Chinese Ethnic Groups 🇨🇳 Learn about China’s 56 Ethnic Groups

Chinese Ethnic Groups – Han Chinese and 55 Minorities

Did you know that there are 56 officially recognised Chinese ethnic groups in China?

When most people think of China, they just think of Han Chinese culture, as this is the most prevalent. However, China’s many ethnic minorities all have their own unique culture, customs, dress etc.

Let’s explore some of China’s different ethnic groups from some of the biggest and most well known to the smallest and most obscure.

Chinese Ethnic Groups – An Introduction

Chinese Ethnic Groups – Han Chinese

Chinese Ethnic Groups – Three Largest Ethnic Minorites

Chinese Ethnic Groups – Three Smallest Ethnic Minorites

Chinese Ethnic Groups – Three of the Most Well Known

Chinese Ethnic Groups – Three of the Most Unique

Chinese Ethnic Groups – The Full List

Chinese Ethnic Groups – An Introduction

Ethnic group in Chinese is 民族 mínzú, however this can also refer to nationality, so sometimes it is more specifically referred to as 族群 zǔqún.

The biggest of the Chinese ethnic groups is Han Chinese which accounts for over 90% of China’s population. The remaining 55 ethnic groups are known as “ethnic minorities” (少数民族 shǎoshù mínzú) as they account for such a small amount of the population.

Chinese-ethnic-groups

Although there are officially 56 ethnic groups, there are some people in China who identify themselves as an “unrecognised ethnic group” (未识别民族 wèi shíbié mínzú) such as Jewish, Tuvan, Oirat, Ili Turki. Some scholars actually estimate that there are over 200 distinct ethnic groups that inhabit China.

Out of the 55 Chinese ethnic minorities 54 of them have their own spoken language, with the only exception being the Hui Minority.

23 ethnic minority groups also have their own written language.

We’ve written a lengthy article about everything you need to know on the hundreds of languages spoken in China, you should definitely check it out!

Chinese Ethnic Groups – Han Chinese

Chinese-ethnic-groups

As the majority ethnic group in China, Han Chinese (汉族 hàn zú) is what most people think of when they think of Chinese people and Chinese culture.

As of 2010, 91.51% of the Chinese population are classified as Han Chinese that’s a staggering 1.2 billion people!

Not only are Han people the largest ethnic group in China, but are in fact the world’s largest ethnic group accounting for about 18% of the global population.

Han people can be found in almost every part of China but they are mainly located in the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River, Yangtze River and Pearl River and the Northeast Plain.

Mandarin is the spoken and written language of most Han people, and is the official language of China.

Chinese-ethnic-groups

The Han Chinese take their ethnic name from the Han dynasty (汉朝 hàncháo) which was the second imperial dynasty of China.

This is also where the name ‘Han language’ (汉语 hànyǔ) and hanzi (汉字 hànzì) come from.

The Han dynasty lasted for over 400 years (206 BC–220 CE) and is known as a golden age in Chinese history.

During the Han dynasty arts and culture flourished arts and culture flourished and the Han Empire expanded militarily in all directions.

Be sure to watch China History Documentary if you’re interested in learning more about Chinese history.

Chinese Ethnic Groups – Three Largest Ethnic Minorities

Out of the 55 officially recognised ethnic minorities in China, let’s have a look at the three largest groups first.

Zhuang

The biggest of the 55 ethnic minorities in China are the Zhuang (壮族 zhuàng zú).

Chinese-ethnic-groups

About 18 million Zhuang live in south and southeast China. They mostly inhabit the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Yunnan Province.

However, the Zhuang actually originated in Sichuan, but were forced to move south when the Qin dynasty and Han dynasty began to expan southwards.

The Zhuang are famous for their beautiful terraced rice fields, tribal villages and towns.

The city of Guilin in Guangxi is a hugely popular tourist destination where many travellers go to observe and experience Zhuang culture.

The Zhuang do have their own spoken languages which are related to Thai, though most also speak Mandarin.

Hui

The Hui (回族 huí zú) are the second biggest ethnic minority in China and also the most widely distributed.

Chinese-ethnic-groups

They have a population of around 10.5 million and most can can be found in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in northwestern China.

However, they are also found in Gansu, Henan, Hebei, Qinghai, Shandong, Yunnan, Xinjiang, Anhui, Liaoning, Heilongjiang, Jilin, Shaanxi, Beijing, Tianjin.

That’s a lot of places!

The Hui are one of China’s two major Muslim Chinese ethnic groups in China, with the other being the Uighur.

Both the Hui and Uighur are descendants of the Turks, but unlike the Uighur they didn’t retain a Turkish dialect and mostly speak Mandarin.

Nowadays, the Hui have largely assimilated into Han society. They maintain Islamic practices such as refraining from eating pork and Hui men will wear white caps and women headscarves.

Although, with the modernisation of China many young Hui people will just wear mainstream fashion clothes.

Manchu

Another one of the largest Chinese ethnic groups is the Manchu (满洲族 mǎnzhōu zú) who have a population of just over 10 million.

Chinese-ethnic-groups

The Manchu’s played a prominent role in Chinese history, ruling China’s last imperial dynasty: the Qing dynasty 1644–1911 (清朝 qīngcháo).

The last emperor of China Pu Yi was Manchu.

The Manchus are mainly based in Northeastern China and give the name to their homeland: Manchuria.

Most often Manchuria refers to the area of three northeastern provinces: Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning.

Due to their prominent role in Chinese history many Manchu customs are recognisable today such as the Qipao (旗袍 qípáo) a traditional Chinese dress and heated beds called kangs (炕 kàng).

Unlike many other Chinese ethnic minorities very few Manchu people can still speak the language and even fewer can read Manchu writings.

Historically both Manchu men and women were skilled at archery and on horseback.

Children as young as 6 or 7 were taught to hunt with bows and arrows and teenagers were taught to hunt on horseback in full hunting gear!

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Chinese Ethnic Groups – Three Smallest Ethnic Minorities

Following on from the three largest Chinese ethnic minorities, what about the three smallest?

Tatars

Chinese-ethnic-groups

Chinese Tatars (塔塔尔族 tǎtǎ’ěr zú) are the smallest of the 56 Chinese ethnic groups with a population of only around 3,556 (2010).

Chinese Tatars live mainly in the cities of Yining, Tacheng and Ürümqi in Xinjiang.

The ancestors of Chinese Tatars are Volga Tatar tradesmen who mostly settled in Xinjiang and more recently Crimean Tatars who were sent into exile by Joseph Stalin in 1944.

Chinese Tatars speak an archaic variant of the Tatar language, and use the Arabic variant of the Tatar alphabet. Chinese Tartars are mostly Sunni Muslims and Islam is the major component of Tatar culture.

Lhoba

Just ahead of the Tatars with a population in 2010 of 3,682 are the Lhoba (珞巴族 luòbā zú).

Chinese-ethnic-groups

Lhoba refers to a diverse mix of Sino-Tibetan-speaking tribespeople who live in a region in southeastern Tibet called Pemako.

Most people who have been designated as Lhoba don’t actually refer to themselves as this as they speak many different languages and don’t view themselves as a single ethnic group.

The Lhoba are made up of two main tribal groups: the Mishmi people (义都 yìdū), who speak the Idu Mishmi language, and the speakers of the Bokar dialect of Abo Tani.

The customs, dress and habits of the Lhoba people can vary widely depending on different clan members. However, due to their close proximity to the Tibetan people there is some Tibetan influence in their culture. For example some tribes dress resembles that of the Tibetan people.

Gaoshan

The Gaoshan (高山族 gāoshān zú) are also known as Taiwanese indigenous peoples.

Chinese-ethnic-groups

Only about 4,000 Gaoshan live in mainland China, which is why they are counted as the third smallest of the Chinese ethnic groups.

These 4,000 mostly live in Fujian.

However, the majority of Gaoshan actually live in Taiwan and make up 2.38% of the island’s population which is around 570,000 people.

According to recent research it is suggested that the ancestors of the Gaoshan may have been living on Taiwan for 5,500 years in relative isolation before Han Chinese immigration from mainland China began in the 17th century.

Due to the difference in regions and languages the Gaoshan ethnic Minority is also divided into 13 subgroups.

Of the Gaoshan located in mainland China, there are three main prominent subgroups: the Amis, the Bunun and the Paiwan.

Chinese Ethnic Groups – Three of the Most Well Known

Mongol

Chinese Mongols (蒙古族 měnggǔ zú) are perhaps the most famous and well known ethnic minority.

Chinese Mongols are found in northern China, most notably, as you may guess from the name, in Inner Mongolia.

Chinese-ethnic-groups

There are around 5.8 million mongols living in China, which is actually more than the population of Mongolia itself which is 3.3 million!

The Mongol ancestors belonged to nomadic tribes that roamed around the Erguna River.

Many of these Mongol tribes were unified under the most famous Mongolian in history: Genghis Khan.

Mongolians are still famous today for their horsemanship, archery and wrestling. Every summer in Inner Mongolia there is the Naadam Grassland Festival where Mongol ethnic people compete in horse racing, archery, and wrestling.

Another famous feature of Mongolian culture is Mongolian throat singing.

There is even a famous Mongolian heavy metal rock band called The Hu who combine rock and heavy metal with traditional Mongolian instrumentation, including Mongolian throat singing.

Tibetan

Another one of the most famous and perhaps most popular Chinese ethnic groups has to be Tibetans (藏族 zàng zú).

Chinese-ethnic-groups

There are around 6.5 million Tibetans living in China, approximately 2 million of them can be found in Tibet, with the rest spread out in neighbouring provinces such as Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan.

The most well known Tibetans are of course the Dalai Lamas, which is the title given to monks of the Gelug or Yellow Hat school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Most Tibetans practice Tibetan Buddhism, however a small minority are Muslim and some observe the indigenous Bon religion.

There are many Tibetan Buddhist temples in China, such as the Lama Temple in Beijing.

Miao

The Miao (苗族 miáo zú) are another Chinese ethnic group that have proved to be popular with tourists.

Chinese-ethnic-groups

They are one of the largest ethnic minorities in southwest China, and mainly inhabit Guizhou.

Many Miao groups have different languages, histories and cultures and some Miao do not think they belong to that ethnic group.

It’s no surprise some scholars believe there to be over 200 distinct ethnic groups!

However, the majority of Miao speak dialects that are members of Miao-Yao language family and do share cultural similarities.

Compared to many other minority groups in China Miao women traditionally have more independence, mobility and social freedom.

For instance Miao girls have more choice over who they marry.

For one group of Miao the tradition is for Miao girls to tie one end of their belt around the waist of the young man they admire.

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Chinese Ethnic Groups – Three of the Most Unique

With 56 officially recognised Chinese ethnic groups and many more unrecognised ones it’s no surprise that there are many ethnic groups with some truly unique customs.

This especially seems to be the case when it comes to the traditions and customs of some of the women in ethnic minorities.

Mosuo

Mosuo (摩梭 mósuō), also referred to as the Na people, are officially classed as part of the Nakhi ethnic group (纳西族 nàxī zú) despite being culturally distinct.

Chinese-ethnic-groups

They are found in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, close to the border with Tibet.

Referred to as China’s last matrilineal society, and dubbed the ‘Kingdom of Women’ by the Chinese, the Mosuo have some very unique customs, especially concerning ‘marriage’.

The Mosuo are a matrilineal society which means that their descent is traced through the female line.

Children belong to and reside in their mother’s home, sometimes the father of children will be unknown which does not carry any stigma, unlike in other societies.

The matriarch is the head of the household and has absolute power. Property is also passed down through the female line.

One of the best known aspects of the Mosuo is that they practice “walking marriage” (走婚 zǒu hūn). This means that during the day both partners live with their extended family – their mother and her relatives.

At night women are then able to invite the man of their choice to their sleeping chamber.

A man is never allowed to visit a woman uninvited. In the morning the man then returns to his mother’s house.

Mosuo women are allowed to change partners whenever they like, or have multiple partners if they want to. However, only having one partner is not uncommon and often walking marriages are long term.

Red Yao

The Red Yao (红瑶 hóng yáo) are a sub group of the Yao (瑶族 yáo zú) ethnic minority group.

This particular live in the Huangluo Village in Guangxi.

Chinese-ethnic-groups

The Red Yao are most well known for their women who have extraordinary jet black hair that can grow up to 2.1 metres!

In fact the women prize their hair so much that they only get it cut once in their lifetime – when they turn 18.

It used to be forbidden for a man outside of the family to see a woman’s hair but in recent years Red Yao women are happy to show their hair off.

Some Red Yao women will even show their hair to tourists and impart some of their beauty secrets, apparently washing your hair in fermented rice water is key!

Red Yao women also indicate their marital status through their hair:

  • Covered hair means the woman is single and looking for a husband.
  • Hair wrapped in a circular tray on top of her head, means the woman is married but has no children.
  • If there is a bun at the front of her wrapped hair that means she is married and has children.

Who knew so much could be said through your hair?

Derung

Chinese-ethnic-groups

The last in our list of unique Chinese ethnic groups are the Derung (独龙族 dúlóng zú).

There are around 6,000 Derung in China and they are only found in Yunnan province.

Traditionally Derung women would tattoo their faces when they reached the age of 12 or 13.

However, this practice was abolished in 1967, although the last Derung woman to get facial tattoos was in 1970. Now there are only about 20 women who still bear the marks of the Derung ethnic group.

It is still unclear what the reason for women getting facial tattoos was.

Some people believe it was to make women less attractive so they wouldn’t be kidnapped by neighbouring ethnic groups.

Others simply say that is is a symbol of the Derung people, and some say that it is because the Derung believe that woman’s soul can’t leave her body unless she has tattoos on her face.

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Chinese Ethnic Groups – The Full List

Below you can see a full list of all 56 officially recognised Chinese ethnic groups, arranged in order of population.

English NameChinese NamePercentage of PopulationMain Areas Located
Han Chinese汉族 hàn zú91.6474%Yellow River, Yangtze River and Pearl River and the Northeast Plain
Zhuang壮族 zhuàng zú1.2700%Guangxi, Yunnan, Guangdong, Guizhou
Hui回族 huí zú 0.7943%Ningxia, Gansu, Henan, Hebei, Qinghai, Shandong, Yunnan, Xinjiang, Anhui, Liaoning, Heilongjiang, Jilin, Shaanxi, Beijing, Tianjin
Manchu满族 mǎn zú0.7794%Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang, Hebei, Beijing, Inner Mongolia
Uighur维吾尔族 wéiwú’ěr zú0.7555%Xinjiang
Miao苗族 miáo zú0.7072%Guizhou, Hunan, Yunnan, Guangxi, Sichuan, Hainan, Hubei
Yi彝族 yí zú0.6538%Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi
Tujia土家族 tǔjiā zú0.6268%Hunnan, Hubei
Tibetan藏族 zàng zú0.4713%Tibet, Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, Yunnan
Mongol蒙古族 měnggǔ zú0.4488%Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang, Gansu, Hebei, Henan, Qinghai
Dong侗族 dòng zú0.2161%Guizhou, Hunan, Guangxi
Bouyei布依族 bùyī zú0.2153%Guizhou
Yao瑶族 yáo zú0.2098%Guangxi, Hunan, Yunnan, Guangdong, Guizhou
Bai白族 bái zú0.1451%Yunnan, Guizhou
Korean朝鲜族 cháoxiǎn zú0.1374%Jilin, Liaoning, Heilongjiang
Hani哈尼族 hāní zú0.1246%Yunnan
Li黎族 lí zú0.1098%Hainan
Kazakh哈萨克族 hāsàkè zú0.1097%Xinjiang, Gansu, Qinghai
Dai傣族 dǎi zú0.0946%Yunnan
She畲族 shē zú0.0532%Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Guangdong
Lisu傈僳族 lìsù zú0.0527%Yunnan, Sichuan
Dongxiang东乡族 dōngxiāng zú0.0466%Gansu, Xinjiang
Gelao仡佬族 gelǎo zú0.0413%Guizhou, Guangxi
Lahu拉祜 lāhù zú0.0365%Yunnan
Wa佤族 wǎ zú0.0322%Yunnan
Sui水族 shuǐ zú0.0309%Guizhou, Guangxi
Nakhi纳西族 nàxī zú0.0245%Yunnan, Sichuan
Qiang羌族 qiāng zú0.0232%Sichuan
Tu土族 tǔ zú0.0217%Qinghai, Gansu
Mulao仫佬族 mùlǎo zú0.0162%Guangxi
Xibe锡伯族 xībó zú0.0143%Xinjiang, Liaoning, Jilin
Kyrgyz柯尔克孜族 kē’ěrkèzī zú0.0140%Xinjiang, Heilongjiang
Jingpo景颇族 jǐngpō zú0.0111%Yunnan
Daur达斡尔族 dáwò’ěr zú0.0099%Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang, Xinjiang
Salar撒拉族 sālā zú0.0098%Qinghai, Gansu
Blang布朗族 bùlǎng zú 0.0090%Yunnan
Maonan毛南族 máonán zú 0.0076%Guangxi
Tajik塔吉克族 tǎjíkè zú 0.0038%Xinjiang
Pumi普米族 pǔmǐ zú0.0032%Yunnan
Achang阿昌族 āchāng zú0.0030%Yunnan
Nu怒族 nù zú0.0028%Yunnan
Evenki鄂温克族 èwēnkè zú0.0023%Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang
Gin京族 jīng zú0.0021%Guangxi
Jino基诺族 jīnuò zú0.0017%Yunnan
De’ang德昂族 dé’áng zú 0.0015%Yunnan
Bonan保安族 bǎo’ān zú 0.0015%Gansu
Russian俄罗斯族 éluósī zú 0.0012%Xinjiang
Yugur裕固族 yùgù zú0.0011%Gansu
Uzbek乌孜别克族wūzībiékè zú0.0008%Xinjiang
Monba门巴族 ménbā zú0.0008%Tibet
Oroqen鄂伦春族 èlúnchūn zú0.0006%Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang
Derung独龙族 dúlóng zú0.0005%Yunnan
Hezhen赫哲族 hèzhé zú0.0004%Heilongjiang
Gaoshan高山族 gāoshān zú0.0003%Taiwan (population not counted), Fujian, Zhejiang
Lhoba珞巴族 luòbā zú0.0003%Tibet
Tatars塔塔尔族 tǎtǎ’ěr zú0.0003%Xinjiang

It is estimated that around 0.0480% percent of the Chinese population belong to the “unrecognised ethnic group” (未识别民族 wèi shíbié mínzú) category.

Which of these ethnic minorities did you think is the most interesting? Comment below to let us know!

Chinese Ethnic Groups – FAQs

What is the main ethnic group in China?

The main ethnic group in China is the Han Chinese, which account for about 91% of the population.

How many Chinese ethnic groups are there?

There are 56 officially recognised Chinese ethnic groups.

What are the three largest ethnic groups in China?

The three largest ethnic groups in China are the Han, the Zhuang and the Hui.

What are Chinese ethnic minorities?

There are 56 ethnic groups in China, the main ethnic group is the Han which makes up 91% of the population, Chinese ethnic minorities refer to the other 55 ethnic groups.

How many Chinese ethnic minorities are there?

There are 55 officially recognised ethnic minorities in China, with 56 ethnic groups overall.

What is ethnic group in Chinese?

Ethnic group in Chinese is 民族 mínzú, it is also sometimes more specifically referred to as 族群 zǔqún.

What is ethnic minority in Chinese?

Ethnic minority in Chinese is 少数民族 shǎoshù mínzú.

How many languages are spoken in China?

According to Ethnologue.com there are 292 living languages in China. Many others exist, but are extinct today.

Check out our Languages in China Guide for more details.

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