Ethnic minority members in China are often very poor and their income levels are generally significantly lower than the Chinese population as a whole. By some estimates in the early 2000s more than 70 percent of ethnic minorities in southern China lived below the poverty line. Some lived on less than $60 a month, resided in villages without roads and electricity; lacked education; didn’t speak Chinese; and didn't know anything of the outside world until they saw a television.

Life is getting better — in a material sense anyway — for many members of minority groups as the Chinese government has made poverty reduction a top priority and reached out especially to poor ethnic groups living in remote places. Families that lived in mud houses with pigs in villages that had no electricity and were a two hour hike from the nearest dirt road now live in concrete houses with pens for animals and have roads and electricity and even telephones and televisions with he government providing infrastructure. Many minority villagers also receive money from children working in the cities.

Medical care is provided by shaman, folk medicine herbalists, and barefoot doctors as well as modern medical facilities if they are accessible. The schools are often little more than huts. Some teachers are minority members who have received some but not much training. Some are Han Chinese who act like Peace Corp volunteers.

Many minority villages are untouched by economic and social changes. As is true with the Han Chinese, many young adults have gone off to the cities seeking jobs and opportunities, leaving behind children to be raised by grandparents. Minorities often wear distinctive clothing . The groups in the north often wear long garments, robes and coats because it is cold while both men and women in many groups in the warmer south wear skirts or sarongs.

Ethnic minorities have often been portrayed as more sexual than ordinary Chinese because they are not restricted by as many cultural norms.

Ethnic Costumes and Accessories in China

The Shanghai Museum has a large display of ethnic clothing and accessories. According to the museum: 1) Craft of dress and adornment: Each nationality has its own costume and adornment. Even different ethnic groups within same nationality have their own distinctive styles and patterns. Costume and adornment become the symbol of different cultures. These costumes employ various raw materials such as fur, pelt, cotton,hemp and silk.Adornments are prepared by using various methods such as embroidery, cross-stitch word, applique, lace making and batik. Some garments are decorated with silver, jade, coral or agate. [Source: Shanghai Museum]

2) Dyeing, Weaving and Embroidery: Women of various ethnic groups are skilled in these techniques. There are two methods of printing and dyeing: monochrome paper matrix printing and color-processing block printing. For za ran (tie-dyeing),sewn and folded designs are immersed in dyestuff,and for la ran (batik), wax-coated designs are placed in vats with dyeing materials. Brocade of Zhuang, Dai, Dong and Tujia nationalities are well known. In addition, “Zhi Jin", i.e. interweaving of colored silk and cotton threads onto one piece, is famous as well. Plain stitch and cross-stitch are two common methods for embroidery. In addition, various other methods such as braiding, coiling, creasing and cocoon-like winding are utilized.

Describing a Shell-beads vest: As one of elite dresses, this vest is very distinctive for its decoration of nearly 100,000 small shell-beads elaborately polished. It actually become the symbol of status and wealth.

Ethnic Crafts of China

Henzhen bag

The Shanghai Museum has a large display of ethnic crafts. According to the museum: 1) Craft of Metalworking: Many nationalities are well known for their metalwork techniques. Artisan use hammered, chiseled, carved, perforated and twisted designs to process gold, silver, copper and brass. Some metal artifacts are plated with silver or gold. The metal wares of the Uygur nationality show their dense and elaborate designs with vivid features. Tibetan metal wares exhibit delicate and strong style, expressing esoteric nature of Buddhist images. Silverware of Dai nationality are elegant, exquisite and elaborately carved. Silverwares with unique and different patterns are widely used by many nationalities. [Source: Shanghai Museum]

2) Carved Artifacts: Almost all objects commonly used by ethnic people are decorated by carving. These carved artifacts are made of bamboo,wood,ivory,antler, horn and bone. These materials are available locally.According to different raw materials, various skills such as carving, chiseling, paring, grinding or pressing have been used. The most popular are bamboo and woodcarvings. Bone hairpins of Li nationality and carved horn artifacts of Miao and Dong nationalities are outstanding.

3) Pottery, Lacquer Wares, Cane and Bamboo Plaited Vessels are plain and simple handicrafts full of local flavor and style. Pottery made by clay-strip technique in Dai nationality exhibits ancient appearance. Colored lacquer wares with golden decoration made by Tibetan are magnificent. Lacquer wares of Yi nationality are simple in shape. Bamboo hats of Maonan and Yao nationalities are delicate and ingeniously made.

4) Mask-Making: Various kinds of masks with exaggerated features and strong colors are used by most ethnic people during cultural and religious activities.The wooden masks used in Nu Xi (a masked dancing in Guizhou province) have three types called “deity", “demon" and “secular figures". Colored wooden masks of Di Xi dramas are often used for performance of historic stories. Painted masks of Tibetan are mainly represented by gods,ghosts and animal faces which are used in Tiao Shen (devil's dance") performed by lamas to exorcise evil spirits during ceremonial dancing.

Folk Stories, Tales and Songs from China’s Ethnic Groups

"The Columbia Anthology of Chinese Folk and Popular Literature" (2011), edited by Victor H. Mair and Mark Bender, two of the world's leading sinologists, is a collection of works drawn from the large body of oral literature of many of China's recognized ethnic groups — including the Han, Yi, Miao,Tu, Daur, Tibetan, Uyghur, and Kazak — and the selections include a variety of genres.

Chapters cover folk stories, songs, rituals, and drama, as well as epic traditions and professional storytelling, and feature both familiar and little-known texts, from the story of the woman warrior Hua Mulan to the love stories of urban storytellers in the Yangtze delta, the shaman rituals of the Manchu, and a trickster tale of the Daur people from the forests of the northeast. The Cannibal Grandmother of the Yi and other strange creatures and characters unsettle accepted notions of Chinese fable and literary form.

Readers are introduced to antiphonal songs of the Zhuang and the Dong, who live among the fantastic limestone hills of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region; work and matchmaking songs of the mountain-dwelling She of Fujian province; and saltwater songs of the Cantonese-speaking boat people of Hong Kong. The editors feature the Mongolian epic poems of Geser Khan and Jangar; the sad tale of the Qeo family girl, from the Tu people of Gansu and Qinghai provinces; and local plays known as "rice sprouts" from Hebei province. These fascinating juxtapositions invite comparisons among cultures, styles, and genres, and expert translations preserve the individual character of each thrillingly imaginative work.

Bruce Humes said in 2017: a combination of relatively new but well-funded government policies to subsidize publication in Chinese and foreign languages, a new generation of better educated, bilingual ethnic writers, strong interest in minority cultures among Han authors and their young readers, and some overseas success stories, means that there is already a fair amount of ethnic-themed writing in print in various European languages, English and French in particular. Check out the Quick Guide to China’s Contemporary Ethnic-themed Literature in Translation for a long list with hyperlinks. [Source: Bruce Humes, Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, February 17, 2017]

20080303-Naxi orchestra UNESCO.jpg
Naxi Classical Music Orchestra
“Note the term “ethnic-themed.” This is a loose category that includes stories — regardless of the author’s ethnicity — in which non-Han culture, motifs or characters play an important role. Several of the earliest novels featuring “ethnic” themes to be purchased and published by leading publishers in the West were penned by Han authors. Examples include Wolf Totem (Jiang Rong), Une terre de lait et de miel (Fan Wen), Last Quarter of the Moon (Chi Zijian, in Dutch, English, French, Italian, Japanese, Korean and Spanish), and English (Wang Gang). Translated authors writing in both their mother tongue and Chinese are fairly rare and include the Tibetan Pema Tseden and Xinjiang’s Alat Asem, who is Uyghur. You can learn about them in China’s Bilingual Writers: Narrative with a Difference.

“Fortunately, as indicated by the Quick Guide, a good number of works by ethnic writers have already been translated and published in English and other languages. They include short stories, poetry and epic songs, not just novels, by members of peoples such as the Evenki (reindeer herders of northeast China); the Hui (ethnic Muslims descended from Arabs who resided in the Tang Dynasty capital, Chang’an); the Manchu (whose forebears ruled China during the Qing Dynasty); the Miao and the Yi of southwest China; the Mongolians; various peoples indigenous to Taiwan, such as the Paiwan; the Tibetans, whose works have been widely translated; several Turkic-speaking, traditionally Muslim peoples of Xinjiang, such as the Uyghur, Kazakhs and the Kyrgyz; and several residing mainly in Yunnan, including the Bai and Lahu.

Book: "The Columbia Anthology of Chinese Folk and Popular Literature" (2011), edited by Victor H. Mair and Mark Bender,

Ethnic Minority Music from China

Many minorities have their own music. Tibet, for example, has its own traditional secular and religious music. Traditional Tibetan instruments used in religious music include bamboo flutes, human thighbone flutes, conch shells, cymbals, hand drums, bells, oboe-like flageolets, conch shell trumpets, and drums made for two skull halves placed back to back.

Mongolian Khoomi singers are men who appear to produce two notes simultaneously. One sound is like the metallic warbling of a juice harp, the other sound is like a moaning growl. Also known as overtone singing or throat singing the sounds are made by carefully controlling the larynx, mouth and abdominal muscles. Some of the songs are meant imitate the noises made by sheep and goats.

Image Sources: Wikicommons; Maps: University of Washington; Posters, Landsberger Posters;

Text Sources: "Encyclopedia of World Cultures: China, Russia and Eurasia" edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company); Wong How-Man, National Geographic, March 1984; 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 October 2022

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