The People of China
People often think of China as an ancient, monolithic culture comprised of a single, massive group of genetically similar people. In actuality, China contains a rich mosaic of different cultures and ethnicities, and officially recognizes 56 distinct ethnic groups. Ranging from populations of a few thousand to 1.2 billion, each group has made a unique contribution to China's cultural diversity with its language, costume, cuisine, philosophies, and traditions.
The largest of these groups is the Han people, who make up more than 90 percent of China's total population and around one-fifth of all humanity. They trace their origins to the Yellow River region, and take their name from the Han Dynasty, which was established in 206 BC. The Han have had the biggest impact on China's history, and every major dynasty but two—the Yuan and the Qing—has been Han.
Most of Eastern and Central China is dominated by the Han, with the outlying regions a fascinating stir-fry of people and cultures. Mountainous Yunnan Province in the country's southwest is home to the largest variety of ethnic groups, with some like the Jinuo and Pumi found nowhere else. Tibetans, Naxi, Bai, Yi, and Lisu are major ethnic groups found in the highlands of northwest Yunnan. In southern Yunnan, near the borders with Laos and Vietnam, there are ethnic Dai, Hani, and Miao, who have more in common with Southeast Asia than northern China.
The Mongols and Manchus are the two Chinese ethnic groups that can claim to have ruled the Han. Kublai Khan founded the Yuan Dynasty in 1271, but keeping control over China and other territories proved too much for the Mongols, and the dynasty was finished just under a century later. Today Mongols in China are primarily found in Inner Mongolia in the country's north, where many still live nomadic lives on the grasslands.
The Qing Dynasty of the Manchus had more staying power, running from 1644 to 1912 and producing several notable emperors. Under Qing rule Han Chinese adopted some Manchu customs including the long braids worn by men and the disfigurement and binding of women's feet. Most Manchus in China live in the northeastern provinces of Jilin, Liaoning, and Heilongjiang.
Tibetans—known for their unique brand of Buddhism—are the best-known ethnic group inhabiting China's more rugged geography, but there are plenty of others. The Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang in northwest China are more numerous than Tibetans, and are related to modern-day Turks—some Uighurs have blonde hair and green eyes.
Outside of China, few people know of the Zhuang people, but they are China's second-largest ethnic group. The Zhuang speak a language related to Thai, and are primarily found in Guangxi, which is officially an "autonomous region" and ruled by the Zhuang, at least in theory.
The Hui are China's largest Muslim group, and are known for being skilled businesspeople—not a big surprise, considering that they are descended from Silk Road traders. Of China's minorities, the Hui are the most widely dispersed—Hui-run Muslim restaurants can be found in virtually every city or large town. The Miao people are spread across Southern China, and are typically found in mountain villages.
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