China and her National Minorities

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China and her National Minorities

ALTERNATE NAMES: Han (Chinese), Mandchus, Mongols, Hui, and Tibetans
POPULATION: 1.33 billion
LANGUAGE: Austronasian, Gan, Hakka, Iranian, Korean, Mandarin, Miao-Yao, Min, Mongolian, Russian, Tibeto-Burman, Tungus, Turkish, Wu, Xiang, Yue, Zhuang
RELIGION: Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 2: Chinese Americans; Immigrant Americans. Vol. 3: Bai; Buyi; Dai; Derong; Dong; Ewenki; Gaoshan; Han; Hani; Hui; Kazakh-Chinese; Korean-Chinese; Vol. 4: Li; Man; Miao; Mongols; Naxi; Tibetans; Tujia; Uighurs; Yao; Yi; Zhuang.


The apparent uniformity of the Chinese population is a diehard stereotype. The image of an ethnic mosaic better fits the real situation. From time immemorial, the territory comprised within the frontiers of the People's Republic of China has been, and continues to be, the homeland to a wide variety of nationalities.

Chinese historical records dating from the early Zhou Dynasty (1121–222 BC) already speak of the "Four Barbarians," a blanket term covering a large number of tribes or ethnic groups surrounding the Chinese Middle Kingdoms of the Yellow River Valley. In many cases, the nationalities exercised full sovereignty over their land and were considered by the Chinese themselves as kingdoms or principalities.

All through Chinese dynastic history, the relationship between the Chinese (Huaxia in ancient times, Han since the 3rd century AD) and the Barbarians oscillated between hostility and friendly cooperation. There has been uninterrupted intermarriage between the Han and the other ethnic groups, as well as among these ethnic groups themselves, so that there are no pure ethnicities in China.

When Sun Yatsen established the Republic of China in 1912, he defined it as "The Republic of The Five Nationalities": the Han (Chinese), Mandchus, Mongols, Hui, and Tibetans. In his speech of October 1, 1949, announcing the foundation of the People's Republic of China, Mao Zedong characterized China as a "multi-ethnic unitary State." The various ethnic groups were invited to manifest themselves so as to enjoy their newly won equal rights.

By 1955, more than 400 groups had come forward and were registered by the state authorities. After years of research by Chinese ethnologists, this number was reduced to 56; the Han formed the national majority (now more than 1.2 billion people, by far the largest ethnic group on earth), and the other 55 ethnic groups formed the national minorities (now accounting for 113 million people or 8.5% of the total Chinese population).

According to China's constitution, all nationalities are equal under the law. National minorities were granted the right to govern themselves (zizhi) under the leadership and the authority of the Chinese State and of the Chinese Communist Party. Five large "autonomous regions" were created for the most compact, populous, or historically important national minorities (Tibetans, Mongols, Uighur, Hui, Zhuang), while 29 autonomous districts, 72 counties, and 3 banners were established within provinces for the other national minorities.

Special laws were enacted by the Chinese State to preserve the culture of the diverse national minorities and to promote their economic and educational development. In order to stimulate their demographic growth, national minorities were exempted from the "one-child" policy; their percentage of the total Chinese population passed from 5.7% in 1964 to 8.5% in 2000.


One of the most striking features of the national minorities is the tremendous size and strategic importance of the land they occupy compared to their small population. Actually two-thirds of China's territory is inhabited by national minorities.

If one looks at a map of China, one realizes that the northern frontier is formed by the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (500,000 sq mi), the northwestern frontier by the Uighur Autonomous Region (617,000 sq mi), and the southwestern frontier by the Tibet Autonomous Region (471,000 sq mi) and by Yunnan Province (168,000 sq mi), whose population is composed of no less than 22 national minorities.

One can say in general that the totality of the Chinese continental borders (with North Korea, the People's Republic of Mongolia, Russia [and many former Soviet Republics], Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Burma, Laos, and Vietnam) lie in territories inhabited and governed by national minorities. This creates many sensitive situations; for instance, the same ethnic group may occupy both sides of the border.

The immense territories occupied by the national minorities also pose an acute economic problem: in many cases, the most important timber, hydroelectric, petroleum, and mineral resources needed for China's economic development lie in national minorities' territory. Besides the difficulty of access to these resources because of distance, weather, altitude, and lack of infrastructure (roads, railway, airports, bridges, towns), the reticence of the local populations adds a further obstacle to the development of these resources by the Han Chinese.


Obviously one of the most important factors—but not the only one—to identify distinct nationalities is the language spoken. One may distinguish the following linguistic families in China (figures are 1990 census estimates):


Mandarin (all of north and part of southwest: more than 750 million)
Wu (Shanghai region: 90 million)
Gan (Jiangxi: 25 million)
Xiang (Hunan: 48 million)
Hakka (scattered in southern China: 37 million)
Yue (mainly Guangdong, but also Guangxi: 50 million)
Min (mainly Fujian; excluding Taiwan: 40 million)


Turkish (Uighur, Kazakh, Salar, Tatar, Uzbek, Yugur, Kirghiz: 8.6 million)
Mongolian (Mongols, Bao'an, Dagur, Santa, Tu: 5.6 million)
Tungus (Mandchus, Ewenki, Hezhen, Oroqen, Xibo: 10 million)
Korean (1.9 million)


Zhuang (Zhuang, Buyi, Dai, Dong, Gelao, Li, Maonan, Shui, Tai: 22.4 million)
Tibeto-Burman (Tibetans, Achang, Bai, Derong [Dulong], Hani, Jingpo, Jino, Lahu, Lhopa, Lolo, Menba, Naxi, Nu, Pumi, Qiang: 13 million)
Miao-Yao (Miao, Yao, Mulao [Mulam], She, Tujia: 16 million)
Austronasian (Benlong, Gaoshan [excluding Taiwan], Bulang, Wa: 452,000)


Russian (13,000)
Iranian (Tajik: 34,000)

Many of these linguistic groups show wide dialectical variations; for instance, Mandarin varies significantly according to regions: northern, western, southwestern, and eastern. These regional dialects are mutually intelligible.

Yue (Cantonese) also falls into various regional dialects: Yuehai, Siyi, Gao-Lei, and Qin-Lian, some of which are mutually un intelligible. Important dialectical variations also occur within the language family of given national minorities, often due to the isolation of subgroups. On the other hand, Mandarin Chinese is spoken more and more as a second language by the various national minorities.


Each national group in China has its own mythological tradition. Myths are usually shared by nationalities belonging to the same linguistic family. Thus, to have a complete view of Chinese mythology, one has to study the myths and heroes of the various peoples inhabiting China.

In most cases, myths and the rituals to which they were attached were handed down from ancient times to the present by an uninterrupted oral tradition. During the course of history, there were many cultural borrowings among the various ethnic groups. With a few exceptions, only the Han recorded their myths in writing.

One of the most common and ancient mythological traditions in China regards the beginning of humanity and society. According to this tradition, in remote antiquity humans and gods lived in harmony in Heaven and on earth. However, due to a conflict among the gods, the earth was flooded, and humanity was destroyed, except for a brother and sister who escaped by hiding in a huge pumpkin that floated on the waters. When the brother and sister came out of the pumpkin, they realized they were alone in the world. They were confronted with the problem of incest—if they did not marry, it would be the end of humanity, but if they married, they would break the taboo of incest.

So, the brother devised a ritual to know the will of Heaven: he and his sister would each let a millstone roll down a hill. If the two millstones laid one on top of the other at the end of their run, it meant Heaven favored marriage; if the two millstones went separate ways, it meant Heaven wanted them to respect the incest taboo.

However, the brother surreptitiously placed two millstones one on top of the other in a hidden place down the hill. Later, he and his sister let two other millstones roll down the hill. Then, the brother led his sister to the two millstones he had hidden down the hill. After they married, the sister gave birth to a formless lump of flesh; the brother cut it into twelve pieces, which he threw in different directions. These became the twelve peoples of ancient China.

This myth seems to have originated with the Miao, who, around 1000 BC, lived in the Yellow River Valley. The Miao often clashed with the Chinese and were eventually forced to flee to southwest China. Their myth of origins spread widely, both among the Chinese and the nationalities of southern and southwest China.

Around the second century BC, the myth, profoundly transformed, was put into writing in Chinese. The brother and sister, called Fuxi and Nüwa, were represented as divine beings with human bodies and reptilian tails and as symbols of yin and yang.

In the north, the Tibetan, Mongolian, Uighur, Mandchu, and Korean peoples each has its own mythological tradition about the origin of mankind.

Another important myth widely spread in China is that of Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor. This myth, of Chinese origin, deals mainly with the origin of various cultural patterns (esoteric arts), socio-political institutions (marriage, emperorship), and technological inventions (chariot, medicine).

Among other well-known myths, one may mention the myth of Yu the Great, who tamed the great rivers of China and made the land inhabitable and productive, and Pangu, a primitive hero god, whose body, when he died, gave birth to the world.


Three major religious traditions contended for the hearts and minds of the peoples of China: Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Although many national minorities have preserved their own native religious traditions, they have primarily been influenced by the three major religions of China.

To have a full picture of the religious complexity of China, one would have to treat systematically the specific beliefs and practices of the 56 nationalities of China. Even within one single nationality, one may find important religious variations that demand to be studied on their own. Here, this entry will limit itself to the three great traditions mentioned above.


The origins of Taoism are lost. It seems Taoism derived from ancient popular religions linked to shamanism and nature worship. Around the 6th century BC, a philosophical wing developed whose main ideas were condensed in the Daode jing (Classic of the way and its power), attributed to the sage Lao zi, a senior contemporary of Confucius (551-479 BC).

The central idea of Lao zi is that of Dao, conceived as the ineffable source of creativity and harmony that animates the universe. The sage and saintly person is one who, being united to the Dao, partakes of its creativity and harmony. Such a person lives in bliss, serenity, and inaction, being carried by the Power of the Dao: "doing nothing, nothing is left undone."

When one is united to the Dao, all the other beings of the universe, as well as our perceptions and feelings, reveal their relativity. Between the 6th and the 2nd centuries BC, many important Chinese thinkers developed the ideas of Lao zi and formed a "Taoist School of Philosophy."

Among the most important works issuing from the Taoist School of Philosophy, one may single out the Zhuangzi (Writings of Master Zhuang, 4th century BC), the Liezi (Writings of Master Lie, 4th century BC), and the Huainanzi (Writings of Master Huainan, 2nd century BC). These works exerted a deep influence on the Chinese view of life and of the world.

In the 2nd century AD, a Taoist preacher called Zhang Daoling established a formal Taoist Church (perhaps in response to the coming of Buddhism to China in the 1st century AD). Zhang Daoling claimed that the blueprint for his church was revealed to him directly by the divinized Lao zi, who became the god of his church, called the "Heavenly Masters."

The Taoist Church, closely linked to the ancient cults, beliefs, and magical practices of popular religion, developed at a rapid pace, and by the 8th century AD had spread all over China. Despite severe constraints imposed by the government of the People's Republic of China in the 1960s and '70s, the Taoist religion has started to make a comeback in that country. Because of its ancient indigenous roots, it may be called the unofficial national religion of the Chinese people.


While Taoism refers to an ineffable being, Confucianism refers to the teachings of a human being, Confucius. Confucius was rather reserved about religious beliefs and practices. He said: "One must respect divine beings, but keep them at a distance." He thought human beings had within themselves the power to be wise and good and did not need to seek wisdom and goodness from outside, even from a divine being.

Confucius's main idea was that human beings are naturally inclined to do good to others. His conceptions of education, social relations, and government were based on this premise. Confucius recognized the value of certain religious attitudes, such as respect, earnestness, sincerity, devotion, decorum, etc. But, according to him, these values should foremostly inform human relations and not simply the man-god relation.

Confucius insisted that the quality of human relations within the family circle was the foundation of an orderly society and of a prosperous state. Confucius, the "father of Chinese philosophy," may be viewed as a profound reformer who tactfully demythologized ancient Chinese religious beliefs and practices and sought to establish universal humanistic values based on reason and human nature.

Confucius was never considered a divine being by his contemporaries or by his disciples; he never made claims of divine ancestry or attributions. It was only about five centuries after his death, with the victory of Confucianism as the state ideology of the imperial Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220), and with the emergence of many religious movements (among them Buddhism and Taoism), that a cult to Confucius as a god was established around the 2nd century AD. But, contrary to Taoism and Buddhism, religious Confucianism was mainly restricted to the literate elite of China, who looked on Confucius as their patron saint and never spread, as a distinct church, among the masses—although many village temples regularly performed rituals at an altar dedicated to Confucius.


In contrast to Taoism and Confucianism, which were both indigenous religious traditions, Buddhism came from abroad, mainly from its birthplace, India. Buddhism was established by an Indian prince, Siddharta Gautama of the Sakyamuni clan, on the border between India and Nepal in the 6th century BC.

The term Buddhism comes from an ancient Sanskrit word meaning "enlightened." Buddhism, which laid stress on meditation rather than ritual in reaction against Hinduism, spread rapidly in the Indian subcontinent and in Southeast Asia (mainly Burma and Thailand).

Two main churches developed: that of the "Small Vehicle" (Hinayana), which stressed monastic life and celibacy, and that of the "Great Vehicle" (Mahayana), which was opened to the laity. Mahayana Buddhism came to China through the Northern Silk Road in the 1st century AD.

Buddhism had been significantly modified by its passage through the Indo-Greek kingdoms established north of India following Alexander's conquests, but the essential teaching remained the "Four Holy Truths" discovered by the Buddha: 1) Life is suffering; 2) suffering comes from desire; 3) to overcome suffering, one must extinguish desire; 4) to extinguish desire, one must follow the "Eightfold Path" (right views, intentions, speech, conduct, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, concentration) and attain the state of perfect bliss (nirvana).

Mahayana Buddhism developed rapidly in China, especially during the long period of disunity that followed the fall of the Han dynasty in AD 220. By the time the Tang dynasty (618–907) was established, the Buddhist conquest of China was complete, but it was a Buddhism with very strong Chinese characteristics.

The glory of Buddhism under the Tang was probably unparalleled in any other country to this day. Thousands of sutras and other Buddhist writings, written in Pali, Sanskrit, Persian, and many vernacular languages, were inspiringly translated into Chinese (in many cases, only the Chinese version is still extant); tens of thousands of monasteries, convents, temples, and sanctuaries spread in cities, suburbs, villages, and mountains throughout China. Under the Tang, the Buddhist Church was composed of some ten schools or patriarchates (zong). Each school recognized one patriarch as its founder and one sutra as representing its specific teaching and ritual.

Among the most famous schools one may mention Chan, whose first patriarch, Boddhidharma, came to China around AD 520; the Chan school was based on the Lankavatara Sutra (Sutra of the Transmission of the Lamp), which emphasized the importance of meditation (the Sanskrit dhyana was rendered chan in Chinese) to attain enlightenment.

Chan was transmitted to Japan around 1200, where it was known as Zen Buddhism, Zen being the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese character for Chan. Because of the richness of its teaching and of its well-organized ritual and monastic life, Buddhism exerted a deep influence on all classes and nationalities of Chinese society.

For almost 2,000 years Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism coexisted as the three main religions of China. Their mutual tolerance may be explained, in part, by the fact that each emphasized one aspect of three important concerns of religious consciousness: man's relation to nature (Taoism), to society (Confucianism), and to the absolute (Buddhism).


Although most of the numerous feasts and festivals celebrated in China originated with the Chinese, many are shared by the other nationalities. Practically every month there is at least one major celebration. The celebrations are usually held in accordance with the lunar calendar and are based on the yearly solstices and equinoxes. Among the most important, one may single out the following:

The Spring Festival (so called to distinguish the Chinese New Year from its Western counterpart), lasts about a week between January 21 and February 20. The New Year begins with a midnight banquet starting on New Year's Eve; at dawn, the house is lighted and sacrificial offerings of thanksgiving are made to the ancestors and to the gods. Friends and relatives visit each other and share sumptuous banquets, where the main dish is Chinese dumplings (jiaozi). Children receive gifts—traditionally, money in a red envelope (hongbao).

The Lantern Festival (Dengjie), held around March 5, was originally a ritual in honor of the divine Supreme Unity. Recently, it has become a folkloric feast for children. Houses are lighted and large paper lanterns of every shape and color are hung in public places. A special cake (yanxiao) made of glutinous rice is eaten on this occasion.

The Qingming ("pure brilliance") is a feast of the dead, which falls at the beginning of April. On this day, families pay a visit to the tombs of their ancestors, tidy up the burial ground, and offer incense, flowers, fruits, and cakes to the departed. On that day, the hearth fire is put out and only cold dishes (hanshi) are served.

The Mid-Autumn Festival (also called the Moon Festival) is both a harvest and a nature celebration (gazing at the full moon), held at the beginning of October. The main dish is "moon cakes." It is said that in the last years of the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368), the Chinese hid a small piece of paper in the moon cakes inviting the population to revolt, and thereby succeeded in overthrowing the Mongolian rulers. The Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the most colorful and joyous celebrations in China. The Dragon-Boat Festival is usually held in conjunction with this festival.

The National Day of China is October 1, marking the founding of the People's Republic of China. It is celebrated lavishly with all the main buildings and streets of cities illuminated.


Because of the restrictive one child policy of the Chinese government, the birth of a child, especially a boy, is considered an important and most joyous event in China. The traditional rituals surrounding courtship have given place to a freer, haphazard, and democratic choosing of partners—at school, at work, or in community activities, such as collective dances organized by the local authorities.

Under the Communist government, marriage has become a rather sober ceremony involving the spouses, some witnesses, and the State authorities. Private celebrations are held with friends and relatives. However, the traditional rituals are still alive in the rural and national minorities' areas. In major cities, such as Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou, well-to-do families tend to adopt Western-style marriages.

Because of demographic pressure, cremation has become the most widely used method of burying the dead. Private ceremonies for the deceased are held within the family circle and with close friends.


Strong interpersonal relations (guanxi) characterize Chinese society, not only within the family, but also among friends and in corporate groups (school, work, sports, entertainment, etc.). Besides daily social intercourse, the numerous feasts and festivals that punctuate the year are special occasions to strengthen individual and community ties. Visiting friends and relatives is an important social ritual; the guests bring gifts, such as fruits, candies, cigarettes, or wine, while the host usually offers a specially prepared meal in tune with the spirit of the feast.

Although most young people think that the best way to find a partner is through their own efforts, there are still a number of them who are helped by their parents, relatives, or friends. The role of the "go-between" is still important in China. On most occasions, the males take the initiative. The response of a girl invited for the first time in her life for a date is usually to postpone it until later, unless she is well acquainted with the inviter. Mutual attraction is of utmost importance in selecting a partner. Position and wealth are also important considerations.


Traditional household architecture varies a great deal according to regions in China. From the 1950s to the late '70s, socialist style architecture has dominated both in the rural areas and the cities, replacing, in part, the ancient structures. On account of their isolation and their attachment to their way of life, the national minorities have, by and large, escaped the destruction of their architectural heritage.

Since the mid 1980s, one witnesses the appearance of modern and even post-modern style, especially in large cities, such as Shanghai and Beijing. In the countryside, many communal apartment buildings have been replaced by two-story individual households with all the modern commodities. This is especially true in the farming villages surrounding large cities, where a class of wealthy peasants has arisen.

Lodging is still a problem in booming cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Guangzhou, where the space available per capita is below the minimum defined by the United Nations. By curbing the influx of newcomers (mainly peasants) into the cities and by developing accelerated programs of apartment building, available space is increasing in urban areas and should reach 8 sq miles of living space per capita by the year 2000.

Transportation systems in and between cities have developed at a dramatic pace over the last decade. These include railways, subways, paved throughways, and air links. It is surely air transport that has known the most rapid development, on account of the relatively small investment in physical infrastructure.

One of the major rail developments is the new electrified line under construction between Beijing and Hong Kong. Rapid throughways already exist between Beijing and Tianjin, around Dalien, while others are under construction in the Shanghai-Nanjing axis and in the Guangzhou-Hong Kong axis. Local roads in the countryside have improved significantly in order to facilitate the exchange of goods.

It is estimated that more than 100 million Chinese travel by train to visit friends and relatives during the first days of the Spring Festival.

On account of China's traditional medicine, it is very difficult for a Westerner to understand the question of health in China. While China represents 20% of the world population, it spends only 3.5% of its gross national product (GNP) on health (world average: 8%); China's health expenditure per capita is only $11/year (world average: $329/year).

Medicine is primarily a family and community affair, at least one person in the extended family having some knowledge of herbal medicine, acupuncture, etc. The Chinese only resort to state clinics and hospitals for major ailments and accidents. Medical knowledge spread in rural areas and national minorities' areas in the 1960s and '70s, thanks to "bare-foot doctors." At present, there is on average one doctor per 1,000 inhabitants in China. The peoples of China have a life expectancy of about 70 years (first among the developing countries).


Except for a few national groups, such as the Naxi in Yunnan, the various national minorities of China have traditionally adopted a patriarchal family structure. The social status of women was, therefore, rather low. One of the avowed goals of the Chinese Revolution and of the People's Republic of China was to overthrow the patriarchal system, linked to feudalism, and to establish a functional equality between men and women.

There is no doubt that the position of women in China has improved significantly since 1949, especially in the family, in the education system, and in the work place. However, there is still a gap to be bridged in the political sphere.

Mao Zedong advocated large families; from 1949 to 1980, the population of China increased from about 500 million to more than 800 million. Since the 1980s, China has adopted a stringent natality policy, the so-called "one child per family" policy. This policy has been successful (mainly in urban areas, not so much in rural areas) in drastically diminishing demographic growth, but at a significant human cost (forced abortions, female infanticide, international adoption, etc.).

National minorities, which only represent 8% of the population of China, have been exempted from the "one child per family" policy and their demographic growth is double that of the Han Chinese.


In the 1970s and 1980s, city streets were uniformly grey and dark; men and women, young and old, wore clothes of the same style and the same color. Today, in the frozen north, down jackets, woolens, and fur overcoats in red, yellow, orange, and other bright colors liven the bleak winter scene.

In the south, where the climate is milder, people choose smart Western suits, jeans, sporty jackets, sweaters, and other fashionable clothing to wear year-round. Famous brand names and fashions are a common sight in large cities, and they sell quite well. Cheaper and more practical clothing is also available.

Similar changes have also occurred in the rural areas, especially among the new class of well-to-do farmers, as well as among the national minorities living near the Han Chinese. However, in isolated rural areas, peasants still wear their "Mao suits," while most national minorities have kept their traditional style of clothing.


There are important differences in the diets and food preparations of the various national minorities of China. The most widespread staple foods in China are rice, flour, vegetables, pork, eggs, and freshwater fish.

The Han Chinese have always laid much stress on cooking skills, making the Chinese cuisine (basically Han) well known throughout the world. Dumplings, wonton, spring rolls, rice, noodles, and roast Peking duck are examples of traditional foods.


The Han Chinese, who invented an original system of writing more than 3,000 years ago, and the university more than 2,000 years ago, have always prized education and literacy. The imperial government was based for more than 2,000 years on superior literary competence and skills tested by the civil examinations.

The rate of illiteracy and semi-illiteracy among the Han Chinese is only about ten percent. Some 98% of children enroll in school when they reach school age. More than 80% of the students who graduate from primary school and 45% of those who graduate from junior middle school continue to higher levels.

There are more than 1,000 universities and colleges and 800,000 primary and middle schools at different levels, with a total enrolment of 180 million, including 2.6 million college students and graduate students. In addition, 800,000 students are now taking undergraduate training courses at home, while 14 million adult students attend classes of different levels in adult schools.

Although education is in progress, still about five million school age children do not enter school or have dropped out, and the college entrance rate is only 1.8%, below the average of developing countries. Deficiencies in education mainly result from underfunding.

Among the national minorities, the level of education varies significantly and depends on various factors: tradition, way of life, proximity of cities, etc. Some national minorities, such as the Koreans, have the highest level of education of any ethnic group in China, the Han included.

In general, advanced education in China supposes the knowledge of the Chinese language and writing system.


The variety of traditional musical instruments used in China is sufficient to form a full-fledged orchestra. The most popular instruments include the two-string violin (erhu), the lute (zheng), and the pipa.

Institutions of traditional music and dance were established throughout China early in the 1950s in order to promote traditional Chinese music. The rich musical heritage of many nationalities was thus preserved.

Most nationalities in China only have oral literary traditions. Since the 1950s, many important literary works of the nationalities (epics, poems, songs, short stories, novels) have been translated into Chinese and published. Some have now been translated from the Chinese into Western languages.

The Tibetans, Mongols, Manchus, Koreans, and Uighur have rich written traditions and some of their major works have been translated in English and other Western languages. However, it is the Han Chinese who have produced one of the longest and richest written traditions of the world: there is practically no genre in which they have not created world masterpieces.

The traditional literature of the Han Chinese—extending over a continuum of more than 3,000 years and written with the same Chinese writing system—includes poems, drama, novels, short stories, history, philosophy, religion, rituals, letters, and administrative documents. Many works have been translated into many languages and introduced into many countries; however, these translations represent but a tiny fraction of the immense Chinese literary output.

A single anthology of the Tang dynasty (618–907) contains more than 40,000 poems, including those written by the world class poets Li Bai and Du Fu. The monumental Chinese novels, starting in the 14th century with the epic Water Margin, also include Pilgrim to the West, Golden Lotus, and Dream of the Red Chamber. One should also mention philosophic masterpieces written around the 5th century BC, namely Confucius' Analects and Lao zi's The Way and Its Power.

The Han Chinese have also contributed greatly to world civilization by inventing paper and noodles (2nd century BC), ceramics (7th century), gunpowder (10th century), porcelain and movable printing (11th century), and the compass (12th century).


China is a developing country, but the rate of development varies considerably from region to region. The coastal area, open to international commerce, has known a real economic and technological explosion since the early 1980s.

While the hinterland has also developed at a rapid pace, the gap between the seaboard and inland China has widened significantly, producing a socially disruptive disequilibrium. The unbalance is not only territorial, it is also technological. For instance, in Gansu Province in northwest China, one sees both scientists engaged in highly technical research in nuclear power plants and peasants cultivating the land with centuries-old farming techniques and implements.

In general, the land inhabited by the national minorities, for various social, political, cultural, and logistical reasons, has remained rather undeveloped as compared to the Han Chinese regions. This explains the growing numbers of poor farmers who attempt to migrate to cities and to the eastern coastline in order to improve their lot. This has given rise to the phenomenon of unemployment in urban areas.

About 70% of China's population is rural and engages overwhelmingly in farming; for them, it is very difficult to change their income and lifestyle.


Sports do not play the same role in China as they do in the West. This is particularly true for competitive sports. Many sports in China are held only during seasonal festivals or in certain regions (especially among the national minorities).

Of course, the universal sport in China is ping-pong. Other widely practiced sports include traditional shadow boxing (both wushu and taijiquan). More recently, some Western sports, especially soccer, but also swimming, badminton, basketball, tennis, and baseball, have gained some popularity in China and are practiced mainly in schools, colleges, and universities.

The Chinese government has set up a Federation of Chinese Sports to train Chinese athletes for the international Olympics and for the Asian Olympics. Athletes from China have performed brilliantly in many sports, especially swimming, diving, gymnastics, ping-pong, and volleyball.

In the 2008 Summer Olympics held in Beijing, Chinese athletes earned 100 medals overall, ranking the country second after the United States (with 110). China ranked first in gold medals won, with 51 (to the United States' total of 36 gold medals).


Watching television has become a major daily evening entertainment for a majority of families in China. In addition, video cassette recorders and DVD players are now very popular in urban areas. Although movie theaters are usually full, they are scarce and can only accommodate a small percentage of the population.

Young people are often enthusiastic about dancing, karaoke, and rock music, while older people are likely to spend their leisure time attending the Peking opera, local drama, engaging in humorous dialogues, listening to classical music, or playing cards or mahjong.

Travel is quickly becoming a new way to spend one's free time, especially since the five-day work week was introduced in 1995. Storytelling is still a popular form of entertainment among many national minorities, who do not have ready access to television.


Each of China's 56 nationalities has its own tradition of folk art and crafts. The rich heritage of the Han Chinese is, however, the only tradition that has spread widely and is shared by many of China's nationalities. It goes without saying that many motifs and art forms of the Han Chinese were borrowed in ancient times from non-Chinese peoples and progressively "sinicized."

Calligraphy and traditional painting are the most popular folk arts of the Han Chinese. Paper-cutting, embroidery, brocade, cloisonné, colored glaze, jade ware, clay sculpture, and dough figurines, meticulously wrought by craftsmen, are famous around the world.

Chess, kite flying, gardening, and landscaping are hobbies among people of various ages.


China is in a period of transition, moving from a traditional to a modern society. The coexistence of the old social structure and the new, immature social system produces a number of contradictions. The widening gap of living standards between rural and urban areas draws a surplus rural labor force of more than 100 million into the coastal areas looking for jobs. This situation, which favors mobility and exchange, entails serious social disturbances.

The disequilibrium of the economic development between the coastal areas and the inland, the irrational income for different occupations, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, the growing inflation, the spread of greed and bribery, and the reappearance of other ugly phenomena, such as gambling, drugs, prostitution, and abduction of women, create serious problems for the people and for the government.


The Chinese government states that men and women have equal rights in all areas of life and most legislation is gender neutral. However, there are continued reports of discrimination, sexual harassment, wage discrepancies, and other gender-related problems. The gap in educational level between women and men was narrowing in the early years of the 21st century, with women making up 47.1% of college students in 2005 (but only 32.6% of doctoral students).

One area of legislation that affects women involves marriage and family planning. China has strict family planning laws. It is illegal for a woman to marry before age 20 and for a man to marry before age 22. It is also illegal for single women to give birth. The Family Planning Bureau can require women to take periodic pregnancy tests to enforce this law. Single women face few options. They may be forced to undergo abortion or sterilization.

Prostitution and the sex trade is a significant problem in China involving between 1.7 and 5 million women. Because prostitution may involve organized crime, businessmen, the police, and government workers, prosecution of laws against prostitution has limited success.

In 2002, China removed homosexuality from its official list of mental illnesses. Although homosexuality is still a taboo topic, gay men and lesbians are increasingly accepted, especially in large, international cities.


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—by C. Le Blanc