People of many different ethnicities are united within China’s borders. The Chinese government officially recognizes 56 Chinese ethnic groups. Yunnan Province has the most varied ethnic make-up, with representatives of 25 different groups. Although official government policies promote the unity and equality of all Chinese ethnic groups, as well as granting autonomous status to some, ethnic clashes do sometimes erupt and discrimination in China is not uncommon.
The Chinese government has established five autonomous regions within mainland China for various Chinese ethnic groups: Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Guangxi, Ningxia, and Tibet. There are also autonomous prefectures, counties, and townships. In all areas designated as autonomous, the inhabitants have the freedom to deal with their own affairs with the guidance of the Chinese government. Although Putonghua, the dialect of Mandarin based on the speech in Beijing, is the official language of mainland China, ethnic languages are also considered official within these autonomous regions.
Below, we take a closer look at a few of these different Chinese ethnic groups.
The vast majority of Chinese people (circa 92%) belong to the Han Chinese ethnic group. Making up 20% of the world population, it is also the largest ethnic group in the world. The name is derived from the longest-ruling empire in Chinese history, the Han Dynasty (206 BC–200 AD). Most Han Chinese speak Mandarin and practice Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Han Chinese can be found in every province and region in China, but the majority live in eastern China. The westward expansion of this majority Chinese ethnic group has led to sometimes violent clashes with minority ethnic groups.
The Western image of the Mongols is of horse-riding nomads living in yurts and following herds of sheep or cattle over the grassy plains of central Asia. This stereotype is partially true, as some Mongols do still practice nomadic pastoralism. Others are farmers, however, and still others live in big cities and work in office jobs or as doctors, lawyers, etc.
The Mongol identity can be determined through its members’ common history, language, and religion. In the 13th century, Kublai Khan established the largest land-based empire in the world. Present-day Mongols are descended from the forces of this vast empire. In China, most of them live in the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, but some members of this Chinese ethnic group can also be found as far south as Yunnan Province. Most still speak and write Mongolian and practice Tibetan Buddhism. Approximately six million Mongols live in China today.
Tibet was the center of a vast empire that existed long before the Mongol Empire. By the 8th century, the Tibetan Empire was the most feared political power in Asia. It even succeeded in capturing the capital of China at the time and holding it for a short period. All Tibetans use the same written language, but the spoken language has diverged over time into three distinct dialects: Central Tibetan, Khams, and Amdo. The Tibetan emperors invited Buddhist scholars from India and China and the religion took hold there like nowhere else. Even today, monasteries play a key role in Tibetan society.
Much controversy surrounds the Tibet Autonomous Region, which was formed when the Communists invaded in 1951. There have been several unsuccessful protests for independence since then. Tibetans worry that their rich cultural heritage may be lost as they were ordered to renounce their leader, the Dalai Lama, and conform to Chinese customs. As more members of the Han Chinese ethnic group, who are usually better off economically, have been moving into the area, resentment among ethnic Tibetans is on the rise. Nowadays, there are nearly four million Tibetans living in China.
The Manchu Chinese ethnic group provides us with a cautionary tale as to the importance of language in preserving a people’s heritage. Although there are circa 10.4 million Manchus in China today, only about 50 speak the Manchu language. This has resulted in the loss of much of the Manchu’s cultural history. In 1644, the Manchus conquered the Ming Dynasty, establishing the Qing Dynasty in its wake. By the 18th century, the Qing Dynasty had formed the largest, richest, and most powerful empire in Asia, if not the entire world. Although the empire lasted until 1911, by then the Manchu language had been almost entirely replaced by Mandarin.
There are slightly more than 300,000 members of the Nakhi Chinese ethnic group living in China today. Most of them live in Yunnan Province in China’s southwest. Unlike the Mongols, Tibetans, and Manchus, the Nakhi people never ruled over a vast territorial empire. Instead, they were regionally dominant in the 11th–13th centuries. Ever since the Mongols invaded their homeland in 1253, they ruled their region on behalf of whatever empire controlled the area.
Today, the Nakhi mostly live in high mountains valleys and the foothills of the Himalayan plateau and work as farmers. They have their own language, which is distantly related to the Tibetan language. One of their most distinctive cultural features is dongba, a unique form of picture writing used by their religious leaders to record central stories and myths.
The Uyghur ethnic minority has a long history in Xinjiang Province in northwest China. Many Uyghurs are descended from people who migrated to the area after the fall of the Uyghur Khaganate in the 9th century. About 10 million Uyghurs live in China today, mainly working as farmers in rural areas. They practice Islam and have maintained their native Uyghur language, although most also learn Chinese in school. The number of members of the Han Chinese ethnic group living in Xinjiang Province has grown to almost equal that of the Uyghurs over the past decades. The Uyghurs accuse the Han Chinese of discrimination and dominating government and economic positions. This discontent has sometimes erupted into violent clashes.
With almost 17 million members, the Zhuang are one of the most populous Chinese ethnic groups after the Han Chinese. This group still only accounts for about 1.3% of the total population, however. The large majority of the Zhuang people live in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in southern China. Their presence there can be traced back to the Paleolithic Period. They have their own language, but most also speak one of the Chinese dialects. The Zhuang people have had close ties with the Han Chinese and have supported them for centuries.
The Hui people are the third largest ethnic minority in China, with circa 10.6 million members. They are concentrated in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in northwest China as well as in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The Hui practice Islam and are descendants of the Turks. They have not kept their own language and speak mainly Mandarin Chinese. The Hui have adopted many Han customs and a similar style of dress. Not much has been retained of their own culture, however, their Muslim practices help to keep them culturally distinct from the majority Han Chinese ethnic group. For example, they do not consume pork, which is otherwise the most commonly eaten meat in mainstream Chinese cuisine.
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