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Han Chinese

The Han Chinese make up 91.9% of China's population. The Han people dominate all of China culturally and politically.

Other Nationalities

China's 55 recognized minority groups total about 8% of the nation's population. Major ethnic groups in China are:




The majority of the population is of mixed Turkish descent. Uigurs are the largest ethnic group along the Silk Road. Kyrgyz, Kazaks, Uzbeks, and Tartars are other strongly represented ethnic groups along the Silk Road. Fifty percent of the population is Muslim. Different varieties of old Turkish is spoken. The Han are very much in the minority, making up less than 10% of the population in the Xinjiang province.

The Uigurs

Over half of the Silk Road population is Uigur. The Uigur are descendants of an empire in Mongolia in the 8th century. A nomadic tribe from the north drove the Uigurs into Xinjiang. The Uigurs are responsible for the spread of Buddhism into parts of central Asia. In the 10th century, the Uigurs embraced the arrival of Islam and are Muslims today.

Uigurs make their living through agriculture. They are also known for their cotton production and carpet weaving.

Sophisticated irrigation systems allowed the Uigur to live on the edges of the desert.

The Kazak and Kyrgyz

The Kazak and Kyrgyz are Nomadic people (estimated population in the region: 1,000,000 Kazak, 200,000 Kyrgyz). They are known historically for their expertise with horses, the same “heavenly horses" that the Han Dynasty emperors sought through warfare and tribute 2,000 years ago. They make up the majority populations in the neighboring Kazakstan and Kyrgystan (former republics of the Soviet Union).




Largest of the minorities, the Zhuang share with the Dai (ethnic kin to the people of Thailand) common linguistic roots and a love of festival singing and dancing. But unlike the more remote Dai, the Zhuang have had a close affiliation with the Han for centuries. So, too, have the Bai, rice farmers from villages in the high plains of Yunnan, whose ancestors were among the original inhabitants of the region.

Scattered in small stockaded villages in rugged mountains, the Yao raised rice, maize, and sweet potatoes by slash-and-burn farming. With the advent of better communications and transportation, they have a developing economy based on some hydroelectric power and increased irrigation. Fierce warriors, the Yi evolved an aristocratic society (even their slaves had slaves) and a religion based on the reading of scared writings.


Some minorities had been so absorbed that their status as separate peoples was nearly lost. Despite their numbers, the Tujia were not recognized until the 1950s. (The Jino of Yunnan in the southwest were only designated a minority in 1979). The Tujia farm rice and corn, gather fruit and fell trees for lumber, produce an oil made from tea, and are adept at handicrafts. The She, who now mainly speak Chinese, may be descended from the Yao who retreated to the west 500 years ago under pressure of Han expansion.

Kaoshan is a general term applied to the aboriginal mountain peoples of Taiwan: millet farmers, hunters of game, and, until the early 20th century, hunters of heads. Their languages seem to stem from the Malayo-Polynesian group and may be the result of several migrations, perhaps from mainland 4,500 years ago or from the Malay Archipelago.


Dispersed from southern China across northern Vietnam, Laos, and into Thailand, the Maio (Hmong) vary in dialect, styles of farming, and designation: Black, White, Red, Blue, Flowery, and Cowerie Shell Miao among others. Forced southward by the Han, often despised and exploited, many settled in distant mountains, raising millet and buckwheat by slash-and-burn farming, their diet supplemented by domestic animals and hunting. Modernization - improved farming methods, organizations of communes, road building - has been made difficult by the ragged terrain in which the Miao are scattered.

Native to the mountains of Hainan Island, the Li long had a history of rebellion against Chinese authority. In 1943 they rose against the Nationalist occupiers and were joined by local Communist guerillas and later by the Chinese Read army in the first large-scale collaboration of a minority during the civil war.

North Central

The Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan and his successors swept as far as Vienna in the 13th century. Probably less than 10% of Inner Mongolia's people are Mongol today, but their population is increasing. Livestock, coal, iron, salt, steel, and grain are economically important, yet many Mongols remain semi-nomadic. They follow their flocks in summer, covering great distances and living in felt tents called yurts. Their yearly Nadam Fair features stock sales and contests of horsemanship, wrestling, shooting and archery.

The Hui are essentially the same as the Han, except that they are Muslim, the Islamic religion having been introduced by Arab soldiers and merchants 1,200 years ago. The Hui are widely dispersed in many occupations, notably as butchers and restauranteurs. The Tu (Monguor) clans once served as frontier defenders for imperial China, which earned them limited local autonomy.


The Manchu, once herders and hunters, conquered China in the 17th century. They were gradually assimilated and are now found in all trades across the northeast, with little remaining of the ancient customs or language. Only in the past 25 years, however, have the Oroquen and Ewenki begun giving up the birch-bark and hide tents of migrant hunters for a more settled life. They still hunt, but also breed deer, tend flocks, and farm. Many now live in communes with warehouses, barns, and pens. The Daur have a tradition of grain and vegetable farming and animal husbandry, as well as logging, hunting, and fishing. Korean immigrants have been filtering into China for centuries. Once rice growers, they have lately joined in the industrialization of Manchuria.


The Silk Road threading through Xinjiang's deserts and mountains carried China's trade westward and eventually opened the way for Islam's expansion eastward. Seven of the 12 minorities here are Muslim, most of whom speak Turkish languages and for centuries used Arabic script. The Uygur, once called "high carts," raise fruit, wheat, cotton, and rice by extensive irrigation. Their faces combine Indo-Iranian and Mongoloid features.