The People who make up China

Peoples of China
Map showing where the main ethnic groups who live in China. Click on an area on the map for a description of the people.
Mongolian people Uyghur people Korean people Zhuang people Tibetan people Khazak people Khazak people Hui people Hui people Mongolian people Manchu people Manchu people Manchu people Manchu Manchu Hui Hui Miao Miao Miao Tujia Miao Yi Yi Mongolian Dong Buyei Mongolian Mongolian Yao Yao Yao Bai Hani Hani Li Dai

Many Westerners 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 many different indigenous peoples.

Han Chinese [1225.93 million]

The vast majority of Chinese people regard themselves as ‘Han Chinese’ (over 90%) 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 the Tang 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 which include the common ones Wang , Chen , Li , Zhang and Liu 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.

Tiananmen Square, crowd
2004 PRC National Day at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. What a crowd! Image by pfctdayelise available under a Creative Commons License

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 - ‘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.

Chinese proverb

Proverb

è rén xiān gàozhuàng [e ren xian gaozhuang]
evil person first tell complaint
The offender is the first to complain
The perpetrator diverts attention by being the first to complain
Crying wolf

Overseas Chinese huá qiáo

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 industrial development. 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.

CountryShare of
population
Share of
wealth
Thailand10%81%
Singapore77%81%
Malaysia29%69%
Philippines2%55%
Indonesia3%73%

Source: Graham Hutchings, Modern China 2003.

Significant Chinese communities have been founded elsewhere in the world including Hawaii; Vancouver; San Francisco and Tokyo.

Minority Peoples

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 had 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 might be expected.

Zhuang [16.18 million]

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 game of Mahjong

The game of Mahjong

Culture

People platying the popular game of Mahjong can often be seen in public parks, cafes and at home. It is a game of both skill and chance and a good head for calculation of probabilities is needed. Since 1920 Mahjong has also been widely played outside China.

Manchu [10.68 million]

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. Since 1949 the Manchu people have become more integrated with local Han Chinese and there are concerns the Manchu culture is dying out. They are a northern people of pasture lands who share much with Mongolians.

Hui [9.82 million]

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.

Guizhou, music, hmong
Hmong musicians from Guizhou perform on 'lusheng' musical instruments at Xijiang, Kaili Copyright © Dreamstime see image license

Miao [8.94 million]

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.

Xinjiang, Kashgar, market, people
Woman seller surrounded by buyers eager to make a deal, Kashgar, Xinjiang Copyright © Dreamstime see image license

Uyghur [8.40 million]

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.

Tujia [8.03 million]

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.

Yi [7.76 million]

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.

Beijing

Beijing

China

Read all about Beijing the historic and bustling capital city of China. Our description includes a detailed map of the central area and travel guides to all the important attractions: Forbidden City; Summer Palace; Temple of Heaven; Beihai Park; Ming Tombs and Tiananmen Square.

Mongolian [5.81 million]

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.

Tibetan [5.42 million]

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 .

Buyei 布依 [2.97 million]

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 [2.96 million]

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.

China's exciting plans to explore Space

China's exciting plans to explore Space

Modern History

China is putting a great deal of money and effort in building a space exploration programme. Already missions have put people into orbit around the Earth and landed robots onto the Moon. Plans exist for a large space lab and manned landings on the Moon and even missions to Mars.

Yao [2.64 million]

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.

Korean [1.92 million]

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.

Bai [1.86 million]

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 ( bái white).

Xinjiang, tajik, children
A Tajik teenager in the mountains of Xinjiang Copyright © Dreamstime see image license

Hani 哈尼 [1.44 million]

Living mainly in the mountains of 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.

Khazak/Kazak 哈萨 [1.42 million]

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.

Li [1.25 million]

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.

Dai [1.16 million]

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.

She [0.71 million]

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.

Lisu 傈僳 [0.63 million]

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.

Wed 17th May

Belt and Road Initiative

Spending a trillion dollars (yes $1,000 billion) is a serious investment. China’s big idea is to open up the country for much wider trade. The primary focus is to develop stronger links with Central Asian countries on the route of the old Silk Road. However the initiative seems all embracing as even New Zealand, hardly on the Silk Road is keen to be involved. The idea is for both an overland ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ (China to Europe) and a ‘21st century Maritime Road’ (China through the Indian Ocean to Africa and then north to Egypt). This has been shortened to ‘One belt one road’ or ‘Belt and Road’ or just ‘OBOR’ for short.

It is hard to work out exactly what the initiative is all about, there seem to be several factors and motives. One is that President Trump has continued to threaten China with extra tariffs to protect U.S. jobs from cheap Chinese imports. If China can open up new markets for her exports she will not be as badly hit by any protectionist measures. The U.S. continues to have a huge balance of payments deficit with China, in March 2017 the U.S. exported $9.6bn but imported $34.2bn. China’s heavy dependence on sales into the U.S. is a problem that needed to be fixed. In 2015 China’s main trade partners were: United States $457bn, Hong Kong $273bn, Japan $152bn, Germany $97.4bn and South Korea $90.1bn. Shifting trade to new countries will strengthen and stabilize China’s economy.

Many analysts also point to the problems of over-capacity in China. Just looking at total imports and exports is too crude a measure, the real problem is that China’s growth rate has slowed and the excess capacity in building related industries (steel, cement, construction) need new markets. If China can kick-start economic development elsewhere in the world she solves two problems at once - over-capacity at home and opening up new markets abroad. The China Communications Construction Group has already agreed deals worth up $40 billion in contracts with ‘Belt and Road’ countries. Sinking so much money in loans that may never be repaid is quite a risk. Venezuela now owes China $65bn and is not in a position to repay. Analysts consider such a huge project will be impossible to manage effectively and huge amounts are likely to be misappropriated.

The initiative comes at a particularly opportune time for the U.K.. Always keen on free trade and instinctively anti-protectionist the U.K. has more to gain than most other countries. With difficult talks ahead on exit of the E.U. trading block the opening up of possible deals with China all over the world is very appealing. U.K. politicians have been very keen to promote the initiative and use its undoubted trading expertise to jointly open up new markets.

The initial proposals centered on the countries of central Asia - along the route of the old Silk Road out of China. The initiative is therefore a way of re-invigorating trading links that were active for a thousand years before trade moved to China’s southern ports. The vast bulk of Chinese development had been along the south and eastern coasts, the poorest inland provinces have been left well behind. Of particular importance is the troubled province of Xinjiang. Positioned on the fringes of China the province is more Central Asian than Chinese with a Muslim majority. With frequent terrorist attacks by separatists in the province, China struggles to keep tight control. Recently China has banned Muslim parents from giving their children Muslim names and is embarking on a system of DNA profiling of every citizen. With the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative deals with neighboring Central Asian states (Takjikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan) the increased economic activity should lessen instability in the region.

The key point is that China is changing from an inward to an outward-looking nation, no longer putting internal development as the top priority. With increased economic involvement comes political power too, and some hawkish observers see this as the first stage in the building of a new Chinese Empire.


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Gelao 仡佬 [0.58 million]

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 recently has been in rapid decline.

Dongxiang [0.51 million]

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.

Others

We have covered minorities with populations over 500,000 people within China. There are a further 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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Citation information: Chinasage, 'The People that make up China', last updated 21 Nov 2016, Web, http://www.chinasage.info/peoples.htm.

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