The Xibe people numbered 172,847 in 1990, a sizable increase in population from the 82,629 enumerated in 1982. Many still live in Liaoning Province, and over half live in Xinjiang Province along the Ili River. The Xibe language belongs to the Manchu Division of the Manchu-Tungus Branch of the Altaic Family. The Xibe use an altered Manchu writing system. They have been taking on elements of Han Chinese cultures, with two groups doing so at greatly different rates: the Xinjiang Xibe have been culturally more conservative than have the Northeast Xibe. The Xinjiang groups are also influenced by large neighboring groups such as the Uigur and Kazak.
The Xibe attribute their ancestry to the ancient Xianbei people, though there is no hard evidence to support this contention. At the time of the Mongol invasion, the Xibe were hunters and fishers living in the far northeastern portion of China. By the late sixteenth century, they had come under the domination of the Manchu leader Nurhachi; at this time they settled and began agricultural activities. In the late seventeenth century, the Qing government moved many Xibe military and civilians to the frontiers, to larger Liaoning cities, and to Beijing. In 1764, 5,000 Xibe troops and their families were sent to Xinjiang to control the recently defeated Jungars, and this accounts for the present-day population of Xibe in the far northwest.
In Xinjiang, Xibe live in walled villages of between 100 and 200 houses. The central part of the house has a stove, and there are two to four rooms off to the side with heated kangs (beds/sitting places). The door faces south. Each house has a courtyard in which vegetables and fruit trees are planted.
The Xinjiang Xibe settled in a relatively good area for both herding and farming, and now do both. They raise wheat, wet rice, cotton, sesame, and fruits with the aid of irrigation. The eldest son inherits his father's land.
The Xibe are patrilineal, as are most in China's northeast. The hala (phratry) consists of people having the same patronym. Each hala has several mokon (local patrilineages the members of which can trace descent from a common ancestor). Xibe societal organization, however, has been changing to a territorial system. The new system is one of gashan (groups whose members live together to work together). Among the Northeast Xibe, hunting gashan are formed; among the Xinjiang Xibe, farming and irrigation-work gashans are favored.
In earlier times, Xibe marriages were arranged by parents.
Traditional Xibe religion featured ancestor worship and was polytheistic. They paid homage to the Insect King, the Dragon King, the Earth Spirit, the representative of the Smallpox Spirit, and especially to Xilimama (who maintains domestic tranquility) and to Hairkan (who protects livestock). In addition, there were Xibe shamans. There is no information available on whether these practices have revived since the reforms of the 1980s.
Xibe funerary traditions are distinctive. Most bodies are interred, though shamans, girls, women who die in childbirth, and people who commit suicide by hanging are cremated. With the exception of girls, whose ashes are scattered, the remains of those cremated are saved in urns. Moreover, husband and wife must be disposed of in a like manner. Thus, the wife of a shaman must be cremated; if she dies first, her body is buried until her husband dies, and then is exhumed and cremated.
Ma Yin, ed. (1989) . China's Minority Nationalities, 171-177. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.
National Minorities Questions Editorial Panel (1985). Questions and Answers about China's Minority Nationalities. Beijing: New World Press.
Schwarz, Henry G. (1984). The Minorities of Northern China: A Survey, 157-170. Bellingham: Western Washington University Press.