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Chinese Ethnic Groups

Last updated by fabiowzgogo at 2015/6/10

The majority of people in China belong to an ethnic group the Chinese state calls Han. For the rest, the population divides up between some 55 ethnic minorities. The Chinese term for these ethnic groups is shaoshu minzu, which means literally “minority nationalities”.

During the 1st century BC, Han emperors widened their influence westward and in the South of the country, making of China a multiethnic nation.

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From this time, the Chinese culture was going to grow rich of numerous foreign fundamentals. During the Tang dynasty (618-907), China assimilated influences coming from all Asia and even Mediterranean countries. The capital Changan (Xi'an) was the biggest city of the world. In the North, the various ethnic groups united gradually during two millenniums. Traditionally, the Chinese recognized no geographical border and were deprived of any racial prejudice. They accepted as being Chinese whoever had adopted the Chinese culture and the Confucian rules of conduct. People did not fit in the Chinese Empire for ethnic or historic reasons but by a cultural identity, by a way of thinking and behaviour to the others.

With the succession of the modern Chinese nation, the attitude to “the foreigner” was modified. The Han had to decide if ethnic minorities must be assimilate or handled in independent peoples. It was a question of granting them the right to form their own republic, connected to the State by a federal system, or of immortalizing the traditional Chinese concept of a powerful centralized authority.

In the first half of the 20th-century, China tried a policy of assimilation. The Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek (1928 to 1948) considered minorities as being components of the Chinese people which, sooner or later, would be a part of a unified nation. Some minorities however tried to obtain their independence. Their fight became a reality by the proclamation of an East Turkestan Republic (ETR), in the 40s and by the existence of the independent Tibet between 1911 and 1951.

One of the most important points to remember about China’s ethnic minorities is their diversity.  Some have highly distinctive cultures, languages and religions very different from those from the Han Chinese. For these and other reasons, the minorities are actually considerably more important to China than the small proportion of their population would suggest. The government has a similar, identical policy towards all of them and apply a “positive discrimination ", to protect the culture and the language of the "non-Han" peoples.