In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethnicity and Minority Nationalities Since 1949

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works, Text Material, and Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Theory of Ethnicity
  • Economy and Law among Minority Nationalities
  • Language, Education, Culture among Ethnic Minorities

Chinese Studies Ethnicity and Minority Nationalities Since 1949
Colin Mackerras
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0012


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 definition of an ethnic group (Ch. minzu 民族), given in 1913, 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 article 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, they have created an international issue that bears not only on human rights but even on the status of Tibet.

General Overviews

The 1950s and 1960s saw the publication in China of numerous ethnographies and histories of ethnic minorities, almost all with the main focus on social and economic formations or pre-1949 history. Though based exclusively on the framework imposed by Joseph Stalin’s definition cited in the Introduction, the information they provided was extraordinarily rich and useful at a time when field research by Western scholars was all but impossible. There was also extensive work undertaken to identify the various ethnic minorities and their characteristics. Chinese ethnological scholarship was totally interrupted by the Cultural Revolution (from 1966 to 1976), but it became even more voluminous in the 1980s than it had been in the 1950s and 1960s, persisting into the 1990s and the 21st century. However, during the 1980s it became possible for non-Chinese scholars, especially anthropologists, not only to travel in the minority areas but also to carry out fieldwork there. Some of the literature deals with specific ethnic minorities, but there are also works considering some or all of the fifty-five recognized ethnic minorities as a collective whole. A very popular theme is the emergence of ethnic identity. Relations between ethnic minorities and the Han have changed greatly since reform, with ethnic identity and globalization pointing in opposite directions. Two ethnic groups that attract a substantial literature stemming from various factors, including strengthened ethnic identity and periodic disturbances aiming at independence or greater autonomy, are the Tibetans and the Uighurs, who, however, are also frequently considered in general works.

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