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Ethnic Identification in China


he ethnic identification is to clarify and identify registered communities of people as ethnic groups in a particular area at a particular time based on their characteristic. When the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded, there appeared more than 400 groups of people, more than 260 in Yunnan alone registered. How should these groups of people be identified? After thirty years, ethnic identification was done successfully and has been proven correct by history. So, by what process were these results achieved?

The ethnic identification has significant theoretical, policy-related and scientific aspects, and it has a direct bearing on the basic work of carrying out the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) policy of equality for all ethnic groups. For more than thirty years, Chinese government departments at all levels concerned with ethnic affairs, starting from the actual conditions of all of China’s ethnic groups, undertook scientific, thorough and systematic surveys and evaluations of all of China’s extremely complex communities of people and put the work of ethnic identification on a scientific basis.

 A Complex Ethnic Community and Their Names for Them Took Shape over a Long Period of Historical Development
Throughout its history, China has been a multiethnic country. Some ethnic groups have lived within China’s borders since ancient times. In every historical period, there have been others that have migrated into Chinese territory, merged with groups that have been here a long time, and gradually multiplied.
Ethnic groups are formed gradually through a long historical process of development. Many of China’s ethnic groups have undergone dramatic changes over their long course of historical development. In legendary times, the Huaxia ethnic group, forerunners of the present Han ethnic group, lived in the Yellow River Valley. Surrounding them were communities of people they called the Northern Di, the Southern Man, the Eastern Yi and the Western Rong. Other ethnic communities appeared during the period from the Shang and the Zhou dynasties and the Qin Han Dynasties. Owing to many factors such as establishing frontier garrisons and changes of dynasties, ethnic groups migrated and populations shifted, which resulted in the intermingling of ethnic groups. Some disappeared, some became weak, some merged into other ethnic groups and became a part of them, and some developed into new ethnic groups. The reason the Han ethnic group is so large is that it amalgamated other ethnic groups into it.
In the early years of the PRC, the way ethnic groups were named was relatively complex. In some cases, different members of the same ethnic group had different names for their ethnic group. For example, members of the Dai ethnic group living in different areas called themselves by different names. Those living in Xishuangbanna called themselves Daile; those living around Dehong called themselves Daina; and those living in the Honghe River district and along the Jinshajiang River called themselves Daiya. Also, members of the Zhuang ethnic group in Yunnan variously called themselves Buyi, Buzhuang, Busha, and Bupian. Also for some ethnic groups there were different Chinese transliterations of the same name of an ethnic group. For example, Tubo, Bo and Bo were all transliterations of the name the Tibetan ethnic group called itself in its own language.
Owing to the constant disintegration and reconstitution of ethnic groups and their constant changes, many ethnic groups were formed, and the relations between them involved complex systems of branches based on different criteria. The history of China’s ethnic groups is long and complex.
The Basis and Criteria for Identification of Ethnic
An ethnic group is a relatively stable community of people that changes along with the course of history. The ethnic identification is to clarify and identify registered communities of people as ethnic groups in a particular region at a particular time based on their characteristics. When the People’s Republish of China (PRC) was founded, there appeared, more than 400 groups of people, more than 260 in Yunnan alone. So, ethnic identification was needed, but two questions needed to be clear. First, is this group an ethnic minority, or is it part of Han people? And second, if the group falls into the category of ethnic minority, is it an ethnic group by itself or a part of another ethnic group?
The Chinese government undertook the ethnic identification for each ethnic community on the basis of actual conditions. An ethnic group is a stable community formed through the course of history whose members have a common language and homeland, shared economic life, and similar psychological make-up expressed through common cultural characteristics. Ethnic groups can also include ethnic communities having different levels of development, for example, ethnic communities from different historical periods, including precapitalist ethnic communities at various stages of development.
The Chinese government believes that in the process of ethnic identification, it doesn’t matter whether their population or areas are large or small, their level of economic and cultural development or their stage of social development is high or low. According to this principle, the work of ethnic identification for ethnic communities at precapitalist stages of development cannot be based entirely on applying the four criteria for modern ethnic groups. Furthermore, ethnic groups do not receive these four kinds of characteristics from heaven fully formed and immutable. Some of them, such as a common language and psychological make-up, took shape over a long course of historical development starting when the group was in a precapitalist stage. For ethnic communities in their precapitalist period whose characteristics are still in rudimentary form, it is inevitable that the process of development will be uneven and that some characteristics may develop faster than others. Also, ethnic communities will undergo differentiation and integration during the process of their formation, and some of them will be in the transitional state of being separated but not different or together but not yet the same. This creates a condition in which the four characteristics defining an ethnic group are neither clear nor balanced. Therefore, in the course of ethnic identification, China correctly established objective bases for identification based on the country’s conditions and the ethnic groups’ actual circumstances.
A Common Area is One of the Bases for Shaping of Ethnic Groups
Each one of China’s ethnic groups gradually established its own area, whether large or small, over a long period of historical development. However, the area of some ethnic groups overlapped with others. In particular, most ethnic communities for which identification was difficult are in a precapitalist stage of development. Some ethnic communities constantly migrated from one area to another for various historical reasons. They were scattered over disconnected areas, but they still maintained certain social relations and common psychological make-up. Therefore, we cannot conclude that disconnected areas break up a community of people, and we cannot simple-mindedly take the criterion that an ethnic group shares a common territory to mean that an ethnic group has only one area or that the vast majority of its population lives in one place. Some of China’s ethnic minorities are scattered over several disconnected areas, but the psychological make-up and languages of all their subgroups have much in common. When surveying the areas where an ethnic group lives, it is important to notice the characteristics of the area and the relations of the ethnic group to other ethnic groups living among them and in neighboring areas.
A Common Language is an Important Basis for Identifying Ethnic Groups
In ethnic identification, China places great emphasis on the analysis of all ethnic groups’ languages. Except for a few ethnic minorities that speak Chinese, most of them have their own language. However, due to historical reasons and the fact that ethnic groups have their own areas, some of their languages have two or more dialects, which differ greatly in some cases. In general, people belonging to the same ethnic community should have some kind of common language; otherwise, it cannot be called an ethnic group. This does not mean that different ethnic groups at any time in whatever circumstances must speak their own languages. In fact, there are cases of different ethnic groups speaking the same language; for example, the Han and Hui ethnic groups both speak Chinese, but they are different ethnic groups. Similarly, community of people speaking two or more languages could well constitute a single ethnic group. Therefore, you cannot say that if a community of people lacks a common language. It does not constitute an ethnic community.
Having a Common Economic Life is a Characteristic of an Ethnic Group
Most of the ethnic groups in China live at the precapitalist stage of development, and they have not yet formed the national markets and economic centers that ethnic groups at an advanced capitalist stage of development have. In addition, when Han people or other ethnic minorities live among them or in neighboring areas, the backward ethnic groups form joint markets and economic centers with their neighbors or make use of those their neighbors have already formed. In the modern history, ethnic groups became more and more connected economically, which caused their economic activities to take on a common character. The resulting shared economic centers and markets have developed to the point that they have become unities that are inseparable from their regional economies. So in evaluating this characteristic of the common economic life of a ethnic group needing identified, it is necessary to make an historical analysis and comparison of the economic relations between ethnic groups and focus the research on differentiating the economic characteristics and systems, production tools, technology and methods, traditional economic practices and totality of trade patterns of all communities in the region where they live.
Having a Common Psychological Make-up within a Common Cultural Framework, is a Characteristic of an Ethnic Group
An ethnic group’s material and spiritual life, customs and habits, history and traditions, literature and art, religious beliefs, and ethnic temperament are all concrete manifestations of the ethnic group’s common psychological make-up. This kind of common psychological make-up is gradually formed during the long course of development of the ethnic group’s society and history. It plays a more important role in ethnic identification that the other characteristics because every ethnic group has a very strong ethnic consciousness. And ethnic group attaches an ardent emotional value to habits and customs, religious beliefs and ethnic temperament different from those of other ethnic groups in order to continue living and developing, enhance common psychological make-up and strengthen its internal unity, and it raises this emotion to the level of being a unique symbol of the ethnic group that gives all its members a sense of intimacy as belonging to the same community. At the same time, the ethnic group takes the beloved features of the ethnic temperament created through a long period of living together and transforms them into a form on whose basis the ethnic group produces its art. When this art is disseminated, it becomes a hallmark by which everyone identifies the ethnic group.
The common psychological make-up of an ethnic group is expressed in such aspects of its material civilization as its clothing, food, houses and activities and in such customs as weddings and funerals, festivals, ceremonies, and taboos. The customs and habits common to and ethnic community are manifested not just in its members; frequently other ethnic groups also share some of them. The differences between the habits and customs of ethnic groups living in different areas are partly attributable to differences in the areas themselves. For these reasons, we cannot simply take the characteristics of their customs and habits, their patterns of social life and their religious rites as the primary standard for ethnic identification. It must also be stressed that the people of an ethnic group are attached to its ethnic consciousness and the historical conditions for its development. When examining an ethnic group’s culture and living habits, it is necessary to differentiate which components inherently belong to the ethnic group and which they have acquired through influence from outside groups in order to correctly identify the traditions the ethnic group formed through the course of history. Although a common psychological make-up sustains and ethnic group’s existence and development in any historical period, that does not mean that once it is formed it is invariable; rather, it changes through the group’s course of historical development and as its economy, culture and habits of daily living change.
The above four factors or characteristics are interdependent, interconnected and mutually restricting. Within the four, there is no unique ethnic characteristic but only various kinds of composite characteristics. Therefore, in the course of ethnic identification, we should not look at any given characteristic of the ethnic group in isolation, but should examine all the characteristics of the ethnic group together.
Ethnic Identification and Changing Their Status
The vast majority of China’s ethnic minorities have a long history with origins deep in antiquity, and their social and economic development is uneven. The work of ethnic identification and changing their status must take account of the actual conditions of each ethnic group and the way the four characteristics of present-day ethnic groups are manifested in an ethnic community. It must carry out of a extensive survey of their history, ethnogeny, social-political systems and relations with other ethnic groups and then carry out concrete analysis and study on that foundation. In the work of ethnic identification and adding or subtracting putative subgroups from the group, some groups have been determined to be individual ethnic groups or branches of some other ethnic minority and some have been determined to be part of the Han people.
The Chinese government has always adhered to the following principles for ethnic identification:
1) to make judgments on the basis of all the factors that go into shape and ethnic group, and not taking some one factor as the sole criterion;
2) to take the characteristics a group presently has as primary, then examine its history, and finally analyze its history, ethnogeny, social-political systems, and relations to other ethnic groups;
3) concerning the names of ethnic groups, to respect the principle that their names for themselves should prevail and to respect the wishes of the vast majority of the group;
4) to take what’s beneficial to the ethnic group’s unity and internal development as the starting point, and whenever possible to integrate similar ethnic communities-those which have nearly identical languages, similar ethnic characteristics, adjacent areas, and integrated economies-into a single ethnic group.
Ethnic groups, like other social phenomena, follow a course of formation, development and transformation, and finally dissolution. Some ethnic groups that had a great impact on China’s history - such as the Xiongnu, Xianbi, and Di - have already disappeared; some have become very weak, such as the Qiang; and some have flourished.
The reason the population of the Han ethnic group is so large is that it amalgamated the members of other ethnic groups. At present, the ethnic characteristics of some ethnic communities in some regions have mostly disappeared, and they have a great deal in common with some other ethnic group. The Chinese government is especially careful in determining the ethnic status of such people.
In its work of ethnic identification or changing their status, the Chinese government not only takes into account the opinion of the community requesting to have its status changed or be recognized as an ethnic minority, but also broadly solicits all kinds of suggestions and pays careful attention to dissenting views before it makes a comprehensive analysis and reaches a conclusion based on scientific criteria. It also needs to be concerned about the interests of the subgroups of some ethnic minorities and to their mutual relations in order to strengthen their ethnic unity.
The Process of Ethnic Identification Work and Changing Their Status
The ethnic identification work was basically completed in the 1960s. The remaining work of ethnic identification and changing their status was completed in the 1980s. In general this work was done through three stages.
The first stage was from the founding of the People’s Republic of China to the first national census in 1953. in the early years of the PRC, as the CPC’s policy on ethnic groups became widely publicized and implemented and political, economic and cultural undertakings were in initiated in ethnic minority regions, ethnic identification was an urgent problem.
For three years beginning in 1950, the central government sent Central Visiting Goodwill Delegation to the Southwest, South, Northeast, and Inner Mongolia to acquire a deep understanding of the problems of individuation ethnic groups. Then, the State Council organized groups of experts to go to some ethnic minority areas to carry our surveys and research on individuating ethnic groups.
After a process of ethnic identification, 38 ethnic minorities – including Mongolian, Hui, Tibetan, Uygur, Miao, Yi, Korean and Manchu – were identifies as ethnic groups.
The second stage was from 1954 to the second national census in 1964. During this stage, the work of ethnic identification was done on a broad scale throughout the country. From the second national census 183 registered ethnic groups were to identify their ethnic affiliation. Through a process of survey, study and identification, and additional 15 ethnic minorities were identified. And additional 74 of the groups identifying themselves by unique ethnic group names were amalgamated into the existing 53 ethnic minorities. For example, in Yunnan Province, when the PRC was founded, there were more than 260 names for ethnic groups by which some of the people called themselves. After identification and merger, they were classified as 22 ethnic minorities, at the same time, 68 communities of various sizes were identification, some of which were classified as ethnic minorities and others of which were identified as belonging to some ethnic minority or other. By 1964, the problem of identification and determining the status of China’s ethnic minorities was basically solved.
The third stage was from 1964 until the third nation census in 1986. During this stage, the work of ethnic identification, like all other work, was forced to stop for ten years because of the Cultural Revolution. It was resumed after the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee of the CPC. In this stage, two more ethnic minorities were identified. The work of ethnic identification during this period was focused on the restoration and reclassification of some ethnic minorities and merging some communities that called themselves ethnic minorities into existing ethnic minorities. When national census work was resumed in 1982, the cases of ethnic groups requiring changes of status involving the largest numbers of people were those concerning the Manchu ethnic group in Liaoning and Hebei provinces, the Tujia ethnic group in the border areas of Hunan, Hubei, Sichuan and Guizhou provinces, the Miao and Dong ethnic minorities in Hunan and Guizhou provinces, and some other ethnic minorities in Yunnan and Guizhou provinces. In doing the work of restoring or changing the status of ethnic groups, it was extremely important to respect the wishes of the ethnic groups affected and to proceed gradually and cautiously. In doing the actual work, it was important to take the characteristics a group presently has as primary, consult history and combine all the factors pertaining to the ethnic group, carry out a survey, then identify and ethnic group or restore or change its status.

In the present stage, the task of identification work is already finished and the problem of changing the status of ethnic groups is basically solved. However, China still needs to strengthen its theoretical research concerning ethnic identification and to every ethnic group’s attention to the work of developing its economy. 

(Resource: “China’s Ethnic Groups” Vol. 02 No. 3 September 2004,Article by Huang Guangxue)

About the author:

Huang Guangxue was born in Longjing, Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, Jilin Province, in 1927 and is Korean. He served as the Vice minister of China’s State Ethnic Affairs Commission. He has been engaged in ethnic affairs work for more than 40 years and has contributed to the development and progress of all China’s ethnic groups. On the basis of his many years of work in the field, he has reviewed China’s research into ethnic history and written An Exploration of Work on Ethnic Groups in the Modern Period and edited Work on Ethnic Groups in Contemporary China, Ethnic Identification in China, Ethnic Relations in New China and Theory and Practice of Work Concerning Ethnic Groups.