China has 56 Ethnic Groups Among its 1.3 Billion Population

It is common knowledge that China, traditionally, comprised five main racial groups and they are the dominant Han Chinese, followed by Manchus, Mongols, Hui Muslims (now including Uyghurs of Xinjiang) and Tibetans. Currently, the Han Chinese forms 92% of the total population of 1.3 billion and the remaining 110 million come from the above four major ethnic groups and many other lesser known minority groups. The Chinese Central Government officially accorded recognition to a total of 55 minority groups, apart from the Han Chinese group, spread all over the country. Most of these minority groups still preserve their own  language, culture, customs and traditional practices. A number of them have been conferred internal self-government and are designated as Autonomous Regions of the People’s Republic of China. Be that as it may, it might surprise many foreigners that, among these minority groups, there are the Korean and Russian ethnic groups.

Of these major minority ethnic groups, the best known are the Mongols and the Manchus who ruled China as Yuan Dynasty (1279 to 1368), and whose territories extended to many other parts of Asia and beyond to Europe; and Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1911) further absorbed the extensive Xinjiang in Central Asia to its vast domain. China became a republic in 1912 and later came under the communist regime of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from 1949 to the present time.

For the purpose of this article, I would like to single out only the Hui Muslims, Uyghurs, Tibetans, Korean and Russian ethnic groups in China for mention.

An exhibition on China minority people’s portraits (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Hui Chinese Muslims

The Hui Chinese, who are almost all Muslims, whose ancestors originally hailed from the ancient lands of Persia and other Middle Eastern countries, came to China during the 7th century as missionaries of the newly emerging Islamic religion, founded by Prophet Mohamed of Saudi Arabia, and quickly spread its influence to other Middle Eastern countries and elsewhere. It gained a firm foothold in China which had a reputation for religious tolerance and allowed it to co-exist with Buddhism, Daoism and Christianity, etc.

Many other Muslims also settled in China in the following centuries and later intermarried with the Han Chinese and became gradually assimilated into the mainstream Chinese Society. Their ranks were further significantly enlarged when numerous Han Chinese also converted to Islam. In the course of time, the Huis became indistinguishable from the other Han Chinese in appearance  and ways of life except for their religion and religious practices, which stand them apart from non-Muslim Chinese. According to Chinese experts, some of the them have certain Chinese family names which would indicate their Middle Eastern origin.

Many Huis became quite successful government officials and in other fields. Foremost among them was Admiral Zheng He, whose first of seven epoch-making voyages to many parts of Asia and Africa with a 27,000 naval fleet on a goodwill mission sanctioned by the Chinese emperor himself, preceded Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America in 1493 by 89 years. He enhanced China’s international prestige and became a household name in China and a familiar name in several other parts of Asia.

Chinese Huis are scattered throughout the country. With the fast growing affluence of China, nowadays more and more of them are making Haj pilgrimages to Mecca and they have become a familiar sight there. They practise their religion quite freely without persecutions. They are uninfluenced by the more militant form of Islam in some other Muslim countries and are regarded as a model minority group in China.

Hui Muslims in prayer (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Uyghur Muslims of Xinjiang

In addition to the Hui Muslims, there are also more than 11 million Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region, which became an integral part of China during the 18th century. Of Central Asian origin, most Uyghurs still retain their own heritage and way of life. The younger among them also receive Chinese education and are fluent Mandarin speakers, in common with other minority groups, so as to enhance the scope and prospects of their employment opportunities. Since the formation of the PRC in 1949, their standard of living has improved substantially, like the rest of  the country, and more and more of them are now working in many large cities there, beyond their own homeland.

While the majority of the Uyghurs now seem more contended as citizens of the PRC, a minority group of them are determined to be fully independent from the Han dominated China and to align themselves closer to the other Muslim dominated neighbouring countries in the central Asian heartland.They accuse the Chinese Central Government of deliberately encouraging more Han Chinese to migrate to the urban areas of Xinjiang and to take away plum jobs that should otherwise be the preserve of the native people.

These Muslim separatists assert that the Central Government’s interference has led to a situation where the Han Chinese now constitute the majority population in Xinjiang’s urban centres. In pursuit of their independence aim, they have embarked upon terrorist attacks and other disruptive activities in the country, both within and outside their own homeland, in order to force the hand of the Central Government to grant them independence.

A Uyghur woman (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)


Like Xinjiang, Tibet is another large autonomous region of China. It used to be quite inaccessible to the outside world because of its ruggedly gigantic mountains and total lack of  modern road infrastructures and basic railway and airport facilities. Hence, it was called “Roof of the World”. Since being officially integrated as a province of China in 1950, when the latter asserted its long historical sovereignty right over it, this overwhelmingly Staunch Buddhist land has become an important part of China.

However, since then there was growing resentment against the former as many Tibetans feared for the future of this poor and feudalistic land of Tibet, especially as the Chinese takeover might compromise the Dalai Lama’s rule as a living god and whose power was absolute and fully complied with. This led to an uprising against the Chinese Central Government, but it was quickly quelled by the People’s Liberation Army. Consequently, Dalai Lama decided to flee Tibet with many of his devoted followers to India, where a government in-exile was established there.

In the meantime, the number two godly spiritual leader in Tibet Panchen Lama co-operated with the Central Government, according to Chinese sources, but this claim was challenged by Dali Lama’s supporters and China’s Western critics, and rallied the Tibetan people there to accept China’s declared policy to work for a more developed and prosperous Tibet as part of China.

With greater economic and technical assistance pouring in from the Central Government, Tibet has continued to make economic development, improving the people’s standard of living and introducing better education systems in both Tibetan language as well as in Chinese in order to enhance their employment prospects both within and elsewhere in China. The Central Government also built a high-technology railway system and a well equipped airport, thus linking it to other parts of China to facilitate easier access to it. This has resulted in much more domestic and foreign tourists travelling there, thus bringing in enhanced revenues to the Tibetan people and its economy.

Despite the above tangible improvements to the life of the Tibetan people, supporters of Dalai Lama, with the encouragement and financial backing of certain leading Western governments, had continued to accuse the Chinese Central Government of human rights violations and religious persecutions against the Tibetan people, which were rebutted by China. This has resulted in periodic violent protests against Chinese rule by some Tibetans, often led by Buddhist monks, some of whom would resort to committing self-immolation in public in order to stir up more resentments against what they claim is overt Chinese oppression of the native population.

They therefore advocate that Tibet must secede from China itself, albeit this is not the declared aim of Dali Lama himself, who has repeatedly called for non-violent struggle to achieve more democracy, human rights safeguards and religious freedom in Tibet as part of China.

Tibetan monks (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Dali Lama now has seemingly less apparent influence in Tibet itself but still commands overt sympathies and respect from many Western leaders who would warmly welcome him to visit their respective countries,despite their long-established diplomatic relationships with China. This had caused much resentment with the Chinese Government as interference with its domestic affairs. Nonetheless, these Western countries fully accept Tibet as part of China.

The spiritual leader Dali Lama, now 85 years old, does not appear to have a dynamic and commanding political successor in his chosen US-educated legal scholar, Dr Lobsang Sangay, who can effectively replace him after he has passed on. Concurrently, the majority of the Tibetan people now seem less restive with the more comfortable life in Tibet as an Autonomous Region of China. The Dali Lama’s Government-in-exile in India would appear to face an uncertain future after his era.

In the meantime, it seems to many outside observers that Tibet is now visibly more economically developed and its people are much better off materially than ever before.  Despite this, some of China’s critics have continued to assert that all these improvements in better roads, railway and other advanced transport facilities were more for the exploitation of Tibet’s mineral wealth so as to benefit China’s fast expanding economy.

Incidentally, both Xinjiang and Tibet are most exciting and unusual vacation destinations awaiting one’s discovery. For travellers who are jaded with other more familiar places, the more unique and amazing sights there will be a refreshing change for them to discover and savour, which will be cherished with fond memories in the years to come. But do be forewarned that Tibet is definitely not for those with altitude sickness syndrome to travel there, as this could ruin their entire adventure and discovery.

To round-up my article on the minority groups in China, I will now briefly tell my viewers about the little known Korean and Russian ethic groups there.

The Potala Palace in Tibet (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Korean ethnic group of China

There are about two million Chinese of Korean descent in China. Most live in North China, especially in the Yanbian Autonomous Region, quite close to Korea itself. In addition, there are also more than 850,000 South and North Korean expatriates residing in the PRC. Koreans had begun migrating to China around the 12th century when the people there had centuries earlier been impacted by Chinese culture, customs, practices  and language and had gladly adopted these for their country and people. These Chinese Koreans were assimilated into the mainstream life of China long time ago.

Chinese Koreans have produced many notable public figures who are well-known to their fellow Chinese. They have become loyally and proudly Chinese and had fought bravely against the Japanese invaders during WWII and later against the Americans during the Korean War of 1951-1953 as Chinese volunteers.

The Russian ethnic group of China

The Russians first settled in China in the 17th century during the early Qing Dynasty, after it signed a treaty with China that it would not further encroach on Chinese land at its border. More Russian settlers later came to China during the subsequent two centuries.

Following the Russian revolution in October 1919, which ushered in the first communist state in the world, large groups of the more affluent Russians and government officials escaped to China and they were scattered all over the country’s major cities. These refugees belonged to the higher income groups there because they were mostly business people, government officials, technocrats, academics or had other skills and expertise which were much sought after in China then. Many of them later intermarried with the Chinese people and were assimilated into the mainstream life there. Most still had relatives in Russia and maintained regular contacts with them.

Since the founding of the PRC in 1949, many Russian settlers returned to their homeland or emigrated to Western countries like the US, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. They were replaced by numerous new Russian expatriates who came to China because of the initial special relationship between the two counties and these personnel were urgently needed in China as military advisers and experts in various fields for its future political, economic and industrial developments.

According to the 2010 population census, 15,000 Russian settlers had become Chinese citizens and another 70,000 were permanent residents and had continued to retain their Russian or other nationality citizenships. In addition, many Russian expatriates are  working and living in China today.

In 1954, the Russian Ethnic Group, together with 54 other ethnic groups, have been officially recognised by the Chinese Central Government as Minority Ethnic Groups and their chosen representatives are members of China’s National People’s Congress, which is convened at regular intervals to transact and approve national legislations and other important state matters.

Lam Pin Foo

7 thoughts on “China has 56 Ethnic Groups Among its 1.3 Billion Population

  1. Dear Pin Foo,

    That was an interesting read. I’ve always been fascinated by these ethnic minorities, whose colourful traditional clothing make wonderful subjects to photograph. It would take more than a life time to visit them all but in 1999, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Peoples’ Republic, China issued a set of postage stamps to celebrate all the 56 ethnic groups that make up the nation – all dressed in their traditional costumes and in different poses of their ethnic dances. I shall email to you pictures of some of these stamps. Regards.

    Chan See

    PS – I have recently found the sheet of UK stamps which we bought together in London.

  2. Pingback: Uyghur Update: 13th-20th October – me never

  3. What a coincidence! As we were getting ready for breakfast this morning, my husband was telling me about the 5 major ethnic groups in China. Then, when I sat down and opened my email, there was your excellent article with even more information. Thank you very much for this wonderful addition to my knowledge of China!
    Emily Shieh

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