By Tom Booth
In Europe most people think China is a country made up of only one ethnic identity. For many people the standard image of a Chinese person is someone with dark hair and small eyes that speaks Mandarin and writes in logograms.
In reality, China is a country of great ethnic diversity. Out of China’s 1.4 billion total population there are more than 100 million people that are from ethnic minority groups. The largest of these ethnic minorities, the Zhuang, have a population of 18 million – that’s almost twice the size of the population of Greece!
China is made up of 56 ethnic groups, each with a distinctive identity and culture. They have unique languages that are very different from Mandarin Chinese: the Miao Hmong people speak a language that derives from the Sino-Tibetan language family, while the Manchu people speak a Tungusic language that is similar to that spoken in Siberia.
They also have a range of religious beliefs: the Uyghur people are predominantly Muslim, while the Yi traditionally engage in shamanistic ancestor worship.
This diversity is often celebrated as a key part of modern China’s identity.
China’s multiculturalism can be best understood through two key points:
- China is an ancient country with a history stretching back many thousands of years.
- China is extremely large, being almost the same size as the whole of Europe combined.
China has an extremely long and varied history. Over 3000 years ago China was divided into many different states. Many of these were grouped around the Yellow River due to it being excellent land for growing crops. Eventually groups began fighting over land, leading to the Warring States period 475-221 BC.
The victory of the Qin in 221 BC saw China unified for the first time under Emperor Qin, the first emperor of China.
However, the China of the Qin was not the same as the China of today. In fact, it was much smaller, and was only around the east coast. Throughout China’s history, the size of the Chinese empire changed dramatically. The Tang dynasty spread far into the west, while the Song dynasty had shrunk into the south. The Ming saw rapid expansion into the north, and Qing China controlled the whole of Mongolia and large chunks of eastern Russia. Different territories contained different ethnic groups, but were all part of the Chinese empire.
The changing shape of China over history. Image credit: Minneapolis Institute of Art. http://archive.artsmia.org/art-of-asia/history/chinese-dynasty-map.cfm
China not only occupied different areas of land, but was also ruled by different ethnic groups. The Jin dynasty was established by Jurchens, the Yuan by Mongolians and the Qing by Manchu people.
As such, ethnic minority influence is felt in all areas of modern Chinese life. Even in the Forbidden City, perhaps the most iconic monument in all of China, signs and notices are written in Manchu language, tying the place to its history under the Manchu rulers.
China has also been closely connected to the outside world. The Silk Road ran all the way from Europe, along the east coast of Africa, through the Middle East and Asia Minor, around the south Asia subcontinent before entering China. As such, there was an almost constant flow not only of international goods such as spices, herbs and trinkets but also of people, knowledge, religion and language.
As such, the idea of ‘China’ meant different things at different times in history. Because it is such an ancient and large country it is difficult to put a finger on a single ‘Chinese’ identity. One need only look at the huge variety of dialects, cuisine, dress and religious beliefs across Chinese history and the present day to recognise that China has always been, and continues to be, a place of huge ethnic diversity. In this light, perhaps ‘multicultural’ is the most accurate description of what it means to be ‘Chinese.’
About Interact China
“A Social Enterprise in E-commerce Promoting Oriental Aesthetic Worldwide!”
Aileen & Norman co-founded Interact China in 2004 with specialization in fine Oriental Aesthetic products handmade by ethnic minorities & Han Chinese. Having direct partnerships with artisans, designers, craft masters and tailors, along with 13 years of solid experience in e-commerce via InteractChina.com, we are well positioned to bridge talented artisans in the East with the rest of the world, and directly bring you finely selected products that are of good quality and aesthetic taste.
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