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From the hinterlands of the north, to the lush jungles in the south, from the mountains of Taiwan in the east, to the top of the world in the west, China serves as home to 56 official ethnic groups. The largest group, the Han, make up over 92 percent of China's vast population. It is the elements of Han civilization that the world considers "Chinese culture." Yet, the 55 ethnic minorities, on China's vast frontiers maintain their own rich traditions and customs, and all are part of Chinese culture.
China's history is a story of an immense land with several diverse tribes. It is also one of migrations and conflict, and separation and fusion of cultures. The product of the intermingling of many tribes, the Han people were among the first to settle down and develop an agrarian society. As their culture flourished, the more contempt they felt for the migrant hunter-gatherers who lived just beyond the horizon. Even though the modern concept of 56 ethnic groups is often considered a conservative summary of the hundreds of diverse peoples in China, it pales in comparison to the simplicity by which the ancient Han people distinguished their nomadic neighbors. For the Han (the tribe occupying the Center of the World) the only distinction was direction, and non-Han were called "Di" (northern), "Rong" (west), "Yi" (east), and "Man" (south).
As the Han prospered, they became the envy of the hearty horsemen of the north. Over a 2,000 year period, waves of invaders breached the Great Wall and poured into the Chinese heartland. The Huns, the Mongols, and Manchurians all came. However, unlike the plunder and destruction characterized by the barbarian invasions of Rome, these peoples admired what they saw, leading them to stay and assimilate.
At the same time, the Han were also following migratory patterns. Seeking to avoid the invasions, or simply moving as burgeoning populations strained resources, the Chinese moved southward. In the south they met with an enormous diversity of cultures. Some would be pushed further south, others would stay and assimilate. No matter what the story, one enduring theme of Chinese history remains the stability of Han Chinese culture.
In 1911, the last Imperial Dynasty (established 300 years before by the Manchu minority) was unseated by the Nationalist Party of Sun Yat-sen. Dr. Sun himself saw China as a "Republic of Five Nationalities" (which are represented by the five stars on the national flag of the People's Republic of China). After his death, the Nationalists denied the existence of different ethnic groups.
After the Communist Party came to power in 1949, an earnest effort to investigate and categorize minorities began. Although over 400 minority groups answered a call to register, studies found that there was a lot of overlapping, and a significant number of groups that claimed to be separate were actually the same only with different names. After four years of detailed research and field work, 54 ethnic groups were officially recognized as independent nationalities. A 55th was added in 1979.
Ethnic Group Determination
- Distinct Language: While hundreds of Chinese dialects are spoken across China, a minority language is not simply a dialect. Rather, it is a language with distinct grammatical and phonological differences from Chinese. Language families include Sino-Tibetan, Altaic, Indo-European, Austro-Asiatic, and Austronesian. Twenty-one ethnic minority groups have unique writing systems.
- A Recognized indigenous Homeland: A territory within the national boundaries of China, from which the group originated. Native history and mythologies are interwoven into this native land.
- Distinctive Customs: Ranging from dress, marriage rituals, cuisine, religion, and so forth.
- A strong Sense of Identity: Feeling of relation with other members of the group, along with historically perceived friends and enemies among other groups.
Many of the original Chinese names for minorities come from a long history of contempt. In 1951, the use of derogatory names was abolished. However, the new, currently used names were set by Han Chinese. As the Communist Party has relaxed its iron grip in recent years, minorities have been given flexibility in choosing their own official names.
Ethnic Minority Groups
The following is a distribution of Ethnic Minority Groups in China, based on the Census of 1 July 1990.
|Ethnic Group|| Population
Major Areas of Distribution
|Daur||121.5||Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang, Xinjiang|
|Dong||2,506.8||Guizhou, Hunan, Guangxi|
|Ewenki||26.4||Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang|
|Hui||8,612.0||Ningxia, Gansu, Henan, Hebei, Qinghai, Shandong, Yunnan, Xinjiang, Anhui, Liaoning, Heilongjiang, Jilin, Shaanxi, Beijing, Tianjin|
|Gaoshan||2.9||Taiwan (population not counted), Fujian|
|Kazak||1,110.8||Xinjiang, Gansu, Qinghai|
|Korean||1,923.4||Jilin, Liaoning, Heilongjiang|
||8,846.8||Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang, Hebei, Beijing, Inner Mongolia|
||7,383.6||Guizhou, Hunan, Yunnan, Guangxi, Sichuan, Hainan, Hubei|
||4,802.4||Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang, Gansu, Hebei, Henan, Qinghai|
|Oroqen||7.0||Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang|
Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Guangdong
Tibet, Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, Yunan
Xinjiang, Liaoning, Jilin
Guangxi, Hunan, Ynnan, Guangdong, Guizhou
Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi
Guangxi, Yunnan, Guangdong, Guizhou
- Chinese National Minorities and Their Populations
- China Ethnic Minorities - Travel China Guide
- People's Daily Online China's ethnic minorities