Words by Colin Speakman, Director of China Programs for CAPA International Education.
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There are 56 officially recognised ethnic groups in the People's Republic of China (PRC). The majority group are the Han Chinese, making up around 92% of the population.
That leaves only around 8% for the other 55 ethnic minority groups. If that does not seem a lot of people to share out, remember that the PRC has a population of over 1.3 billion and that gives 105 million for these groups. The largest are the Zhuang at 18 million around Guandong Province in the South, then the Uyghur at over 11 million from the far West in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the Manchu at over 10 million from the North and the Hui around 10 million mainly from the North West and Central Plain. Two of the best known groups, the Mongols and the Tibetans come in at roughly half this size - somewhat over 5 million in each case.
Photo: Urumqi, Xinjiang by Solor Guo
There are linguistic differences among the groups. Local languages are spoken within the family and in some local schools. However the government of the PRC requires standard Mandarin to be the language of instruction and be taught in state schools for national harmony.
Some groups have their own religions, such as Tibetan Buddhism, and Uyghur and Hui are generally Muslims. While the PRC recognizes these religions and the right to worship within them, the government does not support these groups reaching out to convert others. It gets concerned about unofficial religious gatherings that might discuss political matters.
Some of the major ethnic minority groups are in regions along China's borders and in some cases in areas that were once not part of China. This accounts for some of the differences in culture. However the religious mix, infiltration across the borders and other factors such as perceived Han privileges when they migrate into these areas, can contribute to tensions in some of these regions.
Photo: Tibet Minority at Ditan Miaohui by Ding Zhou
Minority ethnic customs can be identified by dress, music, artistic pursuits, and other local traditions which some groups are facing a struggle to preserve as each generation comes along and some move away to the more prosperous East of China. One avenue for such movement is the opportunity to study in major centers of higher education excellence such as Beijing and Shanghai. The top universities are hard to get into, so education authorities make special arrangements for access. In Beijing, this includes Minzu University (The Minorities University - MU) where CAPA's Director of China Programs, Colin Speakman, caught up with student friends from Urumqi and Kashkar in Xinjiang over a traditional Uyghur meal to discuss life as a minority student in China.
Photo: Minzu University from Colin Speakman
COLIN SPEAKMAN: Please introduce yourselves.
DA: I am Dildar and I am studying Tourism and Hospitality Management at MU. I come from Urumqi, the quite modern capital of Xinjiang.
GK: I am Gulmira and I am studying English Literature at MU. I come from Kashkar, the ancient former capital in Xinjiang, going back to 300 years ago.
Photo: Uyghur man from Kashkar by Todenhoff
CS: A new semester has started. Did you go back to your hometown to celebrate the Chinese Spring Festival last month?
DA: I went home to take advantage of the long university break, but we do not actually celebrate the Spring Festival. It is not a Uyghur tradition. The myths and stories about the Chinese Festival, the monster that comes down to the villages, the red packets, the food to cook, all developed in China when our area was not part of the country, so we never adopted it. We do not join in that.
CS: Tell us a bit about life in Urumqi and in Kashkar as a school student.
DA: One hard thing is it is important for me and my family to speak Uyghur, but my school in the capital has to teach in Hanyu - Mandarin Chinese. Also, we do not practice our religion in school. We have restrictions on clothing and we do not wear traditional Muslim styles in school.
GA: There are Uyghur and Han schools in Kashkar so it was more flexible for me. Also, in the rural areas, there are not many Han and teaching in small schools is in Uyghur.
CS: Can you go to mosques to worship easily in Xinjiang?
DA: Unlike Muslims in the Arab world, females in Uyghur Muslim tradition do not worship in public. We do it in our rooms on our own. Only the men go to mosques and, yes, there are many.
GA: So here in Beijing it is the same. I worship in my room. For Uyghur, there is a lot more inconvenience in Beijing to go to a mosque for a man. There is a lot of monitoring.
CS: Talking of monitoring, we hear of some periodic crackdowns in Xinjiang. Have you experienced any?
DA: Yes, in school there was a period in the past when all internet and social networking was blocked by the government as an anti-protest measure. This affected cell phones too. We had to get out to meet our friends face-to-face. It lasted about a year.
GA: There is a lot of monitoring. The police pull us over if they see Muslim dress, check ID, ask lots of questions, delay our journey. It is unfair since it is our country.
CS: What and the benefits and challenges for a minority student in coming to study in Beijing?
DA: Incomes are low in Xinjiang and we could never afford 5,000 rmb a month to stay in a Beijing apartment. The university only charges 6,700 rmb a year on campus, though we share eight to a room. It is the only way I can experience Beijing. It is also nice that there is a course at MU about the Minorities in China which we all take. I also can be with other Uyghur people here; I would never date a Han Chinese because there are no feelings.
GA: The negative side is we are made to feel like strangers here. Local Han look at us strangely. When friends come to visit from Xinjiang, it is hard to find them a hotel as many will not accept them. Some do, but they then call the police and there is a knock on the door when they are resting. The police come into the room and check everything. They seem to think everyone could be disruptive or a protester.
CS: Does food present a challenge in Beijing?
DA: Yes, because we do not trust restaurants in Beijing that the food is Halal. They may have cut corners and cooked food in a bad way. We have to limit what we eat to restaurants on (and near) campus that are trusted as Muslim. We would never eat street food.
GA: If we don't mind going to the same places a lot, it is fine. The food here at Amannisahan Restaurant is good, yes?
CS: Would you plan to stay in Beijing after graduation?
DA: No, I would like to go to the US for further study in business and management, if I can. Then when I return to China, I want to help Xinjiang rise up economically and help people to have a better life.
GA: I would plan to return to Xinjiang to teach.
CS: Uyghurs seem a large group with a clear identity. Do you think that some smaller ethnic groups will still be separately identifiable in 20 years time?
DA: No. In our Minorities course, we have many of them. The teacher asked for a show of hands as to how many in this large class of 50 students would be happy to be assimilated fully into Han culture. Over half of the class raised their hands, yes.
GA: I think only the big ethnic minorities will remain important in 20 years. It is too hard for smaller groups to maintain their language, traditional skills and way of life. Many will move into the new cities the government wants to build and after that, they will follow the Han way. Their own way is only possible in rural villages.
CS: Thank you Dildar and Gulmira for this informative chat over a great lunch.
DA and GA: Thank you for lunch, Colin!
Thanks Colin, Dildar and Gulmira!