China in My Eyes

50 years of continued friendship


China’s Ethnic Minorities

Colin Mackerras

In China, according to the 2010 census, 113.74 million people, or 8.49 per cent of the total population, belong to 55 state-recognized ethnic minorities. Many live close or very close to the national borders, especially those in Xinjiang, Tibet, Yunnan, Guangxi and Inner Mongolia. In population they are much less concentrated than the Han, which means that, despite their small proportion of the total national population, the territory they inhabit is very large.

Two of the ethnic minorities have gained a good deal of publicity, namely the Tibetans and the Uighurs. The Tibetans inhabit the Tibetan Autonomous Region, plus most of Qinghai, and parts of Sichuan, Yunnan and Gansu. The Dalai Lama and his supporters claim all of Qinghai and other areas where Tibetans live as “Tibet”, whereas the Chinese claim “Tibet” as the Tibetan Autonomous Region only. Most of the Uighurs live in Xinjiang. There are international pressures from the Tibetan and Uighur diasporas for a very high degree of autonomy, verging on independence. Although Chinese policy allows some autonomy to most of the minority areas, the Chinese definition of autonomy is very different from that of diasporas. The Chinese state is very strongly opposed to any degree of autonomy that approaches independence, and suppresses anything resembling independence movements. My own view is to accept the present internationally recognized borders of China. I consider that to question them will make life more difficult both for the Chinese leadership and the ethnic minorities concerned, and is extremely unlikely to lead to success.

The great majority of the minorities have their own cultures. Diasporas, especially the Tibetan and Uighur, tend strongly to accuse the Chinese of destroying their cultures.

My own view is that, contrary to destroying ethnic languages and cultures, China’s policy is to protect and preserve them, and some of them remain quite or very strong to this day. However, authorities suppress those aspects of culture they see as threatening the Chinese state, such as using religion to try and break away from China or stir up rebellion or rioting. Also, the process of extensive modernization and globalization going on in China inevitably affects cultures of all kinds. I believe that these processes change cultures, but do not destroy them.

One very sensitive aspect of culture is language. Again, despite the accusations of diasporas, I don’t see the signs of linguacide (“killing of languages”). Under Chinese policy, ethnic languages are protected and, as one example, every Chinese bank-note from 100 yuan down to 1 jiao (0.1 yuan) has “The People’s Bank of China” written in Chinese characters, Chinese romanized script (pinyin), Tibetan, Mongolian, (both in their own scripts), Uighur (which uses Arabic scipt) and Zhuang (which uses Roman script).

However, the state is very keen for people to learn Chinese, because that is very useful for national unity and state-building. Also, many ethnic minority parents are very keen for their children to learn Chinese, because that is likely to lead to a better job and higher status in society. The practicalities of life, plus the needs of Chinese nation-building, make it very useful for everybody to be able to speak Chinese. The result is that, in the public sphere, such as in the schools, universities, media, law courts, and government, Chinese is becoming more and more widespread, though far from universal. Ethnic languages are still in very widespread use in the private sphere and in the case of Tibetan, Uighur and several others, are highly unlikely to die out.

Dancers. Jianlong Village, Gushan Town, Minhe Hui and Tu Autonomous County, Qinghai Province

Dancers. Jianlong Village, Gushan Town, Minhe Hui and Tu Autonomous County, Qinghai Province

I first became interested in minorities in the sixties as he completed his Masters of Letters in Cambridge on the Uighurs of the Tang Dynasty 618-907.

In the early eighties, I developed an interest in Chinese minorities of the present. I began travelling widely around China and in 1982 went to Xinjiang, in 1985 I went to Tibet and revisited Tibet in 1990. I then travelled widely in other minority areas of China in Guizhou, Yunan, Inner Mongolia and elsewhere.

Colin with ......


Newly wed Hui couple in Qinghai. Hui are often confused with the Han people, but are different in that they are muslim.

Newly wed Hui couple in Qinghai. Hui are often confused with the Han people, but are different in that they are muslim.

young children

My beautiful picture

Editor’s note: Colin has published widely on minorities in China, for some of his publications please see the publication page on this site.  This webpage just hopes to show a brief visual display.

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Yunnan and Guangxi

Inner Mongolia (yet to be made)