Ethnic Minorities in China


General History

China’s history is a story of an immense land populated by diverse groups of tribes and peoples. 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 that lay just beyond the horizon. Even though the modern concept of 56 ethnic groups is often considered an arbitrary and 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 them– 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– and 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. And here, 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” (indeed, the five stars on the national flag of the People’s Republic of China reflect this idea), though after his death, the Nationalists denied the existence of different ethnic groups. However, 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 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.

What determines an ethnic group?

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.

About Minority Names

Many of the original Chinese names for minorities come from a long history of contempt. In 1951, the use of derogatory names was abolished, but 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

Distribution of Ethnic Minority Groups in China, based on the Census of July 1, 1990. Click on links for more information.

Ethnic Group Population (1,000s) Major Areas of Distribution
Achang 27.7 Yunnan
Bai 1,598.1 Yunnan, Guizhou
Bao’an 11.7 Gansu
Bouyei 2,548.3 Guizhou
Bulang 82.4 Yunnan
Dai 1,025.4 Yunnan
Daur 121.5 Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang, Xinjiang
De’ang 15.5 Yunnan
Dong 2,506.8 Guizhou, Hunan, Guangxi
Dongxiang 373.7 Gansu, Xinjiang
Drung 5.8 Yunnan
Ewenki 26.4 Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang
Hani 1,254.8 Yunnan
Hezhen 4.3 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
Gelo 438.2 Guizhou, Guangxi
Jing 18.7 Guangxi
Jingpo 119.3 Yunnan
Jino 18.0 Yunnan
Kazak 1,110.8 Xinjiang, Gansu, Qinghai
Kirgiz 143.5 Xinjiang, Heilongjiang
Korean 1,923.4 Jilin, Liaoning, Heilongjiang
Lahu 411.5 Yunnan
Li 1,112.5 Hainan
Lisu 574.6 Yunnan, Sichuan
Loba 2.3 Tibet
Manchu 8,846.8 Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang, Hebei, Beijing, Inner Mongolia
Maonan 72.4 Guangxi
Miao 7,383.6 Guizhou, Hunan, Yunnan, Guangxi, Sichuan, Hainan, Hubei
Mongba 7.5 Tibet
Mongolian 4,802.4 Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang, Gansu, Hebei, Henan, Qinghai
Mulam 160.6 Guangxi
Naxi 277.8 Yannan, Sichuan
Nu 27.2 Yunnan
Oroqen 7.0 Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang
Ozbek 14.8 Xinjiang
Pumi 29.7 Yunnan
Qiang 198.3 Sichuan
Russian 13.5 Xinjiang
Salar 87.5 Qinghai, Gansu
She 634.7 Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Guangdong
Shui 347.1 Guizhou, Guangxi
Tajik 33.2 Xinjiang
Tartar 5.1 Xinjiang
Tibetan 4,593.1 Tibet, Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, Yunan
Tu 192.6 Qinghai, Gansu
Tujia 5,725.0 Hunnan, Hubei
Uygur 7,207.0 Xinjiang
Va 352.0 Yunnan
Xibo 172.9 Xinjiang, Liaoning, Jilin
Yao 2,137.0 Guangxi, Hunan, Ynnan, Guangdong, Guizhou
Yi 6,578.5 Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi
Yugu 12.3 Gansu
Zhuang 15,555.8 Guangxi, Yunnan, Guangdong, Guizhou