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Population, Ethnic Groups

Hui people, sedentary farming, cultural protection, Manchus, Uygur

China’s population comprises many different ethnic groups and nationalities, although about 92 percent of the population are ethnic Han. The name Han derives from the citizens of the Han dynasty (206 bc-ad 220), a period of great unity in China. During the Han dynasty the people of the north, central, and southern plains and basins of eastern China came to see themselves as part of the same group. They shared a common written language, similar values derived from the ideas of Confucius and other classical writers, and a settled agricultural system based on growing grains, such as wheat, rice, and millet. The Han distinguished themselves from other peoples on the region’s periphery whom they considered barbarians, especially the nomads and herding peoples who inhabited the high, dry, colder regions to the north, west, and southwest. Among the most significant of these groups were the Mongols to the north and northwest, the Manchus to the northeast, various Muslim Turkic peoples in the far west, and the Tibetans to the west and southwest. Also in the southwest were large groups of people, such as the Zhuang, who were closely related to either the mountain or plains people of Southeast Asia.

Historically, the Chinese sought to expand their territory through the agricultural colonization of adjacent territory. This strategy involved sending military units and farming families to settle an area. Areas so occupied were eventually integrated into the Chinese state. Local non-Han peoples either adopted the culture and language of the Han, were pushed into marginal areas unsuited for sedentary farming, or were otherwise eliminated. This worked effectively for the Han in areas that were suitable for intensive farming, but it was less effective in the high, dry, cold interior. This interior region, comprising about 60 percent of China’s present land area, remained largely unsettled by the Han until the mid-20th century. Over the centuries some ethnic groups acculturated and integrated into Han society more easily than others. Some, such as the Vietnamese and the Koreans, resisted acculturation. These groups established and maintained their own separate national identities and territories, although they maintained close cultural and other links to the Han.

China’s Communist government has encouraged ethnic Han to settle in the minority-occupied frontier areas. In addition, Han administrators have been sent into all ethnic minority areas to provide leadership and to secure management of the nation’s territory. As part of this policy, the Chinese government has seized territory from the traditional homelands of minority groups and reassigned it administratively to a neighboring Chinese province. Ethnic Tibetans, for example, live mainly in the Tibet Autonomous Region but also in Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan provinces. China’s policies have provided some benefits for the minority groups, including better medicine and nutrition and improved economic development.

Since 1949 China has identified 55 ethnic nationalities, which range in size from several thousand to several million members. Among the larger nationalities are the Zhuang, Hui, Uygur, Mongols, and Tibetans. Taken together, China’s minority peoples account for 8 percent of the country’s total population, or about 100 million people. The minorities are growing more rapidly than the Han because they generally have higher birth rates. In addition, some peoples formerly counted among the Han have since been recognized as unique minority groups.

The identification of a minority nationality is based partly on the historical distinction between Han and non-Han. Factors considered include a group’s traditional location in the outlying territories, a different language, unique religious practices, or a distinctive way of life, such as being herders rather than sedentary farmers. Some groups’ physical appearance is very similar to or even indistinguishable from the Han, but they have other special distinctions. For example, Hui people are essentially Han Chinese in all aspects except that they practice Islam.

The Han Chinese have long had familiar but sometimes troubled relations with neighboring ethnic peoples, especially with those under Han administrative and territorial control. Most foreign governments and international organizations understand the security concerns in China’s sensitive frontier regions, where many of these peoples are found. However, China often is condemned for its heavy-handed and sometimes brutal treatment of minority nationalities. Perhaps the best-known occurrence of China’s controversial approach to dealing with minority nationalities is the Chinese military occupation of Tibet in the 1950s. This occupation was followed by an uprising of Tibetans, which the military suppressed. The events in Tibet forced the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to flee China in 1959, and he has remained in exile ever since. As a result of the widely published events in Tibet, and particularly the Dalai Lama’s plight, China faced wide international condemnation. The 20th century also saw sporadic outbursts of violence and uprisings among the Uygur peoples of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, many of whom have strongly resented the control imposed on them by Han military and civil officials. Many Uygurs practice traditional oasis agriculture in the Tarim Basin and have not benefited from the industrialization and rapid economic growth that has come with Han settlement of Xinjiang. As China’s economy continues to grow and the country continues to emerge as a global power, it may come under greater pressure to provide fair and equitable treatment to minority nationalities and to allow them a larger measure of autonomy and cultural protection.



Article key phrases:

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