Ethnic Groups in Chinese History


China is a multi-ethnic nation. For thousands of years, the political rise and activities of the different ethnic groups have facilitated ethnic integration and cultural exchange. Together with the Han, they have composed the history of Chinese civilization.


Before the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE), there were many tribal groups distributed throughout China in addition to the Hua-Xia.  These groups were generally known as the “four borderland peoples” or “four yi tribes”; they later evolved into the ethnic groups we know today in China.


During the Eastern Jin (256–316) and Western Jin (317–420) periods and the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420–589), the ethnic groups in northern China moved south and established sixteen political regimes. Most of the regimes were founded by just five tribal groups, the Xiongnu, Xianbei, Jie, Di, and Qiang. These regimes were called the Sixteen States. It marked the first great ethnic integration in Chinese history.


The Tujue (Turkic) people originated from the Dingling clan during the pre-Qin era (times before 221 BCE). From the Han (206 BCE–220 CE) to the Jin (265–420) dynasties, they moved southward to the Beishan mountains (north of the modern Tarim Basin) in Gaochang (modern Turpan, Xinjiang). In 460, the Rouran khaganate conquered Gaochang and moved the local Tujue people to Jinshan (modern Altai Mountains) and forced them to make ironware. After the Rouran khaganate declined, the Tujue people once again became powerful; their new, powerful reach extended to the entire Mongolian plateau. Later, the Tujue divided into the Eastern and the Western Turks; the former were defeated by the armies of the Tang dynasty (618–907) while the latter established the Later Tujue, which were eventually conquered by the Huihe (Uighur).


After the Huihe defeated the Later Tujue khanganate, they established their own state but were in turn conquered by the Sakas. Some of the survivors became the Weiwu’er (Uyghur) and the Huihu (Uighur) group of Ganzhou (modern Zhangye, Gansu province); others migrated southward toward the territory of the Tang dynasty while others moved eastward to Shiwei, (modern Shiwei township, E’erguna [Ergun], Inner Mongolia) and integrated with the local population there.


The Tubo (ancient name for Tibetans) were descendants of the Di and Qiang ethnic groups of the pre-Qin era who integrated with the people of Tibet. In the seventh century, Songtsän Gampo (ca. 617–650) unified Tibet and established the Tubo Empire, which dissolved in the ninth century. After the establishment of the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), the territory of Tubo was annexed. Eventually, the term Zang (Tibetan) was adopted to replace the ethnonym Tubo.


During the Eastern Jin period, the Cuan clan which had been installed in Nanzhong (an ancient region comprised modern Yunnan, Guizhou, and southeastern Sichuan) for generations, formed a separatist regime. Cuan, which originally referred to the clan became a generic term for the ethnic group. During the Sui (581–618) and Tang dynasties, the Cuan divided into two groups, the Eastern Cuan and the Western Cuan. The Eastern Cuan were composed mostly of members from the Wuman group, while the Western Cuan were largely Baiman. These two groups evolved, respectively, into the Yi and Bai ethnic groups of modern times.


The Qidan (Khitan) originated within the nomadic Xianbei tribe. In the late Tang dynasty, the Qidan gradually gained power and in 916 were able to establish their own dynasty, the Khitan—later known as the Liao dynasty. After the dynasty collapsed, some of their people moved west to the Chu (also known as Chui or Chuy) River basin area in Central Asia. Eventually, however, they were absorbed by the Mongols.


The Nüzhen (Jurchen) originated from the Mohe (Tungusic) people. Among the Mohe, the two most powerful groups were the Sumi and the Heishui. The Sumi Mohe established the Bohai (Balhae in Korean) Kingdom (modern Northern Korea) in the mid-eighth century. The Heishui Mohe during the Five Dynasties period (907–960) changed their name to Nüzhen. After the Bohai Kingdom was defeated by the Qidan, some of the Nüzhen moved south and became subjects of the Liao dynasty. They were known as “charted Jurchens.” Those who remained and did not submit to the Liao were called “uncharted.” Subsequently, the Wanyan tribe of the uncharted Jurchens became increasingly powerful and eventually established the Jin dynasty (1115–1234). After the Jin collapsed, the Nüzhen in the Central Plain region integrated with the Han, and those who stayed in northeastern China continued as before.


The Manchus are descended from the Jurchens. While serving as commander-in-chief of the Left Garrison of Jianzhou (in modern Xinbin Manchu Autonomous County, Liaoning province), Nurhachi (or Nurgaci, 1559–1626) unified the Nüzhen and established the Later Jin dynasty (1616–1636).


Mongols emerged from the Eastern Hu tribal people in the pre-Qin era. It was Tiemuzhen (Temüjin, 1162–1227) who unified the Mongol tribes and established the Mongol khaganate. After the Yuan dynasty fell, the Mongols of the Central Plain region returned to the Mongolian Plateau, and are the ancestors of today’s Mongolian people.


The Hui (Huihui) refers to the Huihu (Uighur) people who lived in the Western Regions area. In the thirteenth century, Mongolian troops began their expeditions to the west. A large number of Muslim ethnic groups moved to the east. Some Islamic people also came to China engaging in business. After the Yuan and Ming  (1368–1644) dynasties, the Hui formally became one of the ethnic groups in China.     

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