ALTERNATE NAMES: Han (Chinese); Manchus; Mongols; Hui; Tibetans


POPULATION: 1.1 billion

LANGUAGE: Austronasian; Gan; Hakka; Iranian; Korean; Mandarin; Miao-Yao; Min; Mongolian; Russian; Tibeto-Burman; Tungus; Turkish; Wu; Xiang; Yue; Zhuang

RELIGION: Taoism; Confucianism; Buddhism


Many people think of the Chinese population as uniform. However, it is really a mosaic made up of many different parts. The land that today is the People's Republic of China has been home to many nationalities. Often they ruled over their own lands and were treated as kingdoms by the Chinese. There have been centuries of intermarriage between the different groups, so there are no longer any "pure" ethnic groups in China.

Sun Yatsen founded the Republic of China in 1912 and called it "The Republic of the Five Nationalities": the Han (or ethnic Chinese), Manchus, Mongols, Hui, and Tibetans. Mao Zedong, the first leader of the People's Republic of China, described it as a multi-ethnic state. China's ethnic groups were recognized and granted equal rights. By 1955, more than 400 groups had come forward and won official status. Later, this number was cut to fifty-six. The Han form the "national majority." They now number more than 1 billion people, by far the largest ethnic group on earth. The other fifty-five ethnic groups form the "national minorities." They now account for 90 million people, or 8 percent of the total Chinese population.

All nationalities are equal under the law. National minorities were granted the right to self-government ( zizhi ) by the Chinese state. To increase their populations, national minorities were excused from the "one child per family" rule. Their share of the total Chinese population rose from 5.7 percent in 1964 to 8 percent in 1990.


Five large homelands, called "autonomous regions," have been created for China's major national minorities (Tibetans, Mongols, Uighur, Hui, and Zhuang). In addition, twenty-nine self-governing districts and seventy-two counties have been set up for the other national minorities.

The lands occupied by China's national minorities have great size and importance compared to their small population. All together, two-thirds of China's territory is inhabited by national minorities. China's northern frontier is formed by the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (500,000 square miles or 1,295,000 square kilometers); the northwestern frontier is formed by the Uighur Autonomous Region (617,000 square miles or 1,598,030 square kilometers); the southwestern frontier consists of the Tibet Autonomous Region (471,000 square miles or 1,219,890 square kilometers) and Yunnan Province (168,000 square miles or 435,120 square kilometers).


One of the main ways to identify China's ethnic groups is by language. The following is a list of China's languages (grouped by language family) and the groups that speak them. Population figures are from the 1990 census.


  • Mandarin (over 750 million)
  • Wu (90 million)
  • Gan (25 million)
  • Xiang (48 million)
  • Hakka (37 million)
  • Yue (50 million)
  • Min (40 million)


  • Turkish (Uighur, Kazakh, Salar, Tatar, Uzbek, Yugur, Kirghiz: 8.6 million)
  • Mongolian (Mongols, Bao'an, Dagur, Santa, Tu: 5.6 million)
  • Tungus (Manchus, Ewenki, Hezhen, Oroqen, Xibo: 10 million)
  • Korean (1.9 million)


  • Zhuang (Zhuang, Buyi, Dai, Dong, Gelao, Li, Maonan, Shui, Tai: 22.4 million)
  • Tibeto-Burman (Tibetans, Achang, Bai, Derong, Hani, Jingpo, Jino, Lahu, Lhopa, Lolo, Menba, Naxi, Nu, Pumi, Qiang: 13 million)
  • Miao-Yao (Miao, Yao, Mulao, She, Tujia: 16 million)
  • Austronasian (Benlong, Gaoshan [excluding Taiwanese], Bulang, Wa: 452,000)


  • Russian (13,000)
  • Iranian (Tajik: 34,000)

Some dialects vary widely. For example, Mandarin can be divided into four regions: northern, western, southwestern, and eastern.

Mandarin Chinese is increasingly spoken as a second language by the national minorities.


Each ethnic group in China has its own myths, but many myths are shared by groups in the same language family. Many different Chinese groups share an ancient creation myth that explains from where human beings came. According to this tale, humans and gods lived in peace long ago. Then the gods began fighting. They flooded the earth and destroyed all the people. But a brother and sister escaped by hiding in a huge pumpkin and floating on the water. When they came out of the pumpkin, they were alone in the world. If they did not marry, no more people would ever be born. But brothers and sisters were not supposed to marry each other.

The brother and sister decided to each roll a big stone down a hill. If one stone landed on top of the other, it meant Heaven wanted them to marry. If the stones rolled away from each other, Heaven did not approve. But the brother secretly hid one stone on top of another at the bottom of the hill. He and his sister rolled their two stones. Then he led her to the ones he had hidden. After they got married, the sister gave birth to a lump of flesh. The brother cut it into twelve pieces, and he threw them in different directions. They became the twelve peoples of ancient China.

This myth was begun by the Miao, but it spread widely. It was retold by the Chinese and by the national minorities of southern and southwest China.


Many national minorities have preserved their native religions. However, they have also been influenced by the three major religions of China: Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism.

Taoism may be called the national religion of the Chinese people. It is based on ancient religions involving magic and nature worship. Around the sixth century

BC, the main ideas of Taoism were collected in a book called the Daode jing. It is thought to have been written by the sage Lao-tzu. Taoism is based on a belief in Dao (or Tao), a spirit of harmony that drives the universe.

In contrast to Taoism, Confucianism is based on the teachings of a human being, Confucius (551–479 BC ). He believed it is natural for human beings to be good to each other. Confucius was called the "father of Chinese philosophy." He tried to establish a system of moral values based on reason and human nature. Confucius was not considered a divine being in his lifetime. Later, some people came to regard him as a god. However, this belief never gained many followers.

Unlike Taoism and Confucianism, Buddhism did not originate in China. It was brought to China from India. It was begun by an Indian prince, Siddhartha Gautama (c.563-c.483 BC ), in the sixth century BC . In Buddhism, a person's state of mind matters more than rituals. Mahayana Buddhism, one of the two main branches of Buddhism, came to China in the first century AD . It taught the Four Holy Truths discovered by the Buddha: 1) life consists of suffering; 2) suffering comes from desire; 3) to overcome suffering, one must overcome desire; 4) to overcome desire, one must follow the "Eightfold Path" and reach a state of perfect happiness ( nirvana ). Buddhism has had a deep influence on all classes and nationalities in China.


Most of the many holidays celebrated in China were begun by the ethnic Chinese. However, many are shared by the groups. The dates are usually on the lunar calendar (which is based on the moon rather than the sun). The following are among the most important:

The Spring Festival (or Chinese New Year) lasts about a week, from January 21 to February 20. It begins with a midnight meal on New Year's Eve. At dawn, the house is lighted and gifts are offered to the ancestors and the gods. Friends and relatives visit each other and share delicious feasts, where the main dish is Chinese dumplings ( jiaozi ). Children receive gifts—usually money in a red envelope ( hongbao). The Lantern Festival ( Dengjie ), held around March 5, is a holiday for children. Houses are lighted and large paper lanterns of every shape and color are hung in public places. A special cake ( yanxiao ) made of sticky rice is eaten.

The Qingming is a feast of the dead at the beginning of April. On this day, families visit the tombs of their ancestors and clean the burial ground. They offer flowers, fruits, and cakes to those who have died. The Mid-Autumn Festival (or Moon Festival) is a harvest celebration at the beginning of October. The main dish is "moon cakes." The Dragon-Boat Festival is usually held at the same time. The National Day of China on October 1 marks the founding of the People's Republic of China. It is celebrated in grand style. All the main buildings and city streets are lit up.


The birth of a child, especially a boy, is considered an important and joyous event. The older marriage customs have given way to freer ways of choosing partners. Under China's communist government, the marriage ceremony has become a sober occasion involving only the bride and groom, some witnesses, and government officials. However, private celebrations are held with friends and relatives. In major cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou, wealthy families enjoy Western-style marriages. However, the traditional rituals are still alive in the rural areas.

Because of China's large population, cremation has become common. Following a death, family and close friends attend private ceremonies.


Close interpersonal relations ( guanxi ) characterize Chinese society, not only within the family, but also among friends and peers. Numerous feasts and festivals throughout the year strengthen individual and community ties. Visiting friends and relatives is an important social ritual. Guests bring gifts such as fruits, candies, cigarettes, or wine. The host usually offers a specially prepared meal.

Most young people like to choose a husband or wife on their own. But many still get help from their parents, relatives, or friends. The role of the "go-between" is still important.


From the 1950s to the late 1970s, many ancient structures were torn down and replaced by newer buildings. The isolation of China's national minorities has kept their traditional buildings from being destroyed. In the country, many apartment buildings built after 1949 have been replaced by modern two-story houses. There are still housing shortages in growing cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Guangzhou.


In most of China's ethnic groups, the man has always been the head of the family. The lives of women have improved greatly since the communist revolution in 1949. They have made progress in the family, in education, and in the work place. But they are still not equal politically.

Communist China's first leader, Mao Zedong (1893–1976), wanted people to have large families. From 1949 to 1980, the population of China grew from about 500 million to over 800 million. Since the 1980s, China has had a strict birth control policy of one child per family. It has greatly slowed population growth, especially in cities. National minorities, which make up only 8 percent of the population, are excused from the policy. Thus, their demographic growth is double that of the Han (or majority) Chinese.


Until recently, all Chinese—men and women, young and old—wore the same plain clothing. Today brightly colored down jackets, woolens, and fur overcoats liven the bleak winter scene in the frozen north. In the milder climate of the south, people wear stylish Western suits, jeans, jackets, and sweaters year-round. Famous brand names are a common sight in large cities. The national minorities living near the Han Chinese dress in a similar way. However, those in isolated rural areas continue to wear their traditional styles of clothing.

12 • FOOD

There are important differences in the diets and cooking methods of China's national minorities. The most common foods in China are rice, flour, vegetables, pork, eggs, and freshwater fish. The Han, or majority Chinese, have always valued cooking skills, and Chinese cuisine is well known all over the world. Traditional Chinese food includes dumplings, wonton, spring rolls, rice, noodles, and roasted Peking duck.


The Han Chinese have always cared about education. They opened the first university over 2,000 years ago. China has more than 1,000 universities and colleges and 800,000 primary and middle schools. Their total enrollment is 180 million. Still, about 5 million school-age children do not enter school or have dropped out. Among China's national minorities, education varies greatly. It depends on local traditions, the nearness of cities, and other factors.


There are enough traditional musical instruments in China to form a complete orchestra. The most popular include the two-stringed violin ( er hu ) and the pipa. Organizations that promote traditional Chinese music have preserved the rich musical heritage of many national minorities.

Most nationalities in China only have oral literary works (recited out loud). However, the Tibetans, Mongols, Manchus, Koreans, and Uighur have written literature as well. Some of it has been translated into English and other Western languages. The Han Chinese have produced one of the world's oldest and richest written traditions. Extending over more than 3,000 years, it includes poems, plays, novels, short stories, and other works. Renowned Chinese poets include Li Bai and Du Fu, who lived during the Tang Dynasty ( AD 618–907). Great Chinese novels include the fourteenth-century Water Margin , Pilgrim to the West , and Golden Lotus.


Economic development in China varies by region. Most lands inhabited by the national minorities are less developed than the Han Chinese regions. A growing number of poor farmers have migrated to cities and to the eastern coast to improve their lives. However, migration has led to unemployment in urban areas. About 70 percent of China's population is still rural, and almost all rural dwellers are farmers.


Many sports in China are played only during seasonal festivals or in certain regions. China's national sport is ping-pong. Other common sports include shadow boxing ( wushu or taijiquan ). Western sports have been gaining popularity in China. These include soccer, swimming, badminton, basketball, tennis, and baseball. They are played mainly in schools, colleges, and universities.


Watching television has become a popular evening pastime for a majority of Chinese families. Video cassette recorders are also very common in urban areas. Movies are popular, but theaters are scarce and therefore are attended by only a small portion of the population. Young people enjoy karaoke (singing for others in public) and rock music. The elderly spend their free time attending the Peking Opera, listening to classical music, or playing cards or mahjongg (a tile game). Travel has become popular since the five-day work week was adopted in 1995.


China's fifty-six nationalities all have their own folk art and craft traditions. However, the rich tradition of the Han Chinese is shared by many of China's nationalities.

Calligraphy (artistic lettering) and traditional painting are the most popular folk arts of the Han Chinese. Chinese paper-cutting, embroidery, brocade, colored glaze, jade jewelry, clay sculpture, and dough figurines are famous around the world.

Chess, kite flying, gardening, and landscaping are popular hobbies.


There is a growing gap in China between the rich and the poor. Other social problems include inflation, bribery, gambling, drugs, and the kidnapping of women. Because of the difference between rural and urban standards of living, more than 100 million people have moved to cities in the coastal areas to find better jobs.


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Harrell, Stevan. Cultural Encounters on China's Ethnic Frontiers. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994.

Heberer, Thomas. China and Its National Minorities: Autonomy or Assimilation? Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1989.

McLenighan, V. People's Republic of China. Chicago: Children's Press, 1984.

O'Neill, Thomas. "Mekong River." National Geographic ( February 1993), 2–35.

Terrill, Ross. "China's Youth Wait for Tomorrow." National Geographic ( July 1991), 110–136.

Terrill, Ross. "Hong Kong Countdown to 1997." National Geographic (February 1991), 103–132.


Embassy of the People's Republic of China, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available http:/ , 1998.

World Travel Guide. China. [Online] Available , 1998.

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Oct 15, 2007 @ 10:10 am
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Feb 23, 2017 @ 1:13 pm
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