“Long Live the Great Unity of All Nationalities,” 1960. A poster showing Mao leading a merry group of people representing China’s different ethnic nationalities. COLLECTION STEFAN LANDSBERGER.
China is a multiethnic country with fifty-six officially recognized ethnic groups: fifty-five minorities and the majority Han. But this understates the divisions within the Chinese population, especially the variety of culturally and ethnically diverse groups within the Han population. For the many peoples of the People’s Republic to participate fully in building a strong and prosperous future, China’s ethnic communities need to be appreciated, officially and unofficially, for fostering a rich multicultural heritage.
Foreigners and the Chinese themselves typically picture China’s population as a vast monolithic Han majority with a sprinkling of exotic minorities living along the country’s borders. This understates China’s tremendous cultural, geographic, and linguistic diversity. China is officially a multiethnic country with fifty-six recognized ethnic groups: fifty-five minority groups, and the majority Han. China boasts that its minorities are involved in local and national governance, in the effort to prove that China has a socialist system representing the many peoples of the People’s Republic democratically.
Nationality in China
Officially, China is made up of fifty-six nationalities: one majority nationality, the Han, and fifty-five minority groups. Results from the 2000 census suggest a total official minority population of nearly 104 million, or approximately 9 percent of the total population. The peoples identified as Han comprise 91 percent of the population from Beijing in the north to Guangzhou (Canton) in the south and include the Hakka, Fujianese, Cantonese as well as the Sichuanese, Hunanese, Yunnanese, and Hainanese.
The rest of the population is divided into fifty-five official minority nationalities that are mostly concentrated along the borders, such as the Mongolians and Uygurs in the north and the Zhuang, Yi, and Bai in southern China, near Southeast Asia. Other groups, such as the Hui and Manchus, are scattered throughout the nation, and there are minorities in every province, region, and county. An active state-sponsored program assists these official minority cultures and promotes their economic development. The outcome, according to China’s preeminent sociologist, Fei Xiaotong, is a unified multinational state.
Divisions within the Majority
But even this recognition of diversity understates the divisions within the Chinese population, especially the wide variety of culturally and ethnically diverse groups within the majority Han population. Although presented as a unified culture—an idea also accepted by many Western researchers—Han peoples differ in many ways, most obviously in their languages.
The Han speak eight mutually unintelligible languages: Mandarin, Wu, Yue, Xiang, Hakka, Gan, Southern Min, and Northern Min. Even these subgroups show marked linguistic and cultural diversity. In the Yue language family, for example, Cantonese speakers are barely intelligible to Taishan speakers, and the Southern Min dialects of Quanzhou, Changzhou, and Xiamen are equally difficult to communicate across. The Chinese linguist Y. R. Chao has shown that the mutual unintelligibility of, say, Cantonese and Mandarin is as great as that of Dutch and English or French and Italian. Mandarin was imposed as the national language early in the twentieth century and has become the lingua franca (common language), but it must often be learned in school and is rarely used in everyday life in many areas.
The notion of a Han ren (Han person) dates back centuries and refers to descendants of the Han dynasty that flourished at about the same time as the Roman Empire. But the concept of Han minzu (Han nationality) is a modern phenomenon that arose with the shift from the Chinese Empire to the modern nation-state. In the early part of the twentieth century, Chinese reformers had been concerned that the Chinese people lacked a sense of nationhood, unlike Westerners and even China’s other peoples, such as Tibetans and Manchus. In the view of these reformers, Chinese unity stopped at the clan or community level rather than extending to the nation as a whole.
The great republican leader Sun Yat–sen was a Cantonese. In his plans to depose the Manchu-ruled Qing state (1644–1912), the last imperial dynasty, Sun sought to unite and mobilize the Han and all other non-Manchu groups in China—including Mongols, Tibetans, and Muslims—into a modern multiethnic nationalist movement. He succeeded in the revolution of 1911–1912 and established Republican China (1912–1949). The Han were seen as a unified group distinct from the internal foreigners—Manchus, Tibetans, Mongols, and Hui—as well as the external foreigners, Westerners and Japanese. Some scholars have argued a racial basis for this notion of a unified Han minzu. Other scholars have suggested the rationality was more strategic and nationalistic: the need to build national security around the concept of one national people, with a small percentage of minorities supporting that idea.
Cultural perceptions among the Han often involve broad stereotypical contrasts between north and south. Northerners tend to be thought of as large, broad faced, and light skinned. Southerners are depicted as small and dark. Cultural practices involving birth, marriage, and burial differ widely. For example, the Fujianese, southerners, are known for vibrant folk-religion practices and ritualized reburial of corpses. Hakka people are thought to be hard-working and their women independent minded, so much so that they refused to bind their feet. Many of these customs are nonexistent in the north. Northerners and southerners have radically different eating habits. Northerners eat noodles from wheat (and other grains), meats like lamb and beef, and prefer spicy foods. Southerners’ diet is based on rice and less meat in favor of seafood, and the food is generally milder than in the north, especially along the coast.
With the dramatic economic explosion in South China in recent years, southerners have begun to assert cultural and political differences. Cantonese rock music, videos, movies, and television programs, all heavily influenced by Hong Kong, are now popular throughout China. Whereas comedians used to poke fun of southern ways and accents, southerners now scorn northerners for their lack of sophistication and business acumen. As any Mandarin-speaking Beijing resident will admit, bargaining for vegetables or cellular telephones in Guangzhou or Shanghai markets is becoming more difficult for them because of the growing pride in the local languages: nonnative speakers always pay a higher price.
Sun Yat-sen popularized the idea that there were five peoples of China: the majority Han, Manchus, Mongolian, Tibetan, and Hui (a term that included all Muslims in China, now divided into Uygurs, Kazakhs, Hui, Uzbeks, Tatars, Salars, Dongxiang, Bonan, and Tajiks.
The Communists expanded the number of peoples from five to fifty-six but kept the idea of a unified Han group. The Communists were, in fact, disposed to accommodate these internal minority groups for several reasons. The Long March (1934–1935), a 6,000-mile trek across China from southwest to northwest to escape the threat of annihilation by Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomin
dang, forces, took the Communists through some of the most heavily populated minority areas in China. Harried on one side by the Guomindang and on the other by fierce “barbarian” tribesmen, the Communists were faced with a choice between extermination and promising special treatment to minorities—especially the Miao, Yi (Lolo), Tibetans, Mongols, and Hui—should the party come to national power. The Communists even offered the possibility of true independence for minorities. Chairman Mao frequently referred to Article 14 of the 1931 Chinese Communist Party constitution, which recognized the right of self-determination of the national minorities in China, their right to separation from China, and their right to the formation of an independent state for each minority.
This commitment was not kept after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. Instead, the party stressed maintaining the unity of the new nation at all costs. The recognition of minorities, however, also helped the Communists’ long-term goal of forging a united Chinese nation by solidifying the recognition of the Han as a unified majority. Emphasizing the difference between Han and the minorities helped to de-emphasize the differences within the Han community. The Communists incorporated the idea of Han unity into a Marxist ideology of progress with the Han in the forefront of development and civilization, the vanguard of the people’s revolution. The more backward or primitive the minorities seemed, the more advanced and civilized the Han seemed and the greater the need for a unified national identity. Cultural diversity within the Han is seldom mentioned because of a fear of the country breaking up into feuding warlord-run kingdoms, as happened in the 1910s and 1920s.
China has historically been divided along north/south lines or into five kingdoms, warring states, or areas controlled by local warlords as often as it has been united. China as it currently exists—including large pieces of territory occupied by Mongols, Turkic peoples, Tibetans, and others—is three times larger than China was under the last Chinese dynasty, the Ming, which fell in 1644. Ironically, geographic China, as defined by the People’s Republic, was actually established by foreign conquest dynasties, first by the Mongols and finally by the Manchus. A strong, centralizing Chinese government (whether of foreign or internal origin) has often tried to impose ritualistic, linguistic, and political uniformity within its borders. The modern state has tried to unite its various peoples with transportation and communications networks and an extensive civil service. In recent years these efforts have continued through the controlled infusion of capitalistic investment and market manipulation. Yet even in the modern era, these integrative mechanisms have not produced cultural uniformity.
China’s policy toward minorities involves official recognition, limited autonomy, and unofficial efforts at control. The official minorities hold an importance for China’s long-term development that is disproportionate to their population. Although totaling only 8.04 percent of the population, they are concentrated in resource-rich areas spanning nearly 60 percent of the country’s landmass and exceed 90 percent of the population in counties and villages along many border areas of Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Yunnan. While the 1990 census recorded 91 million minorities, the 2000 census is estimated to report an increase of the minority population to be 104 million.
Shortly after taking power, Communist leaders sent teams of researchers, social scientists, and party cadres to the border regions to identify groups as official nationalities. Only forty-one of the more than four hundred groups that applied were recognized, and that number had reached fifty-six by 1982. For political reasons, most of the nearly 350 other groups were identified as Han or lumped together with other minorities with whom they shared some features. Some are still applying for recognition. The 2000 census listed almost 750,000 people as still unidentified and awaiting recognition, meaning they are regarded as ethnically different but do not fit into any of the recognized categories.
In recognition of the minorities’ official status as well as their strategic importance, various levels of nominally autonomous administration were created: five regions, thirty-one prefectures, ninety-six counties (or, in Inner Mongolia and Manchuria, banners), and countless villages. Such autonomous areas do not have true local political control, although they may have increased local control over the administration of resources, taxes, family planning, education, legal jurisdiction, and religious expression. These areas have minority government leaders, but the real source of power is still the Han-dominated Communist Party. As a result, they may actually come under closer scrutiny than other provinces with large minority populations, such as Gansu, Qinghai, and Sichuan, which are home to the Hui, Tibetan, and Yi minorities. While autonomy seems not to be all the word might imply, it is still apparently a desirable attainment for minorities in China.
Between the 1982 and 1990 censuses, eighteen new autonomous counties were established, three of them in Liaoning Province for the Manchus, who previously had no autonomous administrative districts. Although the government is clearly trying to limit the recognition of new nationalities, there seems to be an avalanche of new autonomous administrative districts. Besides the eighteen new counties and many villages whose total numbers have never been published, at least eight more new autonomous counties are to be set up. Five will go to the Tujia, a group widely dispersed throughout the southwest that doubled in population from 2.8 to 5.8 million from 1982 to 1990.
The increase in the number of groups seeking minority status reflects what may be described as an explosion of ethnicity in contemporary China. It has become popular, especially in Beijing, for people to reveal themselves as Manchus or other ethnic groups, admitting they were not Han all along. While the Han population grew 10 percent between 1982 and 1990, the minority population grew 35 percent overall, from 67 million to 91 million, and another 10 percent in the year 2000, to 104 million. The Manchus, a group long thought to have been assimilated into the Han majority, added three autonomous districts and increased their population by 128 percent from 4.3 to 10.6 million, while the population of the Gelao people in Guizhou shot up from just 53,000 in 1982 to over 579,000 in just 18 years.
In addition to a high birth rate, these figures also indicate category shifting, as people redefine their nationality from Han to a minority or from one minority to another. In interethnic marriages, parents can decide the nationality of their children, and the children themselves can choose their nationality at age eighteen. One scholar predicted that if the minority populations’ growth rate continues, they will total 100 million in the year 2,000 and 864 million in 2080.
Rising Ethnic Awareness
By the mid-1980s, those groups identified as official minorities were beginning to receive real benefits from the implementation of several affirmative action programs. The most significant privileges included permission to have more children (except in urban areas, minorities are generally not bound by the one-child policy), pay fewer taxes, obtain better (albeit Chinese) education for their children, have greater access to public office, speak and learn their native languages, worship and practice their religion (often including practices such as shamanism, which are still banned among the Han), and express their cultural differences through the arts and popular culture.
cent years various minority and ethnic groups have begun to rediscover and reassert their different cultures, languages, and history. The official minorities in China have begun to assert their identities more strongly, pressing the government for more recognition, autonomy, and special privileges. In addition, within the Han majority, groups have begun to rediscover, reinvent, and reassert their ethnic differences.
Rising self-awareness among the Cantonese is paralleled by the reassertion of identity among the Hakka, the southern Fujianese Min, the Swatow, and other peoples. Most of these southern groups traditionally regarded themselves not as Han but as Tang people, descendants of the great Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) and its southern bases. Most Chinatowns in North America, Europe, and Southeast Asia are inhabited by descendants of Chinese immigrants from the mainly Tang areas of southern China and built around tang ren jie (Tang person streets).
There is also a newfound interest in the ancient southern Chu kingdom as a key to modern southern success. Some southern scholars have departed from the traditional Chinese view of history and argue that, by the sixth century BCE, the bronze culture of the Chu spread north and influenced the development of Chinese civilization, rather than this culture originating in the north and spreading southward. Many southerners now see Chu as essential to Chinese culture, to be distinguished from the less important northern dynasties, with implications for the nation’s economic and geopolitical future. Museums to the glory of Chu have been established throughout southern China. There is also a growing belief that northerners and southerners had separate racial origins based on different histories and contrasting physiogenetic types, a belief influenced by nineteenth-century notions of race and Social Darwinism.
There has also been an outpouring of interest in Hakka origins, language, and culture on Taiwan, which may be spreading to the mainland. The Hakka, or guest people, are thought to have moved southward in successive migrations from northern China as early as the Eastern Jin (317–420 CE) or the late Song dynasty (960–1279), according to many Hakka, who claim to be Song people as well as Tang people. The Hakka have the same language and many of the same cultural practices as the She minority but never sought minority status themselves, perhaps because of a desire to overcome their long-term stigmatization by Cantonese and other southerners as uncivilized barbarians. This low status may stem from the unique Hakka language (which is unintelligible to other southerners), the isolated and walled Hakka living compounds, or the refusal of Hakka women during the imperial period to bind their feet. The popular press in China is beginning to note more frequently the widely perceived Hakka origins of important political figures, which include Deng Xiaoping, Mao Zedong, Sun Yat-sen, former party general secretary Hu Yaobang, and former president Ye Jianying. People often praise Zhou Enlai by stressing his Jiangnan linkages and Lee Kuan-yew as a prominent Hakka statesman.
One might say it has become popular to be ethnic in today’s China. Mongolian hot pot, Muslim noodle, and Korean barbecue restaurants proliferate in every city. Minority clothing, artistic motifs, and cultural styles adorn Chinese bodies and private homes. In Beijing, one of the most popular new restaurants is the Thai Family Village (Dai Jia Cun). It offers a cultural experience of the Thai minority (known in China as the Dai), complete with beautiful waitresses in revealing Dai-style sarongs and short tops, sensually singing and dancing while exotic foods such as snake’s blood are enjoyed by the young Han nouveau riche.
Awareness of China’s ethnic groups has spread beyond its borders. Foreign policy considerations argue for better treatment of Korean minorities because South Korean investment, tourism, and natural resources have given China’s Koreans in Liaoning and Manchuria a booming economy and the best educational level of all nationalities, including the Han. International tourism to minority areas has been on the rise, including the Silk Roads tourism to Xinjiang and the marketing of package tours to the colorful minority regions of Yunnan and Guizhou for Japanese, Taiwanese, and Southeast Asian Chinese tour groups. Hmong tourists from the United States have begun to visit Miao (Hmong) areas in Guizhou, Yunnan, and Guangxi in increasing numbers, creating linkages to their early ancestral origins that link China, Vietnam, and now the United States together.
Since the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China has become more exposed to the outside world, and yet the complexity of its cultural and ethnic diversity is still difficult to grasp. Although China’s official ethnic populations are still relatively small in number, increasing globalization has not only meant greater awareness of these heretofore rather isolated populations, but also contributed to further communication with the outside world. While China’s extraordinary economic growth and promotion of tourism in minority areas has assisted economic development in many minority areas, it has also hastened the loss of many ethnic traditions that had been preserved for generations largely through isolation. Appreciation of the tremendous contributions that China’s many ethnic communities, both official and unofficial, have made to China rich multicultural heritage is critical if the many peoples of the People’s Republic are going to fully participate in building a strong and prosperous future.
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Guo, Fei. (1999, October 7–8). Beijing’s Policies towards ethnic minority /rural migrant villages. Paper presented at the Conference on Contemporary Migration and Ethnicity in China, Institute of Nationality Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing.
Zhang Tianlu. (1999, October 7–8). Xiandai Zhongguo Shaoshu minzu renkou zhuangkuang [Analysis of the contemporary China minority nationality population situation]. Paper presented at the Conference on Contemporary Migration and Ethnicity in China, Institute of Nationality Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing.
Source: Gladney, Dru. (2009). Ethnic Relations. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 771–777. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
A nomadic Tibetan boy with horses near Xiahe, on the steppe of Ganzu Province in northwest China, identified as part of Tibet before 1949. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
Ethnic Relations (Zúqún gu?nxì ????)|Zúqún gu?nxì ???? (Ethnic Relations)