There are 56 officially recognised ethnic groups in China. One group, Han Chinese, counts towards the majority of the Chinese population – over 90%. The other 55 are ethnic minorities in China, counting for the remainder. Although I am a foreigner of Chinese descent, I believe I am of Han Chinese
Whilst going to China to see one of the wonders of the world should be on everyone’s bucket list, I would highly recommend everyone to travel deeper. When people think of Chinese culture, everyone would most likely automatically think of the typical culture you see, experience and learn in today’s society, both within and outside of China. The majority of the traditional culture was established during the Han Dynasty and has evolved since. Other groups have also contributed to shaping it.
These 55 ethnic minorities have their own traditions, customs and rituals, language (including writing system), religious beliefs etc. Some groups are now more integrated with the Han local customs and have lost or are losing their unique culture. Not only that, there’s a lot of languages that are in danger of being extinct. Groups from neighbouring countries such as Russians, Koreans, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Mongolians are also classified amongst the list of 56 recognised groups.
Being exposed to them will give you a deeper insight and the opportunity to see another side to China. Thus, opening your horizons. There some highly densely populated ethnic minority areas, some are easily accessible thanks to tourism whilst others aren’t; Some you will need a special permit (different to a Chinese visa), whilst some are restricted and forbids all foreigners and or Chinese citizens.
When you travel around, you will find a lot of areas had been developed to fit the tourism industry. It does give you a taste into the village’s culture and lifestyle but I feel it does lose its authentic flair.
A village in Lijiang, Yunnan had left a deep impression on me as it wasn’t brimming with tourism. Let’s say it’s as authentic as it gets. Whilst a friend and I were exploring this village, a local had invited us to sit down and have tea. There was a language barrier as he wasn’t able to converse in Mandarin, only in his native ethnic language, Naxi. He wasn’t able to write nor type in Chinese. I’m not 100% sure on his reading ability though. However, we had used hand gestures to communicate. He had shown us videos and photos of his lovely family and I still remember he loved to dance. Using a smartphone was still relatively new to him and it was adorable to watch him use it. This whole experience was tremendously heartwarming.
Being an ethnic minority myself in the UK, I was naive to think that there wasn’t a thing such as Chinese Muslims. I had caught my first glimpse when I was in Xi’an and let’s just say, MIND BLOWN. Then I had the opportunity to travel around north-west China which had widened my perspectives further. On a tour, our driver is of Hui origin and was telling us about his culture, Islam, answering all of our questions.
These experiences proves the beauty of learning and understanding new cultures, not only targeted to the ethnic minorities in China. The number one advice I would give to everyone is to keep an open mind.