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Ethnic Groups in China

Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

In this lesson, we will discuss some of the various ethnic groups found in mainland China, including where they tend to be found, what sort of religious affiliations they may have, and a brief description of their lifestyles.

What are the Ethnic Groups of China?

Maglev trains move the Chinese populations at 268 miles per hour
train

If you get off the Maglev train in Shanghai (hopefully not while it's traveling at 268 miles per hour!), you will find a variety of visitors from all over the world, and may see representatives from nearly all of China's ethnic regions. Almost as large a landmass as the United States or the combined countries of Europe, China has 56 different ethnic groups, communities that share common cultural characteristics and descents, spread across a large section of the Asian mainland. Some of the larger groups are discussed in this lesson.

Map of Language Distribution Across China
map of China

Han

The Han people have a rich and beautiful culture
dancers

Most commonly called 'Chinese', the Han people are found mainly in the eastern parts of the country. The Han people adopted their cultural name from the Han Dynasty, a 'Golden Age' in China's history, marked by economic, cultural, and inventive advancements that helped establish China's geographic, political, and social significance. The Han language is part of the Sino-Tibetan language group (a collection of languages that share similar symbols, sounds, meanings, and cultural background), which is shared by people in Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan.

Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and various Christian denominations occur among the Han people, and the religious culture, or belief system that affects the way a group of people will live, is a complex mix of various schools of belief, thought, and wisdom.

When you think of Chinese food, you're probably visualizing the foods of the Han people, who have their own distinctive ways of preparing dishes based on wheat, rice, pork, soybean protein (tofu), and other foods.

Smaller Cultures

The smaller ethnic groups in China represent eight percent of the population, and occupy 50-60% of the landmass. They tend to locate in strategically important border regions regions where population is sparse and land is plentiful, and mineral resources are abundant.

Zhuang

Zhuang woman in ethnic clothing
Zhuang woman

Mostly in the border region north of Vietnam, the Zhuang people are a group of approximately 17 million people. Their language is part of the Zhuang-Tai language group, which is shared by people in Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.

A polytheistic people, many of the Zhuang believe in spiritual presences in many parts of nature, much like the traditional American Indians.

If you were to visit a traditional Zhuang village, you would probably find that they welcomed you with open arms. They would feed you a rich assortment of tropical and subtropical dishes, often made with a distinctive salty-tart style. Many kinds of Zhuang food use the abundant rice and corn as their base. They would finish off the meal with a special tea, made by frying leaves in oil, or even one of several favored alcohol products.

Hui

With well over 11 million people, the Hui ethnic group is located mostly in Northwestern China. The Hui people are distinctly Islamic in religion and culture, with preferences and beliefs that make them stand out from the modern or traditional Chinese norms. They abstain from the use of pork in their dishes, focusing largely on fish or fowl for their meat courses. Some of the young Hui cultures have drifted from the traditions of their elders, creating a subculture that is very much like their Han counterparts.

Hui family group celebrating a rich Islamic culture
hui group

Man (or Manchu)

Another ethnic group with over 10 million members, the Man, or Manchu, are located mostly in the northeastern part of the country, bordering Mongolia and Russia. Their land is largely mountainous, and their lives reflect the vigor of their environment. Although they have many contributions in literary and art, the Man people are known for their skill in agriculture, fishing, and animal husbandry.

Although the ancestral language of the Man people is part of the Tungus-Machu group, a composite of many language influences, including Turkic, Mongolian, Korean, and Japanese, the Man people primarily speak the Chinese of the Han, contrary to many of the other minority cultures.

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