discriminatory psychosocial impact in the social relations of Indonesian citizens of Chinese descent. The designation for China which had been written as the “Republik Rakyat China (People's Republic of China)” was also changed to the “Republik Rakyat Tiongkok”.

Through his social media accounts, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono stated that discriminatory views and treatment against a certain person, group, community and/or race are basically a violation of the values ​​and principles of protecting human rights and are contrary to the 1945 Constitution. According to SBY, it is unfair if Indonesian citizens of Chinese descent who have been born, raised and served in the motherland of Indonesia are still stereotyped as “Cina”.

After all, until now the Presidential Decree, which has become a gift for all Chinese citizens in the country, seems to be still neatly wrapped and cannot be enjoyed.

The Medan Chinese themselves hardly reacted to this fact. Perhaps, many Chinese ethnic of this city now do not consider the use of the term “Cina” as something of a principle, although most of them prefer to be called as “Tionghoa”.

Yes, no one knows how long the term “Cina” will last and the government's decision is only a piece of paper that seems to have no value. It all depends on the political will of the government and the seriousness of the community to change their habits, starting with themselves, inviting their children and relatives, and then extending it to their friends and environment.

Photo by Halim Kosasi on Unsplash


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