Hani woman wearing a headdress with French coins circa 1909/1911. Xishuangbanna, Yunnan Province, 1985. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

The fifty-five officially recognized ethnic minorities, numbering about 110 million people, inhabit virtually all parts of China, though they are more numerous in the west. Ethnic minority homelands make up more than half of China’s land area. Government programs to bring some of eastern China’s prosperity to the west have met with mixed results.

China refers to itself as a multiethnic state. The government recognizes fifty-five ethnic minority groups (shaoshu minzu), in addition to the majority Han. They account for about 110 million people, less than 10 percent of the national population. Nonetheless, China’s minority population size surpasses all but ten countries. Due to a relaxed policy in sparsely populated areas of the country, where most minorities reside, ethnic minority birth rates slightly exceed the national average. Ethnic minority homelands are known as “nationality autonomous areas,” and include 5 province level regions, 31 prefectures, and 105 counties. Taken together, these areas cover more than half of China’s land, including 90 percent of its border area, and provide the nation with much of its forest reserves, animal meat products, minerals, and medicinal herbs. However, in most cases the indigenous ethnic minority population of each autonomous area accounts for less than half of its total population. Moreover, immigration into some of these areas by Han Chinese has increased. This is especially true for the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR).

The largest minority group is the Zhuang with over 15 million members who inhabit the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and areas of Yunnan, Guizhou, Hunan, and Guangdong provinces. The smallest minority group is the Lhoba with about two thousand members who live in the southwestern part of the TAR. Only the Mongolians, Zhuang, Hui, Tibetans, and Uygur ethnic groups reside in province-level entities that are specifically designated as their respective autonomous regions. Eighteen national minorities have over one million members. Twenty-two have fewer than 100,000 members and seven have fewer than 10,000 members. Ethnic minorities inhabit virtually all parts of the country, including rural, urban, mountain, coastal, and border areas, though they are more numerous in western China. The proportion of minority inhabitants in an autonomous area varies greatly. For example, Tibetans account for over 90 percent of the TAR but Mongols are only about 16 percent of the population of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region (IMAR). In the case of Tibetans, more reside outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region in adjoining Chinese provinces (Qinghai, Gansu, Yunnan and Sichuan), which together with the TAR, is often referred to as ethnic Tibet. Smaller groups like the Qiang or Dongxiang have only one county-level territorial jurisdiction. The Muslim Hui are somewhat unique among China’s ethnic minority groups in that they are scattered throughout China, though they also have the jurisdiction of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.

Mongols, Koreans, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Kirgis, Dais, and Russians are the principal ethnic nationality of nations adjoining China. Other groups such as the Miao, Lhoba, and Deang are not only minorities in China, but also on the other side of the border in neighboring countries. Finally, some groups have had a separate tradition of relations with religious brethren in other parts of the world. The Hui, Dongxiang, Uygurs, and other Islamic groups have religious ties with areas of the Middle East, and many attend the hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, prescribed as a religious duty for Muslims) at some time in their lives. Groups such as the Miao and Tibetans maintain strong ties with their overseas refugee communities. Global trade, easier air travel, and the Internet have strengthened ethnic networks across national borders. China’s concern with its multiethnic borders, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, led to the formation of a five-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organization to secure stability across its border regions with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and China.

Although fifty-five ethnic groups live as minorities within a Han Chinese dominated nation, some ethnic groups could be considered as double minorities. For example, the Xibe, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Tatar are ethnic minorities within the XUAR, as are the Luoba and Moinba in the TAR. Other ethnic minorities such as the Miao and Yao, who have lived in close proximity to one another for hundreds of years, have forged their own special relationship. Migration has also influenced the context of ethnic minority relations. Many Han migrate to ethnic minority regions due to higher pay for work in hardship areas, other opportunities to prosper, crowded conditions in their former areas, being stationed in army units, and job assignments after graduation from college and university. Whereas the Han composed 6.2 percent of the population of the XUAR in 1953, they numbered close to 40 percent by 1973. Such trends are also occurring in the TAR, where Tibetans have come to account for only half the population in the capital city, Lhasa.

Religion is pervasive among most of China’s minorities, and has traditionally been the main form of organized education outside of the family. Monasteries, mosques, and churches, which predate state schooling, remain repositories of traditional values and learning, and continue to flourish, although within tight government restrictions. State schools sometimes compete with religious institutions when it comes to education, especially in terms of financial contributions from minority households and attendance rates. After the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), when ethnic values were criticized and class struggle predominated in politics and social relations, the government attempted to win back the support of ethnic minorities by increased autonomy in cultural expression, including in language and religious practices. Nevertheless, religious autonomy in the context of a socialist authoritarian government has been more a matter of degree. Religion is increasingly tolerated, and even encouraged when it helps tourism, yet severely limited when it threatens the authority of the Communist Party.

Most of China’s minorities have a strong religious tradition. Some, such as the Hui, are identified largely on the basis of their religion. Members of the Hui, Uygur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tatar, Uzbek, Tajik, Dongxiang, Salar, and Bonan are adherents of the Islamic faith. The Tibetans, Mongolians, Yugurs, and Tus are adherents of Lamaism. The Dai, Bulang, and Benglong are adherents of Hinayana Buddhism. The Oroqen, Daur, and Ewenki practice shamanism. The Drung, Nu, Va, Jingpo, and Gaoshan are adherents of polytheism as well as totemism and ancestral worship. A small number of Catholics and other Christians can be found among the Koreans, Miao, Yao, Lahu and Yi. Moreover, some ethnic groups, including Bai and Tibetan, have a long standing sub-community of believers of Islam, though they strongly identify with their respective ethnic group.

With the exception of the Hui and Manchu, who generally speak Mandarin, all minorities have their own spoken language, with some having more than one. Most of the languages belong to the Sino-Tibetan and Altaic families, while some belong to the South Asian, Austronesian, and Indo-European families. Before 1949 only twenty minorities had t
heir own written language. Those in most common use were the Mongol, Tibetan, Uygur, Kazakh, Korean, Xibe, Dai, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Tatar, and Russian scripts. Others included Yi, Miao, Naxi, Jingpo, Lisu, Lahu, and Va. The government helped to derive a written script for nine ethnic minorities formerly without one. Still, many minorities remain without a written script, such as the 300,000-strong Dongxiang, and 300,000-strong Qiang minorities. While most of the Manchu have long since abandoned their script and commonly use Chinese, others groups such as the Jingpo speak a variety of languages. Some are trilingual, speaking their native tongue, the language of the ethnic minority group in closest proximity, and Mandarin Chinese. For example, many Xibe and Kazakh in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region would learn to speak the Uygur language before Chinese.

The Constitution, Regional Autonomy, Government Organs, and Policies

The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China states:

Article 4. All nationalities in the People’s Republic of China are equal.

The state protects the lawful rights and interests of the minority nationalities and upholds and develops the relationship of equality, unity and mutual assistance among all of China’s nationalities. Discrimination against and oppression of any nationality are prohibited; any acts that undermine the unity of the nationalities or instigate their secession are prohibited. The state helps the areas inhabited by minority nationalities speed up their economic and cultural development in accordance with the peculiarities and needs of the different minority nationalities. Regional autonomy is practiced in areas where people of minority nationalities live in compact communities; in these areas organs of self- government are established for the exercise of the right of autonomy. All the national autonomous areas are inalienable parts of the People’s Republic of China. The people of all nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages, and to preserve or reform their own ways and customs. (Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, 1982).

The Law on Regional Autonomy for Ethnic Minorities, adopted in 1984 at the Second Session of the Sixth National People’s Congress, includes provisions for autonomous organizations; rights of self-government organizations; help from higher-level organizations; training and assignment of cadres, specialists, and skilled workers among the minority peoples; and the strengthening of socialist relations among ethnic groups. In short, the policy has been characterized as one state but many ethnic groups. Problems remain regarding autonomy and self-determination. Although the 1984 law is far-reaching, it lacks any bite as long as the law is subject to the power monopoly of the Communist Party. The idea of “autonomy within a unified state” is defined by the principle of “democratic centralism,” wherein there is subordination of the individual to the organization, subordination of the minority to the majority, subordination of the lower levels to the upper levels, and subordination of the whole party to the central committee (Heberer 1989). In theory this idea still permits ethnic minorities to enjoy an “equality of status.” In reality the autonomy may be severely restricted. A greater degree of autonomy would require a broader separation of party and state. Also, autonomy is tied to a territory; it comes by virtue of residing within a designated national minority autonomous area. More than ten million ethnic minorities live outside of their respective autonomous areas.

Ethnic minority work at the national level is carried out through various government bodies. The State Ethnic Affairs Commission is under the State Council—the highest administrative organ in the country, and is charged with the authority to supervise and inspect the implementation of policy in ethnic minority regions. This includes ensuring a degree of equality among ethnic groups, strengthening interethnic unity, training minority cadres, and managing ethnic minority work in general. At the local level the People’s Congresses of some provinces and autonomous regions have an ethnic affairs committee or section. Many minority cadres are trained at one of about thirteen nationality colleges, six of which are administered by the State Ethnic Affairs Commission.

A variety of general policies toward ethnic minorities have been in effect since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Initial efforts were directed at recruiting ethnic minority elites into the government and ruling Party. The 1950–1957 period was marked by the formulation of national-level policies directed at unification and consolidation on the one hand and at ethnic solidarity on the other. However, the formation of nationwide cooperatives strained relations between the Han and the ethnic minorities. The failure of the Great Leap Forward (1957–58), an economic and social plan to rapidly transform China from an agrarian economy of peasant farmers into a modern, industrialized Communist state, led to a difficult period of ethnic relations. After the Great Leap Forward the government moved back to a position of granting more autonomy to ethnic minorities. This position was short-lived, however, as the excesses of the Cultural Revolution led to extreme suffering among minority groups in China. Temples were destroyed, religious customs were violated, and language systems were changed.

During the Cultural Revolution, leaders declared that ethnic minority policy was no longer needed because China was not a multiethnic country. Minorities and their territories were no longer considered special. The autonomous units in many regions were dissolved. Officials used ideologically driven economic policies and faulty logic such as the ordering that certain types of rice be planted regardless of the area’s special agricultural conditions. Literacy in minority languages decreased, and almost all ethnic minority schools and colleges were closed. Ethnic minority languages were condemned. The wearing of national costumes was prohibited, and ethnic songs and dances were viewed as feudal or capitalistic. Some ethnic minority health practices were viewed as superstitious and curtailed.

China’s economic reforms and opening to the outside world, which began in late 1978, ushered in a period of renewed emphasis on the cultural distinctiveness of minorities and promoted a respect for their traditional cultures. However, economic policy was directed more toward a rapid development of the coastal regions of eastern China, thus opening up an economic gap between the prosperous east and the poorer western parts of the country where most ethnic minority groups lived. A special series of policies was developed and implemented beginning in the 1990s to rectify this problem by promoting investment in western China, but it has met with mixed results.

Historical Perspectives

The origins of the Han majority can be traced far back in Chinese history. The Yellow Emperor of the twenty-seventh century BCE, chief of the league of tribes that ruled northwestern China, brought the ethnic groups of the Huang (Yellow) River under unified control. This unification led to the gradual formation of the Xia people, said to be the ancestors of the present-day Han. Several thousand years of Chinese history have left evidence of hundreds if not thousands of separate groups.

The scholarly discourse in China depicts the Han majority as a group that resulted from an intermixing and fusion of many peoples over several thousand years. Relations between the minorities and the Han are viewed as having gone through many stages. During the feudal period the dominant ethnic group often held other groups in
contempt, and the distance of a people from cultural center of China could determine their level of subjugation. All groups were permitted to pay homage to the emperor, given a lower place within the scheme of social status, and sometimes allocated defense from others by the Han militia. Confucianism, the doctrine that ruled China for centuries, supported this view toward outsiders and promoted nonviolent assimilation rather than the extermination of other groups. The major means of nonviolent assimilation was through an education that stressed the conventions of behavior and morality as prescribed by the Confucian classics.

In early times the Chinese territory was in the north plain of what is present-day China. The Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE) unified the group of warring states and groups were either assimilated into the empire or moved out of the area. The Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 ce), is commonly considered to be one of the greatest periods of Chinese history, and the Han Chinese came to represent the cultural majority.

Throughout Chinese history, the Han and other ethnic groups fought wars in which an intricate web of relations evolved. Moreover, two of China’s fifty-five ethnic minorities, the Mongol and the Manchu, actually ruled China for hundreds of years. After emerging victorious, these groups ruled by assimilating themselves into Han Chinese ways associated with dynastic rule. The cultural assimilation of the Manchu, who ruled for 267 years (during the Qing dynasty, 1644–1912), is viewed as more complete than for the Mongol who ruled for the 97 years of the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368). While the Mongol of China maintained their written script, the Manchu have long abandoned theirs, though some Manchu have recently developed a renewed consciousness of their ethnicity.

The Qing dynasty employed a full range of methods to control ethnic minority groups. It used force against the Yi rebellion in the seventeenth century and the two Muslim rebellions of the nineteenth century. Other methods of persuasion during the Qing dynasty included the tribute system (board of rights); court of colonial affairs (mainly for Mongol, Tibetan, Hui and several other Muslim groups); native official system; Han migration to minority areas; and the incorporation of minority areas into the state administrative system. The Asian scholar June Dryer notes that the “goal of the Qing and other dynasties was a pluralistic form of integration that aimed at little more than control” (1976, 12–13). The minimum requirement was a vague commitment of loyalty to the emperor and abstention from aggression. Traditional customs that did not pose a threat to the Chinese state were not interfered with. The imperial bureaucracy seldom if ever penetrated the county level to the countryside and villages. Minority areas came under Chinese control not only through their absorption of Chinese values, as in the case of the Naxi, but also through Han migration to those areas.

In the early part of the twentieth century, when the Nationalist government ruled China beginning in 1911 (although the Qing emperor did not abdicate until 1912), minority territories often changed hands, and ethnic relations were relatively unstable. Decision-making processes became diffused among warlords, foreign powers, and numerous factions of the Nationalist Party. The ethnic minorities mistrusted the Nationalist government due to arrogant officialdom and the expropriation of ethnic minority lands. Except possibly somewhat in the case of the Zhuang and the Bai, efforts toward assimilation failed. However, aside from the loss of Outer Mongolia, China’s territorial claims since the Qing dynasty were maintained. After their victory in the Civil War, the Communists promulgated policies toward minorities that stressed equality among all ethnic groups, the right of autonomy within a unified state, a united front with cooperation between the Chinese state and upper-class ethnic and religious leaders, respect for ethnic minority cultural ways, the right to education in one’s native language, and the development of a higher standard of living for ethnic minorities.

China was not always unified, and the concept of nation is a relatively recent notion in China. The Chinese concept of nation was unlike the European one with its subjective-legal meaning. Rather, the Chinese concept was territorial and historical and reflected the similarity among Chinese terms for people (minzu), nation (minzu), and nationality (minzu).

Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Republic of China, regarded China as a republic of five nationalities: Man (Manchu), Meng (Mongol), Zang (Tibetan), and Hui (including the many Muslim nationalities). In the 1930s the Nationalist government denied that ethnic minorities existed in China, claiming that all groups were branches of the Han. Soon after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, some four hundred groups answered the call to register as ethnic minorities, a number of whom became classified as members of the same group or were considered as Han Chinese. Over 700,000 people remained ethnically unclassified.

China has long relied on Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s recognition of an ethnic group as a community of people that share a common language, territory, economic life, and common culture. However, this presented difficulties because some groups in China lacked a common language or territory. For example, the Hui were spread across the country and largely defined only on the basis of their Muslim religion and the Manchu no longer had a common language. Therefore, the definition came to be employed with some flexibility in China. In 1922 the Second Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) supported Russian Communist leader Vladimir Lenin’s formulation for the establishment of republics for non-Han Chinese ethnic nationalities. Theoretically these republics would have the authority to become independent if they chose. However, in 1935 the Communist Party moved in the direction of regional autonomy instead of federalism. While the CCP used the Soviet Union’s nationalities policy as a model, it was tempered by the Chinese Communist Party’s view that the right of session was incompatible with China’s situation. In short, the notion of regional autonomy was circumscribed such that it could not act contrary to prescriptions of the central government.

The persistent tendency of adherence to many of the basic principles underlying the policies borrowed from the former USSR in the 1950s has left China with a highly political approach to ethnic relations. The politicization approach is increasingly viewed as being out of step with a globally emergent China. There is a resurgent interest in the culturalization approach that is said to have characterized China over thousands of years and resulted in a united-pluralistic society through cultural assimilation across a massive and diverse population.

The early years of the PRC were characterized by moderation and flexibility, with the provision of infrastructure for building, legislation for achieving equality, and efforts to improve the economic position of ethic minorities. Ethnic minority cadres were trained and efforts were made to promote the idea that each ethnic group had something to learn from and contribute to the others. However, since that time minority policies have gone though changes based on shifting political campaigns, economic development policies, and degrees of nationalism expressed by majority and minority groups. China’s stress on national unity, not only with respect to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao, but also with the TAR and XUAR, has been pervasive. The uniqueness of being the only country on the face of the earth with an unbroken civilization of four thousand years has intensified the
mission to protect national unity. China’s reappearance as a global power has also reinforced this mission. Unfortunately, the notion that the Han Chinese are culturally superior to other ethnic groups is ubiquitous.

Further Reading

Bilik, N. (2000). Xiandai beijingxia de zuqun jiangou [The structuring of contemporary ethnicity]. Kunming, China: Yunnan Education Press.

Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (1982). Retrieved October 24, 2008 from http:english.people

Dryer, J. (1976). China’s forty millions: Minority nationalities and national integration in the People’s Republic of China (Harvard East Asian Series 87). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fan Wenlan. (1980). Problems of conflict and fusion of nationalities in Chinese history. Social Science in China, 1, 71–82.

Fei Xiaotong. (1980). Ethnic identification in China. Social Science in China, 1, 97–107.

Fei Xiaotong. (1991). Zhonghua minzu yanjiu xin tance [New explorations in China’s ethnic studies]. Beijing: Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Gladney, D. C. (1991). Muslim Chinese: Ethnic nationalism in the People’s Republic. Cambridge, MA: The Council of East Asian Studies and Fellows of Harvard University.

Harrell, S. (2001). Ways of being ethnic in southwest China. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Heberer, T. (1989). China and its national minorities: Autonomy or assimilation. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Ma, R. (2007). Bilingual education for China’s ethnic minorities. Chinese Education and Society, 40(2), 9-25.

Mackerras, C. (1994). China’s minorities: Integration and modernisation in the 21st century. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.

Mackerras, C. (1995). China’s minority cultures: Identities and integration since 1912. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Postiglione, G. (1999), ed., China’s national minority education: Culture, Schooling and Development, New York: Falmer Press.

Stalin, J. (1934). Marxism and the colonial question. New York: International Publishers.

Sun, Z. (1981). Sun Zhongshan Xuanji [Selections of the writings of Sun Yat-sen]. Beijing: Renmin chu-banshe.

Teng, X. (2002). Zuqun, wenhua yu jiaoyu. [Ethnicity, culture, and education] Beijing: Minzu press.

Zhongguo renmin zhengxie huiyi [Chinese people’s political consultative congress]. (1952). Zhongguo faling huibian [A compilation of China’s laws and regulations]. Beijing: Renmin chunanshe.

Source: Postiglione, Gerard. (2009). Ethnic Minorities. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 763–770. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

A girl of the Hani ethnic group goes to market, Xishuangbanna, Yunnan Province, 1983. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

A girl in Dai (Thai) costume, Xishuangbanna, Yunnan province, 1983. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Hani man, Xishuangbanna, Yunnan Province, 1983. China’s promotion of tourism in minority areas has assisted economic development in many areas, but it has also hastened the loss of many ethnic traditions that were preserved for generations largely through isolation. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Lijiang Naxi girl wears a silver headdress. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Ethnic Minorities (Sh?oshù mínzú ????)|Sh?oshù mínzú ???? (Ethnic Minorities)

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