Ethnic Groups in China

There are 56 ethnic groups in China. Everyone in China has to register as belonging to one of these ethnic groups. The Han is the largest of these ethnic groups and comprises 92% of China’s populace.

The name Han comes from the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD). This was a period when China expanded its influence over central, southeast, and northeast Asia. It was considered a classical period in Chinese history in which arts and culture flourished and, at the same time, China expanded militarily. Many Chinese, considering this one of the greatest periods in the history of China, began calling themselves the people of Han, a name that’s been used ever since. Prior to this, Chinese people were commonly referred to by scholars as the Huaxia people, which in Mandarin translates intocivilized society. This is a reference to the ancestral roots of the Huaxia people who lived along the Huang He, or Yellow River.

The Han is a diverse genetic, linguistic, social, and cultural group that resulted from the gradual immigration and assimilation of various tribes within China. It’s not one genetic pool. It’s not a singular culture. It’s an amalgam of small ethnic groups which, over time, became assimilated by adopting the existing Chinese culture, its customs, and its written and spoken language. They then became absorbed into the Han.

With the Han being the ethnic majority group, the other 55 ethnic groups are referred to as ethnic minorities. The official Chinese government definition of minority is: a historically constituted community of people having a common territory, a common language, a common economic life, and a common psychological makeup which expresses itself in a common culture.

Ethnic minorities occupy 60% of China’s landmass, and tend to live in southern China, Tibet, or the western province of Xinjiang near the borders of Burma, Laos, Vietnam, India, Russia, Mongolia, North Korea, and the former Soviet republics of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. These areas contain important natural resources for China’s growing economy, such as timber, water, and petroleum.

Most minorities retain their own language, have different dress, diets, residences, marriage ceremonies, etiquette, and even funerals which can be anything from cremation, inhumation (burying one in a grave), water burials, and even sky burials (exposure burial).

The Lhoda is the smallest ethnic minority and comprises only 2,965 people living in Tibet, while the largest ethnic minority is the Zhuang, with a population of just over 16 million. Two of China’s ethnic minorities are Muslim: the Hui and the Uyghur. They number ten million and nine million respectively. One ethnic minority, the Lisu, with 730,000 people, is the largest Christian minority in China.

Notwithstanding the importance of the natural resources which come from minority dominated areas of China, one of the reasons that China pays such close attention to its minorities is because of their strategic locations. Many minorities are located near the borders of Burma, India, Russia, Mongolia, and the republics of the former Soviet Union. Living along these borders, many minorities have a chance to wonder what it would be like to have their own state or have the economic freedom of some of their neighbors. The Chinese government is concerned that this could lead to an independence movement such as those experienced in border countries such as India, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. In addition, if one ethnic group demands freedom, then another might also. This is China’s primary concern with Tibet, and why they have cracked down so hard in this area. If China were to allow Tibetan-like independence uprisings, then this could very well develop into other minorities wanting the same freedom. If this happened it might break apart the country, such as what occurred in the former Soviet Union.

Since 1953 the minority population within China has significantly increased. One reason for this is that China’s one-child policy doesn’t apply to minorities, except in urban areas, which has led to birth rates triple that of the Han ethnic majority. In addition, the government is trying to improve conditions for ethnic minority groups and has provided preferential treatment to minorities in several areas. For example, in addition to not being bound by the one-child policy, ethnic minorities pay fewer taxes, obtain preferential admissions to universities for their children, get preference in attaining public office and government promotions, are free to speak and learn their native languages, can openly practice their religion, and can publicy express themselves through their art and culture.

Nevertheless, implementation of some of these concessions by the government has been slow and spotty. Minorities still have the lowest incomes in China and are generally very poor with, according to Jeffrey Hays, an estimated 70 percent of ethnic minorities in southern China living below the poverty line. Many still don’t speak Chinese and live in villages without roads or electricity. Government programs for minorities have not been able to reach many of China’s ethnic communities, resulting in poor education, economic, and social conditions. Moreover, China’s decades of economic success has occurred in its southern and coastal areas dominated by the Han. To a large extent, minority areas in central, northern, and northwestern China haven’t kept pace. This uneven distribution of wealth has increased tensions between the Han and China’s minority groups. In addition, the Han generally look down on minorities, much as many Western countries look down on their minorities. The Chinese government is trying to change this.


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