Ethnicity and Minority Nationalities Since 1949

Colin Mackerras

in Chinese Studies

ISBN: 9780199920082
Published online April 2013 | | DOI:
Ethnicity and Minority Nationalities Since 1949

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This article covers works about ethnicity in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and minority nationalities since 1949 with an emphasis on the reform period since 1978. The Chinese state still follows Joseph Stalin’s 1913 definition of an ethnic group (Ch. minzu 民族) as “a historically constituted community of people, having a common territory, a common language, a common economic life and a common psychological makeup which expresses itself in a common culture” (Stalin, “Marxism and the National Question,” in Works, Vol. 2 [Moscow: Foreign Languages, 1953], p. 307). Under this definition, the Chinese state recognizes fifty-six ethnic groups in China—the majority Han and fifty-five minority nationalities (shaoshu minzu 少数民族, often also translated “ethnic minorities”). According to the 2010 census, which included only the mainland of China, not Hong Kong, Macao, or Taiwan, 8.49 percent of China’s population belonged to the fifty-five minorities, a total of 113,792,211 persons, while the Han were 91.51 percent. Although the minorities are thus only a small proportion of China’s total population, the territory they inhabit is about 60 percent of the mainland and includes most of the border areas, some of them extremely sensitive. For this reason, they are politically and strategically much more important than their numbers might suggest. Many of the minorities are quite similar to the Han in language and culture, but others are quite different both from the Han and from one another. Most speak Sino-Tibetan languages, which are thus related to Chinese, but others speak Altaic (including Turkic) languages, and a few speak languages belonging to other families. In terms of religion, the minorities are also very diverse, with the best-known internationally being Islam and the characteristic Buddhism of the Tibetans. As China has strengthened over the past decades, the issue of ethnic identity has become more important, while the Chinese state has insisted on its own territorial integrity and thus resisted all separatist movements with all the force at its command. The members of most minority nationalities are quite willing to integrate or even assimilate with the dominant Han and with the Chinese state. However, others have seen strong resistance movements; the outstanding examples are the Tibetans and the Uighurs, the latter being Muslims and Turkic. (This ethnonym is also spelled Uyghurs or Uygurs, but for consistency’s sake this bibliography adopts the spelling Uighurs except in titles of works, in which case the original spelling is preserved.) Disturbances among these two ethnic groups have occurred periodically and, especially in the case of the Tibetans, have created an international issue that bears not only on human rights but even on the status of Tibet.

Article.  12023 words. 

Subjects: East Asian Studies ; Asian History ; East Asian Philosophy ; East Asian Religions

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