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Chinese Giant in 1870
Kate Merkel-Hess and Jeffrey Wasserstrom wrote in Time: “Chinese cultural tradition features regional and ethnic variations of sufficient breadth to support dozens of doctoral theses. We need to think about China, with its mutually unintelligible languages,”not merely dialects,”as more equivalent to a continent than a country. Asians, Africans, Europeans and Americans both South and North shouldn't find it hard to appreciate that a continent-size country might have a culture that is more complex than outsiders imagine or populist nationalists imply.” [Source: Kate Merkel-Hess and Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Time, January 1 2011]

About half of all Chinese now live in urban areas (compared to 76 percent in the U.S.); the population is only growing at the rate of 0.6 percent a year (compared to -.2 percent in Britain and 3.0 percent in Kenya); and the average life expectancy is 70 for men and 74 for women.

Genetic studies of 28 of China's 56 ethnic groups, published by the Chinese Human Genome Diversity Project in 2000, indicate that the first Chinese descended from Africans who migrated along the Indian Ocean and made their way to China via Southeast Asia.

Nearly all Chinese have black hair and brown eyes. One elderly Chinese man told Newsweek, "We all have black hair and yellow skin. Not like you Americans, with rice and wheat all mixed up with other grains." See Chinese People and DNA

About 90 percent of Chinese have flat faces, flat noses and shovel shaped teeth. About 95 percent of all Chinese are lactase deficient. This means they have problems digesting milk products.

Horizon is China's top polling and market research firm.

Good Websites and Sources: Chinese Personality book on PDF file Book: Understanding the Chinese Personality ; Chinese Personality and Work ; Negotiating and Building Relationships with Chinese by Sidney Rittenberg ; Understanding Chinese Business Culture ; Status of Chinese People Blog ; Chinese Human Genome Diversity Project ; Difference Between Chinese and Japanese, a Blog Report ; Opinions on Asian Fetish ; Wikipedia article on the Mongoloid Race Wikipedia ; Chinese Personality Constructs ; Old Chinese jokes China Vista ; Essay on Humor, China and Japan


Han Chinese and Minorities

The Han Chinese---the ethnic group that embraces Mandarin-, Shanghai- and Cantonese-speaking Chinese---make up 92 percent of the population of China, which adds up to over one billion people. The Han Chinese hail from China's Northeast Plain and the Yangtze and Yellow river valleys. Today they are scattered all over the country and many non-Han Chinese feel that their homelands are being overrun by them. Most of the population of Taiwan and Singapore and most of the Chinese found elsewhere in the world are Han Chinese.

The Han Chinese created present day China in many cases by conquering territory and overpowering local tribes by sheer numbers through mass migrations. Tribal kingdoms in Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan have a long history of battling the Han Chinese for control of their homelands. Some of these were driven by the Han Chinese from fertile valleys into the hills and mountains where they now live.

The remainder of China's population is comprised of 55 other ethnic groups. Although they make up only 8 percent of the population, these ethnic minorities still add up to 91 million people, which is a larger population than all but ten countries in the world. These minorities occupy 64 percent of China's land, much of it remote and sparsely populated. Many minorities live in compact communities at the upper reaches of large rivers and in border regions. Much of the land they occupy, such as Xinjiang, is rich in minerals, oil and other resources.

There are 18 ethnic groups with over a million people. They include Tibetans, Mongolians, Uygurs, Zhuang, Manchus and Koreans. The smallest ethnic, the Lhoba, has only about 2,300 members. Many of the ethnic groups still dress in traditional clothes and some of them have some very unusual customs.

See Minorities

Tall and Chubby Chinese

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Bao Xishun
The average height of the Chinese male is 5 foot 6 inches. But Chinese are getting taller. The average Chinese child in six centimeters, or around two inches, taller and three kilograms or seven pounds heavier than 30 years ago according to the Chinese Health Ministry. The increases have largely been attributed to improved health and nutrition.

There are now many Chinese over six feet tall and some over seven feet (See Yao Ming and Basketball). Tallness in China seems to be a good example of the saying if you are one in a million in China there are a thousand others just like you.

When foreigners visit Beijing they often surprised by how large the people are there. One sports agent told Sports Illustrated, "If foreigners think the Chinese people aren't big, it's because for years they've seen only people from Guangzhou or Hong Kong. It’s true that south of the Yangtze River most people are short. There they say to big guys---they call them 'long guys'---'You’re wasting clothes!' But people north of the Yangtze can be very big."

For a while a 2.36-meter-tall Chinese man named Bao Xishun was listed as the world’s tallest man. In March 2007, at the age of 56, he married a woman half his age and half his height. According to the Guinness Book of Records the world’s tallest man in 2007 was a 2.57-meter-tall Ukranian named Leonid Stadnik.

According to the Guinness Book of Records the tallest woman ever was Zeng Jinlian of Yuijang village. She died in 1982 and was 8-feet-1¾inches tall. She began to grow abnormally at the age of four months and was over five feet when she was four. Her feet measured 14 inches.

Until recently most Chinese males were “hard and thin.” Now many urban dwellers have “boss bellies.”

Northern Chinese Versus Southern Chinese

People from northern and southern China are physically and genetically different from one another. Head shape, body size and susceptibility to disease vary greatly between the north and south.

People from Beijing and northern China are often heavier and taller and have broader shoulders, lighter skin, smaller eyes and more pointed noses than Southerners. They favor noodles over rice, have the blood of horsemen from Manchuria and Mongolia, and are regarded as "imperious, quarrelsome, rather aloof, political, proud, and less ostentatious and flashy with their money than Southerners.” Beijingers often saw goodbye to one another with an expression that is translated as "Take it slow."

People from Shanghai, Canton and southern China are generally smaller, thinner, browner, and have rounder eyes and more rounded noses than Northerners. They favor rice over noodles, looks more like Vietnamese, Filipinos and Southeast Asians and are regarded as "talkative, friendly, complacent, sloppy, commercial-minded and materialistic."

The dividing line between Northerners and Southerners is the Yangtze River. In the 19th century one man from northern China wrote: "The Cantonese...are a course set of people...Before the times of Han and Tang, this country was quite wild and wasted, and these people have sprung forth unconnected, unsettled vagabonds that wandered here from the north."

Assimilation and Minorities in China

Over the centuries a great many peoples who were originally not Chinese have been assimilated into Chinese society. Entry into Han society has not demanded religious conversion or formal initiation. It has depended on command of the Chinese written language and evidence of adherence to Chinese values and customs. For the most part, what has distinguished those groups that have been assimilated from those that have not has been the suitability of their environment for Han agriculture. People living in areas where Chinese-style agriculture is feasible have either been displaced or assimilated. The consequence is that most of China's minorities inhabit extensive tracts of land unsuited for Han-style agriculture; they are not usually found as long-term inhabitants of Chinese cities or in close proximity to most Han villages. Those living on steppes, near desert oases, or in high mountains, and dependent on pastoral nomadism or shifting cultivation, have retained their ethnic distinctiveness outside Han society. The sharpest ethnic boundary has been between the Han and the steppe pastoralists, a boundary sharpened by centuries of conflict and cycles of conquest and subjugation. Reminders of these differences are the absence of dairy products from the otherwise extensive repertoire of Han cuisine and the distaste most Chinese feel for such typical steppe specialties as tea laced with butter. [Source: Library of Congress]

“Official policy recognizes the multiethnic nature of the Chinese state, within which all "nationalities" are formally equal. On the one hand, it is not state policy to force the assimilation of minority nationalities, and such nonpolitical expressions of ethnicity as native costumes and folk dances are encouraged. On the other hand, China's government is a highly centralized one that recognizes no legitimate limits to its authority, and minority peoples in far western Xinjiang-Uygur Autonomous Region, for example, are considered Chinese citizens just as much as Han farmers on the outskirts of Beijing are. [Ibid]

“Official attitudes toward minority peoples are inconsistent, if not contradictory. Since 1949 policies toward minorities have fluctuated between tolerance and coercive attempts to impose Han standards. Tolerant periods have been marked by subsidized material benefits intended to win loyalty, while coercive periods such as the Cultural Revolution have attempted to eradicate "superstition" and to overthrow insufficiently radical or insufficiently nationalistic local leaders. [Ibid]

“What has not varied has been the assumption that it is the central government that decides what is best for minority peoples and that national citizenship takes precedence over ethnic identity. In fact, minority nationality is a legal status in China. The government reserves for itself the right to determine whether or not a group is a minority nationality, and the list has been revised several times since the 1950s. Most Han Chinese have no contact with members of minority groups. But in areas such as the Tibet or Xinjiang autonomous regions, where large numbers of Han have settled since the assertion of Chinese central government authority over them in the 1950s, there is clearly some ethnic tension. The tension stems from Han dominance over such previously independent or semi-autonomous peoples as the Tibetans and Uygurs, from Cultural Revolution attacks on religious observances, and from Han disdain for and lack of sensitivity to minority cultures. In the autonomous areas the ethnic groups appear to lead largely separate lives. [Ibid]

Melting Pot China?

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Dongxiang child
Dru C. Gladney, Wall Street Journal, “Indeed, one might even say it has become popular to be “ethnic” in today’s China. Mongolian hot pot, Muslim noodle and Korean barbecue restaurants proliferate in every city, while minority clothing, artistic motifs and cultural styles adorn Chinese private homes. In Beijing, one of the most popular restaurants is the Tibetan chain Makye-ame. There, the nouveau riche of Beijing eat exotic foods such as yak kabobs served by beautiful waitresses in Tibetan clothing during Tibetan music and dance performances.” [Source: By Dru C. Gladney, Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2009, Dru Gladney is president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College]

“With the dramatic economic explosion in South China, southerners and others have begun to assert cultural and political differences. Whereas comedians used to make fun of southern ways and accents, southerners (especially Shanghainese) now scorn northerners for their lack of sophistication and business acumen. As any Mandarin-speaking Beijing resident will tell you, bargaining for vegetables or cellular telephones in Guangzhou or Shanghai markets is becoming more difficult for them due to growing pride in the local languages: Non-native speakers always pay a higher price. Rising self-awareness among the Cantonese is paralleled by the reassertion of identity among the Hakka, the southern Fujianese Min, the Swatow and other peoples now empowered by economic success and embittered by age-old restraints from the north. [Ibid]

“To support their policies the he Chinese have argued they are justly proud of the ethnic diversity of China. Why should nationality be defined by language or ethnicity? If Tibetans should be allowed to break away from China, why not the Welsh from Britain, the Basques from Spain, the Kurds from Turkey, or the Kashmiris from India?” [Source:Ian Buruma, The Guardian, April 10, 2009]

Melting Pot China, And the Potential for Trouble

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Hani girl
“China’s very economic vitality has the potential to fuel ethnic and linguistic division, rather than further integrating the country,” Dru C. Gladney, Wall Street Journal. “As southern and coastal areas get richer, much of central, northern and northwestern China hasn’t kept up, increasing competition and contributing to age-old resentments across ethnic, linguistic and cultural lines. Uneven distribution of wealth has fueled deep resentment in the poorer, often ethnic regions of China. [Ibid]

“The result of all these changes is that China is becoming increasingly de-centered. This is a fearsome prospect for those holding the reins in Beijing and perhaps was a factor in the decisions to crack down on the June 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, keep a tight rein on the Olympics and respond swiftly and harshly to riots in Tibet and Xinjiang. Last year the government admitted to more than 100,000 mass incidents of civil unrest. [Ibid]

“A China weakened by internal strife, inflation, uneven economic growth or the struggle for political succession could become further divided along cultural and linguistic lines. China’s threats will most likely come from civil unrest, and perhaps internal ethnic unrest from within the so-called Han majority. We should recall that it was a southerner, born and educated abroad, who led the revolution that ended China’s last dynasty. When that empire fell, competing warlords---often supported by foreign powers---fought for turf.

Woeser on the Chinese Attitude Towards Minorities in China

In March 2012 Tibetan poet and activist Tsering Woeser wrote in Foreign Policy: For the Han Chinese, who make up more than 90 percent of China's population, there is an expression engraved in their history books: "Whoever is not among us must be of a different heart." Originally, these words were not frightening. Over the years, though, the sentiments they express have created an atmosphere of raw violence. Minorities stand in the way of the grand unity of China's different peoples; they must be Sinicized or extinguished. The ethnic minorities who live in China, the Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongolians, and others, understand that this view of ethnic minorities is actually quite widespread, that it is the mainstream, that they receive little empathy from the majority.

But even some Chinese dissidents and human rights defenders have double standards when dealing with ethnic minorities. In their view, democracy, human rights, freedom, and other values in China apply only to Han Chinese. When it comes to ethnic minorities, they say, "So sorry, you cannot bask in these rays." Although they consider themselves the victims of autocratic rule, they are still not aware that to ethnic minorities they themselves are the embodiment of autocracy, that they themselves are doing harm.

Minorities Theme Parks in China

Ethnic theme parks are increasingly becoming a popular form of entertainment for middle-class Han, w come to experience what they consider the most exotic elements of their vast nation. There is no comprehensive count of these Disneyland-like parks, but people in the industry say the number is growing, as are visitors. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, February 23, 2010]

The parks are money-making ventures. But scholars say they also serve a political purpose---to reinforce the idea that the Chinese nation encompasses 55 fixed ethnic minorities and their territories, all ruled by the Han...The companies running the parks are generally Han-owned, say industry workers. [Ibid]

“They’re one piece in the puzzle of the larger project of how China wants to represent itself as a multiethnic state,” Thomas S. Mullaney, a historian at Stanford University who studies China’s ethnic taxonomy, told the New York Times. “Theend goal is political, which is territorial unity. Parks like that, even if they’re kitschy, kind of like Legoland, they still play and occupy a political position.” [Ibid]

The most famous park, the Nationalities Park in Beijing, is a combination of museum and fairground. Ethnic workers from across China dress up in their native costumes for mostly Han tourists. (For a while, English signs there read Racist Park, an unfortunate translation of the Chinese name.) In some parks, Han workers dress up as natives---a practice given legitimacy by the government when Han children marched out in the costumes of the 55 minorities during the opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics. [Ibid]

See Tibet, Xinjiang

You’ll Never be Chinese: Why I'm Leaving the Country I Loved

Mark Kitto wrote in Prospect Magazine, “You’ll never become Chinese, no matter how hard you try, or want to, or think you ought to. I wanted to be Chinese, once. I don’t mean I wanted to wear a silk jacket and cotton slippers, or a Mao suit and cap and dye my hair black and proclaim that blowing your nose in a handkerchief is disgusting. I wanted China to be the place where I made a career and lived my life. For the past 16 years it has been precisely that. But now I will be leaving. [Source: Mark Kitto, Prospect Magazine, August 8, 2012]

I won’t be rushing back either. I have fallen out of love, woken from my China Dream. “But China is an economic miracle: record number of people lifted out of poverty in record time? year on year ten per cent growth? exports? imports? infrastructure? investment’saved the world during the 2008 financial crisis?” The superlatives roll on. We all know them, roughly. [Ibid]

Don’t you think, with all the growth and infrastructure, the material wealth, let alone saving the world like some kind of financial whizz James Bond, that China would be a happier and healthier country? At least better than the country emerging from decades of stultifying state control that I met and fell in love with in 1986 when I first came here as a student? I don’t think it is. [Ibid]

When I returned to China in 1996, to begin the life and career I had long dreamed about, I found the familiar air of optimism, but there was a subtle difference: a distinct whiff of commerce in place of community. The excitement was more like the eager anticipation I felt once I had signed a deal (I began my China career as a metals trader), sure that I was going to bank a profit, rather than the thrill that something truly big was about to happen. A deal had been struck. Deng had promised the Chinese people material wealth they hadn’t known for centuries on the condition that they never again asked for political change. The Party said: “Trust us and everything will be all right.”

Twenty years later, everything is not all right. I must stress that this indictment has nothing to do with the trajectory of my own China career, which went from metal trading to building a multi-million dollar magazine publishing business that was seized by the government in 2004, followed by retreat to this mountain hideaway of Moganshan where my Chinese wife and I have built a small business centred on a coffee shop and three guesthouses, which in turn has given me enough anecdotes and gossip to fill half a page of Prospect every month for several years. That our current business could suffer the same fate as my magazines if the local government decides not to renew our short-term leases (for which we have to beg every three years) does, however, contribute to my decision not to remain in China. [Ibid]

During the course of my magazine business, my state-owned competitor (enemy is more accurate) told me in private that they studied every issue I produced so they could learn from me. They appreciated my contribution to Chinese media. They proceeded to do everything in their power to destroy me. In Moganshan our local government masters send messages of private thanks for my contribution to the resurrection of the village as a tourist destination, but also clearly state that I am an exception to their unwritten rule that foreigners (who originally built the village in the early 1900s) are not welcome back to live in it, and are only allowed to stay for weekends. But this article is not personal. I want to give you my opinion of the state of China, based on my time living here, in the three biggest cities and one tiny rural community, and explain why I am leaving it. [Ibid]

Fear of violent revolution or domestic upheaval, with a significant proportion of that violence sure to be directed at foreigners, is not the main reason I am leaving China, though I shan’t deny it is one of them. Apart from what I hope is a justifiable human desire to be part of a community and no longer be treated as an outsider, to run my own business in a regulated environment and not live in fear of it being taken away from me, and not to concern myself unduly that the air my family breathes and the food we eat is doing us physical harm, there is one overriding reason I must leave China. I want to give my children a decent education. [Ibid]

I have also encountered hundreds of well-rounded, wise Chinese people with a modern world view, people who could, and would willingly, help their motherland face the issues that are growing into state-shaking problems. It is unlikely they will be given the chance. I fear for some of them who might ask for it, just as my classmates and I feared for our Chinese friends while we took our final exams at SOAS in 1989. I read about Ai Weiwei, Chen Guangchen and Liu Xiaobo on Weibo, the closely monitored Chinese equivalent of Twitter and Facebook, where a post only has to be up for a few minutes to go viral. My wife had never heard of them until she started using the site. The censors will never completely master it. (The day my wife began reading Weibo was also the day she told me she had overcome her concerns about leaving China for the UK.) There are tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of mainland Chinese who “follow” such people too, and there must be countless more like them in person, trying in their small way to make China a better place. One day they will prevail. That’ll be a good time to become Chinese. It might even be possible.

Image Sources: 1) Wiki Commons; 2) Nolls China website ; 3) Bao Xishun blog

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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