The Unreached Peoples Prayer Profiles. China - Land of Diversity

China - Land of Diversity

Part 2
The National Minorities

Outside the diverse and gigantic family of the Han, China today has no fewer than fifty-five registered national minorities. Probably the best known of these are the 4.6 million Tibetans whose unique and unlikely culture flowering on the roof of the world has captured imaginations for centuries. But they are outnumbered by other nationalities. In the arid steppes of Xinjiang province there are 7.2 million Muslim Uighur - more people than live in Denmark. The Zhuang, who rule themselves in their own autonomous region of beautiful Guangxi province, number fourteen million, more than the population of the Netherlands. The Tujia, Dong, Yao, Bai, Hani, Li, Dai, and Kazak are all nations more than a million strong. There are as many people of the Yi race scattered through the southwestern hills as there are Swiss in their native mountains. There are more Hui Muslims in the northwest than the entire population of Saudi Arabia, and in their ancestral homelands, the Mongols and the Manchu hold sway.

Then there are tiny clusters of tribal wanderers like the Ewenki who roam the frozen north, a mere 26,000 of them, whom anthropologists link to the Eskimos of Alaska. Similarly, racial scientists believe the thousand Gaoshan of Taiwan and Fujian are related to the early Polynesians. The Bouyei of Guizhou are pure Thai, the Koreans of Manchuria are directly related to their cousins on the peninsula and the Tatars of Xinjiang are blood brothers to their relatives over the former Soviet border in Central Asia. In the southwestern provinces nature has been generous indeed with her genes; racial groups trace their bloodlines to a bewildering mixture of Tibetan, Chinese, Thai, Burman, Shan, Karen, Khmer, Polynesian and many other heritages.

The reason these 90 million people, who account for only about 8 percent of China's population, occupy so critical a place in the Chinese scheme of things is threefold. Firstly, they occupy 62 percent of China's total land area. Secondly, over 90 percent of the border region of China is occupied by national minorities. And finally, by far the greater portion, sometimes even the whole, of forestry resources, mining resources, precious medical resources, tropical crops and bases of animal husbandry industries are located in national minority regions.

The Languages of the National Minorities.
The diverse origins of the minority along with the unbalanced and asynchronous process of the various groups' development has resulted in the number of languages spoken in China being larger than the number of nationalities. China has 55 minority nationalities but more than 80 minority languages.

Some nationalities use more than one language, partly belonging to different language families or branches of one family. For instance, the Yao use three languages, and the Jingpo, the Yugur, the Monba, and the Lhoba use two languages each. The Gaoshan (a minority living in Taiwan), use more than ten languages. Some Tibetans living in Sichuan use a language that is not only different from Tibetan, but also different from other languages of the Sino-Tibetan family. Even now some of the nationalities have not yet established a common language.

The languages of China can be classified into five families. There are more than 40 languages belonging to the Sino-Tibetan family, 19 to the Altaic family, 13 (the Gaoshan languages) to the Malayo-Polynesian family, three to the Austro-Asiatic family, and two to the Indo-European family. In addition, the genealogies of some languages, such as Korean and Jing, need to be further studied, since they are not yet fully understood.

Languages of China's Minority Peoples.
Family Group Branch Major Languages Minor Languages Province or Locality
SINO TIBETAN KAM-THAI   Thai, Lao Zhuang, Bouyei, Dai, Mulam, Dong, Shui, Gelo, Li, Maonan Guangxi, Yunnan, Guizhou, Hainan
MIAO-YAO     Miao, Yao, She Mountains of Western Hunan, Gungxi, Guizhou, Yunnan, Mountains of Western Gaungdong.
TIBETO BURMAN   Burmese, Tibetan Achang, Lisu, Naxi, Yi, Lahu, Hani, Bai, Tujia, Jingpo, Nu, Drung, Lhoba, Qiang, Monba, Jino, Primi Tibet, Sichuan, Qinghai, Yunnan, Guizhou
AUSTRO-ASIATIC MON KHMER   Khmer Deang, Blang, Va, (Jing?) Area between the Nu and Lantsang Rivers in Western Yunnan
ALTAIC TURKIC Southwestern (Oghuz) Turkic   Most of Xingiang, Northwest corner of Inner Mongolia, part of Kansu
Northwestern (Kipchak) Kazak, Kyrgyz, Tatar  
Southeastern Uzbek, Uighur  
MONGOLIAN   Mongolian Dongxiang, Tu, Bonan, Daur, Yugur Inner Mongolia, Xingjiang, most provinces of North China
TUNGUSIC Northern   Evenki, Oroqen Inner Mongolia, Xingjiang, northeast corner of Heilongjiang, lower reaches of Sungari
Southern (Manchu)   Manchu, Hezhen, Xibe

  • Sino-Tibetan Languages
    A great number of the minority languages of Southwest China belong to the Tibeto-Burman branch of the Sino-Tibetan linguistic family and usually are divided into two major subgroups - the Tibetan and the Miao-Yao. Tibetan is spoken not only in Tibet but also in Qinghai, Northwestern Yunnan, and Western Sichuan provinces. The earliest records in the Tibetan language date back to the ninth century, when the Tibetan alphabet was first derived from the Hindu alphabet. A large amount of Tibetan literature, mainly Buddhist, has been preserved in the Lama Buddhist monasteries.

    In Southern Sichuan province, in Eastern Tibet, and throughout Yunnan and Guizhou provinces there are groups, such as the Yi, Naxi, Lisu, and others, that speak somewhat similar Tibeto-Burman languages. The Yi have their own syllabic writing, which is largely used in religious texts. The Naxi posses two systems of writing, one pictorial and the other syllabic. Several alphabetic systems for the Lisu dialect have been devised by Westerners who have worked among them.

    The language of the Bai who live in western Yunnan may belong to the Tibeto-Burman family. It, however, shows a strong Chinese influence in vocabulary and probably in word order so that its status is questionable.

    The languages of the Miao-Yao groups are spoken by many peoples in the mountainous areas throughout southwest China. Formerly it was believed that Miao belonged to the Mon-Khmer branch of the Austro-Asiatic language family and that Yao was related to Tai. Some recent studies, have tried to establish the relationship between Miao and Yao, as well as their position in the Tibeto-Burman family. However, not all scholars agree with this.

    Tai languages are closely related to Chinese. Some scholars place Tai within a separate Tai-Kadai family, but most agree that it belongs to the Sino-Tibetan group. It is spoken by various ethnic groups in Guangxi, Yunnan, and Guizhou and appears in a number of dialects. These forms can be classified into two larger groups - northern Tai and southwestern Tai. Northern Tai consists of some of the Zhuang dialects spoken in Guangxi province. Southwestern Tai consists of dialects spoken mainly outside China.

  • Altaic Languages
    The Altaic languages include Turkic, Mongolian, Tungusic, and Korean branches. The relationship between the branches has not definitely been established, but they have several features in common that justify subgrouping them under the general heading of Altaic, derived from the region around the Altai Mountains. Speakers of Altaic languages are spread over a very wide area in Asia Minor, Central Asia, and Siberia, but only a few are found in China.

    Speakers of Turkic languages in China include the Uygurs, Kazaks, and Kirgiz in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Gansu. Mongolian speakers include the Mongols in Inner Mongolia and several much smaller groups. Tungusic speakers include groups in Manchuria and in the most northeastern part of Inner Mongolia. The affinities of Korean are uncertain, but it is sometimes included among Ataic languages. Its vocabulary, however, has been heavily influenced by Chinese. Mongolians in China use their own traditional Mongolian script, which gives them a feeling of superiority over their ethnic kin in the Mongolian People's Republic who have switched to the alien Cyrillic alphabet. There has been some talk of romanizing Mongolian script, but the Mongols resist its introduction. The well-established written language of the Uygurs uses an Arabic script, as do those of the Kazaks and the Kirgiz.

  • Austro-Asiatic and Indo-European Languages
    Only a few minority peoples - the Deang, Blang, and Va - concentrated in southern and southwestern areas bordering Burma, Laos, and North Vietnam speak Mon-Khmer languages of the Austro-Asiatic language family. Their total numbers are quite small. Only two languages, Tajik and Russian, spoken by a small group in southwestern Xinjiang and Heilongjiang, are members of the Indo-European language family.

  • Minority-language writing systems
    Minority nationality languages are almost all non-Sinitic and unintelligible to each other and the Han Chinese. Some have well developed and useful written forms; others have scripts that are inadequate to serve the mass of their people; and still others have no written languages at all.

    Although the writing systems of China's minority nationalities are less numerous than the languages, the complexity of the various writing systems and literary traditions is rarely if ever matched in other countries. Before the founding of the People's Republic of China, only 17 nationalities had their own writing systems. Most of them are alphabetic; they can be classified into the following five types according to their origin:

    • Writing systems based on the ancient Indian alphabet: the Tibetan writing system and the four varieties of the Dai writing system;
    • Writing systems based on the Arabic alphabet: the Uygur, Kazak, and Kirgiz writing systems;
    • Writing systems based on the Uygur alphabet: the Mongolian, the Manchu, and the Xibe writing systems;
    • Writing system based on the Latin alphabet: the Jingpo, Lahu, Lisu, and Va writing systems;
    • Original creations: the Korean writing system and the Miao writing system created by Samuel Pollard.

    The nonalphabetic writing systems can be classified into three types:

    • Pictography: the Dongba writing system used by the Naxi nationality;
    • Syllable writing: the Yi writing system, the Geba writing system once used by the Naxi nationality, and the Wangrenpo writing system used by the Lisu nationality in Weixi county, Yunnan province;
    • Character writing created under the influence of the Chinese writing system: the Zhuang writing system, the Miao writing system, and some others.

    In an effort to expand written forms among the minority groups, the government is improving the imperfect written language of the Dai and Yi; providing revised scripts for the Miao, Zhuang, and Bouyei; and initiating a totally new script for the Li people and others.

    Minority nationalities other than 27 mentioned above have no writing systems of their own. After the People's Republic was founded, the government implemented a policy of unity and national equality, granting the nationalities the right to cultivate their own languages and cultures. Their national characteristics and feelings are to be respected. Many nationalities were provided with a writing system for their language for the first time; others had their systems reformed. In the 1950s, 14 Latin alphabetic systems were created for the Zhuang, Bouyei, Miao, Dong, Hani, Lisu, Va, Li, Naxi, and Yi. Of these only that of the Zhuang language has been approved by the State Council for use by the Zhuang nationality, while the other 13 have only been approved either by the Central National Affairs Committee, or by the local government departments.

The Minorities and Religion.
One of the most important aspects of culture within China's minority nationalities is religion, for within these minorities there is an enormous diversity.

The strongest is undoubtedly Islam, which prevails among the Hui people and most of the Xinjiang nationalities, such as Uygurs, Kazaks, Kirgiz, Tajiks, Tatars and Uzbeks. Another still very strong religion is Lama Buddhism, to which the Tibetans and Mongolians adhere. Hinayana Buddhism is still followed, especially among some of the nationalities of Yunnan like the Dai and Blang. Various forms of polytheism or nature worship are traditional among the Hani, Miao, Yao, Va and others, while shamanism still exists among the Ewenkis, Daurs and Oroqens of China's far northeast, the Xibe in Northwest Xinjiang, and in Yunnan. Missionaries converted some of the Yi, Miao and others in Western Yunnan to Christianity, and some of the Russians and Ewenkis in Northern China still adhere to the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The religious differences between the Han and minorities hardly contributed to good inter-nationality feelings in old China. This was especially the case with Islam. One contemporary scholar has written:

"The Muslim Chinese felt that they belonged to an alien people and regarded themselves as superior to their neighbours. Just as Chinese hatred towards Muslims may be traced back to the Yuan, when Muslim bureaucrats were the masters, so the Muslims may have preserved their feelings of superiority since those days, and reinforced them by their communal distinctiveness and by their claim to be the adepts of the Word of Allah and disciples of His Messenger..."

Muslim counter-contempt for the Chinese was so deep-seated that when a Chinese became converted to Islam, it was customary in many parts of China to have him eat crude soda to obtain internal purification.

When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power it determined to overthrow the economic and political power of the religious bodies, both Han and minority nationality. It also tried to prevent the religions from disrupting the unity of the nationalities. As for the social influence, its policy was that any religious tenet which directly opposed the social change which the CCP was advocating should be suppressed, but that anybody was free to believe in and practice any religion.

This policy obviously included atheism. Chinese spokesmen consistently argue that in traditional societies of the minority nationalities 'Certain religions were imposed on some minorities under reactionary rule. They enjoyed no religious freedom. They were not free to be atheists or to believe in some other religion.'

In accordance with their policy, the Communists progressively took over the monastic lands and destroyed the political power of the clerics. In all nationality areas some religious buildings were taken over for other purposes, such as schools or museums, but others were left to house clergy or for the worship of the people.

The social side of religion posed the biggest problems for the Communists. There were of course many questions with quite straightforward answers. The human sacrifices of the Va were part of their nature worship, which was no reason for not banning them. The same logic stopped Muslim polygamy and the forcing of boys into lamanist or other monasteries. On the other side of the coin, there was no conceivable reason for forbidding Moslems to abstain from pork. Other problems were not so simple. Should Islamic women continue to wear the veil? The answer was that the practice was degrading to women and it should go. Should women be allowed to worship along with men in mosques? This was left to the nationalities themselves to decide. In practice very few women do so, although the gender segregation inherent in the ruling is arguably also degrading to women. Should the religious schools found among so many nationalities in the past continue to operate? Here the answer was no, for while the CCP was prepared to tolerate it, they saw no reason why it should allow their propagation.

This limited religious freedom changed to outright persecution during the Cultural Revolution. Mosques, temples, lamaseries and churches were closed down in more or less all parts of China, including nationality areas. The lamas, Imans, Christian leaders and other clergy were sent into production or expelled from their religious abodes. Han Red Guards went into the minority religions and actively tried to prevent belief in or practice of any religions, the grounds being that all religion represented feudalism. It was part of the machinery of exploiting classes to oppress the masses, and should be therefore suppressed. The emphasis on class struggle as the key link prevented any exemptions for minority nationalities.

It comes as no surprise that the policy and practice of the Cultural Revolution caused bitter resentments among religious devotees. With the fall of the gang of four in October 1976 the door was opened to change back to the former policies. Religion revived strongly all over China. It is currently stronger among many minority nationalities than in the 1950s and shows no signs of weakening. Chinese social scientists ascribe this strength to reaction against the persecution suffered during the Cultural Revolution. They admit, however, that religion will be influential among the minority nationalities for a long time to come.

Although the CCP is currently prepared to tolerate religions among the minority nationalities, it remains true that social pressure against them is strong, especially in the cities. Lessons in the schools are hostile to them. The way up the social scale is through Marxist materialism, not religion. Although there have been press complaints about CCP members among the minority nationalities attending religious celebrations, the fact is that a party member is forbidden to believe in religion. CCP membership remains a sign of high social status all over China, including the minority areas.

A large proportion of the roughly 90 million members of ethnic minorities belong to some religion, mainly Islam and Buddhism; Christianity also has influence among some minorities. The religious question is complex and was visibly demonstrated by the uprisings of Uighur Muslims in the city of Kashgar in 1981 and of the Tibetan lamas in recent years.

A revival of religion is evident in minority regions, more conspicuously in the countryside than in the cities. A vigorous, lively religious activity is discernible everywhere, but especially in Islamic and Buddhist regions. Sacred writings (the Koran, the Bible, the Daodejing, etc.) have been officially published. Mosques and temples have been restored mainly on the initiative and with the resources of the faithful. In the Hui (the largest Moslem minority) regions in northwest China, whole city districts have built their own mosques. The names of all donors were listed on large wall posters. Hui respondents have declared (almost without exception) that their greatest desire is to make a pilgrimage to Mecca; many take leisure-time jobs to save money for this trip. The desire for an Islamic upbringing for their children and for their receiving instruction in the rules of the Koran is considerable. In Tibet as well, religion has enjoyed a revival among the youth.

None of this is surprising; religion cannot be simply suppressed, and experiences in China have confirmed this. Religion is a part of a national culture and national identity for many ethnic minorities. Professing one's religion means profession of one's own nationality.

The official policy is that the authorities are not to interfere in the religious affairs of minorities as long as state affairs and the education system are not affected. But the line is difficult to draw. Among the Islamic Hui, the mullahs are more frequently listened to than the party secretaries. And party membership and religious membership are still considered incompatible. The fact that the party warns against participation of party cadres in religious or "superstitious" activities (which is evidently increasing in minority regions) shows that religion still holds some power of attraction, even for officials.

But a distinction must be drawn between party members of Han nationality and those of national minorities. The latter must "not be rejected" if they have not yet completely severed their ties with their religious beliefs; rather, they "must be helped" (through "ideological education") to "raise their political consciousness." Only those who incite religious fanaticism and work against the principles of the party in name of religion should be removed from the party.

Functionaries from minority regions are faced with a dilemma: they are expected to sever themselves from the religion of their nationality. But if they no longer believe in the religious doctrines and rite but reject them, and refuse to participate in the ceremonies held by members of their nationality (weddings, funerals, and other solemnities), they soon find themselves rejected by the members of their ethnic wrong group. Many will certainly find it difficult to decide how they should behave and what attitude the party actually desires of them. They thus run the risk (as in Moslem regions) of isolating themselves from the majority of the believers. This puts them in a permanent conflict of conscience between allegiance to the party and to religious population. The Chinese press frequently refers to the growing trend of punishing those who no longer believe in religion by "expelling them from their membership in a nationality," indicating that for many minorities, nationality questions and the religion question are identical.

Religion in China is seen as something alien, as something that has come from outside and that is sometimes a threat to the state; as something that gains influence especially in times of internal weakness; as a counterpoint to higher Confucian morality - these traditional basic structures are still to a certain extent operative today in the official attitude toward religions. Even though state intervention in religious matters would be hardly conceivable in the West, from the historical perspective of China it seems almost logical, since religious groups have often been the center of incursions into state power. The experience with Christianity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries showed the Chinese how religion can be used by foreign powers to weaken China. Accordingly, the overtures of foreign churches are still today regarded with suspicion.

Yet deference of foreign nations in the interest of the political and economic open-door policy of China is probably a decisive factor in allowing expanded religious activity. The Chinese leadership is trying to focus the faithful of all religions on the objective of developing China, urging believers and nonbelievers alike to work together to the good of the country.

But what if the party begins to lose the "ideological struggle"? This could very well lead to continual friction and opposition between the party and the faithful.

Theoretically, cooperation between religious circles and Communists is not ruled out despite the antagonism between the two as long as the latter respect and protect the freedom of religious belief and the former do not work against the interests of the party. But since these interests can be interpreted in different ways, relations between the faithful and the Communists can hardly remain free of conflict. Religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama therefore are seeking new interpretation to allow for mutual cooperation. The Dalai Lama sees, for example, strong similarities between the goals of the Marxists and of the Buddhists, and therefore the possibility for "peaceful coexistence" and cooperation, and even mutual enrichment.

By definition, religion must endeavor to spread the faith, Religious freedom in the Western sense is conductive to the spread of religion. But if religion must subordinate itself to the interest of the state power, and this interest is directed against spread of religion, then there in no religious freedom in this sense.

The Minorities and Education.
Most of China's national minorities inhabit the poorest regions of the country. As measured in terms of a variety of variables, these regions have the lowest levels of industrial development, urbanization, provisions for health care, communication and transportation infrastructure, educational provision, and general standard of living.

Moreover, the economic reform policies of the four modernization periods, while working to concentrate investment on coastal regions of the east, largely ignored the west where most of the national minority population resides. Nevertheless, many of the western regions could not survive without the already generous government aid packages.

What all this has meant for education is less investment in building human resources, inadequate expenditures for teacher training and teacher retention, a lack of financial resources with which to build safe schools, and insufficient allocations from other sectors of the national minority regions that could be used to further vocational and technical education.



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