Ethnic groups in Chinese history

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Map of the world as known to Han Dynasty China in 2 CE. Names of non-Chinese peoples and states have been purposely left with their Chinese names (e.g. Dayuan instead of Fergana; Gaogouli instead of Goguryeo) to reflect the fact that our knowledge of participants in the Han world order comes almost exclusively from Chinese sources.
Map of Tang Dynasty China, showing some of the surrounding ethnic (and other) groups or the geographical areas these groups were located.

Ethnic groups in Chinese history refer to various or presumed ethnicities of significance to the history of China, gathered through the study of Classical Chinese literature, Chinese and non-Chinese literary sources and inscriptions, historical linguistics, and archaeological research.

Among the difficulties in the study of ethnic groups in China are the relatively long periods of time involved, together with the large volume of literary and historical records which have accompanied the history of China. Classical Chinese ethnography (like much then-contemporary ethnography) was often sketchy, leaving it unclear as to whether Chinese-depicted names referred to a true ethnic group or a possibly multiethnic political entity. Even then, ethnonyms were sometimes assigned by geographic location or surrounding features, rather than by any features of the people themselves, and often carried little distinction of who the Han Chinese authors considered Chinese and non-Chinese for differences such as lifestyle, language, or governance. Many of the ethnonyms were historically used in such a way as to invite comparison with the word barbarian.

English names[edit]

The Chinese exonyms of various ethnic groups encountered in Chinese history can be rendered into English either by transliteration or translation; for instance, is transliterated as Di (or Ti) or translated as "Northern Barbarians". In some cases authors prefer to transliterate specific exonyms as proper nouns,[1] and in other cases to translate generic ones as English "barbarian" (for instance, Siyi "Four Barbarians"). The American sinologist Marc S. Abramson explains why "barbarian" is the appropriate translation for general terms like fan and hu , but not specific ones like fancai 番菜 "foreign-style food".

Translations such as "foreigner" and "alien", though possessing an air of scholarly neutrality, are inappropriate as a general translation because they primarily connote geographic and political considerations, implying that individuals and groups so designated were external to the Tang Empire and ineligible to become subjects of the empire. This was frequently not the case with many uses of fan and related terms — common among them were hu (often used in the Tang to denote Central Asians) and four ethnonyms of great antiquity that, by the Tang, were mostly used generically with implicit geographic considerations: yi (east), man (south), rong (west), and di (north) — that largely connoted cultural and ethnic otherness but did not exclude the designated persons or groups from membership in the empire. Although the term barbarian has undergone many transformations from its Greek origins to its current English usage, not all of which are relevant to the Tang (such as its use in medieval Europe to denote religious difference, marking non-Christians of various ethnic, geographic, and political affiliations), its consistent association with inferiority, lack of civilization, and externality in the broadest sense often make it the most appropriate choice, including some cases when it is placed in the mouths of non-Han referring to themselves or others. However, its pejorative connotations make it inappropriate as a general translation. Thus, I have chosen not to translate these terms when they designate particular groups, individuals, or phenomena and do not refer to a specific ethnic group, language, geographic place, or cultural complex.[2]

List of ethnic groups[edit]

The following table summarizes the various ethnic groups and/or other social groups of known historical significance to the history of China (any non clear-cut connection is denoted by a question mark):

Pinyin Romanization Names in Chinese characters and pronunciation Approximate residence according to Chinese texts Time of appearance in the history of China Equivalence(s) of non-Chinese names Time of appearance outside China Possible descendant(s)
Miao 苗 (Miáo) Name applied to peoples in various areas stretching from provinces (Hebei, Shanxi) north of the Huang He to Yunnan province As early as 25th century BC to present Hmong, Hmu, Xong, A Hmao, ... See Miao Miao/Hmong, ethnic groups in China, America and Europe
Yuezhi 月氏 (Yuèzhī) Tarim basin c. 6th century BC to 162 BC, then driven out by Xiongnu. Kushans, Tocharians ? Mid-2nd century BC in Central Asia No known descendants, but possibly absorbed into the Uyghurs, who now show a large plurality of Indo-European DNA,[3] despite the majority of Uighurs having Mongoloid racial traits (although there are some Uighurs with certain European traits, such as light hair, light eyes, face shape, etc.)
Han 漢 (Hàn) China, generally, especially central China From earliest history or prehistorical (name comes from the Han Dynasty) Han Chinese, Chinese Han Dynasty Modern Han Chinese
Wuhuan 烏桓 (Wūhuán) Western portions of Manchuria (Heilongjiang, Jilin, Liaoning provinces) and Inner Mongolia 4th century BC to late 3rd century BC, assimilated by Han No known equivalence N/A No known descendants (possibly Mongols)
Xianbei 鮮卑 (Xiānbēi) Manchuria (Heilongjiang, Jilin, Liaoning provinces), Mongolia, and Inner Mongolia. Moved into areas north of the Huang He and founded a dynasty there. c. 4th century BC to mid-6th century, some Xianbeis assimilated into Hans N/A N/A Mongols (some Chinese people today have the Xianbei surnames such as Yuwen, Yuchi, Zhangsun, Tuoba, Murong and Huyan)
Qiang 羌 (Qiāng) Gansu, Qinghai, western portion of Sichuan, eastern portion of Xinjiang, and northeastern portion of Tibet Mentioned in oracle bone inscriptions of the Shang Dynasty, c. 14th century BC to c. 1050 BC.

c. 4th century BC to late 5th century, assimilated into Hans

No known equivalence N/A Modern Qiang, Tangut, Old Tibetan, Nakhi, Jingpho, Lahu etc.
Di 氐 (Dī) Areas of neighboring borders of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Shaanxi c. 8th century BC to mid-6th century, assimilated into Hans No known equivalence N/A As minorities in Sichuan
Jie 羯 (Jié) Shanxi province Late 2nd century to mid-4th century, assimilated into Hans No known equivalence N/A No known descendants
Dingling, Gaoche, Shule 丁零 (Dīnglíng), 高車 (Gāochē), 疏勒 (Shūlè) Banks of Lake Baikal and on the borders of present-day Mongolia and Russia, migrated to modern-day Shanxi and Xinjiang 1st century BC to late 5th century, assimilated into Hans ? ? Some descendants still living by Lake Baikal ?
Rouran, Ruru, 柔然 (Róurán), 蠕蠕 (Rúrú), 茹茹 (Rúrú) Present-day Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, northern portions of Shanxi, Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia, and eastern portion of Xinjiang Early 3rd century to early 6th century Nirun/Mongols (possibly others falling under the label as well) Late 6th century to early 9th century Mongols
Tujue 突厥 (Tūjué) Present-day Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, northern portions of Shanxi, Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia, Xinjiang, and eastern portion of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan Late 5th century to mid-10th century Göktürks Mid-6th century to early 9th century The western Turks partly migrated to Transoxiana, Persia, and Anatolia, while the eastern Turks assimilated mainly to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang; nowadays, mostly Turkmen and Uyghur in Central Asia, and, to a lesser degree, the Turkish-speaking population of modern-day Turkey (and other Turkic peoples) share that ancestry.
Huihu 回紇 (Huíhé) Present-day Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, northern portions of Shanxi, Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia Early 7th century to mid-10th century Uyghurs Early 9th century to present Uyghurs and Yugurs
Tufan 吐蕃(Tǔbō, also pronounced as Tǔfān in Taiwan) Present-day Tibet, Qinghai, western border of Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi and Southern border of Xinjiang Mid-6th century to present Tibetans Early 6th century to present Tibetans
Qidan 契丹 (Qìdān) Present-day Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, Manchuria, Liaoning, northern border of Shanxi and Hebei, and later in Xinjiang and eastern border of Kazakhstan 388-1125 Khitan 388-1211 Daur and some Baarins

There exist descendants of war-scattered Qidan soldiers sent to Yunnan and Guangxi province during the Yuan Dynasty in Baoshan, Yunnan.

Xi or Kumo Xi 庫莫奚 (Kùmòxī) More or less the same residence of the Khitans, since regarded as two ethnic groups with one unique ancestry Pre-4th century to mid-12th century No known equivalence N/A No known descendants (possibly Mongols)
Shiwei 室韋 (Shìwéi) Present-day Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, western Manchuria and southern Siberia Late 6th century to late 10th century No known equivalence N/A Conquered by Khitans, splinter groups and remnants re-emerged as Mongols and Tungusic peoples
Menggu 蒙古 (Ménggǔ) Present-day Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, western Manchuria, southern Siberia, and eastern and central Xinjiang before Genghis Khan Since late c. 8th century Mongols Late 12th century to present Mongols

There remain descendants of Mongol soldiers sent to Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guangxi provinces during the Yuan Dynasty.

Dangxiang 党項 (Dǎngxiàng) Ningxia, Gansu, northern portions of Shanxi, southwestern portion of Mongolia, Southeastern portion of Xinjiang Mid-8th century to early 13th century Tanguts N/A Part of Hui nationality (Dungan), Ersu, part of Amdo Tibetans, part of Han Chinese in Mizhi, Shaanxi (Late Ming rebel leader Li Zicheng was a Tangut from Mizhi.)
Sai 塞 (Sāi) Widespread throughout Central Asia 2nd century BC to 1st century BC Saka 5th century BC No known descendants, but possibly absorbed into the Uyghurs, who now show a large plurality of Indo-European DNA,[3] despite the majority of Uighurs having Mongoloid racial traits (although there are some Uighurs with certain European traits, such as light hair, light eyes, face shape, etc.)
Mohe 靺鞨 (Mòhé) Manchuria and northern portion of Inner Mongolia, helped to establish Balhae Early 7th century to early 10th century. Malgal N/A Jurchens
Nüzhen or Manzuren 女真 (Nǚzhēn), 滿 (Mǎn) Manchuria and northern portion of Inner Mongolia Early 10th century to present, established Jin Dynasty and Qing Dynasty Jurchens, Mancho, Manchus or Manchurian Since mid-17th century, first encountered by the Russians Largest minority ethnic group in Dongbei region or Manchuria. Their culture has very much assimilated with the Han, though some distinctive aspects still remain.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ For instance, see Wu (1982), passim.
  2. ^ Abramson (2008), p. 3.
  3. ^ HUGO Pan-Asian SNP Consortium (11 December 2009). "Mapping Human Genetic Diversity in Asia". Science 326: 1541–1545. 

References[edit]