This is an article from the January-February 1991 issue: The State of the World

The Chinese World

A Mosaic of Peoples

The Chinese World

Well over a billion of the people who live on this earth are called Chinese. Traditionally, in describing themselves to the world outside of China, the Chinese have stressed the "Great Tradition"-- the norms of behavior and custom that all who are Chinese share. Much attention has been given to the continuity of the Great Tradition over centuries of time. Therefore, although there is an abundance of interesting articles on the national minorities that make up nearly 7% of the population, reference to the much greater Chinese mosaic of the ethnic and sub-ethnic diversity among the teeming multitudes that are called Han Chinese is difficult to find.

Some Westerners who defend this basic stance of the Chinese argue that "it is impossible to ignore the essential unity of China" (Ramsey, pg 18). They refuse to speak of Chinese in the plural, even though admitting that by linguistic standards several of the "dialects" of the one Chinese language unquestionably must be considered as different languages. As we are concerned with the evangelization of all of China's millions, however, we must not overlook the reality of the vast diversity of the Han Chinese peoples. The more than 45 million Chinese who live outside of China all have their cultural roots in the Chinese mosaic, so they too can only be evangelized with an understanding of their cultural distinctives.

The Chinese mosaic consists of ethnic and sub-ethnic groups. Differences in the "little traditions" of each of these groups often follow differences in dialects. But sometimes the cultural differences have been determined by provincial boundaries and/or geographical barriers. Each group and subgroup can be identified by its distinctive customs such as folktales, music and cuisine. And certainly as the Church of Jesus Christ is planted in each part of the Chinese Mosaic, it too will seek to have its distinctive expression of the Body of Christ.

We are often asked at the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS) how many people groups there are in China. We reply that the government of China recognizes only one majority Han Chinese people group and 55 minority nationalities. Western anthropological and linguistic experts, however, count many more distinctive groups among those peoples who have not yet been assimilated into the mainstream of Chinese culture.

Some of these groups include those of the Yunnan Province of Southern China. The major minority people groups of this province are listed on the next page and their location is described in detail on the map there.

Minority Peoples With Extensive Christian Witness.

Yi 3,300,000
Bai 1,131,000
Miao 760,000
Lisu 491,000
Lahu 304,000
Wa 299,000 J
ingpo 93,000

Minority Peoples With Some Christian Witness.

Hani 1,060,000
Zhuang 916,000
Dai 840,000
Nu 23,000

Minority Peoples With No Known Christians

Hui (Muslims)436,000
Naxi 245,000
Yao 148,000
Bulang 58,000

And what about people groups among the Han Chinese? Utilizing the research of Leo J. Moser, a longtime China specialist with the U.S. State Department, we answer first of all that there are twelve major people groups among the Han Chinese peoples of China. Moser groups them as shown in the above chart.

Our answer to the question of the number of people groups in China continues with the statement that just about all of the above major groupings of Han Chinese peoples have a large number of subgroups that are set apart by their own dialects and "little traditions." Even the Wannan people, who number only about four million and occupy a small space in China's land mass can be separated into several dialect groups, each with some very specific characteristics. Research must yet be done to list and locate the identifiable subgroups within each of the above major groups.

Our answer must be that until more ethnographic studies of the subgroups among the Han Chinese peoples are accomplished, we cannot give an accurate answer to the question of the number of people groups in China. We who are concerned with the evangelization of all of China would profit from sanctified graduate studies that would not only identify Han Chinese subgroups but would also indicate if they are as yet unevangelized. We can have a part in God's mighty harvest of souls by praying for the unevangelized peoples of China.

Notes: 1. Ramsey, S. Robert. The Languages of China (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1987) 2. Moser, Leo J.. The Chinese Mosaic: The Peoples and Provinces of China (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1985).*


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