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A Guide to China's Ethnic Groups

An ethnic Uighur woman carries a metal rod as she walks down a main road in the city of Urumqi in China's Xinjiang Region. Urumqui's ethnic Uighur and Han Chinese residents have taken to carrying metal rods and sticks for protection against attacks.
An ethnic Uighur woman carries a metal rod as she walks down a main road in the city of Urumqi in China's Xinjiang Region. Urumqui's ethnic Uighur and Han Chinese residents have taken to carrying metal rods and sticks for protection against attacks. (REUTERS/David Gray)

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Amanda Lilly
Washingtonpost.com  
Wednesday, July 8, 2009; 3:19 PM

Some of the deadliest clashes between ethnic groups since the founding of the People's Republic have erupted in China over the past week between the Muslim Uighurs and the Han Chinese. So far, at least 156 people have been killed and thousands more injured. However, this is not the first time ethnic groups in the country have come into conflict. Since the Communists gained power in 1949, minority ethnic groups have repeatedly come to odds with the dominant Han Chinese, which compose more than 90 percent of the Chinese population. Here's a look into some of the largest of the 56 ethnic groups that populate the biggest country in the world.

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Uighurs

Sometimes called China's "other Tibet," the Uighur ethnic minority has a long history in Xinjiang Province, in the northwest region of the country. Like Tibetans, they are a non-Han indigenous group that has claimed autonomy from Beijing since coming under Communist rule in 1949. Distant relatives of the Turks, most Uighurs practice Islam and account for more than half of all Muslims in China. The group has their own language which belongs to the Turkic group of the Altaic branch, while their written language is based on Arabic characters. Uighurs generally live in more rural areas, dominating the agricultural river valleys of the West, growing mainly wheat, maize, paddy rice and cotton. Uighur means "unity" or "alliance."

After taking control of Xinxiang in 1949, the Communist government encouraged Han Chinese to settle in the region, and they moved primarily into the cities and to large government-operated farms. Originally a minority in the area, Han Chinese are now almost equal in number to the Uighurs. The Uighurs have largely come to resent the Han, accusing them of discrimination and of dominating government and economic positions.

The Uighurs have clashed repeatedly with the Chinese government over attempts to push for more autonomy and economic opportunity, with some Uighurs waging violent campaigns for independence. In turn, Beijing has cracked down during periods of unrest, accusing the Uighurs of being terrorists. Most recently, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has said that the Uighurs may have ties with Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. In 2008, police arrested 82 Uighurs for allegedly plotting an attack at the summer Olympic Games. The Uighurs, however, blame Beijing for discrimination, saying they are peaceful activists who have been unfairly accused of terrorism.

Han

The Han Chinese account for almost 92 percent of China's population, and make up roughly 20 percent of the international population, making it the world's largest ethnic group. Often known in the English-speaking world as simply "Chinese," this vast ethnic group derives its name from the Han Dynasty, the longest-ruling empire in Chinese history. During the 400-year reign of the Han, China experienced tremendous economic prosperity and cultural innovation.

Today, the Han can be found in almost any part of China, although their continued migration west has caused sometimes violent confrontations with minority ethnic groups. Most Han speak Mandarin, and primarily practice Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism.

Tibetans

China has controlled what is now known as the Tibet Autonomous Region in western China since the Communists invaded in 1951. Since then, Tibetans have staged several protests for independence, acting out against Chinese repression of Tibetan worship for Buddhism and its paramount leader, the Dalai Lama. Tibetans have also accused Beijing of committing cultural genocide by forcing Tibetans to denounce the Dalai Lama and conform to Chinese customs, while China has repeatedly blamed the Dalai Lama for any disturbances that occur in the region.

The Dalai Lama was forced into exile in India in 1959 and has not been able to return to Tibet in the past 50 years. However, the Dalai Lama is still seen as the spiritual leader and a symbol of hope in Tibet.

As with the Uighurs, Tibetans resent Han Chinese migration. Although they remain a minority in Tibet, the Han Chinese are generally better off economically than most Tibetans. The most recent conflict between the two groups occurred just before the 2008 Olympic Games, resulting in more violent suppression by Beijing.

Zhuang

The Zhuang are one of China's most populous ethnic groups, with a large majority living in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in southern China. The Zhuang people have their own language, but most of them can speak Chinese dialects.

Historically, the Zhuang have supported the Communist rule and have had close ties with the Han for centuries. Zhuang clothing is generally similar to that of the Han.

Hui

The Hui are concentrated in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in northwest China; they are also spread out across Xinjiang. Like the Uighurs, the Hui practice Islam and are descendents of the Turks. However, they have not retained a Turkish dialect and instead mainly speak Mandarin Chinese. As a result of sharing a language, the Hui and the Han have also come to share many customs, including a very similar dress.

Yao

Most Yao live in southern China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, with the rest scattered among mountain communities. The Yao consist of several smaller ethnic subgroups, which is why until the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, the ethnic group had several names including Panyao, Shanziyao, Guoshanyao, Pindiyao and Baikuyao. Following the revolution, however, the name "Yao" was officially adopted after the group's language that belongs to the Yao branch of Chinese-Tibet. However, the Yao do not have their own written language and therefore have come to use Chinese characters. This in turn has caused the Yao to become familiar with the Han and their customs.

Sources: CHINA.ORG.CN, Travel China Guide, China Highlights, China Tour 360, The Washington Post


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