Many of the people I have met in the United States think of the Chinese as a homogenous race. In fact, there are 56 ethnic groups in China. Among them, the Han people account for 92% of the country's total of 1.3 billion, while the other 55 ethnic groups (see Note 1 for their names) make up the remaining 8%-- that is the reason they are officially called “ethnic minorities” in China. The largest ethnic minority group is the Zhuang people in south China, totaling 16 million, while Lhoba, the smallest, has only 2,500 people. The Han people have their own spoken and written language, known as the Chinese language, which is commonly used throughout China. The Hui and Manchu ethnic groups also use the Han language. The other 53 ethnic groups use their own spoken languages, and 23 ethnic groups have their own written languages
The origins, history and evolution of the ethnic groups in China are topics far beyond the scope of this article. What I can do is to summarize some key points about the Chinese ethnic minorities. While the Han ethnic group constitutes the mainstream of Chinese society, members of the Han race have continually merged with other ethnic peoples on all sides of China through cultural contact and intermarriage. Historically, the major threats to Han society came from the north. In a period of over 2,000 years, waves of invaders breached the Great Wall and poured into the Chinese heartland. The Turkics, Mongols, and Manchurians all came. At the same time, the Han were also following migratory patterns. Seeking to avoid invasions, or simply moving as burgeoning populations strained resources, some branches of the Han population moved southward. In the south, they met with an enormous diversity of cultures. Some ethnic minorities were pushed further south, others stayed in their own community or assimilated to the Han population. The current cultural landscape and ethnic distribution pattern in China has taken its shape as a result of this long process of ethnic migration and integration in times of war and peace. It can be seen by a geographic analysis that some of China's ethnic groups live together over vast areas, while some live in individual concentrated communities in small areas. In some cases minority peoples can be found living in a pocket surrounded by the Han people, while in other cases the situation is just the other way around. It should also be noted that the cultural and ethnic categories are neither fixed across ethnic groups nor within an ethnic community. The discursive boundaries have been in constant change since they were formed a long time ago. Some people have moved from one ethnic group to another, depending on the socio-political context of the Chinese society at a given time.
For centuries virtually all the “foreigners” that Han rulers saw were so-called barbarian peoples whose cultures were demonstrably inferior by Han Chinese standards. This circumstance conditioned the Han view of the outside world. They saw their domain as the self-sufficient center of the universe and derived from this image China was named “Zhongguo”, or Central Kingdom, by the ancient Han Chinese with a "Han-centric" view. On the other hand, the Han Chinese have been militarily humiliated and conquered by other ethnic groups several times in history. In the past, the terms such as “Yi”, “Hu” and “Di”, used by the Han people to name the ethnic minority groups thus had a negative meaning laced with the feelings of contempt and distrust toward the ethnic minorities. Things have changed in the last century. The Han Chinese leaders have realized that it is important for all ethnic groups in China to share equality, unity, and common prosperity. When the Qing dynasty of the Manchu people at last collapsed in 1911, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen (1866-1925), Father of the Republic of China, outlined the policy for the new government to handle ethnic affairs. In “The Fundamentals of National Reconstruction”, he declared that “No vengeance has been inflicted on the Manchus and we have endeavored to live side by side with them on an equal footing. This is our nationalistic policy toward ethnic groups within our national boundaries.” In the current Chinese society, the constitution of the PRC specifies that all ethnic groups are equal. Discrimination against or oppression of any ethnic group is prohibited. The state guarantees the lawful rights and interests of the minority peoples. To this end, while maintaining totalitarian rule of the state, PRC exercises a policy of regional autonomy for various ethnic groups, allowing minority peoples living in compact communities to establish self-government and direct their own affairs. By "autonomy", it does not mean complete political freedom. Instead, autonomy is present in education, cultural expression, and respect for local customs. Under current regulations, ethnic minority people are given special treatment (something similar to affirmative action in the US), which includes looser control of the moral, cultural, religious and social needs of the ethnic groups other than Han which the state does not wish to grant to the majority of the population. Every ethnic group has the freedom to use its own spoken and written languages and to retain or change its customs. The ethnic minority people are not subjected to the “one-couple, one-child” family planning policy. China’s university system also encourages the participation of students from ethnic minority groups by relaxing the entrance qualifications for them. These measures allow for some selective social autonomy and provide formal structures for political inclusion, interethnic harmony, and cooperation of ethnic groups which otherwise might alienate themselves from the system.
Regardless of what the official policy is, the ethnic minority groups are disadvantaged in many aspects of social life in China. They mostly live in the remote inland or border regions. These areas are characterized by harsh natural conditions, poor transportation and inadequate educational opportunities, which have severely hindered local socio-economic development. Poor interethnic communication and misunderstanding leads some people to considere the cultural and religious practices of other ethnic groups as "superstitious". Unofficial discrimination in the society also exists. For example, an ethnic minority person who speaks Mandarin (the official Chinese language) poorly would have more difficulty finding a job (the same as in the US).
The ethnic minorities in China have formed their unique cultures in the long process of historical development. In the field of performing arts, including dance, music, theater and drama, the non-Han ethnic groups have made major and dominating contributions. This is contrary to what most people in and out of China perceive. Obviously it is also different from the place of American Indian performances in the United States and Aboriginal performances in Australia. In both of these cases the native cultures have much less impact on mainstream theater, music and dance. In China, on the other hand, Chineseness is a common feature of the ethnic minority cultures and performing arts. These cultural forms take place within particular Chinese social contexts and the ethnic people attach complex meanings to their cultural performances. I have examined the so-called “20th Century Classics for Chinese Dances” nominated by the State Ministry of Culture in China. It was found that about 65-70% originates directly or indirectly from the ethnic minority cultures. As a Han descendant, I was confused by this fact and have considered the reasons why the Han performing arts have shrunk into Peking Opera (and other local operas, such as “Kunju” in Shanghai and “Yueju” in Kangdong), acrobatics, or martial arts and have given most of the room of Chinese cultural performances to other ethnic groups. I argue that three factors may have shaped this cultural landscape in China: 1) A well developed writing and language system in the Han society has directed the expression of feeling by Han people toward literature, calligraphy, painting, and poetry, etc. 2) A high standard has been set for the performing arts so that very few could pass the threshold, and much of the Han repertoire for performing arts has been lost. For several thousand years Chinese culture has been dominated by the teachings of the philosopher Confucius, who conceived performing arts in the highest sense as a means of calming the passions and of dispelling unrest and lust, rather than as a form of amusement. 3) A low social status has been assigned to performing artists. Before the 20th century, dancers, singers and other performing artists were put into the lowest categories, the categories for prostitution and beggars.
Therefore, a well-rounded understanding of Chinese culture and society is impossible without an emphasis on the importance of ethnic diversity and multi-culturalism in contemporary China, and on the central role the ethnic minorities have played, and continue to exert, in the construction of Chinese cultural performances. I will try to discuss the ethnic minority cultures and some of their representative performing arts in the following sessions on the basis of their relation to the following thematic issues: historical evolution, religion and identity, ethnic relations, regional features and intercultural exchange.