Ethnic Diversity in China and Japan


With a population surpassing 1,300,000,000, China is the most populous nation on earth. Add on a history of nearly 5,000 years, in which the borders expanded and contracted many times, and migrations between points in the vast region were often of a massive scale, the cultural diversity of China is inevitably great. Although ethnic diversity is not always apparent to many foreign visitors who limit their stays to Shanghai, Guangdong, or Beijing, any trip between geographical regions – and especially to the border areas -- will give a different picture. The reality is that, despite the leveling forces of modernization, there are dozens (hundreds by some estimates) of ethnic groups in China. Members of these groups, however, are all citizens and equal under the law. China is thus, by far the most diverse country in East Asia.

Representatives of different ethnic groups at Tian'anmen Gate

By comparison Korea and Japan have quite uniform populations. Korea has regional diversity roughly paralleling the areas of the old Three Kingdoms (introduced in Module Two), and has historically had small Chinese communities. Japan also has regional diversity among the majority ethnic group, especially between the western areas around Tokyo (the Kanto Plain area) and the eastern region around Nara and Osaka (kansai area). The southern islands making up Okinawa also have distinct local cultures. The best-known ethnic minority in Japan, however, are the Ainu (introduced below), although there are also large ethnic Korean communities that go back many generations. Another group is a class of occupational minorities known as burakumin, who were traditionally involved in stigmatized trades such as tanning and leather working.

A picture portaying Ainu people picking vegetables in the late 19th century, Ainu Museum, Hokkaido, Japan

image: Each Chinese citizen has an identity card, and on that card is a space to fill in one’s “ethnic identity.”

Ethnicity in the People’s Republic of China is understood in terms of a group’s common history, language, area of inhabitation, customs, and livelihood (criteria borrowed from the former Soviet Union). Since 1949, the Chinese government has created two large categories in which to classify people on the basis of ethnicity. These categories are both based on the idea that China is a conglomerate of “ethnic groups” (“minzu” in Standard Chinese). While all natives of China are citizens, these citizens all belong to different “ethnic groups.” All are considered equal under the law.

The two major ethnic categories in China are; The Han ethnic group (or "Han nationality"), whose members make up about 91% of the population. The second category is comprised of fifty-five ethnic minority groups (or shaoshu minzu), whose members make up over 9% of the population. Thus, China should be regarded as a culturally diverse nation, rather than as a cultural-monolith.

The Han Ethnic Group

The Han ethnic group takes its name from the ancient Han dynasty (220 AD- 400 AD). In the course of its history, the dynasty absorbed as many as 2,000 local ethnic groups, and many local differences still exist among the Han people. Linguists and anthropologists recognize a number of major subgroups or local cultures among the Han today, noting especial differences between North and South China, the Yangzi River being a convenient dividing line between the areas. The geographical situation examined elsewhere in this module has helped shape the ethnicity of areas throughout China, as have the many migrations on the Asian landmass that date from far back in prehistory.

Bid head Yangko dance, Anyang, Henan Province -- such performance differ in the various Han Chinese areas.

Waist drum dance, Yan'an, Shaanxi Province

Huaji Xi, Chengdu, Sichuan Province

Storytelling, Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province

Among the Han subgroups (which are not recognized for in official census data), are speakers of northern and southwestern Mandarin. These people inhabit much of north, northeast, and northwest of China, and parts of the southwest, including Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. Southeast China, from the Yangzi delta southwards, is the area of the most pronounced diversity among the Han. Groups, often associated with ancient regional kingdoms, include the Wu in the Yangzi delta, the Cantonese (or Yue) of Guangdong and eastern Guangxi, the Xiang, Gan, and Min peoples of Hunan, Jiangxi, and Fujian (and Taiwan), respectively, and a group know as the Hakka (or Kejia), who have historically lived in scattered settlements in southern China and Southeast Asia.

As one can gather, one striking difference between these subgroups is language. Differences between the local dialects (or what Professor Victor Mair has called “topolects”) of Chinese are so great, that they are often unintelligible. Even those dialects that are quite similar may present problems for non-native speakers, especially in terms of idioms and pronunciation. Even though Standard Chinese is taught in schools throughout the country, local variations of the standard have developed due in part to the influence of local dialects.

Other differences include daily-life customs, food, kinship systems, marriage and funeral rituals, banquet rules, religious expression, and folk ideas about what it means to be (or not to be) in a certain group. While many of these differences have been at least partially eroded or submerged during the recent decades of rapid social change, it does not take long for visitors to note local differences. As explored in Module 9, food -- when, and by whom it is consumed -- constitutes a pronounced marker of regional differences among the local Han Chinese cultures as well as the ethnic minorities.

The Ethnic Minorities

The other major category into which Chinese citizens are categorized is that of “ethnic minorities” or “minority nationalities.” (It is interesting that until recently the term “ethnic group” was translated as “nationalities,” as if the groups were nations within a nation. It may be that the term was officially abandoned -- though it still occurs in the popular writings -- because “nationalities” has too strong a political flavor.) Prior to 1949, Chinese governments dealt with ethnic differences in various ways developed under different historical circumstances. During times when the Han Chinese were in power it was assumed by the rulers that most peoples within and without China’s borders sought to emulate or assimilate to the “superior” Han Chinese culture. Access to the fruits of Chinese culture was often done via tribute agreements. The Chinese sometimes used such agreements in attempts to pacify potential invaders on their borders—though this did not always succeed. It was not unusual for exchanges of brides to be part of such agreements between leaders.

Wang Zhaojun and her tomb in Inner Mongolia, China

Tang dynasty Princess Wencheng on her way to Lhasa, Tibet

Although the meaning of the stars has been interpreted in several ways since 1949, the original explanation was that the large star represents the Han, while the smaller stars denote the Manchu, Mongol, Hui, and Uygur nationalities.

During the eras of Mongol and Manchu rule (detailed in Module Two), certain ethnic boundaries were rigorously enforced by the invaders, and Han Chinese were often denied access to certain social privileges while persons of other groups were given high government positions. During the Ming and Qing dynasties ethnic differences led to continual uprisings among certain ethnic groups in northwest and southwest China and ethnic tensions contributed to the rise of the Taiping rebels in the 1850s in southern China. In the early 20th century, the young Republic of China recognized only five ethnic groups: Han, Manchu, Mongol, Hui, and Uygur – which were represented as five yellow stars on the red flag of the People’s Republic of China, declared in 1949. Many other groups have been officially recognized since then and the meaning of the stars has been given other interpretations.

In recent years, some young Chinese have tried to revive traditional Han Chinese clothing using Internet-based forums. Han Chinese clothing was lost for 360 years as a result of the Manchu control of China in Qing dynasty, which lasted from 1644 to 1911.

Zhuang ethnic costume, Guangxi

The fifty-five recognized ethnic minority range in size from groups in the many millions to those with only a few thousand members. Most ethnic minority peoples live in China’s extensive border lands, which range from the grassy steppes, deserts, and forests of the north, to the mountain fastnesses of south and southwest China. Herding, upland agriculture, handicrafts, and more recently, ethnic tourism are mainstays of various local economies. Presently, the largest group are rice agriculturalists called the Zhuang (Chuang), who number over 15 million and live mostly in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region bordering Vietnam. Other large groups include the Yi, Miao, and Dai also of the southwest, and the Uygurs, Tibetans, and Mongols of the north and west. In recent years, the number of people acknowledging Manchu ancestry has risen to about 9 million, due to perceived advantages in ethnic minority status and group pride. Among the medium-sized groups numbering from a few hundred thousand to a over a million are the Yao, Dong (Gaem), Jingpo, Bai, Naxi, and Tujia of southwest China, and the Tu, Salar, and Hui of northwest China. Smaller nationalities include the Daur, Olunchun, and Hezhen of the forests of northeast China, and the Jino, Blang, Wa, Jingpo, and Molao peoples of the southwest. Yunnan province alone, has approximately 28 different minority nationalities.

Kazak herdsman, Xinjiang

Diverse ethnic dress from Southwest China

Bai ethnic costume, Dali, Yunnan, China

Uygur ethnic costume, Turfan, Xinjiang, China

Qiang traditional costume, Sichuan, China

Tibetan dress-up costumes, Horse Racing Festival, Shangrila, Yunnan, China

As noted, many of the larger groups have many subgroups. These subgroups all go by different names, and in some instances like the Miao and Yi, none of the groups actually call themselves by those names when speaking in their own language dialects. For instance, although there are close to seven million Yi, there are around 70 subgroups with self-appellations (what anthropologists call “ethnonyms”) such as Nuosu, Lipo, Lolopo, Nisupo, and Sani. Aside from different names for themselves, these subgroups differ from each other in clothing styles (especially of the women), local customs, folklore, and language dialect. A similar situation exists among divisions of the Miao ethnic group, which has subgroups with names such as Hmong, Hmao, Gho Xiong, and Hmu.

Different Miao subgroups, Guizhou, China

Nuosu, Yi subgroups in Sichuan, China


Sani, Yi subgroups in Yunnan, China


Political Entities and Special Considerations

Most ethnic minority peoples in China live in specially designated “autonomous areas,” which range in size from townships and counties to prefectures and five province-size “autonomous regions.” In most of these areas minority representation at all levels of local government is prominent, although Han people may actually be the majority in a given area (such as Inner Mongolia). The regions are called “autonomous” because historically certain government policies have been modified to account for local conditions and customs – a philosophy which has been more or less followed or ignored depending on central government policies over the last 50 years.

Map of the five autonomous areas

The five large autonomous regions are: Xizang Tibetan Autonomous Region, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, and the smallest, the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region (located in northwest China). Yunnan, Guizhou, Hunan, Sichuan, Gansu, and Heilongjiang are all provinces with a number of minority areas. Aside from the largely rural populations in the autonomous areas, many minority people live in urban areas all over China and fully participate in modern urban life.

Promise and Problems

Since the end of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s, there has been general improvement in the implementation of minority policies, though ethnic tensions simmer in some regions in the west. Many areas have shown economic advances, especially in areas where locals have taken advantage of more relaxed economic policies and where tourism has been successfully implemented. The number of young minority men and women entering non-traditional professions is rising and members of all 55 ethnic minority groups are now represented at the Central Nationalities University in Beijng, the largest of several institutes of higher learning that give preference to minority applicants.

In many ethnic minority areas clashes between the needs of a rising superpower and the environment are on the rise. Desertification, water and air pollution created by local industries, mining, deforestation, overgrazing, and the poaching of endangered species are all current issues with far-reaching consequences. These problems face not only the local ethnic minority people, but the people throughout the rural areas of China as a whole. The overland railway from northern China to Lhasa, capital of Tibet and the logging of old growth forests in Sichuan and Yunnan are two situations that are effecting traditional minority cultures.

Aspects of several Chinese ethnic minority cultures will be presented in later modules.

The Ainu of Japan

Ainu people in Japan, 1904 photograph

An Ainu woman with traditional facial tatoos

The Ainu are a native people of Japan distinct from the majority population of Japanese. Until recent times, they followed a life style that combined hunting and gathering with agriculture. Over the centuries most of their traditional land holdings and much of their culture has been displaced by the majority Japanese ethnic group. Most Ainu today live in a few areas on the northern island of Hokkaido, although others live on the Kurile and Sahkalin islands to the north. Little is known about Ainu history before the 14th century. They may be descendants of the original peoples of Japan, though how they are linked to cultural patterns of the earlier periods is still being investigated by archeologists.

Bow Dance

The Ainu lifestyle was based on the natural resources available in the northern temperate forests, river valleys, and sea coasts. Mammals and fish included deer, bear, raccoon-dogs, salmon, trout, and smaller freshwater fish were captured in the forests and river valleys. Seals and large fish like tuna, harvested along the coasts and on the seas. Poison arrows were among the hunting tools. Wild plants included a type of wild lily, the bulbs of which were a source of starch. Garden plots were kept near the valley settlements. Foxtail millet, Chinese millet, pumpkins, garlic, leeks, and potatoes (introduced in the late 18th century) were among the cultivated crops. Due to beliefs related to the nature spirits (kamuy or kamui), gardens were never weeded, and two halves of a shell were used to harvest grain so as not to kill the plant. A digging stick was the main gardening tool.

Reconstructed Ainu houses, Ainu Museum, Hokkaido, Japan

Villages were small settlements situated near protective hills and fresh water. Houses were made of wood and included a long fire pit in the middle of the home where people gathered to eat and socialize. On special occasions, epic poems about the exploits of the nature spirits were performed, with audience members tapping sticks on the timbers of the firepit in time to the rhythm. A very important ceremony was a ritual in which the spirit of a bear was placated. The Ainu believed that it was necessary to maintain harmony with the nature spirits, as they were the source of many natural resources.

Inside an Ainu house at the museum

Culture enacted at the museum

Although there are only about 20,000 Ainu today, since the 1970s a cultural revival has taken place. Ainu have become more educated and vocal about their rights and efforts are being made to preserve traditional oral and material culture. These efforts include local Ainu cultural museums that include dwellings, handicrafts, folk dances, myths and stories, and art. A well-known “living museum” where the general public can be introduced to traditional Ainu culture is located in Shiraoi, a short train-ride from Sapporo on Hokkaido island.


Ainu Museum, Shiraoi, Hokkaido

Harrell, Stevan (2001). Being Ethnic in Southwest China. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Ramsey, Robert (1987). The Languages of China. Princeton: Princeton University Press.