pattern of human activity and associated with China's ethnic minorities and their traditional way of life
Travel topics > Cultural attractions > Minority cultures of China

China is home to many different ethnic groups. The People's Republic of China (PRC) government officially recognizes 56 ethnic groups, which includes the Han Chinese majority, as well as the indigenous Taiwanese (known in mainland China as the Gaoshan people (高山族)). However, many of these official ethnic groups, within themselves, contain diverse groups of people with their own set of cultural customs. There are also a number of unrecognized minority groups, that in the census are either classified as Han or another minority. Under Chinese law, ethnic minorities are entitled to some affirmative action policies, and have the right to attend bilingual schools where they can study their language alongside standard Mandarin, but have no right to secede from China.

Understand

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The Chinese civilisation started in the Yellow River basin, and expanded into the Yangtze River basin during the Zhou Dynasty. Over the years, the size of the Chinese empires would grow and shrink as the power of the dynasties waxed and waned. Weaker dynasties would only control the Han Chinese heartland, while stronger dynasties would extend their control as far west as modern-day Xinjiang, as well as into modern-day Korea, Vietnam and Russia. Over the years, many local ethnic groups were assimilated into the Han Chinese majority, but others maintained distinct ethnic identities, languages and cultures. The current borders of China are largely based on the territory held by the Qing Dynasty, who were ethnic Manchus that conquered the Han Chinese heartland in the 17th century. This includes some areas such as Tibet that had never previously been controlled by any Han Chinese dynasties.

As of 2010, the official ethnic minorities were estimated to comprise about 8.5% of mainland China's population. During the annual meeting of the National People's Congress (China's legislature), it is customary for ethnic minority delegates to attend in their traditional dress, which can make for quite a visual spectacle.

See also: Imperial China

Turkic peoples

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Uyghurs in the old town of Kashgar

Chinese contact with the Turkic peoples date back millennia, and some scholars believe that the emperors of the Tang Dynasty had Turkic ancestry.

The largest Turkic group are the Uyghurs (维吾尔族), who are native to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in Northwest China. Uyghurs are mainly concentrated in the south of Xinjiang, and Kashgar is considered to be the main centre of Uyghur culture in Xinjiang with a well-preserved old town. Other cities with Uyghur majorities include Khotan, Turpan and Yarkand.

Other Turkic minorities include the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and Tatars. Like the Uyghurs, most of them are concentrated in Xinjiang province. Kazakhs (哈萨克族) are the third largest ethnic group in Xinjiang after Uyghurs and Han Chinese, and are mostly concentrated in the northern tip of Xinjiang. Kazakh is an official language in Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture (capital Yining), but unlike in Kazakhstan, which uses the Cyrillic alphabet, Kazakh is written using the Arabic script in China. Some Kazakhs in China continue to maintain the traditional nomadic lifestyle, which was virtually wiped out in Kazakhstan due to Stalin's collectivization policy during the Soviet era. The Kazakhs, as well as the closely-related Kyrgyz, have a unique tradition of using eagles to hunt, which you might see in the wide open spaces between the cities.

Almost all Turkic peoples in China are adherents of Sunni Islam.

Sino Tibetan peoples

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See also: Tibetan Empire, Yunnan tourist trail

Sino-Tibetan is a large language group comprising the Han Chinese majority, and several ethnic minorities in China.

 
Tibetan village in Jiuzhaigou

The Tibetans (藏族) are the best-known such ethnic group, and are mainly concentrated in Tibet and Qinghai province, as well as parts of Sichuan, Yunnan and Gansu; there was once a Tibetan Empire that ruled these regions. The Potala Palace in Lhasa, the former residence of the Dalai Lamas, is a   UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sichuan's famed scenic area of Jiuzhaigou is mainly populated by ethnic Tibetans, and is named after nine traditional Tibetan villages in the gorge. One of those villages has been turned into the main tourist hub of the gorge, where you can purchase Tibetan ethnic trinkets from the locals, and marvel at the traditional Tibetan architecture of the village buildings. Almost all Tibetans are Vajrayana Buddhists, with this branch of Buddhism often called "Tibetan Buddhism".

The Qiang (羌族) people live on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, in northwest Sichuan. There is a Qiang Ethnic Minority Folkore Museum in Beichuan Qiang Autonomous County that you can visit to learn about Qiang culture. Qiang people form the majority in Maoxian, located within Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture. Although related to the Tibetans, the Qiang are a separate ethnic group with their own unique customs and architectural styles. Many Qiang villages have a watchtower, which in the past were used to watch out for incoming invaders, and traditional Qiang houses have thick stone walls and small windows to make them easier to defend from invaders.

The Bai (白族) ethnic group are mainly found in Yunnan province, but can also be found in Guizhou and Hunan provinces. The city of Dali in Yunnan is known for being the main centre of ethnic Bai culture, and is a popular tourist attraction due to its well-preserved old town with traditional Bai buildings.

The Naxi (纳西族) people are mainly found in Yunnan province. The city of Lijiang is considered to be the main centre of Naxi culture, and is a popular tourist attraction with a well-preserved old town. It has been inscribed as a   UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mongolic peoples

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See also: Mongol Empire

China is home to over six million Mongols (蒙古族), which is almost twice the population of the independent country of Mongolia. Most Mongols in China live in the province of Inner Mongolia, but there are also some Mongols in Northeast China, Xinjiang and Qinghai. Mongolian is an official language in Inner Mongolia, and in the Mongol autonomous counties and prefectures in the neighbouring provinces. Unlike in Mongolia, which uses the Cyrillic alphabet, the Mongolian language is written using the traditional Mongolian script in China. The script is unusual in that it is written vertically, a feature shared with the Manchu script. In Inner Mongolia, you can often see the ethnic Mongols living their traditional nomadic lifestyle in the wide open spaces between the cities. Almost all Mongols are Vajrayana Buddhists, which is also practised by the Tibetans.

The Mausoleum of Genghis Khan (成吉思汗陵) is a temple dedicated to the worship of Genghis Khan (not his actual tomb as he was buried in an unmarked grave in a secret location), and an important religious site for the ethnic Mongols.

Tungusic peoples

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The Manchus (满族) originated in what is today Northeast China and the Russian Far East, and conquered China in the 17th century to establish the Qing Dynasty, China's last imperial dynasty. Today, the Manchu language is moribund, and is only spoken natively by a handful of elderly in isolated villages. However, over 10 million Chinese citizens claim Manchu heritage, and there is a movement to revive the Manchu language as a way to reconnect with their heritage. The city of Shenyang, also previously known by its Manchu name Mukden, is home to the Shenyang Imperial Palace, also known as the Mukden Palace, which was the main palace of the Qing emperors before their conquest of the Han Chinese heartland. Although based on the Forbidden City in Beijing, it is much smaller in scale, and incorporates some uniquely Manchu features in its architecture. There is also a Manchu Folk Culture Museum on the outskirts of Beijing for those who wish to learn more about Manchu customs. The Manchus were historically Vajrayana Buddhists just like the Mongols and Tibetans, but gradually adopted traditional Chinese religious practices after conquering the Han Chinese heartland, and today are no different from the Han Chinese with regards to religion.

The Xibe (锡伯族) are closely related to the Manchus, and mainly live in the provinces of Liaoning, Xinjiang and Heilongjiang. Most of the Xibe people in Northeast China only speak Mandarin these days, but the Xibe language, which shares some mutual intelligibility with Manchu, continues to thrive among the community in Xinjiang, where it is an official language in Qapqal Xibe Autonomous County.

The Evenks (鄂温克族) mainly live in the provinces of Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang, near the Russian border, as well as across the border in the Russian republic of Evenkia. Traditionally nomadic reindeer herders who lived in the forest, the government has in the 21st century built new mordern housing for them in various townships, along with ranches for their reindeer. Aoluguya Evenk Ethnic Township is one such township where tourists can go to watch the Evenks display their reindeer herding skills, and learn more about Evenk culture and history.

Tai-Kadai peoples

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The Zhuang (壮族) people, numbering at around 18 million, are the largest minority in China. Sharing linguistic and cultural ties with the Thais and Laotians, the Zhuang predominantly live in Guangxi province.

 
Dai man and woman dressed in traditional clothing for Songkran

The Hlai people, known in China as the Li (黎族), are the indigenous people of Hainan, and speak a language that is also in the Tai-Kadai language family. They are now a minority since Han Chinese started settling in Hainan in large numbers from the Song Dynasty onwards, but there is a Li cultural village in the mountains in Baoting County (near Sanya) known as Binglanggu for tourists who wish to experience the culture. A small number of traditional Li villages still exist. Two notable examples are Baicha Village in Dongfang and Chubao Village in Wuzhishan.

Another Tai ethnic group is the Dai (傣族) people, who are mostly concentrated in Yunnan province. The Dai people share close cultural ties with Thailand, being Theravada Buddhists, speaking languages in the same family as Thai, and also celebrate Songkran just like the Thais. Xishuangbanna is perhaps the most famous place for Songkran celebrations in China. The Dai languages differs significantly by region; the language in Xishuangbanna is most similar to northern dialects of Thai spoken around Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, while the language in Dehong is most similar to the Shan language in Myanmar.

The Kam people, known in China as the Dong (侗族), mainly live in the provinces of Guizhou, Hunan and Guangxi, with a small community also living in neighboring Vietnam. The village of Zhaoxing in Guizhou province is the largest Dong-majority village in China, and is a popular tourist attraction with its well-preserved traditional buildings.

Austroasiatic peoples

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The islands of Wanwei, Wutou and Shanxin off the coast of Dongxing, Guangxi are home to a community of ethnic Vietnamese fishermen, known in China as the Jing (京族, from Vietnamese Kinh) people. The three islands are collectively known in Chinese as Jīngzú Sān Dǎo (京族三岛).

The Wa (佤族) people are an Austroasiatic ethnic group who live mainly in Yunnan province, near the border with Myanmar, and their population also spills over into Myanmar's Shan State, where they have formed a de facto independent area known as the Wa State. Wending Village is a traditional Wa village in Cangyuan Wa Autonomous County that you can visit.

Hmong-Mien peoples

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Speakers of Hmong-Mien languages are predominantly classified by the Chinese government into three ethnic groups: the Miao, Yao and She. The Miao (苗族), numbering at over 9 million are the largest, however speak a number of mutually unintelligible languages only distantly related to each other. Many Miao migrated across the border to Vietnam and Laos and in turn after the communist takeover of Indochina, fled to many Western nations as refugees where they are better known by their endonym Hmong. The town of Xijiang in Guizhou province is China's largest Miao village, with a large number of traditional Miao buildings. Fenghuang is perhaps the best known example of a well-preserved Miao town, and is a   UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Iranian peoples

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Iranian peoples in China are officially classified as Tajiks (塔兹克族), though they are distinct from the Tajiks of Tajikistan. Although they are in the same branch of the Indo-European language family as Persian, the languages of China's "Tajiks" are not mutually intelligible with the Tajik language of Tajikistan. The Chinese Tajik languages come under the Pamir language group, and are actually more closely related to Pashto, which is spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan, than to Persian. They are mainly concentrated in Taxkorgan Tajik Autonomous County in Xinjiang. The two main Iranian ethnic groups in China are the Sarikoli, whose language is the official form of the "Tajik" language in China, and the Wakhi. Almost all Iranian peoples in China are Nizari Ismaili Shia Muslims.

Hui people

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Main prayer hall of the Great Mosque of Xi'an

The Hui (回族) are the Chinese-speaking followers of Islam. The Hui are unique among the minorities in speaking a Sinitic language, but are distinguished from the Han majority due to their Islamic cultural practices. They do not consume pork and therefore have developed their own variation of Chinese cuisine. Almost all Hui are part of the Sunni school of Islam. Hui people have a wide geopgraphical distribution and may be found all over China. The largest concentration of Hui people is in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in Northwest China. Xi'an is also a major centre of Hui culture, with a well-known Muslim Quarter, and the Great Mosque of Xi'an being the largest mosque in China.

Jewish peoples

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The Jewish community has had a presence in China for around 1300 years. The most notable extant Jewish community that lived in China largely in isolation from foreign Jewish communities for many centuries until the 1980s is the Kaifeng Jews (开封犹太人). In contemporary times, Shanghai, Harbin and Tianjin have had significant Jewish populations, especially as refugees from communism during the Russian Civil War, and from Nazism during World War II, but most of these Jews fled for Hong Kong, Israel or Western countries following the communist victory in 1949. Jews have not been given official recognition by the Chinese government, but about 1,000 residents of Kaifeng continue to claim Jewish heritage and observe Kosher dietary laws. The Kaifeng Jews have also been denied recognition as Jews by the Israeli government, meaning that they are not eligible for Israeli citizenship unless they undergo an Orthodox conversion.

Hong Kong is still home to a small Mizrachi Jewish community, originally from Baghdad, whose families have been there since colonial times, along with a synagogue to serve that community. Most Jews in Hong Kong live in the Mid Levels, near the Ohel Rachel Synagogue. Its famed Peninsula Hotel was founded and continues to be owned by the Baghdadi Jewish Kadoorie family.

Koreans

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China is home to about two million Koreans (朝鲜族), most of whom live in the northeast. The largest concentration of them live in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in Jilin province, in which Korean is a co-official language with Mandarin. There are also pockets of Korean settlement in Heilongjiang and Liaoning. The dialect of Korean spoken differs from location to location, though the Korean taught in schools is mainly based on the North Korean standard, but with some loan words from Mandarin. Generally speaking, the Korean spoken in Jilin is based on the Hamgyong dialect, in Liaoning based on the Pyong'an dialect, and in Heilongjiang is based on the Gyeongsang dialect.

Russians

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The presence of Russians (俄罗斯族) in China dates back to the 19th century, when parts of Northeast China and Xinjiang were colonised by the Russian Empire. Numerous White Russians also fled for China after using losing the Russian Civil War to the Bolsheviks. Harbin had at one point had a large Russian community, though most of them were deported by the Soviet Union during the Soviet occupation of Northeast China after the Allied victory in World War II. Today, most ethnic Russians in China live in scattered villages around Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, and Russian is an official language in Inner Mongolia's Enhe Russian Ethnic Township.

Macanese

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The Macanese are a multiracial people in Macau and Hong Kong predominantly of mixed Cantonese and Portuguese ancestry. They also have Malay, Japanese, English, Timorese, Sinhalese and Indian ancestry. They formed into a distinctive cultural minority in Macau during colonial times where they were the link between the Chinese majority and Portuguese ruling class. The Macanese are known for their fusion cuisine, which includes dishes such as minchi and Macau-style egg tarts.

Indians

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Indian tailor in Hong Kong

Hong Kong is home to a community of Indians, who are mostly descended from indentured labourers, policemen, soldiers and merchants that were brought over by the British or moved to Hong Kong seeking greener pastures during colonial times. Unlike the ethnic Chinese, Hong Kong's Indian minority were not automatically granted Chinese citizenship upon the handover back to China in 1997, but they have been allowed to remain in Hong Kong as permanent residents. Although they are eligible to apply for Chinese citizenship, few have taken up this option. Today, Indian influences can still be seen in Hong Kong in the form of mosques, Hindu temples, Sikh gurdwaras and a Zoroastrian prayer hall for the Parsis. Hong Kong remains the best place in China to have Indian food. Chungking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui is has a dingy reputation, but is also known for some of the cheapest and most authentic Indian food in the city. There are also some high-end Indian restaurants scattered around the city. Many of Hong Kong's most famous high-end tailors are also of Indian descent.

Museums

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Map of Minority cultures of China

Beijing

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Northeast China

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South China

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Southwest China

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  • 15 Guizhou Nationalities Museum (贵州省民族博物馆) (Guiyang, Guizhou). A museum focused on the history and culture of Guizhou's various ethnic groups.
  • 16 Liangshan Yi Slave Society Museum (凉山彝族奴隶社会博物馆) (Xichang, Sichuan). Slavery remained in the Liangshan area until the 1960s. This is the only museum in China with exhibitions on the slavery system of the Yi people.
  • 17 Mosuo Museum (摩梭人博物馆, 摩梭民俗博物馆) (Lugu Lake, Yunnan). A museum on the history, culture and customs of the Mosuo people.
  • 18 Qiandongnan Prefecture Ethnological Museum (黔东南州民族博物馆) (Kaili, Guizhou). A museum about the various ethnic groups that live in Qiandongnan Prefecture.
  • 19 Southwest Minzu University Museum of Nationalities (西南民族大学民族博物馆) (Chengdu, Sichuan). This was one of the first ethnographic museums to be established in China following the founding of the People's Republic. It has one of the richest collections of ethnic minority artefacts in southwestern China. There are artefacts from 35 different ethnic groups and specialized exhibitions on the Tibetans, the Qiang, the Miao, the Yi, the Bai, the Tujia, the Dai and the Naxi.
  • 20 Xishuangbanna Nationalities Museum (西双版纳民族博物馆) (Jinghong, Xishuangbanna, Yunnan). A museum about the various ethnic groups that live in Xishuangbanna. Xishuangbanna Nationalities Museum fully embodies the characteristics of the Dai people and is a comprehensive ethnic museum integrating ethnic culture, cultural relics collection, scientific research, propaganda and education.  
  • 21 Yunnan Nationalities Museum (云南民族博物馆; Yúnnán Mínzú Bówùguǎn) (Kunming, Yunnan).    
  • 22 Yunnan University Wu Mayao Museum of Anthropology (云南大学伍马瑶人类学博物馆) (Kunming, Yunnan). Fascinating museum with an impressive collection of minority and Han artifacts from around Yunnan. Highlights include painted wooden torso armor of the Yi people, fearsome warriors of a traditionally caste society who historically controlled the mountainous region between Sichuan and Yunnan and whose queen was instrumental in negotiating the entry in to Yunnan of the Mongol Horde at the dawn of the Yuan Dynasty, ushering in the first real period of Han control thus beginning the widespread Sinification in Yunnan province. Unfortunately the showy modern glass presentation makes photography of some artifacts rather difficult.

Respect

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The relationship between the ethnic Han majority and China's ethnic minorities varies between minority ethnic groups. Some minority groups have had peaceful relations with the Han, while the Uyghurs and Tibetans have tense relations and separatist movements, which are usually suppressed by the Chinese government in a heavy-handed way. There are also numerous ethnic groups somewhere in between, such as the Mongols, Koreans and Kazakhs, who are fiercely protective of their language and distinct culture while not desiring separatism from China.

See also

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