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Ethnic minorities in China

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Ethnic minorities in China

Ethnolinguistic map of China and Taiwan

Ethnic minorities in China are the non-Han Chinese population in the People's Republic of China. The People's Republic of China (PRC) officially recognizes 55 ethnic minority groups within China in addition to the Han majority. As of 2010, the combined population of officially recognised minority groups comprised 8.49% of the population of mainland China.[1] In addition to these officially recognized ethnic minority groups, there are PRC nationals who privately classify themselves as members of unrecognized ethnic groups (such as Jewish, Tuvan, Oirat, and Ili Turki).

The ethnic minority groups officially recognized by the PRC reside within mainland China and Taiwan, whose house are called the Taiwanese aborigines. The Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan officially recognises 14 Taiwanese aborigine groups, while the PRC classifies them all as a single ethnic minority group, the Gaoshan. Hong Kong and Macau do not use this ethnic classification system, and figures by the PRC government do not include the two territories.

By definition, these ethnic minority groups, together with the Han majority, make up the greater Chinese nationality known as Zhonghua Minzu. Chinese minorities alone are referred to as "Shaoshu Minzu".


  • Naming 1
  • History of ethnicity in China 2
    • Early history 2.1
    • Distinguishing nationalities in the People's Republic of China 2.2
    • Reform and opening up 2.3
  • Ethnic groups 3
  • Demographics of the ethnic minorities 4
  • Guarantee of rights and interests 5
  • Undistinguished ethnic groups 6
  • Taiwanese aborigines 7
  • Religions and their most common affiliations 8
  • See also 9
  • References 10
  • Further reading 11
  • External links 12


The Chinese-language term for ethnic minority is shaoshu minzu (simplified Chinese: 少数民族; traditional Chinese: 少數民族; pinyin: shǎoshù mínzú; literally: "minority people groups"). In early PRC documents, such as the 1982 constitution,[2] the word "minzu" was translated as "nationality", following the Soviet Union's use of Marxist-Leninist jargon. However, the Chinese word does not imply that ethnic minorities in China are not Chinese citizens, as in fact they are.[3] Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, governmental and scholarly publications have retranslated "minzu" in the ethnic minority sense into English as "ethnic groups". Some scholars, to be even more precise, use the neologism zuqun (Chinese: 族群; pinyin: zǔqún) to unambiguously refer to ethnicity when "minzu" is needed to refer to nationality.[4]

History of ethnicity in China

Early history

Throughout much of recorded Chinese history, there was little attempt by Chinese authors to separate the concepts of nationality, culture, and ethnicity.[5] Those outside of the reach of imperial control and dominant patterns of Chinese culture were thought of as separate groups of people regardless of whether they would today be considered as a separate ethnicity. The self-conceptualization of Han largely revolved around this center-periphery cultural divide. Thus, the process of Sinicization throughout history had as much to do with the spreading of imperial rule and culture as it did with actual ethnic migration.

This understanding persisted (with some change in the Qing under the import of Western ideas) up until the Communists took power in 1949. Their understanding of minorities had been heavily influenced by the Soviet models of Joseph Stalin—as has been the case for the neighbouring Communist regimes of Vietnam and Laos[6]—and the Soviet's definition of minorities did not map cleanly onto this Chinese historical understanding. Stalinist thinking about minorities was that a nation was made up of those with a common language, historical culture, and territory. Each nation of these people then had the theoretical right to secede from a proposed federated government.[7] This differed from the previous way of thinking mainly in that instead of defining all those under imperial rule as Chinese, the nation (as defined as a space upon which power is projected) and ethnicity (the identity of the governed) were now separate; being under central rule no longer automatically meant being defined as Chinese. The Stalinist model as applied to China gave rise to the autonomous regions in China; these areas were thought to be their own nations that had theoretical autonomy from the central government.[8]

During World War II, the American Asiatic Association published an entry in the text "Asia: journal of the American Asiatic Association, Volume 40", concerning the problem of whether [10]

Distinguishing nationalities in the People's Republic of China

To determine how many of these nations existed within China after the revolution of 1949, a team of social scientists was assembled to enumerate the various ethnic nations. The problem that they immediately ran into was that there were many areas of China in which villages in one valley considered themselves to have a separate identity and culture from those one valley over.[11] According each village the status of nation would be absurd and would lead to the nonsensical result of filling the National People's Congress with delegates all representing individual villages. In response, the social scientists attempted to construct coherent groupings of minorities using language as the main criterion for differentiation. This led to a result in which villages that had very different cultural practices and histories were lumped under the same ethnic name. The Zhuang is one such example; the ethnic group largely served as a catch-all collection of various hill villages in Guangxi province.[12]

The actual census taking of who was and was not a minority further eroded the neat differentiating lines the social scientists had drawn up. Individual ethnic status was often awarded based on family tree histories. If one had a father (or mother, for ethnic groups that were considered matrilineal) that had a surname considered to belong to a particular ethnic group, then one was awarded the coveted minority status. This had the result that villages that had previously thought of themselves as homogenous and essentially Han were now divided between those with ethnic identity and those without.[13]

The team of social scientists that assembled the list of all the ethnic groups also described what they considered to be the key differentiating attributes between each group, including dress, music, and language. The center then used this list of attributes to select representatives of each group to perform on television and radio in an attempt to reinforce the government's narrative of China as a multi-ethnic state.[14] Particularly popular were more exoticised practices of minority groups - the claim of multi-ethnicity would not look strong if the minorities performed essentially the same rituals and songs as the Han. Many of those labeled as specific minorities were thus presented with images and representations of "their people" in the media that bore no relationship to the music, clothing, and other practices they themselves enacted in their own daily lives.

Reform and opening up

However, as China opened up and reformed post-1979, many Han acquired enough money to begin to travel. One of the favorite travel experiences of the wealthy was visits to minority areas, to see the purportedly exotic rituals of the minority peoples.[15][16] Responding to this interest, many minority entrepreneurs, despite themselves perhaps never having grown up practicing the dances, rituals, or songs themselves, began to cater to these tourists by performing acts similar to what was on the media. In this way, the groups of people named Zhuang or other named minorities have begun to have more in common with their fellow co-ethnics, as they have adopted similar self-conceptions in response to the economic demand of consumers for their performances.

After the breakup of Yugoslavia and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there was a shift in official conceptions of minorities in China: rather than defining them as "nationalities", they became "ethnic groups". The difference between "nationality" and "ethnicity", as Uradyn Erden-Bulag describes it, is that the former treats the minorities of China as societies with "a fully functional division of labor", history, and territory, while the latter treats minorities as a "category" and focuses on their maintenance of boundaries and their self-definition in relation to the majority group. These changes are reflected in uses of the term minzu and its translations. The official journal Minzu Tuanjie changed its English name from Nationality Unity to Ethnic Unity in 1995. Similarly, the Central University for Nationalities changed its name to Minzu University of China. Scholars began to prefer the term zuqun (族群) over minzu.[17]

Ethnic groups

The Long-horn tribe, a small branch of ethnic Miao in the western part of Guizhou Province.

China is officially composed of 56 ethnic groups (55 minorities plus the dominant Han). However, some of the ethnic groups as classified by the PRC government contain, within themselves, diverse groups of people. Various groups of the Miao minority, for example, speak different dialects of the Hmong–Mien languages, Tai–Kadai languages, and Chinese languages, and practice a variety of different cultural customs.

Additionally, some ethnic groups with smaller populations are classified together with another distinct ethnic group, such as the case with the Utsuls of Hainan being classified as part of the Hui minority on the basis of their shared Islamic religion, and the Chuanqing being classified as part of the Han majority.

Additionally, the degree of variation between ethnic groups is also not consistent. Many ethnic groups are described as having unique characteristics from other minority groups and from the dominant Han, but there are also some that are very similar to the Han majority group. Most Hui Chinese are indistinguishable from Han Chinese except for the fact that they practice Islam, and most Manchu are considered to be largely assimilated into dominant Han society.

China's official 55 minorities are located primarily in the south, west, and north of China. Only Tibet and Xinjiang have a majority population of official minorities, while all other provinces, municipalities and regions of China have a Han majority.

The degree of acceptance into and integration of ethnic minorities with the mainstream community also varies widely from group to group.[18] Attitudes towards various minorities by the Han have long been afflicted by Han chauvinism, and is often resented by minority groups. Migration has also caused friction in some minority areas, such as Tibet and Xinjiang.[19]

Much of the dialog within China regarding minorities has generally portrayed minorities as being further behind the Han in progress toward modernization and modernity.[20] Minority groups are often portrayed as rustic, wild, and antiquated. As the government often portrays itself as a benefactor of the minorities, those less willing to assimilate (despite the offers of assistance) are portrayed as masculine, violent, and unreasonable. Groups that have been depicted this way include the Tibetans, Uyghurs and the Mongols.[21] Groups that have been more willing to assimilate (and accept the help of the government) are often portrayed as feminine and sexual, including the Miao, Tujia and the Dai.[22]

Demographics of the ethnic minorities

The largest ethnic group, Han, according to a 2005 sampling, constitute about 91.9% of the total population. The next largest ethnic groups in terms of population include the Zhuang at 18 million, the Manchu at 10.68 million, the Hui at 10 million, the Miao at 9 million, the Uyghur at 11.257 million, the Yi at 7,762,286, the Tujia at 8 million, the Mongols at 5.8 million, the Tibetans at 5.4 million, the Buyei at 2,971,460, The Yao at 3.1 million, and the Koreans at 2,489,076. The minority population is growing fast due to their being unaffected by the One Child Policy.

Guarantee of rights and interests

Major Autonomous areas within Yunnan. (excluding Hui)
Major Autonomous areas within Guizhou. (excluding Hui)

The PRC's Constitution and laws guarantee equal rights to all ethnic groups in China and help promote ethnic minority groups' economic and cultural development.[23] One notable preferential treatment ethnic minorities enjoy is their exemption from the population growth control of the One-Child Policy. Ethnic minorities are represented in the National People's Congress as well as governments at the provincial and prefectural levels. Some ethnic minorities in China live in what are described as ethnic autonomous areas. These "regional autonomies" guarantee ethnic minorities the freedom to use and develop their ethnic languages, and to maintain their own cultural and social customs. In addition, the PRC government has provided preferential economic development and aid to areas where ethnic minorities live.[24]

Undistinguished ethnic groups

"Undistinguished" ethnic groups are ethnic groups that have not been officially recognized or classified by the central government. The group numbers more than 730,000 people, and would constitute the twentieth most populous ethnic group of China if taken as a single group. The vast majority of this group is found in Guizhou Province.

These "undistinguished ethnic groups" do not include groups that have been controversially classified into existing groups. For example, the Mosuo are officially classified as Naxi, and the Chuanqing are classified as Han Chinese, but they reject these classifications and view themselves as separate ethnic groups.

Citizens of mainland China who are of foreign origin are classified using yet another separate label: "foreigners naturalized into the Chinese citizenship" (外国人入中国籍). However, if a newly naturalized citizen already belongs to a recognized existing group among the 56 ethnic groups, then he or she is classified into that ethnic group rather than the special label.

Taiwanese aborigines

The PRC government officially refers to all Taiwanese aborigines as Gaoshan, whereas the ROC government of Taiwan recognizes 16 groups of Taiwanese aborigines. The term Gaoshan has a different connotation in Taiwan than it does in mainland China. While several thousands of these aborigines have migrated to Fujian province in mainland China, most remain in Taiwan. Due to the contested political status and legal status of Taiwan, the PRC classification of Taiwanese aborigines may be controversial.

Religions and their most common affiliations

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ Constitution of the People's Republic of China, 4 December 1982. Retrieved 27 February 2007.
  3. ^ "China's Fresh Approach to the National Minority Question," by George Moseley, The China Quarterly
  4. ^ Bulag, Uradyn (2010). "Alter/native Mongolian identity". In Perry, Elizabeth; Selden, Mark. Chinese Society: Change, Conflict, and Resistance. Taylor & Francis. p. 284. 
  5. ^ Harrell, Stephan (1996). Cultural encounters on China's ethnic frontiers. Seattle: University of Washington Press.  
  6. ^ Michaud J., 2009 Handling Mountain Minorities in China, Vietnam and Laos : From History to Current Issues. Asian Ethnicity 10(1): 25-49.
  7. ^ Blaut, J. M. (1987). "The Theory of National Minorities". The National Question: Decolonizing the Theory of Nationalism. London: Zed Books.  
  8. ^ Ma, Rong (June 2010). "The Soviet Model’s Influence and the Current Debate on Ethnic Relations". Global Asia. 
  9. ^ Hartford Seminary Foundation (1941). The Moslem World, Volumes 31-34. Hartford Seminary Foundation. p. 182. Retrieved 8 May 2011. 
  10. ^ American Asiatic Association (1940). Asia: journal of the American Asiatic Association, Volume 40. Asia Pub. Co. p. 660. Retrieved 8 May 2011. 
  11. ^ Mullaney, Thomas (2010). "Seeing for the State: The Role of Social Scientists in China's Ethnic Classification Project". Asian Ethnicity 11 (3): 325–342.  
  12. ^ Kaup, Katherine Palmer (2002). "Regionalism versus Ethnic nationalism". The China Quarterly 172: 863–884.  
  13. ^ Mullaney, Thomas (2004). "Ethnic Classification Writ Large: The 1954 Yunnan Province Ethnic Classification Project and its Foundations in Republican-Era Taxonomic Thought". China Information 18 (2). 
  14. ^ Gladney, Dru C. (1994). "Representing Nationality in China: Refiguring Majority/Minority Identities". The Journal of Asian Studies 53 (1): 92–123.  
  15. ^ Oakes, Timothy S. (1997). "Ethnic tourism in rural Guizhou: Sense of place and the commerce of authenticity". In Picard, Michel; Wood, Robert Everett. Tourism, ethnicity, and the state in Asian and Pacific societies. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.  
  16. ^ Hillman, Ben (2003). "Paradise under Construction: Minorities, Myths and Modernity in Northwest Yunnan". Asian Ethnicity 4 (2): 177–190.  
  17. ^ Perry, Elizabeth J.; Selden, Mark; Uradyn Erden-Bulag. "Alter/native Mongolian identity: From nationality to ethnic group". Chinese Society: Change, conflict and resistance. Routledge. pp. 261–287.  
  18. ^ Hasmath, Reza. (2011) “From Job Search to Hiring to Promotion: The Labour Market Experiences of Ethnic Minorities in Beijing”, International Labour Review 150(1/2): 189-201.
  19. ^ Hasmath, Reza. (2013) “Responses to Xinjiang Ethnic Unrest Do Not Address Underlying Causes”, South China Morning Post, 5 July.
  20. ^ Hasmath, Reza. (2014) “The Interactions of Ethnic Minorities in Beijing”, University of Oxford Centre on Migration, Policy and Society Working Paper 14-111: 1-26.
  21. ^ Hillman, Ben (2006). "Macho Minority: Masculinity and Ethnicity on the Edge of Tibet". Modern China 32: 251–272.  
  22. ^ Gladney, Dru C., 1994.
  23. ^
  24. ^ Yardley, Jim (11 May 2008). "China Sticking With One-Child Policy".  
  25. ^ Ethnic Minorities in China
  26. ^ Jackie Armijo (Winter 2006). "Islamic Education in China". Harvard Asia Quarterly 10 (1). 

Further reading

External links

  • Chinese National Minorities
  • The Ethnic Publishing House: on customs and autonomous places (in Simplified Chinese)
  • China National Ethnic Song & Dance Ensemble
  • Brief description of Chinese ethnic minority groups
  • Descriptions of each ethnic minority group (
  • Guarantee of Rights and Interests of Ethnic Minorities
  • China: Minority Exclusion, Marginalization and Rising Tensions, report by Minority Rights Group and Human Rights in China, April 2007
  • Downloadable article: "Evidence that a West-East admixed population lived in the Tarim Basin as early as the early Bronze Age" Li et al. BMC Biology 2010, 8:15. [1]
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