The Ethnicities of China


List of officially recognized ethnicities in mainland China


Approximate distribution of the 56 ethnic groups of China

Delegates from all 56 ethnic groups commemorate the 9th National Games of Minority Nationalities' Traditional Sports outside the Bird’s Nest Stadium, Beijing

Making up one-fifth of humanity, the Chinese people are often thought of as a homogenized group – at least from a Western perspective. While it’s true that Han Chinese – the country’s majority – constitute over nine-tenths of the population, a closer look at the nation’s ethnic makeup reveals an amazing diverse array of peoples.

The Han was one of China’s earliest and greatest dynasties, and it gave its namesake to the ethnic group that makes up about 91% of the population today. Central China is the Han heartland, but in politically sensitive areas like Tibet and Xinjiang, Chinese governments have long sought to attract Han people to settle these areas in order to help maintain the regions’ “loyalty.” Throughout Chinese history, traditionally non-Han regions have seen a steady influx of the Han, which is one reason China’s modern majority group is not considered a minority.

In total, 56 ethnic groups (including the Han) are “officially” recognized by the central government (there are many more who are not officially recognized), which are as diverse as you’d expect for a country as big as China. Some of the country’s most celebrated diversity comes from the southwest, where China’s greatest number of minorities share more in common with the hill tribes of Southeast Asia (like those of Vietnam and Laos) than Han China. Provinces like Guangxi, Guizhou and Yunnan are home to a number of China’s most colorful ethnic groups, including the singing and dancing Bai, the indigo-clad Dong, the Miao, the Naxi of Lijiang, the Yao and the Zhuang, all of whom have their own distinct culture, customs and architecture.



Miao and Dong ethnic groups perform the Shuigu (water drum) Dance in Jianhe, Guizhou Province

Naxi people of Lijiang celebrating the Sanduo Festival (三朵节)

In the north, west and northwest there are more itinerant groups, such as the nomadic Mongol and Tibetan herders, as well as Central Asian horsemen like the Kazakh and the Tajik. Over in central and eastern China, the predominant Han are joined by groups like the Hakka, who have a storied importance in the region (including members like Sun Yat-sen, father of the Republic of China), and examples of their traditional architecture can still be found in the southeast and in Hong Kong’s New Territories.

Alternately feared, ignored, oppressed and harassed through history, China’s minority ethnicities today have found a resurgent place in the modern nation as domestic tourists have taken great interest in the customs of their country people, rather than disdain or distrust for them. Tourism to minority villages all across the country, while in some respects has undermined the authenticity of these traditional places, has also helped to preserve their culture by ensuring their aged customs still provide a livelihood for the local people. In a modern China where many young Bai men and women are tempted to leave their homes for more lucrative white-collar jobs in the cities, this cultural tourism means their traditional dances, arts and crafts can support families in a traditional way as well as – or perhaps better than – a desk job in Kunming could.

Undistinguished Ethnic Groups
"Undistinguished" ethnic groups are ethnic groups that have not been officially recognized or classified by the central government. The group numbers more than 730,000 people, and would constitute the twentieth most populous ethnic group of China if taken as a single group. The vast majority of this group is found in Guizhou Province.
These "undistinguished ethnic groups" do not include groups that have been controversially classified into existing groups. For example, the Mosuo are officially classified as Naxi, and the Chuanqing are classified as Han Chinese, but they reject these classifications and view themselves as separate ethnic groups.

Religions and Their Most Common Affiliations
Christian: Lisu
Buddhism/Taoism: the Bai, Bulang, Dai, Jinuo, Jing, Jingpo, Mongol, Manchu, Naxi (including Mosuo), Nu, Tibetan and Yugur ("Yellow Uyghurs").
Eastern Orthodox Christianity: the Russians, Evens
Islam: the Hui, Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Dongxiang people, Kyrgyz people, Salar, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Bonans and Tatars.
Shamanism/Animism: the Zhuang, Daur, Ewenkis, and Oroqen.

Issues Facing Chinese Society

The One Child Policy
Propaganda poster advocating family planning

China’s overwhelming population growth inspired the rather radical step of the One Child Policy. Introduced in 1979, its stipulation says that Han couples are allowed only one child, but minority families living in the countryside may have two or more children. Breaking this law for the Han means paying a hefty fine (the director of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, Zhang Yimou, was fined ¥7.48 million for the four children he fathered with his current wife), and any children beyond the first will not receive the educational and healthcare benefits afforded to Chinese families.
The cost of childcare for director Zhang Yimou was more than average

While the policy has been successful in reigning in China’s population growth, it hasn’t been without controversy. Proponents argue – quite accurately – that the country’s rampant problems with employment, pollution, food production and a plethora of others will only be compounded if the population continues to grow. Opponents point to the policy as a violation of human rights, an argument that doesn’t carry much clout in modern China. Still, relaxation of the policy is on the horizon, with the generation of the ’80s and ’90s having recently been allowed a second child if both parents are the only children of their parents.

Time Magazine examines China’s one-child policy in its Dec 2013 issue

Gender imbalance

Boys have long been favored in China over girls, because traditionally, the bride’s family had to pay a dowry, and the new couple would live to help support the groom’s family. The One Child Policy made having a boy crucial to passing on the family line and led to tens of thousands (or more) of female abortions and infanticides. Although gleaning a child’s sex via ultrasound is technically illegal in China – a measure that seeks to combat the gender imbalance – the procedure is still quite common, often accomplished with a relatively small bribe. Today, the government has admitted that China currently has 119 males for every female, which will certainly lead to more social issues for the maturing generation of lonely boys and over-courted girls.

Little emperors



Chinese families have always focused great attention and importance on children, but today that adulation has seen an exponential rise as many urban families now enjoy prosperity unimaginable in past generations, yet have only one offspring to feed. This means that all the love, affection and spending that was once spread among many children is now focused entirely onto one attention grubbing kid, turning the One Child Policy into the “Spoiled Child Policy.” This is evident in the countless overfed, attention-hungry, spoiled children who act as though they are little emperors as they are carted around with four grandparents and an entire doting family in tow.



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