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Chinese Cultural Studies:
Ethnography of China


Compiled from From Compton's Living Encyclopedia on America Online (August 1995)


China has the largest population of any country: 1,133,682,501 people were counted during the census taken in 1990. This population had grown rapidly in recent times, expanding by approximately 15 million each year, an increase equal to the total population of Australia. Between 1964 and 1982 China added 313 million to its population, more people than lived in the Soviet Union during that time. This rapid growth has occurred because the death rate has dropped sharply. The birthrate has also fallen, but the total population is enormous, and there are many young people. Thus, without extreme means of population control, the outlook is for continued rapid increase. The problem of providing an acceptable quality of life for a society this large--and growing ever larger--is a major concern in China. In an effort to reduce the rate of population growth, the Chinese government since 1978 has promoted the one-child family among the Han. (All married couples are urged to have only one child.) Rewards such as better opportunities for that one child are offered. Family-planning advice and birth-control techniques are easily available and commonly used. If a woman becomes pregnant with a second or third child, she is urged to have an abortion. Sterilization after one child is also being promoted.

One problem facing the government is the widespread desire for male children. If the first child is a girl, she may be neglected. Some incidents of infanticide, the killing of children, have been reported in cases of female children. Despite all the government's efforts, the family-planning program and campaign promoting the one-child family have had only limited success in rural areas, where peasant families still want sons to carry on the male family name and for the heavy labor necessary on rural farms. Until rural people participate fully in family planning, China's population will continue to grow rapidly.

Ethnic and Language Groups

The concept of being Chinese is not based on race. Rather, it is a cultural concept. To speak and behave like a Chinese--in short, to accept the Chinese system of cultural values--is to be Chinese. The Chinese refer to themselves as Han or sons of Han (as in Han Dynasty, a period of great historical significance). Throughout history, small ethnic groups that came into contact with the Han Chinese have adopted Chinese culture and have been absorbed into the mainstream. This process continues, though there are legal guarantees designed to protect the rights and culture of minority nationalities.

Traditionally, the definition of a minority nationality in China is a group of people who speak a common language, occupy a common area, and share a common sense of social values. They see themselves as non-Chinese--not belonging to the majority Han Chinese population. In 1982 approximately 67 million people, or 6.7 percent of China's population, were members of minority nationalities. In 1978 the central government recognized 55 minority nationalities with populations ranging from 300 (the Lobo, a small group living in Tibet) to 12 million (the Zhuang in southwestern China). Thirteen of the nationalities had populations of 1 million or more, and 27 had at least 100,000 members.

Although the minority nationalities represent a comparatively small proportion of the total population of China, they have an importance in Chinese society beyond their numbers because of the strategic territories they occupy. Most minority nationalities live along China's sparsely populated frontiers and have cultural relationships with minority groups in neighboring countries, such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, North Korea, Mongolia, Thailand, and Myanmar (formerly called Burma). If these groups became hostile toward the central government it could affect China's national security.

In part, the guarantees protecting the minority nationalities are expressed in the structure of China's administrative system. In addition to the 22 provinces, there are five autonomous regions, based on the location of five of the larger and more important minority nationalities. These are the Zhuang, a group of more than 42 million occupying the Guangxi Zhuangzu Autonomous Region; the Hui, or Muslims, a religious group of more than 4 million occupying the Ningxia Huizu Autonomous Region; the Uygurs, a Turkic group of more than 15 million in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region; the Tibetans, or Zang, a group of 2.2 million who live in the Tibet Autonomous Region and Qinghai Province, an area of high plateaus and mountains bordering India; and the Mongols, a group of more than 21 million occupying the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region between Mongolia and northern China. In addition, smaller units such as autonomous prefectures, leagues, and banners (equivalent to British counties) are based on their occupancy by even smaller minority groupings.

This administrative system is designed to give the minorities political equality with the Han people and to help them maintain their distinctive identities. At the same time, Putonghua (based on the Mandarin dialect spoken in the Beijing area) is being promoted as the official spoken language of the country. All minority peoples are urged to learn it. Generally, all minorities live harmoniously with the Han. The government has adopted measures to promote economic development among minorities to enable them to catch up with the Han.