China is a large country with an incredible diversity in climate, terrain, weather and especially in people. China has 56 officially recognized ethnic groups and a large number of unofficial ethnic groups. Of these 56 groups, the largest group is the Han Chinese who makeup 91.51% of China’s population and the remaining 8.49% are China’s fascinating and colourful ethnic minorities.
The following table outlines the largest of China’s ethic groups using data from the 2005 census
|Han||91.9% of population|
Han Chinese dominate culturally, politically and economically and can be found in every region of the country. Ethnic minorities are mainly found smaller and more isolated communities in the west and north of China and in same parts of the south.
Depending on where and how you travel in China, you will have the opportunity to meet many of China’s ethnic minorities, taste their delicious cuisine, listen to their music, enjoy their customs and admire their different and often spectacular clothing.
History of minorities and travel in China
Since the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949, the Han dominated Chinese government has been busy identifying and classifying the different minorities and promoting China as a harmonious multiethnic country. A part of this promotion was having minority representatives performing on TV. One problem was that many minorities such as the Zhuang were indistinguishable from Han Chinese. The government solved this problem by airing programs of minorities with music, clothing and other practices that had little or nothing to do with their daily lives.
Later when China opened up in the 80’s and the cashed up Han started to travel, one of their favourite travel past times was to visit the more exotic minorities they had seen on TV. Minority entrepreneurs cashed in on this opportunity and set up acts and performances for Han tourists that mirrored the programs aired on TV that had very little bearing on reality.
While some minorities are clearly unique and different, t be fair to government, the media and minority entrepreneurs, there is often very little difference between various minorities or between minorities and the Han. For example most Hui appear identical to Han except they practice Islam, and most Manchus have been absorbed and assimilated by Han Chinese.
The best way to experience China’s minority cultures is to travel to areas where minorities are dominant, eat in their restaurants, sleep in their guest houses and hostels, get out and walk, bus or bike through their communities and enjoy the beauty and diversity of the lands they live in.
I have listed below some of best provinces and cities to experience China’s ethnic minorities during your travels. Keep in mind that this list is just a guide and there are virtually unlimited places in the west and north of China where you can travel and enjoy China’s minorities.
Yunnan is ideal because it has so many top travel spots and it is home to 25 minority groups. To experience any of these 25 minorities, you need to get out of Kunming to cities such as Lijiang, Shangrila and Dali.
Lijiang – Lijiang is the home to the Naxi where they have been a dominating political force and governed Lijiang for over 800 years until the fall of the Qing Dynasty. Lijiang has a number of other minorities but the Naxi are the most dominant and the ones you are most likely to see in the Old Town and Lijiang’s other attractions. When you hike the Leaping Tiger Gorge near Lijiang, the guides are mostly Naxi and the hiking trail goes through a number of Naxi villages.
Shangrila – Shangrila lies at the cross roads of Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan so it is home to many different minorities. The largest minority group is the Tibetans followed by the Naxi and the Bai. Tibetans have their own language which has many dialects that you can hear as you wander around Shangrila. Most Tibetans practice Tibetan Buddhism which explains the presence of Buddhist monasteries in and around Shangrila where large numbers of Tibetans can be seen amongst the horde of Han tourists.
Dali – Dali is home to the Bai people who have most of their communities in the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture. The Bai people have their own dialect, folk lore and form of Buddhism. Dali also has the stunning Erhai lake and Cangshan Mountain which are great travel spots.
Xinjiang is a semi autonomous region and one of the two areas in China where ethnic minorities out number the Han. The Han population stands at almost 50% and there is strong Han migration into Xijiang so the ethnic balance is likely to change very soon. The dominant ethnic minorities in Xinjiang are the Uygur followed by the Kazak.
Both the Uygur and Kazak are Muslim which gives their architecture, culture, cuisine and customs a colourful and distinct look and feel that cannot be found elsewhere in China. Their language has Turkish influence and uses Arabic script which you will see in literature, on signs and in shop windows when you travel there.
Urumqi – The capital of Xijiang and famous for being a major city furthest from any ocean. Urumqi is a beautiful city with many striking mosques and a number of tourist attractions such as the Heavenly Lake and the Southern Pastures.
Kashgar – This Uygur dominated city is China’s Muslim capital and one of China’s most inaccessible cities. This gives Kashgar a look and feel different from any other Chinese city and different from the rest of Xinjiang. Kashgar is also an oasis city with a population much less than half a million which is tiny by Chinese standards. Walking around Kashgar you could easily imagine yourself in the middle east. One of the places to see when you travel to Kashgar is the Id Kah Mosque which is China’s largest and the enormous Sunday Bazaar.
Inner Mongolia has a population of around 24 million (2005 Census) which makes this province one of the least populated in China. The main ethnic minorities in Inner Mongolia are the Mongol, Han, Huis, Manchus, Daurs, Ewenkis, Oroqens and Koreans. The Han make up around 79% of Inner Mongolia’s population while the Mongols make up around 17%
Hohhot – The capital city of Inner Mongolia is home to 36 ethnic minorities such as Mongol, Manchu and Hui and is full of ancient temples so a great place to experience China’s minorities. Hohhot also has immense natural beauty with travel spots such as the Gegentala (immense grasslands) and te Xilamuren grasslands.
Hulunbeier – This is a large sprawling city in the north east of Inner Mongolia. Hulunbeier was settled by nomadic tribesmen and is the traditional home of 30 ethnic minorities. The main ethnic minority is the Mongol. Hulunbeier has a number of festivals such as the Summer Grassland and Beer festival where you can enjoy China’s tribal minorities.
To try and protect the ethnic minorities and their cultures, the Chinese government has exempt minorities from the one child policy, given them representation in the National Peoples Congress at prefectural and provincial level and set up ethnic autonomous regions. Despite these measures, China’s ethnic minorities are gradually becoming assimilated and absorbed by the Han and losing their traditional cultures and way of life.
Based on recent statistics, there are only two regions in China where the Han are not the dominant ethnic group are Xinjiang and Tibet. Due to migration, the Han will eventually become the dominant ethnic group even in these two areas. Improved transport infrastructure and travel is great for foreign and domestic tourists and for local ethnic economies but also promotes migration. A striking example is the recent direct rail link from eastern China to Tibet which is an incredible technical and economical accomplishment but promotes Han migration to Tibet and the commercialization and degradation of Tibetan culture.
So when you travel in China and experience China’s ethnic minorities, keep in mind that there is often a lot of ethnic conflict. Be discrete, respectful and try to stay out of politics. In Xinjiang with the Muslim minorities, also be careful not to insult or offend their religious values.
For more information on China’s ethnic minorities, I suggest you use the link below
This site is the best source of information in China’s ethnic minorities that I’ve found and contains a lot of fascinating information on each of the 55 minorities. From the main page, click in the minority you are interested and the site will take you to a summary page for the that minority From the summary page, click on the title under the two photos.