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An Idea about Chinese Ethnic Minorities; By Subramanyam Sridharan

Image courtesy: AP/Dawn

Article No. 017/2018

China is a vast country with a population of over 1.4 billion (roughly 20% of the world’s population), a land mass of over 9.5 Million Sq. Kms. (thrice the Indian size), 22 provinces, five autonomous regions and four large centrally-administered cities namely Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing. China has the longest land-border in the world, over 21000 Kms and it has also the largest number of neighbours, fourteen. But, more importantly and lesser known, it has one of the largest and diverse minority concentrations in the world too. The usual impression of most about China is that it is a homogenous country of the Han race.

But, China was not always like what it is today. In fact, for most part of its history, it did not even have a name. The borders of modern China were fixed only in the 20th century and do not correspond to the borders of older dynasties. The idea of China has not been a fixed geographical entity over times. Though Sichuan had been incorporated into China by medieval times, the regions of southwestern and eastern China were annexed only in the 20th century. So much for those in India who constantly bemoan that Bharat was never a unified territory.

China’s civilization is thought to have started from the remote banks of the Yellow River in the Northern plains.

China has always been only an ‘empire’, not a nation state. A nation-state is one where the nation is sovereign, not the Emperor or an oligarchy or a dictator or a cabal. An empire has always been a vast and generally irregularly bordered geographical entity that has been a collection of various nationalities ruled by an authoritative Emperor.

It has also been dynastically ruled starting with the Han Chinese, with its known Imperial history stretching back to BCE 202 and ending with the Qing dynasty which ended in c. 1912 when the Republicans and the warlords took it over.

The Emperor was reverentially called the ‘Son of the Heaven’ and the Emperor therefore ruled everything under the Heaven as its representative on Earth. This is a concept known in the Chinese parlance as tian xia. Hence, China was the ‘Middle Kingdom’ – midway between the Heaven and the Earth-based geographical entities. Whoever was non-Sinic was considered a ‘barbarian’. Thus, Shi Jie, the Confucian scholar of the Song dynasty wrote in his book, ‘The Middle Kingdom’ in 1040 CE, “Heaven is above, earth is below, and that in between heaven and earth is called China. Those on the peripheries are the foreign. The foreign belongs to the outer, while China belongs to the inner.”

This author’s interest in understanding the Chinese minorities had a context. By c. 2008, the problems of China were becoming obvious: rampant corruption, the yawning gap between the rich and the poor, the migration of people leading to the coast vs. the interior divide, over dependence on an export economy, and the east-to-west slide in income levels. The Chinese planners concluded that the biggest reason for the gap in GDP between eastern cities such as Hongkong (with a per-capita income of USD 50K), Beijing, Shanghai (USD 25K each) and Yunnan (USD 3500) in the west, was the latter’s lack of access to seaports and consequently the export market. It was decided to make China bi-coastal and the project was officially launched in c. 1999 to have the western gateway through Burma to the Indian Ocean, what is known as the ‘Go West’ policy. Later, the same approach has been used to connect the restive Xinjiang which is even poorer and considerably more volatile than Yunnan with the Arabian Sea through the Gwadar port in Pakistan’s Makran coast, leading to the formulation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which eventually got absorbed in the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI).

This required integration of the 7% Chinese minority who live mostly in an arc north-west to south-west from Xinjiang (Uyghurs), Tibet(Tibetans), through Yunnan, Guanxi and Guangdong. China officially recognizes 56 ‘nationalities’ as minorities.

The Chinese refer to non-Han minorities as either ‘cooked’ or as ‘non-cooked’ depending on whether they are more integrated with the Han or not. The Uyghurs are non-cooked while the accommodating and pleasant Dai of Xishuangbanna are ‘cooked’ and the Wa are ‘less cooked barbarians’.


The land-locked Yunnan province in the most south-western corner of China, the last post in the north-south arc of Western China before the coastal regions of southern China begin, is bordered by Tibet, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam.

The biggest concentration of minorities lives in Yunnan (40% non-Han population) and that’s why Myanmar has been important in the Chinese calculus. Yunnan means “South of the clouds” and for long has been the wild area southwest of China. The Irrawady, Mekong, Yangtze and the Pearl river all flow through Yunnan as they descend from Tibet.

There are many native people of Yunnan. Chief among them being the Yao. They often fought with the expanding rulers of Han Chinese until they were defeated in the latter half of the 15th century. Another native people are the Miao who were conquered in the 18th century. Then, there are the Buyu people who were defeated in the late 19th century. The Buyu continued to revolt well into the 20th century. As late as 1950s, China still recognized tusi (Chinese for ‘local tribal chieftains’) in these areas signaling a non-existent Chinese rule. PLA units were fighting fierce resistance in the mountains. With Great Leap Forward, many tusi fled to Myanmar. When Cultural Revolution came in the mid-60s, Yunnan was terribly affected. Ethnic dresses and traditional festivals were banned. ‘Enforced suicide’ led to several thousands dead. As ‘anything different from mainstream Han practices’ was attacked, the Muslims of Yunnan were terribly affected. The Muslims of Shadian, just outside Kunming, revolted in 1975 and PLA had to destroy that whole town.

An exotic area is the rain-forest Xishuangbanna region in south Yunnan bordered by Myanmar and Laos and irrigated by the Mekong. These are the Dai people and Xishuangbanna is the Dai Autonomous Prefecture. Apart from Xishuangbanna, the Dai people are spread far and wide in the notorious Golden Triangle of the borders of Myanmar (the far-eastern Shan state), Thailand and Laos. In fact, Greater Dailand beyond the Golden Triangle and has always been the place of refuge for those who rejected the Chinese rule. While in Yunnan, the Dai are influenced by the Chinese culture and profess Chinese ways, closer to the Burmese border or in the Shan state of eastern Myanmar, they identify more closely with the Burmese and in northern Thailand, they are more Thais. A Dai family may have relatives at all these places.

Han Chinese are attracted to the capital of Xishuangbanna, Jinghong, by its tropical climate and exotic nature, especially their presumed sexual promiscuity. The Dais celebrate their new year, called Songkron just like the Thais (or Sankranti in India) in mid-April. Water is splashed everywhere. It was only in c 1953, when the Dai ruler of Xishungbanna was stripped of his Kingdom, that China began registering officially its minorities. In the end, it lumped them all (over 260) under 55 names. More than half of all Chinese minorities hail from Yunnan. In order to prevent such violence as in Tibet and Xinjiang, the Chinese authorities are trying to keep the minorities of Yunnan happy. Besides, the minorities of Yunnan are not homogenous like in Tibet or in Xinjiang. China allows far more cultural freedom to these minorities even excepting them from the rigorous one-child policy. Buddhist monks are ubiquitous in Banna (as Xishuangbanna is referred to locally). The long borders of Yunnan with neighbouring countries are also porous because China does not consider these minorities as a threat. Because of this reason, the borders are also most lawless especially with drug and human trafficking. The numerous minorities of Banna  are difficult to be unified by a single leader unlike in Tibet or in Xinjiang because there are not only Dais (known as Tai Lue outide of China) but also twelve other ethnic groups such as Wa, Bulang, Akha, Lahu, Miao et al.

North-west of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, is Dali which belongs to the Bai people and the Bai Autonomous Prefecture. There are 2 million Bai people. When Yunnan was an independent kingdom, Dali was its capital. The Chinese called their ruler Nanzhao or Lord of the South. By the turn of the first millennium (1000 AD), the Yunnan kingdom became Buddhist and called themselves Gandhara. The old Myanmarese name for Yunnan is Gandhara. They joined hands with the then powerful Tibetans. At one point of time, the Chinese wanted a grand encirclement of the Tibetans through an alliance with Nanzhao, India, the Arabs and the Turks in the west. Wanting an Indian pedigree, the Gandhra kings of Dali claimed themselves to be descendants of 3rd century BC King Asoka. Yunnan has since then been a bridge between India and China.

In the 14th century, the Mongols defeated the Nanzho and brought in Turkish Muslim influence as the commanders were of Turkish origin. A century later, the Ming emperor defeated the Mongols in Yunnan and in the most sustained state-supported Han migration in Chinese history, a million Han Chinese settled in Yunnan. Thus, Yunnan became a home to three different communities, the Han, the Turkish-descent Muslims and the various native peoples.

The war between the Han Chinese and the Muslims in Yunnan reached its peak in c. 1856 when the Han launched a systematic genocidal extermination pogrom against the Muslims killing thousands of them. The Muslims also fought back. Under ‘Sultan Suleiman’, the Muslims captured Dali and declared an independent kingdom. In 1872, the Manchu emperor decisively defeated the Sultan and massacred the entire Muslim community of Dali. Those who escaped moved to the Shan Hills in Myanmar.

From Dali, the old caravan routes to Tibet headed due north and an important stop on the way was Lijiang. The dominant people of the Lijiang valley are Naxi whose population today is about 300,000. The Naxi had been traditionally trading with Lhasa and through Lhasa with India. The Naxi kingdom has been ruled by the same Mu clan since medieval times. A description of the Naxi kingdom by a self-styled American botanist, Joseph Rock in the National Geographic of 1933 led to the description of Shangri La by the novelist James Hilton for his novel Lost Horizon. Thus, the legend of Shangri La was born. The Yi tribal people inhabit further north of Naxi in the Lingshuan mountain ranges that divide Yunnan from Sichuan. This area, north of Lijiang is further shared by the Mosuo people who practice gender equality and where women warrior are common. This is a matrilineal society with sexual promiscuity. China is even promoting tourism here by openly advertising the reputation of promiscuity.

The intention of the Chinese government is to commercially integrate Yunnan with Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Bangladesh and India. This will solve its locational disadvantage while improving the living standards for everyone thereby making the minorities feeling involved as part of the Chinese economic growth. In the past Yunnan was the crossroads connecting the northern Han Empire with Tibet, Myanmar and India. The Chinese are taking a modern leaf out of history.

Yunnan still has 10 million Miao, 4 million Yao and over a million of Dai people. All the minorities of Yunnan are Therevada Buddhists.


Then there is Tibet. Up until medieval times, Tibet was either an independent country or a collection of independent kingdoms, entirely Buddhist. During the period of Mongol domination of Eurasia, Tibet came under their indirect suzerainty. It was thus Mongolia converted to Tibetan Buddhism. Only later, under the Manchu and Qing dynasty that Tibet came under Chinese suzerainty mainly to keep the British in the western borders at bay. The Manchus also followed Tibetan Buddhism and held Tibet in high regard. In the early twentieth century, with China itself under great turmoil, the eastern parts of Tibet like Kham and Amdo came under warlord control and proper Tibet under Lhasa’s Control declared independence which lasted until October 1950 when PLA marched into Tibet. Initially, the Chinese treated the Dalai Lama reverentially leading the Tibet to sign a 17-point accord with China in 1951. The accord covered only what was known as ‘Tibet proper’ and discontent in faraway eastern Tibet areas of Kham and Abdo was brutally repressed by the PLA. These fighters sought CIA assistance which was offered to them. The CIA was already active along the Burma-China border arming the remnants of the Chiang-kai-Shek regime. The eastern-Tibet unrest finally spread to Lhasa where tens of thousands of Tibetans were killed by the PLA in 1959. The Dalai Lama escaped to India. Thus, for the first time in history, Tibet was brought under direct Han-Chinese control. The Cultural Revolution of the 60s destroyed monasteries and their rich antique and priceless Buddhist collections. The March 2008 uprising by Buddhist monks in Lhasa spread quickly beyond Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) to other Tibetan-speaking areas such as the Gansu province in the old Silk Road and Sichuan.


The Uighurs, in Xinjiang, are racially Turkish and were once devout Buddhists but during medieval times converted to Islam. Like the Tibetans, the Uyghurs also came under Chinese suzerainty during the Manchu period. In 1933, when the Manchus weakened, the Uyghurs announced their independent Easter Turkestan state out of Kashgar. In July 2009, the Uyghur violence started from near Hong Kong and spread to Urumqi.

China’s stability is largely based on its phenomenal economic strength and the promise of ever more to come including to the minorities.


  1. “Becoming China – The Story Behind the State”, Jeanne Mary Gescher, Published by Bloomsbury Caravel, 2017

  2. “The Emperor Faraway – Travels at the Edge of China”, David Eimer, Published by Bloomsbury, 2014

  3. “Where China Meets India – Burma and the new Crossroads of Asia”, Thant Myint-U, Published by Bloomsbury

[Subramanyam Sridharan is a computer scientist by training and profession and retired from a leading MNC. He is a keen follower of events in Afghanistan, Pakistan and China and is an administrator for a forum dedicated to discussing India’s strategic interests. The views expressed are of the author.]

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