Chinese people in Myanmar

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Burmese Chinese
緬甸華人 or 缅甸华人
Total population
1.6 - 3.0 million
3.0 - 5.0 % of the Burmese population (2012)[1][2]
Regions with significant populations
Yangon, Mandalay, Kokang, Taunggyi, Lashio
Varieties of Chinese (Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese, Mandarin, Southwestern Mandarin)
Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism
Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity,
Islam among Panthay Hui
Related ethnic groups
Kokang, Panthay and other overseas Chinese communities
Chinese people in Myanmar
Traditional Chinese緬甸華人
Simplified Chinese缅甸华人
Alternative Chinese name
Traditional Chinese緬甸華僑
Simplified Chinese缅甸华侨

Burmese Chinese, also Sino-Burmese or Tayoke, are a group of overseas Chinese born or raised in Myanmar (Burma). Although the Chinese officially make up three percent of the population, the actual figure is believed to be much higher. Among the under-documented Chinese populations are: those of mixed background;[3] those that have registered themselves as “ethnic Bamar” to avoid discrimination; those that moved to Myanmar from China during earlier Qing Dynasty because of Manchu rule; new Chinese immigrants and traders that have resided in Upper Myanmar since the 1990s (up to 2 million by some estimates)[4] but are not counted due to the lack of reliable census taking.[5] As of 2012, the Burmese Chinese population is estimated to be at 1.6 to 3.0 million.[1][2]

Burmese Chinese are a well-established middle class ethnic group and are well-represented in all levels of Burmese society.[6] Burmese Chinese also play a leading role in Myanmar's business sector and dominate the Burmese economy today.[7][8][9][10][11][12] In addition, Burmese Chinese have a strong presence in Myanmar's political scene with several people such as Kyaing Kyaing, Khin Nyunt and San Yu having been major political figures.[13][14][15]


Chinese in Bhamo, 1900.

In the Burmese language, the Chinese are called Tayoke (တရုတ်, tarut, pronounced [təjoʊʔ]) and formerly spelt တရုပ် (tarup). The earliest evidence of this term dates to the Bagan era, in the 13th century, during which it referred to the territory and a variety of peoples to the north and northeast of Myanmar. Various scholars have proposed that it comes from the Chinese term for "Turk" (突厥, Tūjué / tú jué);[16] from the name of Dali (大理國, Dàlǐguó), the capital of the Kingdom of Nanzhao; a Chinese corruption of the term Dàyuèzhī (大月支 or 大月氏), a Chinese term referring to Mongol-speaking Kushan Huns.[17] The adoption of Tayoke to refer to the Han Chinese was not an established practice until the 19th century.[17]

In the Mon language, the Chinese are known as Krawk (ကြုက်, /krɜk/);[18] in Shan, they are called Khe (ၶႄႇ, /kʰɛ˨/).[19] In the Wa language, spoken in the borderlands between Yunnan Province and Shan State, the word for Chinese is Hox/Hawx, pronounced /hɔʔ/.

Ancestral origins[edit]

The area around Yangon and Lower Myanmar was traditionally populated with Han Chinese from Fujian and Guangdong, whereas the areas around Mandalay and Upper Myanmar such as Kokang were traditionally populated with Han Chinese from Yunnan.

The Hokkiens and Cantonese comprised 45% of the ethnic Chinese population.[20][21] The Yunnanese comprised 30-40% of the ethnic Chinese population.[22]


Hokkien Chinese temple, Kheng Hock Keong Temple in Latha Township, Yangon
  • Hokkien Chinese (Burmese: eingyi shay, အင်္ကျီရှည် or let shay, လက်ရှည်, lit. long-sleeved jackets) from Fujian Province. Most of the Hokkien were traders.


The Cantonese Chinese founded the Kwun Yam Temple in Latha Township, Yangon
  • Cantonese Chinese (Burmese: eingyi to, အင်္ကျီတို or let to, လက်တို, lit. short-sleeved jackets) from Central Guangdong Province. Most migrants from Guangdong Province were artisans.


  • Hakka Chinese (Burmese: zaka, စက, lit. mid-length sleeve) from Fujian and Guangdong provinces.

Hakkas are further subdivided into those with ancestry from Fujian Province and Guangdong Province, called eingyi shay haka (အင်္ကျီရှည်ဟကာ) and eingyi to haka (အင်္ကျီတိုဟကာ) respectively.


In Upper Myanmar and Shan Hills, the Kokang people, mainly speakers of Southwestern Mandarin Chinese, a form of Mandarin Chinese most akin to Yunnanese Chinese, predominate. The mountain-dwelling, farming Kokang are classified as a part of the Shan national race, although they have no linguistic or genetic affinity to the Tai-speaking Shan.


The Panthay have long been considered distinct from the Han Chinese diaspora community. They are Chinese Muslims who are called Hui in China.


Finally, there are the tayoke kabya (တရုတ်ကပြား) of mixed Chinese and indigenous Burmese parentage. The kabya (ကပြား, meaning "mixed heritage") have a tendency to follow the customs of the Chinese more than of the Burmese. Indeed, tayoke kabya who follow Burmese customs are absorbed into and largely indistinguishable from mainstream Burmese society.[23] A large portion of Burmese Chinese is thought to have some kabya blood, possibly because immigrants could acquire Burmese citizenship through intermarriage with the indigenous Burmese peoples.



The Burmese Chinese place a high importance on education and represent a disproportionately high share of those with advanced (medical, engineering or doctorate) degrees in Myanmar. The figure would be higher still had it not been for the longstanding ban on those without Burmese citizenship from pursuing advanced degrees when Ne Win instigated the 1982 Citizenship Law further restricted Burmese citizenship for Burmese Chinese (as it stratified citizenship into three categories: full, associate, and naturalized) and severely limited Burmese Chinese, especially those without full citizenship and those holding FRCs, from attending professional tertiary schools, including medical, engineering, agricultural and economics institutions.[20] Many wealthy Sino-Burmese families send their children to the city's English language schools for primary and secondary education and Chinese and Singaporean Universities for education. Presently, many wealthy Burmese Chinese send their children overseas— in particular to Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, for advanced studies.[13] Taiwan is also a major destination, as the Taiwanese government offers aid and scholarship incentives to 'returning' overseas Chinese to study and settle there.[13][24][25]

Until vast nationalization by the Ne Win's government happened in 1963, most Burmese Chinese were enrolled in schools where Mandarin Chinese was the medium of instruction with Burmese as a second language. Notable Chinese schools at that time include:

  • Burma-Chinese High School (緬甸華僑中學)
  • Nanyang High School (緬甸南洋中學)- now Basic Education High School No. 2 Bahan
  • Rangoon Chinese Elementary School (仰光華僑小學)
  • Kee Mei Elementary School (仰光集美小學)


Historically, Burmese Chinese have made their livelihoods as merchants, traders, and shopkeepers as well as manual laborers such as indentured laborers (pejoratively called "coolies"); dockers, municipal workers, rickshaw men, and pony cart drivers. They were also heavily represented in certain professions such as civil servants, university lecturers, pharmacists, opticians, lawyers, engineers, and doctors.[26]


Celebrating tour in the Chinese New Year; mainly from tan (colour) Chinese teenagers, Yangon
The Kuan Yin Temple (Kwan Yin Si) is a local place of worship for Burmese Chinese in Bago and serves as a Mandarin school for the local community.


Most Burmese Chinese speak Burmese in their daily life. Those with higher education also speak Mandarin and/or English. The use of Chinese dialects still prevails. Hokkien (a dialect of Min Nan from Quanzhou, Zhangzhou and Jinjiang) and Taishanese (a Yue dialect akin to Cantonese) from Taishan and Xinhui are mostly used in Yangon as well as in Lower Myanmar, while Yunnanese Mandarin is well preserved in Upper Myanmar.

Although General Ne Win's rule (1962–1988) enacted the ban on Chinese-language schools that caused a decline of Mandarin speakers, the number of Chinese schools is growing again. (Note: Standard Mandarin refers to the national language of Mainland China and Taiwan, distinct from the Southwestern Mandarin dialect of the Upper Myanmar, Kokang and Panthay). At the end of 2012, Mizzima News reported that an increasing number of young Burmese Chinese are expressing interest in Chinese language, taking language courses even when their parents don't understand Chinese. However, this trend is not necessarily indicative of an interest in joining Chinese community or cultural organizations, as many of their parents did. Groups like the Myanmar Overseas Young Chinese League report a lack of interest from Burmese Chinese youth.[27]

The Panthay Mosque (清真寺) in Mandalay serves the local Panthay community.


Most Burmese Chinese practice Theravada Buddhism, while incorporating some Mahayana Buddhist and Taoist beliefs including ancestral worship. There are also some prominent Theravadin Buddhist meditation teacher of Chinese descent like Sayadaw U Tejaniya. There are several notable Chinese temples situated in Yangon, including Fushan Temple (dedicated to Qingshui Zhushi), Kheng Hock Keong Temple (dedicated to Mazu) and Guanyin Gumiao Temple (dedicated to Guanyin).

The minority Panthay or Chinese Muslims (回教華人; ပန်းသေးလူမျိုး, lit. "little flowers") originated from Yunnan are mainly Muslim.


The Burmese Chinese have Burmese names and many also have Chinese names. Given names in various Chinese dialects are often transliterated into the Burmese language, using phonetic transcriptions or translated. For example, a Burmese Chinese person named 'Khin Aung' may have the Chinese name of 慶豐 (Hokkien POJ: Khèng-hong), with '慶' (Hokkien POJ: khèng) corresponding to 'Khin', and '豐' (Hokkien POJ: hong) corresponding to 'Aung'. However, variations of transcription do exist (between dialects), and some Burmese Chinese do not choose to adopt similar-sounding Burmese and Chinese names. Because the Burmese lack surnames, many Burmese Chinese tend to pass on portions of their given names to future generations, for the purpose of denoting lineage.

According to publications of Long Shan Tang, a clan association based in Yangon, the ten most common Chinese surnames in Yangon are:

  1. Lee/Li (李)
  2. Peng/Pang (彭)
  3. Shi/See/Si (時)
  4. Dong/Tung (董)
  5. Min/Man (閔)
  6. Niu/Ngau (牛)
  7. Pian/Pin (邊)
  8. Hsin (辛)
  9. Kwan (關)
  10. Khaw (許)

In Myanmar, the majority of Chinese surnames are Lim 林, Tan 陈, Yang 杨, Lee 李, Chou 周, Wang 王, Chang 张, Su 苏, Huang 黄, Yeh 叶, Hsu 许, Fang 方 and Wu 吴


A streetside vendor in Latha Township (also known as "China Town") selling Chinese baked goods, including tikay and paste-filled buns.

Burmese Chinese cuisine is based on Chinese cuisine, particularly from Fujian, Guangdong and Yunnan provinces, with local influences. Spices such as turmeric and chili are commonly used. Also, the use of soy sauce, bean curd, bean sprouts, Chinese pickled mustards, and dried mushrooms can be attributed to Chinese influence. The following is a partial list of Chinese contributions to Burmese cuisine. These are an established part of today's Burmese cuisine, and are hardly differentiated as a foreign cuisine.


A joss house in Bhamo (Bamaw).

Pre-colonial era[edit]

The earliest records of Chinese migration into present-day Myanmar were in the Song and Ming dynasties.[20] In the 18th century, Ming Dynasty princes settled in Kokang (the northern part of present-day Myanmar). Chinese traders, however, traveled as far as the capital city as well as northern towns on the Irrawaddy such as Bhamo. Some of them stayed and started a Chinese community at Amarapura, and when King Mindon moved his capital to Mandalay in 1859, the Chinese were the only community that decided to stay behind. Many of their descendants intermarried into the host society and remain important and respected citizens of Amarapura.

Colonial period[edit]

A portrait of a Sino-Burmese merchant and his wife in Rangoon

Another wave of immigration occurred in the 19th century under the British colonial administration. Britain encouraged immigration of Indians and Chinese to British Burma, and such incentives for work opportunities and enterprise and for accumulating wealth attracted many Chinese. They primarily came to Burma via British Malaya.[20] The Chinese quickly became dominant in the highly lucrative rice and gem industries. Many became merchants and traders owning both wholesale and retail businesses. Unlike in British Malaya, where most Chinese were coolie laborers, the Chinese in Burma were largely from the artisan and merchant classes.[23] Their success was reflected in the popular Burmese adage, "Earn like the Chinese, save like the Indian, and don't waste money like the Bamar." (ငွေကို တရုတ်လိုရှာ၊ ကုလားလိုစု၊ ဗမာလို မဖြုန်းနဲ့)

A baker's shop in Mandalay's Chinatown in the late 1800s

They integrated well into Burmese society not least because they, like the Bamar, were of Sino-Tibetan stock and were Buddhists, implicit in the nickname pauk hpaw (ပေါက်ဖော်, lit. "sibling").[28] During British rule, marriage between the Chinese and Burmese, particularly Chinese men and Burmese women, was the most common form of intermarriage in Burma, as evidenced by a High Court ruling on the legal status of Sino-Burmese marriages under Burmese Buddhist law.[29]

The Chinese are arguably the only other group of people, apart from the Hindu Indians, the ethnic Bamar historically have a high regard for, not just for their ancient and uninterrupted civilization but for their skills and intellect as well[citation needed]. From 1935 until the end of British rule, the Chinese were represented in the colonial legislature, the House of Representatives.[30]

After World War II, displaced Burmese Chinese (whose pre-war homes were in Burma), were the most numerous group of overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia to request repatriation to return to Burma, according to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.[31]

Post-independence era[edit]

The Yunnanese Buddhist Temple and Association in Mandalay is a major Chinese temple in the city.

During the 1950s, Burma was one of the first countries to recognize the People's Republic of China as a nation. However, its own Chinese population was treated as aliens. The Burmese Chinese were issued foreign registration cards (FRC) in a tiered citizenship system adopted by the post-independence government. When the Chinese Communists expelled the Kuomintang, many fled to Myanmar and Thailand over the borders of Yunnan Province. The Burmese government fought and removed the armed KMT and forced them to Taiwan;[32] those who managed to stay prospered. In the 1950s, discriminatory policies against overseas Chinese encompassed citizenship, government employment, approval for business regulations and licensing, loan extensions and permission to make remittances.[33]

In 1952, Kheng Hock Keong Temple publications estimated that ethnic Chinese, who lived in enclaves in the area along Sinohdan, Latha, and Maung Khaing Streets (with Cantonese typically living above Maha Bandula Road and Hokkiens living below), constituted 9.5% of Rangoon's population.[34] During this period, there was a sharp rise in the number of private Chinese language schools, primarily teaching Mandarin, in Burma, from 65 in 1935 to 259 in 1953 and 259 at its peak in 1962, with many such schools affiliated to the Chinese nationalist (တရုတ်ဖြူ, lit. "White Chinese") or communist (တရုတ်နီ, lit. "Red Chinese") movements.[35] However, fewer than 10% of Burmese Chinese of school age attended Chinese language schools.[36] Similarly, about 80 clan associations operated in the 1950s.

Socialist rule[edit]

In 1962, Ne Win led the Socialist coup d'état, establishing the Revolutionary Council under the Burmese Way to Socialism. In February 1963, the Enterprise Nationalization Law was passed, effectively nationalizing all major industries and prohibiting the formation of new factories. This law adversely affected many industrialists and entrepreneurs, especially those without the full citizenship.[37] The government's economic nationalization program further prohibited foreigners, including the non-citizen Chinese, from owning land, sending remittances, getting business licenses and practicing medicine.[38] Such policies led to the beginnings of a major exodus of Burmese Chinese to other countries—some 100,000 Chinese left Burma.[32]

Although a kabya himself, Ne Win banned Chinese-language education and created other measures to compel the Chinese to leave. Ne Win's government stoked up racial animosity and ethnic conflicts against the Chinese, who were terrorized by Burmese citizens, the most violent riots taking place at the time of the Cultural Revolution in China in 1967.[32] All schools were nationalized, including Chinese language schools. Beginning in 1967 and continuing throughout the 1970s, anti-Chinese riots continued to flare up and many believed they were covertly supported by the government.[39] Similarly, Chinese shops were looted and set on fire. Public attention was successfully diverted by Ne Win from the uncontrollable inflation, scarcity of consumer items and rising prices of rice. The 1982 Citizenship Law further restricted Burmese citizenship for Burmese Chinese (as it stratified citizenship into three categories: full, associate, and naturalized) and severely limited Burmese Chinese, especially those without full citizenship and those holding FRCs, from attending professional tertiary schools, including medical, engineering, agricultural and economics institutions.[20] During this period, the country's failing economy and widespread discrimination accelerated an emigration of Burmese Chinese out of Burma.

Modern era[edit]

The Yangon Chinatown branch of the retailer Sein Gayha on Maha Bandula Rd near 20th Street also houses Ying Fo Fui Kun (應和會館), a Hakka Chinese clan association.
Chinese New Year festivities in Yangon's Chinatown in 2011.

In 1988, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) came to power, and gradually loosened the government's role in the economy, encouraging private sector growth and foreign investment. This liberalization of state's role in the economy, if slight and uneven, nonetheless gave the ethnic Chinese-led businesses extra space to expand and reassert their economic power. Today, the majority of retail, wholesale and import trade businesses are run by the Burmese Chinese today.[20] For example, Sein Gayha (စိန်ဂေဟာ), a major retailer that began in Yangon's Chinatown in 1985, is owned by a Hakka Chinese family. Moreover, four of the five largest commercial banks in Myanmar, Myanmar Universal Bank, Yoma Bank, Myanmar Mayflower Bank, and the Asia Wealth Bank, were all founded by Sino-Burmese.[40]

Today, the majority of Burmese Chinese live in the major cities of Yangon, Mandalay, Taunggyi, Bago, and their surrounding areas. Although there are Chinatowns (တရုတ်တန်း; tayoke tan) in the major cities, the Chinese are widely dispersed throughout the country. Yangon is home to nearly 100,000 Chinese. The northern region of Myanmar has seen a recent influx of mainland Chinese migrant workers, black market traders and gamblers. In Kachin State, which borders China in three directions, Standard Mandarin is the lingua franca.

Upper Myanmar has seen a demographic shift resulting from the recent immigration of many Mainland Chinese to Mandalay Region, Shan,[41] and Kachin States.[42] Ethnic Chinese now constitute an estimated 30 to 40% of Mandalay's population.[43] Huge swaths of land in city centre left vacant by the fires were later purchased, mostly by the ethnic Chinese, many of whom were recent immigrants from Yunnan.[44] The Chinese influx accelerated after the current military government came to power in 1988. With the Burmese government turning a blind eye, many Chinese immigrants from Yunnan (and also from Sichuan) poured into Upper Myanmar in the 1990s, settling in Mandalay.[45] In the 1990s alone, about 250,000 to 300,000 Yunnanese were estimated to have migrated to Mandalay.[43] Their arrival has been vital in the doubling of Mandalay's population from about 500,000 in 1980 to one million in 2008. Chinese festivals are now firmly embedded in the city's cultural calendar.[44] The strong influx of Mainland Chinese immigrants into Mandalay coupled with the presence of strong Chinese economic clout resulted the subsequent displacement of indigenous Burmese to the outskirts of the city creating racial tensions between the two communities.[46]

There are also substantial Burmese Chinese communities outside of Myanmar, particularly in Taiwan, Macau, Hong Kong, Singapore, United States (such as New York City's Henry Street[47]) and Australia.[20][48][49] Zhonghe District, near Taipei, Taiwan is home to 40,000 Burmese Chinese (2008), one of the largest communities outside of Myanmar.[50]

Notable Burmese Chinese[edit]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Mya Than (1997). "The Ethnic Chinese in Myanmar and their Identity". In Leo Suryadinata (ed.). Ethnic Chinese as Southeast Asians. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. ISBN 981-3055-58-8.


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External links[edit]