Understanding China: Ethnic Minorities

It is a fact often overlooked that China is home to 55 unique ethnic groups, aside from the dominant one which we associate as being Chinese. Whilst that may sound like a staggering amount, as of 2010, at least 91% of the entire population, amassing to the rather impressive figure of 1.2 billion people, identified themselves as being ethnically Han – the Han Chinese are the ‘Chinese’ that most people here in the west will instantly ‘recognise’, and it’s what we base the majority of our understanding, and often prejudices and assumptions, on. So, what of the other 55 ethnic minority groups in China? How do they fit in?


The topic of ethnicity, particularly that of ethnic minorities, is complicated. Ethnic minorities in China operate at various levels of society, having both assimilated with the Han majority, but also within their own ethnic groups and areas. For those who are unfamiliar with China, many of the Western provinces are heavily populated by ethnic minority groups. Even more surprising, perhaps, is that China has an extremely large, native, Muslim population, and Islam is the key religion for several of China’s prominent ethnic groups. With this in mind, it is easy to wonder why the Chinese we know and easily associate all seemingly share the same physical characteristics that allow us to easily identify them as ‘being Chinese’. In fact, a large portion of these ethnic minority groups are so heavily assimilated with the Han majority that, by now, they are visually indistinguishable. That is why, when one first learns of the large ethnic minority population in China, one might be surprised to learn that ‘Chinese people’ are extremely varied, from their appearance to their beliefs. With this considered, why have some ethnic minority groups assimilated and integrated, and others have not?

The issue of assimilation and integration is incredibly complex, particularly in China. On a very basic level, we can at least assume that there are several key factors that aid a group in assimilating or integrating into the broader Chinese society. Firstly, beliefs, and secondly, location. The first point, being beliefs, is particularly important as the Han majority are a group which, despite having no officially designated religion, holds their own teachings and their own ideas of being Chinese, and how to live in society, very closely. As such, groups with similar ideas and similar understandings, such as the Zhuang or the Manchu, found it easier to assimilate over time. This is certainly not to see that these groups do not differ from then Han Chinese, however in the context of modern Chinese society, these ethnic groups can arguably integrate easily with the Han majority. Conversely, groups such as the Uyghurs, with their belief system stemming from Islam, had a much harder time to assimilating due to contrasting ideas and beliefs. Location, as a second point, is similarly important. China is vast, and the distance between the furthest Western province and the furthest Eastern province is large. Border provinces such as Xinjiang and Tibet have, over history, often fallen into the domain of various kingdoms, and as such, have a complicated and varied history. These groups also have the physical distance as a factor which makes it more difficult to assimilate with the Han majority, as most of the Han Chinese dominate in Eastern cities such as Shanghai and Beijing.

Can we see any examples of this in Chinese society today? Regarding ethnic minorities, a particularly prominent memory of mine came from my time studying in China. Whilst watching a university singing competition, I was introduced to one of the judges by my good friend. Before our meeting, he had briefly mentioned her name, which sounded like no other Chinese name I had ever heard. Consisting of seven characters, it also stood out visually to the usual two or three characters that most Chinese names have. When we finally met in person, she introduced herself as being from the ethnic minority group of Uyghurs, and that she had come all the way from the Western province of Xinjiang to study. It highlighted to me the issue of ethnic integration – how can one integrate when something as fundamental as their name already shows they are different?

What is integration?

It is interesting to define what ‘integration’ as a term actually means. Academics like to define integration on more physical, measurable levels, such as by using the Chinese household registration system (the hu kou system). Whilst this is a good way to measure the actual amount of ethnic minority members that have physically migrated to Han areas, it often overlooks factors such as how marginalized they are by the government in Han majority areas, or whether or not they receive the same benefits as local residents. Most importantly, it overlooks what integration means on a more personal level, and to the individual.

This leads onto the interesting point of whether or not integration is something that can be practically measured. The drawback of viewing the hu kou as a key factor in measuring practical integration is that it also equally affects non-ethnic minority people, as it limits integration of any migrants for the purposes of population control. However, it is interesting to consider to what extent the concept of ‘integration as a feeling’ being a more accurate way to view this issue is.

People have attempted to document the ‘feeling’ of integration by asking the ethnic minority individuals living in Han areas such as Shanghai. One report documented the minority individuals’ happiness at being able to live in a prosperous and advanced city such as Shanghai, however, they had equal dissatisfaction in how local residents perceived them. Citing the terrorist attacks not only within China, but internationally, many of the Uyghurs interviewed commented at how locals would be afraid to approach them, or segregate them in social situations.

The main problems when looking at integration are due to the fact that it is difficult to practically measure how ‘integrated’ someone is. This article is only a very brief look at both ethnic minorities, but also the issue of integrating ethnic minorities into the Han lifestyle. Despite the fact that the reality of integration might look somewhat bleak, what with discrimination existing in Han areas, it is also important to consider that ethnic minority life is changing rapidly in China. Particularly amongst ethnic minority groups, ideas of what it means to be Chinese, and where they fit into society are changing rapidly. As the views of the younger generations change, and the beliefs they hold shift, they are becoming more easily accepted within Chinese society. The reverse is also true, as China sees mass migration by Han families into ethnic minority areas. Despite the fact that this migration creates several new problems, it does help in bringing together people from different ethnic cultures within China and allows them to share ideas and learn from one-another. Despite the fact that we might view China as being a country exclusively Han, at least from a media perspective or from what we see in the West, the beauty of China is that it is, in fact, a large ethnic melting pot, and rivals even the UK and the USA in the sheer amount of ethnicities that live together, and share ways of living, culture, and food. China, in that respect, is exciting, because it finds a way to show you something new every day.