China - Land of Diversity

CHINA - the word itself brings visions of beauty and mystery. Many of us, when we think of China, think about her many treasures, art, land and architecture, but her real treasure is in her one billion people. They are industrious, polite, eager, full of curiosity, and proud of their identity.

When outsiders think of the billion people of China, they tend to think of the Han race. True, the people usually regarded as the 'Chinese' make up 92 per cent of the population of the People's Republic of China, but there are at least eighty million non-Han within its sprawling borders.
This article particularly looks at these minority peoples.

China - Land of Diversity.
The National Minorities.
Muslims - In China?
Muslim History in China.
Today's Muslim Population in China.
Islam in China Under the Communists.
Case Study - The Hui.
Xinjiang - China's Frontier.
The Future?
Further Reading.

Part 1
China - Land of Diversity.

Throughout history, the territory which today is China has hosted a multitude of peoples. Chinese history is at the same time a history of vast migratory movements and of decline, genesis and fusion of diverse peoples. The Han Chinese themselves were the product of the intermixing of many tribes. But the Han, who were tillers of the soil, were even in those early times contemptuous of the peoples around them, the hunters and gatherers or nomads. For the Han, distinguishing among these peoples amounted solely to the differences in where beyond the horizon they lived, their distance from the center of the world (i.e., where the emperor had his seat), and the degree of their subjugation. The peoples were simply classified as the Di (north), the Yi (east), the Rong (west), and the Man barbarians (south).

Over the centuries, the non-Han peoples who inhabited Central China in ancient times were nevertheless pushed progressively into the borderlands by the Han. Confucianism, the ideology of the state throughout all the Chinese dynasties, despised these so-called "barbarians," but called for a policy of nonviolent assimilation through the imposition of Han-Chinese values rather than through a policy of extermination. These Confucian ideas run consistently throughout the history of nationality relations in China.

For at least five thousand years, from the dawn of Han civilisation, waves of invaders swept down from the highlands of Tibet and Qinghai, out of the steppes of Mongolia and across the frigid plains of Manchuria to plunder the fabulous riches of China. The Huns came; so did waves of Turkic tribesmen from Central Asia; so did the Devil's Horsemen, the dreaded Mongols of the Great Khan. They came, they admired, they stayed. All left behind a racial legacy which today helps to make up the complex anthropological patchwork map of China's minority nationalities.

But there is a second major historical theme in the racial mix of modern China. As barbarians swept across the Great Wall and into the Han heartland, the Chinese people themselves were on the move. From their native lands inside the huge curl of the Yellow River, over the centuries the Han moved inexorably south. They were propelled by a growing population that needed living space, raw materials for its growing industries and land to till for its increasingly sophisticated agriculture.

As the Han moved south, they came in contact with a bewildering variety of peoples. Many of the tribes and nations moved away ahead of the rising Chinese tide. Others, like numerous branches of the widespread Miao, stayed to live alongside but separate from the newcomers. Others did both; the majority of one group trekked south and west to settle on the fertile plains and become the Thai nation while those who remained are today the colourful 2.5 million Bouyei of the Guizhou mountains.

Relations between the Han and minority tribes were often turbulent and bloody. But the overpowering civilisation of the Han tamed the wild nomad horsemen who came bursting over the Wall and awed the simpler tribesmen of the south. It happened time and again over the millennia: invaders brandishing swords would swagger into the marble halls of imperial capitals and within a generation, a mere blink of an eye in China's vast sweep of history, their descendants would be truly integrated into the Han culture. It happened when the Mongols ascended the Dragon Throne and proclaimed their dynasty the Yuan. It happened again when the rude Manchus formed the Qing dynasty; they swiftly became more culturally Chinese than the Han themselves. Invaders could come and invaders could go, but the mighty heritage of Han art, culture, cuisine, language, medicine and agriculture absorbed them all.

Anyone wanting to understand the ethnic situation in the PRC must begin with definitions. Officially about 6% and 8% of the PRC's population belong to ethnic minorities. The statistic is convenient to the PRC for several reasons - not all of which will be discussed here. But few people accept the statistic without at least minor concerns as to its credibility - concerns based in part on the trustworthiness of the Government of the PRC in providing population figures and in part upon the academic integrity of the official categories themselves. Nonetheless, for the purposes of an initial overview such as this; the official categories have been accepted and used - the alternative is to start from scratch with almost a quarter of the earth's population.

China, like the former USSR followed a communist model of ethnic relations which required that everyone have a clearly defined ethnic identity. To this end, the minzu (usually translated as "nationality") were established in the 1950's - 55 including the majority Han nationality. In the late 1970's one final minzu was recognised.

Nationalities in the People's Republic of China
Nationality Population
(1990 Census)
  Nationality Population
(1990 Census)
Achang 27,708   Maonan 71,968
Bai 1,594,827   Miao 7,398,035
Blang 82,280   Monba 7,475
Bonan 12,212   Mongolian 4,806,849
Bouyei 2,545,059   Mulam 159,328
Dai 1,025,128   Naxi 278,009
Daur 121,357   Nu 27,123
Dong 2,514,014   Oroqen 6,965
Dongxiang 373,872   Primi 29,657
Deang 15,462   Qiang 198,252
Drung 5,816   Russian 13,504
Ewenki 26,315   Salar 87,697
Gaoshan 2,909   She 630,378
Gelo 437,997   Shui 345,993
Hani 1,253,952   Tajik 33,538
Hezhen 4,425   Tatar 4,873
Hui 8,602,978   Tibetan 4,593,330
Jing 18,915   Tu 191,624
Jingpo 19,209   Tujia 5,704,223
Jino 18,021   Uighur 7,214,431
Kazak 1,111,718   Uzbek 14,502
Korean 1,920,597   Va 351,974
Kyrgyz 141,549   Xibe 172,847
Lahu 411,476   Yao 2,134,013
Lhoba 2,312   Yi 2,312
Li 1,110,900   Yugur 12,297
Lisu 574,856   Zhuang 15,489,630
Manchu 9,821,180   Han 1,042,482,187

It can be tempting to think of the minority minzu as presenting a complete picture of the PRC's non Han ethnic make up, but this would be misleading. Three points should be noted, First, over 400 applications for minzu status were lodged in the early days of the PRC - most were rejected. Second in the political thaw after the cultural revolution many groups re applied for recognition - over 80 groups representing 900,000 people in Guizhou province alone. If all the applications had been accepted, it would have meant a change of status for 1 out of every 30 people in Guizhou. Despite this, only one new minzu has been recognised since the 1950's. Third, over 700,000 people in the 1990 census were not assigned a minzu because they did not fit any of the established categories.

Many smaller groups remain unrecognised: the Sherpas, Khmu, Tuvin, etc And many of the minzu could be usefully broken down into finer official designations. Two obvious examples which stand out are the Miao and the Zhuang. The Miao live in discrete communities scattered across several provinces - Yunnan, Guangxi, Guizhou, Hunan, Hubei, Guangdong and Sichuan. The various subgroups of Miao have no love for each other and the Chinese have in the past been able to get some Miao groups to serve as mercenaries against other Miao groups. The term "Zhuang" seems to be a cover term, officially including any and all Tai speakers who live in Guangxi and eastern Yunnan.

Analysing China's national minorities as a single entity is virtually impossible. Great cultural, regional, and developmental differences exist between them. Thus, the unified set of national minority policies espoused by the government are intended to be implemented flexibly so as to take account of the unique situation of each national minority. China's national minorities, referred to as little brothers (xiongdi) by the Han majority, can be differentiated according to a number of criteria. These include:

  • population size
  • the nature of the identification of the group
  • the size, location and terrain of the region they occupy
  • the proportion of members of the minority group that inhabit an autonomous province, prefecture, or county
  • their proximity to and relations with other nationalities, including the Han
  • whether the neighbouring Han were migrants or indigenous residents of the region
  • whether the nationalities are rural or urban groups, agricultural or pastoral groups, border or inland groups, concentrated or dispersed groups
  • having a strong religious tradition or none
  • having a written or spoken language or both
  • having members of their nationality also living across the Chinese border in other countries, either as national minorities or as the major nationality
  • and, finally, whether they have had a separate tradition of foreign relations with peoples of another region of the world.

So how many nationalities are there in China? Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Republic of China, recognized China in the 1920's merely as a "republic of five nationalities." Later the Guomindang government simply denied the existence of ethnic minorities, regarding them rather as "branches of the Han," which made ethnic identification and classification impossible.

Since no one knew exactly how many different nationalities lived in China, in the early fifties the new government began to investigate. Four-hundred ethnic groups responded to an initial call for registration of national minorities. However, the studies showed that a large number of those who claimed to be separate nationalities were actually members of the same group, that other different groups belonged to the same nationality but used different names, and still others were Han who for historical reasons had no clear identity of their origins.

Detailed studies and field research were initiated in 1953. By 1957, fifty four ethnic groups were recognized as independent nationalities (the Jino were recognized in 1979, making fifty five). The official recognition was granted to the nationalities by the Chinese State Council.

In identifying a nationality in China, two basic determinations had to be made: (1) whether the group was a national minority or a part of the Han nationality; and (2) if an ethnic minority, did it constitute an independent nationality or only part of such a nationality.

Language is an important measure in ethnic identification, but not the only one. And even apparent similarities or differences between two languages cannot determine whether they belong to the same family. Classification of languages should be based mainly on historical analysis. Unfortunately this is an area where Chinese scholarship is rather weak, particularly with respect to minority languages.

The task of ethnic identification has still not been completed. A major reason for this is that since the late fifties the work has been dealt with rather dilatorily, and was even totally abandoned during the Cultural Revolution. In the late seventies, however, representatives of some ethnic groups called attention to this still unresolved problem, and the work was subsequently resumed. Encouraged by the political thaw, many groups whose recognition as independent nationalities had been rejected in the fifties re-petitioned for recognition; eighty groups totalling over 900,000 persons petitioned in the province of Guizhou alone, including the Chuanqing.

The population census discovered numerous new groups in other regions; in other cases, persons who had previously been classified as Han or another nationality applied for recognition as an ethnic minority.

Not all groups applied for recognition as nationalities by the time of the census in 1982. The Tuvin, for example, live in the Ili autonomous prefecture of the Kazak (Xinjiang autonomous region) in the Altai mountains on the former Soviet border. In 1979, there were 166,000 Tuvin living in the former Soviet Union. One hundred years ago, however, the members of this nationality living in China officially declared themselves Mongolians to avoid oppression by the then-ruling Qing dynasty, and to enjoy the favored status of the Mongolians, who were allies of the Manchurian court. In the 1982 population census the 2,600 Tuvins living in China were designated Mongolian and were so registered. At the time, scholars took note of the fact that this group spoke Mongolian with outsiders and had adopted many of the manners and customs of the surrounding Mongolian tribes, but spoke their own Turkic language among themselves.

Chinese nationality policy in recent years has been more flexible with regard to naming minorities. Although discriminatory appellations for minorities (e.g., Luoluo with the pictograph "dog," or "pig" for the Yi) were permanently abolished by legislative decree in 1951, most of the current names were fixed by the Han, and in many cases were adopted Han terms (the Yi call themselves Nosu, but are called the Yi by the Han Chinese).

In recent years the minorities have been permitted more and more to determine the official names they go by. For example, the Benglong (a group of about 13,000 persons in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan) since 1985 are no longer known as "Benglong" but rather as "Deang," their term for themselves.

The general liberalization that has ensued in the wake of reform is also reflected in the more flexible approach to granting the status of a minority. It is hoped that the discussion on this question will not be cut short, but will instead lead to a redefinition of the term that can then be further debated.

© Copyright 1997
Bethany World Prayer Center
This article (which first appeared in "Frontiers Focus" Vol 4 #3 and 5 #2, and is used by permission),
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