Many Europeans and Americans view the Chinese people are a homogenous nation, and to some this goes further into considering that they all look the same; but this is far from the truth. China's people are diverse because China's borders have changed over the centuries, the treaties that defined these borders neglect the presence of indigenous peoples.
The vast majority of Chinese people regard themselves as ‘Han Chinese’ (over 90%) 汉人 Hàn rén; that is descendents of people belonging to the Han dynasty, two thousand years ago. Many believe they are descended from a single ancestor - the legendary Huangdi : Yellow Emperor - making the Han Chinese members of one large family. However even to a casual observer there are distinctive facial differences among the Han people from different regions. Over the centuries intermingling with local indigenous people has created marked differences. Chinese people around Guangdong province consider themselves Tang Chinese rather than Han as it was during this dynasty that the south of China flourished. One principle that has made the Chinese united is the limited number of family names (surnames), these are the hundred names 百姓 which include the common ones Wang 汪, Chen 陈, Li 李, Zhang 张 and Liu 刘 numbered in tens of millions. People with the same surname assume a family relationship which may in fact be very distant, historically clan loyalty has been a powerful social force. Not so long ago, couples with the same name were not allowed to marry as they were presumed to be related. As many villages belonged to a single clan family the rule required brides to be found in neighboring villages. This rule also applied to the Imperial family forcing them to marry into other families, widening the influence of those at court.
Over the centuries the migrations of Han people has driven out indigenous people. The migration was often because of famine, over population and floods. Sometimes settlement to outer provinces has been imposed to stake a claim to territory. Forced migration took place at various times, for example tens of thousands of families were moved into Gansu in the Han dynasty to stabilize the region. These policies continue to this day in Tibet and Xinjiang. In some areas the native people were termed 土人 - people of the soil, denoting their ancient and rural status.
The myth of the homogenous nature of Han Chinese is reflected in the languages spoken that hints at different cultural origins. Not all Chinese speak the Beijing dialect (putonghua or mandarin); many millions speak Hokkien (47 million) in Fujian, Hainan, Guangdong and also Taiwan; Yue (more widely known as Cantonese) is even more widespread (97 million) with many of these outside China. The Hakka people are also a distinct grouping with their own language numbering about 80 million worldwide. They are spread over Guangdong, Fujian and Jiangxi. The Wu language is still spoken in Zhejiang; Jiangsu and Shanghai.
When considering the people who make up China the impact of the Chinese who have settled overseas should not be ignored. This is because Chinese people remember their roots and will visit and send money back to their relatives in China. They have provided support and finance for political organizations, maintained cultural values and financed many industrial developments. As far as the government is concerned they are still Chinese citizens, and this has led to suspicions about their loyalties over the centuries. There are about 25 million in Taiwan; Hong Kong and Macau; 20 million in south-eastern Asia and about 5 million elsewhere in the World.
The vast majority originate from the southern provinces of China: Fujian; Guangdong; Hainan and Zhejiang. In the late 19th century, when Republican fervor was most heated in the south the role of the Overseas Chinese was significant. A long heritage of shrewd economic activity has made the diaspora a wealthy minority in many Asian countries. For many years Hong Kong served as the conduit of much needed funds entering China. In the 1990s the total GDP generated by Overseas Chinese nearly matched that of the whole of the PRC.
Source: Graham Hutchings, Modern China 2003.
Significant Chinese communities have been founded elsewhere in the world including Hawaii; Vancouver; San Francisco and Tokyo.
On the foundation of the People's Republic in 1949 the Communist Party was sensitive to the non-Han people that live within China's borders. Aware that over the centuries it has been peoples living there that have destabilized the country, the central government has been keen to acknowledge them as an integral part of China. There are five ‘provinces’ of China that are designated as ‘Autonomous Regions’ to reflect the high numbers of non-Han Chinese people. These are Ningxia (Hui people); Guangxi (Zhuang people); Tibet (Tibetan people); Xinjiang (Uighur people) and Inner Mongolia (Mongolian people). In almost all these cases there is more than one minority people in the mix. In addition to autonomous regions there are also autonomous zones and districts within other provinces where the minority population is significant. The level of actual autonomy enjoyed by the people is arguable. In all there are 55 different recognized minorities giving a total of 108 million people or 9% of the total population. It is the uneven distribution of the minorities that gives this 9% much more significance than would be expected.
The largest ethnic group after the Han is the Zhuang people who live among the mountains of southern China. Most live in Guangxi province which is designated the ‘Zhuang Autonomous Province’. There are strong links with Tai people who live in neighboring Vietnam. There is a group of different Zhuang languages, the majority of the population are now bilingual in either Mandarin or Cantonese. Subjugated by the Qin, they achieved some independence in Tang and Song times after breakaway kingdoms were formed only to be eventually crushed by Han Chinese military forces. There were several Zhuang people among the leaders of the Taiping Rebels.
The Manchu people have the distinction of ruling China during the Qing dynasty. Their power grew rapidly during the Ming dynasty and a Forbidden City similar to Beijing was built at Shenyang. They have their roots with the Jurchen people who formed the northern Jin dynasty.
Manchuria has been an independent entity for long spells during China's long history. It covers much of Liaoning; Jilin and Heilongjiang and part of Inner Mongolia. During the Qing dynasty the Manchus enforced separation from Han people, forbidding Han people settling on Manchu land or marrying Manchu people. Millions of Han Chinese moved north and settled in Manchuria after the Japanese invasion in 1895. The Japanese supported the puppet Manchu kingdom of ‘Manchuguo’ in 1932-45. They are a northern people of pasture lands who share much with Mongolians.
Living close to the Silk Route's entry point into China the Hui people settled in Ningxia; Gansu and Qinghai. Ningxia is designated as the ‘Hui Autonomous Region’. The influence of the west and in particular Islam is reflected in their religion and customs. At times the term ‘Hui’ has meant the same as ‘Muslim’ although there are many people who are Muslim but not ethnically Hui. Hui people came to prominence in Ming times, but at the same time a policy of forced inter-marrying with Han women was introduced. Hui people took part in rebellions during the later Qing dynasty which was ruthlessly put down with the loss of many millions of lives in the region. Nowadays there is little to tell them apart from Han Chinese, they speak 'Chinese', although many still abstain from eating pork.
The Miao people is an artificial grouping of various people often with little shared cultural heritage. There are several Miao languages which are mutually incomprehensible. For this reason the term 'Hmong' ➚ is also used. The Miao people live in the mountainous tracts of land in pockets throughout southern China. (Guizhou, Hainan, Hunan, Yunnan, Sichuan, Guangxi, Guangdong, and Hubei). Miao also live in neighboring south-east Asia (Thailand; Laos; Kampuchea; Vietnam). The Miao took part in a number of rebellions in Ming and Qing dynasty times and were brutally suppressed. There is some evidence, as with other peoples, that many Miao took to Han Chinese ways. One story is that a Miao family writes the clan name upside down to distinguish it from the Han Chinese clan of the same name.
The (Uighur, Uygur, and Uigur) people live in north-western China primarily in the ‘Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’. Uyghurs are a Turkic people with closer affinity to Central Asian people than to Han Chinese. Significant numbers also live in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. The time of the Uyghur Khaganate ➚ 745-840 represented the peak of their power. The region has only sporadically been part of China: during the Yuan dynasty and later by the Manchus during the Qing dynasty. Most Uyghurs are Sunni Muslims who speak a language similar to Turkish. The Dungan revolt ➚ (1862-77) against Qing rule led to the death of 8,000,000 people or more. Unrest against Chinese rule still occurs from time to time with terrorist attacks in Xinjiang and Beijing.
The Tujia people live in the mountainous regions covered by Hunan, Hubei, Guizhou, Chongqing and Guangdong provinces (in order of numbers of Tujias). In Ming times their military skills were used extensively in the Imperial Army. The language is in the Tibetan-Burmese group with some similarity with Yi but has had a sharp decline in usage. Tujia song and dance features in many local festivals.
Spreading into Vietnam and Thailand the Yi people live in the mountainous regions of the southern provinces Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou, and Guangxi (in order of number of Yi people). The Yi people are also known as 'Lolo ➚'. It was in the Ming dynasty that Han Chinese settled native Yi territory in large numbers dividing communities and driving them from the lush valleys into mountainous terrain. Local opposition was suppressed by a policy of 'gai tu gui liu ➚' which took power from local chieftains and gave it to Han administrators. There are six recognized Yi languages that are mutually incomprehensible.
Of the ethnic people that live in China it is the Mongols that have had perhaps the greatest historic influence. Mongols live in Mongolia (also known as Outer Mongolia) and the Chinese provinces of Inner Mongolia; Xinjiang but also some in Russia and Kazakhstan. There are now twice as many Mongolians in China than in the country of Mongolia. It is a broad grouping that oversimplifies a lot of historical development and intermingling of different tribes.
The Mongol (Yuan) Empire spread over not only China but as far as Egypt and with the Mongol empire many people came to settle in China and inter-married. The long open land border to the north of China has led to incursions over the centuries and a cause of national insecurity. The Great Wall is testament to this threat. Many Mongolian follow Tibetan Buddhism, some follow Shamanism and others Islam.
The high altitude of the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau has helped to insulate the Tibetan people from outside influence. One of the key misconceptions is that all Tibetans live in the province of Tibet. The actual distribution covers Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan and Gansu provinces as well as the neighboring countries of Nepal, Bhutan and northern India. This reflects the large Tibetan empire that peaked in the Tang dynasty. Their importance can be underlined by the fact that the province of Tibet covers about a fifth of China by land area. For more on the Tibetan people please see our Tibet Province section .
The Buyei or (Bouyei), often considered part of the Zhuang minority grouping, live in mountainous parts of Guizhou; Yunnan and Sichuan. The Buyei culture in Guizhou goes back 2,000 years. With the imposition of Han Chinese control in Qing times unrest grew. They took part in the Nanlong Rebellion ➚ of 1797 after which many moved to Vietnam.
Dong people live in isolated mountainous areas of Guizhou; Hunan; Guangxi and also northern Vietnam. They are believed to have moved there from eastern China many centuries ago. Since Ming dynasty times, Dong people took part in various rebellions against Han rule. The number of speakers of the Dong language has decreased substantially since 1950. There is a rich range of traditions; marriage customs and festivals.
Like the Miao people with whom they are often grouped, the Yao people live in mountainous areas of southern and south-western China (Yunnan; Guangxi and Hunan) as well as northern Vietnam. They are believed to have relocated from Hunan 2,000 years ago. They primarily follow Daoist and Buddhist religions. There are several Yao languages loosely related to the Miao languages. There have a variety of unique traditions and festivals.
Many of the countries that surround China have international boundaries that do not reflect the peoples living there. There are many ethnic Korean people who live close to China's border with Korea, in the Manchurian provinces of Jilin; Heilongjiang and Liaoning. The distinct Korean language and culture is practiced in the mountainous regions. See our longer description on Korea as China's neighbor.
Yunnan, Guizhou and Hunan are the remaining strongholds of the Bai people. A large number live around scenic Dali in Yunnan. They are Buddhists with their own language and customs such as an elaborate tea ceremony. They often wear white clothing hence the Han name for the people (白 bái white).
Living mainly in the mountains south-west Yunnan, the Hani has been one of the poorest and least developed ethnic groups in China. Hanis also live across the border in Vietnam. They follow a polytheist cult mixed with Buddhism. The Hani language is similar to Yi and have only relatively recently employed a written script.
The Khazak (or Kazak or Khazakh or Qazaq) people overspill from their homeland in Kazakhstan into Xinjiang. There are about 14 million Khazaks in total. They are a Turkic people, and look Indo-European rather than Asian. They developed a tribal system based on herding of the extensive pasture lands. The principal religion is Islam and the Khazak language is still widely spoken. After a number of brutal massacres of the Khazaks in China the level of distrust with Han Chinese remains high. In 1962 60,000 Khazak people moved from China to the neighboring area that became the nation of Kazakhstan.
The Li (or Hlai) people are divided into various groups. Most inhabit the mountainous central part of Hainan. Their origins are however in southern China. The Li language is still spoken and they are primarily Buddhist. The people were massacred during the Japanese occupation of the island and the Li provided important support for the Communist resistance.
Most Dai people live in Yunnan with some in Laos, Burma and Thailand. The term ‘Dai’ replaces Tai or Thai that has been previously used. They cultivate rice in the narrow valleys of southern Yunnan (particularly the upper reaches of the Mekong River) and are divided into a number of distinct groups. They follow a mixture of Daoist, Buddhist and Confucian beliefs.
The She people inhabit the mountains of south-eastern China principally Fujian but spreading into Zhejiang, Anhui and Jiangxi. In the last few centuries pressures from the Hakka Han people of Fujian forced some She people to resettle in Zhejiang. There is a distinct settlement of 45,000 She people in Guizhou province. There are a dozen dialects within the She language. They probably share common origins with the Yao and Miao peoples who have similar traditions. Daoism is widely followed.
Covering the southern mountains of Yunnan and Sichuan Lisu people also live in Burma, Thailand and northern India making a total population of about 1,200,000. They probably came originally from neighboring Tibet. Suffering from an extermination campaign in Qing times the people have clung to their subsistence level life in the mountains. They cultivate rice, fruit and vegetables in the deep valleys. One of the very few peoples who have been converted to Christianity; Christians now form the majority.
The Gelao live in small areas in Guizhou and western Guangxi provinces. They mainly follow Daoist and some Buddhist traditions. Originally they probably inhabited a substantial proportion of Guizhou. There is a small sub-group called the Yi people of 3,000 who live in Sichuan. The Gelao language split into various dialects due to physical separation and more recently has been in rapid decline.
Dongxiang people are scattered around Gansu province with some living in Xinjiang, Qinghai and Ningxia. Dongxiang people are broadly a Mongolian tribe who have taken the Muslim faith. Also known by the name 'Santa' they have taken on many Chinese customs and traditions. They are possibly descended from the Mongolian forces of Genghis Khan and form a distinct group with their own language and customs.
We have covered minorities with populations over 500,000 people within China. There are another 22 recognized minorities. The Peoples Republic has in many cases sought to maintain and revive the minorities in decline. For example, in the 1960s the Oroqen minority in Heilongjiang received a high profile with numbers even now of only 8,000 people. Oroqen people herd reindeer and hunt other animals in the mountain forests of the far north-east. At the other end of China the Nakhi ➚ (or Naxi) minority of 278,000 people are widely known due to their unique matriarchal society
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