Introduction to China - Minority Policies

In compiling this section, we have followed the ethnic classifications currently in use in the People's Republic of China. There are fifty-six recognized minzu, meaning "nation," "nationality," "ethnic group," or "people." All but the Han are referred to as "shaoshu minzu." The criteria for identifying these groups are unevenly applied and guided in part by political considerations. Officially, the Chinese government defines a minzu as a population sharing common territory, language, economy, sentiments, and psychology. This definition derives from Stalin's writings on the national question, and it is difficult to apply to the situation in China because of population movements and other events of recent history. The term implies legal equality together with subordination to the higher state authority that governs Han and minorities alike. It is worth noting that the term minzuxue, often translated as "ethnology," refers only to the study of China's minority peoples.

Since 1949, a number of areas have been designated as autonomous regions wherein the minorities are guaranteed, within limits, the rights to express and develop their local cultures and representation in the political arena. There are five large autonomous regions (Tibet, Inner Mongolia, Guangxi Zhuang, Ningxia Hui, Xinjiang Uigur), each named after the predominant minority group. These regions contain multiple nationalities, the Han now being the largest group in all but Tibet. In addition, by 1985 there were thirty autonomous prefectures and seventy-two autonomous counties, or "banners," often of mixed ethnicity and sometimes listing two or three minority groups in their official name. Under continuing pressure to grant minorities greater autonomy and representation, the government organized minzuxiang (minority townships) in the 1980s for areas of mixed settlement outside of the larger autonomous units. These townships incorporate Han and minority villages under one administration at the lowest level of government. Minority representatives are thus guaranteed seats at various administrative levels from the township up through the county and prefecture, and there are reserved seats for minority representatives in the provincial and national peoples' congresses. The State Nationalities Affairs Commission, directly under the State Council, also includes minority representatives, as do provincial and prefectural branches.

Within the autonomous units the state sets some policies. For example, the government has prohibited landlordism, slavery, child marriages, forced marriages, elaborate festivals, and what the state regards as harmful facets of religion and traditional medicine everywhere in China since the early days of the Revolution. The state also controls population transfers: minority people cannot opt to resettle in the autonomous region of ethnic choice, and the authorities even discourage travel across county boundaries. Most minorities are not yet affected by the one-child policy of recent years, although the government encourages them to practice family planning. Also, for registration purposes, most minority people must select a Chinese name for their children and follow the Chinese model of the paternal surname. Aside from these constraints, the minorities are free to use their own languages, follow culturally valued styles of housing, dress, and diet, practice customs that are not in direct violation of national laws, develop and perform their traditional arts, and practice their own religions. During the ten years of the Cultural Revolution, however, holders of or contenders for local power violated these rights, attacking or virtually prohibiting expressions of local culture such as language, dress, food preferences and economic techniques, traditional arts, and religious ritual.

The present listing of the various nationalities follows an intensive period of survey research by ethnologists, historians, linguists, folklorists, and government cadres during the 1950s. There are recognized problems with the categories that emerged. Initially, only 11 nationalities received official recognition, although over 400 separate groups had applied (Fei 1981, 60-61). Over time, additional groups were added to the list and some populations reclassified. Jino, for example, were originally classified as Dai, and Daur were identified as Mongols. Some requests for recognition were unsuccessful. For instance, in Guizhou some 200,000 people referred to as the Chuanqing were denied minority status and classified as Han. The basis for the decision is that their genealogies trace back to Ming occupation troops and conscripted laborers left behind to cultivate the land and open the frontier in the twelfth century (Fei 1981, 65-69). The men married women from neighboring ethnic groups, and their communities developed a distinct local culture over eight centuries. Even so, the evidence of forefathers of Han ancestry negates their claims to a separate ethnicity. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, there has been a new wave of applications for recognition. In Guizhou alone, some eighty groups (close to one million people) petitioned for recognition or reclassification (Heberer 1989, 37-38). Most of the remaining contested groups are small (20,000 or less) and, given the difficulty of finding information on them outside of neibu documents (government classified materials), they will not be discussed in this volume.

As suggested earlier, the state applies Stalin's guidelines on ethnicity unevenly. The majority category of "Han" glosses over regional differences in language, economy, and local cultures. One reason is that the various Chinese languages, no matter how divergent, are historically related and share a common writing system. Thus, they are officially seen as "dialects" and all native speakers within the Chinese branch of Sino-Tibetan are classed as Han. The main exception to this rule are the Hui, who are Muslim and believed to be descendants of Arabs, Persians, or Central Asians. Among some other Sinicized ethnic groups, such as the Manchu or the Zhuang, there are large numbers whose first and only language is Chinese, but there is historical evidence of a non-Chinese language in wider currency several generations ago. Linguistic unity is not a criterion for identifying the minorities: some groups include speakers of two or more different languages, and almost all contain speakers of mutually unintelligible dialects, as our entries indicate.

There have been similar problems in drawing boundaries in terms of common territory, economy, sentiment, and psychology (i.e., culture). The Han areas of inner China are relatively homogeneous if we also leave aside regional economic and cultural variations that stem from ecology and history. But areas with sizable concentrations of the national minorities today are ethnically mixed. In many of these areas it is only at the village level that we can talk about shared territory, economy, and culture. The villages of two or more different ethnic groups (including Han) are interspersed and are linked locally through economic exchanges within the marketing area and by a variety of social and political contacts. Festivals particular to one local ethnic group may be attended by others in the area. Over time, there has been borrowing of language, dress, foods, technology, songs and stories, and even customs. Moreover, geographically separated segments of a given minority group sometimes show marked differences in economic activities and in cultural practices, as well as language. Some intermarriages occur. Under current policy, children of such marriages declare their ethnic preference when they reach the age of 18. China's ethnologists recognize that language, territory, economy, and culture are not always clear criteria for distinguishing one group from another or identifying a particular individual.

To some extent, the current classification of nationalities follows categories and terms in use in the literature during the Republican period or earlier. In some cases, the written form of the name has been changed to a neutral one; formerly, the names of many groups were written with a "dog" radical or a character that carried a derogatory meaning while representing the pronunciation of the name. In other instances, the group's own choice of ethnonym has been substituted for the former Chinese term of reference. By the early 1980s, the National Minorities Commission had revised and standardized the names. They were assisted in this by local cadres and by ethnologists from the minority institutes, universities, and academies of social science. This volume attempts to stay within those guidelines. However, we recognize that the number of ethnic groups may be higher, that the boundary lines may be drawn differently in the future, and that the names are still subject to change.

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