The Bonan numbered 12,212 in 1990, and they live primarily in four villages in Gansu Province. Their population has been growing rapidly; there were only about 5,600 in 1959. The Bonan language belongs to the Mongolian Branch of the Altaic Family and is most closely related to Tu and Dongxiang; it has two dialects. Although the Bonan language is not written, the Bonan people know Han and use it in their written communications.
It appears that the Bonan are descendants of Mongol soldiers who occupied the Tongren area during Genghis Khan's rule. When the Mongol Empire fell, they chose to remain rather than retreat to Mongolia. The Bonan are distinguished from many of their neighbors in that they are Muslim; they converted in the early nineteenth century. Facing persecution from their Buddhist neighbors, they moved down the Yellow River to their present location.
The Bonan live in a fairly arid region, though one that is covered with forest and grassland. They breed livestock and raise wheat and rye. In addition, they engage in lumbering, silversmithing, and charcoal making. It is their ability as knife makers, however, for which they are best known; the Bonan knife is prized in most of Gansu and Qinghai provinces. Otherwise, manufacturing is poorly developed.
The Bonan are divided into two different Muslim sects: Sunni, sometimes called the "Old Teaching"; and Shiite, sometimes called the "New Teaching."
The main effects of the Communist Revolution on Bonan culture have been the following: an increase in the numbers of schools and health-care facilities; the introduction of irrigation; a cooperative project with the Sala to plant economically valuable trees (elm, willow, Chinese prickly ash, apple, and walnut) on mountainsides; and the prohbition of the practice of polygyny.
Ma Yin, ed. (1989). Chinas Minority Nationalities, 124-128. 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, 137-143. Bellingham: Western Washington University Press.