Ethnic groups in Chinese history

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Map of the Chinese Han dynasty 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 premodern 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.[1]

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,[2] and in other cases to translate generic ones as English "barbarian" (for instance, "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 outsiderness, 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 — most 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 connotations: 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.[3]

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 Yellow River to Yunnan province As early as 25th century BC to present Hmong, Hmu, Xong, A Hmao N/A Modern Miao
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.[4]
Huaxia 華夏 (Huáxià)
漢人 (Hànrén)
Guanzhong and Yellow River basins in Northern China[5] From earliest history or prehistorical (name comes from the Han Dynasty) Yanhuang, Zhonghua, Zhongguo, Huaxia, Hua, Xia, Han,[6][7] Han Chinese, Chinese[8][9][6] Han Dynasty Modern Han Chinese
Yelang 夜郎(Yèláng) Guizhou 3rd century BC to 1st century BC Zangke N/A Possibly Yi[10]
Wuhuan 烏桓 (Wūhuán) Western portions of Manchuria (Heilongjiang, Jilin, Liaoning provinces) and Inner Mongolia 4th century BC to late 3rd century BC, assimilated into Hans No known equivalence N/A Possibly Kumo Xi;[11] the rest were presumably assimilated into Hans.
Xianbei 鮮卑 (Xiānbēi) Manchuria (Heilongjiang, Jilin, Liaoning provinces), Mongolia, and Inner Mongolia. Moved into areas north of the Yellow River and founded a dynasty there. c. 4th century BC to mid-6th century, some Xianbeis assimilated into Hans N/A N/A Possibly some of the Mongols, Tibetans, Monguor people, Sibe people, Evenks, and Chinese(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, and Lahu
Di 氐 (Dī) Areas of neighboring borders of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Shaanxi c. 8th century BC to mid-6th century, assimilated into Tibetans, Hans and other Sino-Tibetan - speaking ethnic groups No known equivalence N/A Baima people
Jie 羯 (Jié) Shanxi province Late 2nd century to mid-4th century No known equivalence N/A The majority died in Wei–Jie war, the rest assimilated into Hans. Some Yeniseian people may be related to the Jie.
Baiyue 百越 (Bǎiyuè) Present-day Guangdong, Guangxi, Zhejiang, Fujian, and Northern Vietnam[12][13][14][15] 1st century BC to 1st century AD, assimilated into Hans[16] No known equivalence[16] Early 6th Century BC to 3rd century AD[1] Part of Southern Han Chinese in Guangdong and Guangxi, Zhuang, Dai, Tai, Bouyei, Aisui, Kam, Hlai, Mulam, and Anan[17][18][19]
Dian 滇國 (diānguó) Dian Lake, Yunnan 4th century BC to 1st century BC, assimilated into Hans[20] No known equivalence N/A No known descendants.[20]
Qiuci 龜茲 (Qiūcí) Tarim Basin, Xinjiang 2nd century BC to 10th century AD, first encountered during the reign of Emperor Wu of Han; assimilated by Uyghurs and others Tocharians Date unknown, although they were part of the Bronze Age Indo-European migrations (see Tarim mummies) During antiquity, Indo-European peoples inhabited the oasis city-state of Kucha (as well as Turfan) in the Tarim Basin region of Xinjiang. They fell under the Imperial Chinese orbit of control during the Han and Tang dynasties (see Protectorate of the Western Regions, Tang campaign against the oasis states, and Protectorate General to Pacify the West), but were eventually conquered by the Uyghur Khaganate and then assimilated by Qocho Uyghurs (856-1335 AD).
Dingling 丁零 (Dīnglíng), 高車 (Gāochē) 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 Gaoche, Chile 1st century BC Tiele
Rouran 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 Caucasus, Pannonia, Transoxiana, Persia, and Anatolia, while the eastern Turks assimilated mainly to the Orkhon Uyghurs who conquered them; 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 Tujue ancestry (for examples, Western-Turkic-affiliated Karluks (standard Chinese: Géluólù 葛邏祿) were linguistic ancestors and partial genetic ancestors of modern Karluk Turkic speakers; Oghuz Turks possibly descend from the Western Turkic tribe Gūsū 姑蘇.[21]).
Huihu 回紇 (Huíhé) Present-day Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, northern portions of Shanxi, Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia Early 7th century to mid-10th century Toquz Oghuz, Uyghurs or Yugurs Early 9th century to present Yugur
Tibetans 吐蕃 (Tǔbō, also pronounced as Tǔfān) Present-day Tibet, Qinghai, western areas of Sichuan and Yunnan, parts of Gansu, Southern border of Xinjiang Mid-6th century to present N/A Early 6th century to present, a 2016 study reveals the date of divergence between Tibetans and Han Chinese was estimated to have taken place around 15,000 to 9,000 years ago.[22] Modern Tibetans
Khitans 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 c. 4th century to 12th century Khitan 4th century to 12th century Possibly Daur, and some Baarins, Chinese, Mongolians

(There exist descendants of war-scattered Khitan soldiers sent to Yunnan and Guangxi provinces 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 c. Mid-8th century to early 13th century, some Dangxiang assimilated into Hans Tanguts N/A Part of the Hui community (Dungan), Ersu, part of Amdo Tibetans, part of Han Chinese in Mizhi, Shaanxi.)
Sai 塞 (Sāi) Widespread throughout Central Asia 2nd century BC to 1st century BC Saka 5th century BC Maybe ancestral to the Pashtuns and the Wakhi.
Sute 粟特 (Sùtè) Widespread throughout Central Asia; also lived in China proper 1st century BC to 11th century AD Sogdians 6th century BC Modern Yagnobi people.
Manchus 女真 (Nǚzhēn), 滿族 (Mǎnzú) Manchuria and northern portion of Inner Mongolia Early 10th century to present, established Jin Dynasty and Qing Dynasty, many Manchus have very much assimilated into Hans Mohe, Jurchens, Mancho, Manchurian, Manchurian Chinese Since mid-17th century, first encountered by the Russians Modern Manchus. Largest minority ethnic group in the Dongbei region. Modern Manchus have very much assimilated into Han, though some distinctive aspects still remain.
Jews 猶太 (Yóutài) Kaifeng 7th century to present, many Jews have very much assimilated into Hans[23] Jewish, Jewish Chinese, Hebrews, Israelites, Youtai N/A Modern Jews. Kaifeng is known for having the oldest extent Jewish community in China. Many Chinese Jews have very much assimilated into Han, though a number of international Jewish groups have helped Chinese Jews rediscover their Jewish roots.[23][24]
Joseon 韓國人 (Hánguóren), 朝鮮族 (Cháoxiǎnzú) Heilongjiang, Jilin, Liaoning, Southeastern Manchuria 7th century to present, some Koreans assimilated into Hans.[25][26] Hanminjok, Joseonminjok, Goryeo, Hanguo, Chaoxian, Korean, Korean Chinese N/A Modern Koreans

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b West, Barbara A. (2008). Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Asia and Oceania. Facts On File (published 1 December 2008). p. 81. ISBN 978-0816071098.
  2. ^ For instance, see Wu (1982), passim.
  3. ^ Abramson (2008), p. 3.
  4. ^ HUGO Pan-Asian SNP Consortium (11 December 2009). "Mapping Human Genetic Diversity in Asia". Science. 326 (5959): 1541–1545. Bibcode:2009Sci...326.1541.. doi:10.1126/science.1177074. PMID 20007900. S2CID 34341816.
  5. ^ Guo, Rongxing (2016). An Introduction to the Chinese Economy: The Driving Forces Behind Modern Day China. Wiley. pp. 66–67. ISBN 9783319323053.
  6. ^ a b "Han". Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (Tenth ed.). Merriam-Webster. 1993.
  7. ^ "Han". Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.
  8. ^ Yang, Miaoyan (2017). Learning to Be Tibetan: The Construction of Ethnic Identity at Minzu. Lexington Books (published 17 March 2017). p. 7. ISBN 978-1498544634.
  9. ^ Who are the Chinese people? (in Chinese). Retrieved on 2013-04-26.
  10. ^ S.P. Chen (Jan 2005). "The Yelang Kingdom and the Yi People", Journal of Guizhou University For Nationalities, College of Cultural Communication de l'Université de Guizhou, Guiyang. Download links: 1
  11. ^ New Book of Tang vol. 219 "奚,亦東胡種,爲匈奴所破,保烏丸山。漢曹操斬其帥蹋頓,蓋其後也。" translation: "Xī, another kind of Eastern Hu; defeated by the Xiongnu, [their] refuge [was] Wuwan mountains. Han [general] Cao Cao executed their leader Tadun. [The Xī] are possibly their descendants.
  12. ^ Mair, Victor H.; C. Kelley, Liam (2015). Imperial China and Its Southern Neighbours. Project Muse (published 6 August 2015). p. 18. ISBN 978-9814620543.
  13. ^ Baldanza, Kathlene (2016). Ming China and Vietnam: Negotiating Borders in Early Modern Asia. Cambridge University Press. p. 2. ISBN 978-1107124240.
  14. ^ Took, Jennifer (2005). A Native Chieftaincy in Southwest China: Franchising a Tai Chieftaincy Under the Tusi System of Late Imperial China. Brill Academic Publishing. p. 7. ISBN 978-9004147973.
  15. ^ Wang, William S.Y.; Sun, Chaofen (2015). The Oxford Handbook of Chinese Linguistics. Oxford University Press (published 12 March 2015). p. 186. ISBN 978-0199856336.
  16. ^ a b Marks, Robert B. (2011). China: An Environmental History. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. pp. 127. ISBN 978-1442212756.
  17. ^ Him, Mark Lai; Hsu, Madeline (2004). Becoming Chinese American: A History of Communities and Institutions. AltaMira Press (published 4 May 2004). p. 8. ISBN 978-0759104587.
  18. ^ Weinstein, Jodi L. (2013). Empire and Identity in Guizhou: Local Resistance to Qing Expansion. University of Washington Press. pp. 19–20. ISBN 978-0295993270.
  19. ^ Marks, Robert B. (2017). China: An Environmental History. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 143. ISBN 978-1442277878.
  20. ^ a b Marks, Robert B. (2011). China: An Environmental History. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. pp. 146. ISBN 978-1442212756.
  21. ^ Zuev, Yu. "Horse Tamgas from Vassal Princedoms" (Translation of Chinese composition "Tanghuiyao" of 8-10th centuries), Kazakh SSR Academy of Sciences, Alma-Ata, 1960, p. 126, 133-134 (in Russian)
  22. ^ Lu, Dongsheng; et al. (1 September 2016). "Ancestral Origins and Genetic History of Tibetan Highlanders". The American Journal of Human Genetics. 99 (3): 580–594. doi:10.1016/j.ajhg.2016.07.002. PMC 5011065. PMID 27569548.
  23. ^ a b Walgrove, Amanda (25 March 2011). "Jewish History in China Boosting Sino-Israeli Relations". Moment.
  24. ^ "Stopping the crackdown on China's Jews - Opinion - Jerusalem Post". 8 September 2016. Retrieved 18 July 2017.
  25. ^ 黄有福 (2009). 中国朝鲜族史研究. 北京: 民族出版社. ISBN 978-7-105-10152-8.
  26. ^ 金炳镐, 肖锐 (2011). 中国民族政策与朝鲜族. 北京: 中央民族大学出版社. ISBN 978-7-5660-0096-5.