Chinese nation features ethnic integration and unity

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-08-03

People from different ethnic groups join hands to perform a dance symbolizing ethnic unity in Liuzhou, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Photo: CFP

China has been a unified multiethnic country since antiquity. Each ethnic group has made significant contributions to the formation and development of the Chinese nation. The history of China has recorded the joint development and progress of all its ethnic groups. Observing and analyzing ethnic relations in Chinese history through the lens of Marxism’s historical materialism can help us acquire a deeper understanding of the spirit of the important speech delivered by General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee Xi Jinping at a meeting on cultural inheritance and development on June 2. Specifically, we can deepen our understanding of his remarks that “different ethnic cultures of the Chinese nation are integrated” and “national unification always stays at the heart of China’s core interests.”

Interdependency of ethnic groups

In China, advantageous natural conditions enabled the Central Plains, the cradle of Chinese civilization, to develop faster than other regions. Its advanced economy and culture drove synergistic development across the nation.

In the pre-Qin era (prior to 221 BCE), Huaxia, a confederation of tribes in the Central Plains known as the predecessor to the contemporary Han ethnic group, gradually extended into the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River. In various regions of China, including the northern, northwestern, and southern parts, the historical landscape of the Chinese nation witnessed the settlement of ancestors from diverse ethnic groups.

The Qin court (221–207 BCE) built an empire with a larger sphere of influence, encompassing regions with significant ethnic groups of considerable power in the northern and western territories. In the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), the Junxian (Prefecture-County) System initiated by the Qin was expanded into ethnic minority areas, which facilitated communication with the western regions. Custom-based approaches were adopted to govern these areas, contributing to close interactions and interdependency among all ethnic groups within China.

In his magnum opus Shiji, or Records of the Grand Historian, father of Chinese historiography Sima Qian offered historical accounts of such ethnic groups as the Xiongnu, Nanyue, Dongyue, and Dayuan, indicating that ethnic integration had characterized China as early as 2,000 years ago. This fact remains true today, reinforcing the traditional notion that the nation is a diverse and united whole.

In different historical periods of China, different dynastic patterns emerged. There were unified dynasties dominated by ethnic Han, such as the Han and Tang (618–907) dynasties, and established by rulers of other ethnic groups, like the Yuan (1271–1368) and Qing (1644–1911). Also, multiethnic dynasties co-existed simultaneously, as in the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420–589), and the Song (960–1279), Liao (907–1125), Western Xia (1038–1227), and Jin (1115–1234) eras.

During periods of national unity, the Central Plains saw rapid economic and cultural development, and inspired surrounding ethnic groups to make progress together. Stable social development led to the faith that “all under heaven are of one family.”

When multiple dynasties were ruled by different ethnic groups concurrently, the dynasty in the Central Plains remained at the center. Though each dynasty considered itself orthodox, they still held Huaxia in high regard as their origin, emphasizing a deep sense of identification with China. Nonetheless, confrontations and warfare among diverse dynasties undermined social stability and expended massive social resources.

Ever-closer ties

Over the course of history, ethnic groups in China cultivated strong cohesion through increasing political, economic, and cultural contact. Whether in times of friendly exchange or military conflicts, times of unity or division, the ethnic groups absorbed and relied on each other, jointly creating and developing the unified, multiethnic homeland of China.

As history and society progressed, the Han ethnic group developed rapidly and gradually broadened the scope of settlements, with its population growing and members scattering all over the nation. By virtue of its superior political, economic, and cultural strength, the Han people enjoyed a principal status in China as the backbone of the unified country and a steadfast anchor of national stability.

Drawing on mature experience of the Central Plains, many other ethnic groups preserved and carried forward their own ethnic characteristics and became what they are today. Throughout history, certain ethnic groups left a significant impact, including the Xiongnu, Xianbei, Khitan, Tangut, and Jurchen. Meanwhile, other groups assimilated into larger ethnic communities, primarily the Han, eventually fading away over time.

Long-term exchanges, communication, and integration led to increasingly close relations among the ethnic groups in China, especially in border regions, where they lived together over vast areas and concentrated in individual communities in small areas. As a result, intermarriages and bilingualism were commonplace. The extensive inter-ethnic communication fostered a closely interconnected society, resulting in the prominent unity in diversity that characterizes the Chinese nation.

With a special natural geographical environment, China was marked by a unique civilizational landscape in which all its ethnic groups and regions were closely related — yet retained their own characteristics. While the Central Plains featured a developed farming economy, ethnic groups surrounding the region prospered by living nomadic lives, through fishing and hunting, or by harvesting natural resources in mountain forests.

In the Central Plains, agricultural products, silk, tea, and handicrafts were continuously exported to ethnic minority areas, while animal husbandry products and distinctive artifacts were introduced to the Central Plains from the periphery. These civilizational forms intermingled and penetrated each other, resulting in a mixed civilization. The bonds among ethnic groups further promoted the material and cultural-ethic advancement of China.

On the cultural front, the ethnic groups learnt from each other, showing a high degree of acceptance of Chinese identity. Advanced philosophies from the Central Plains were extensively recognized in ethnic minority areas. Among others, Confucianism exerted the most profound influence.

Moreover, the Central Plains boasted highly developed sciences, technology, and handicrafts, leading to the adoption of its architectural styles, printing techniques, and porcelain craftsmanship by various ethnic minorities. These groups in turn made notable contributions in the advancement of accurate calendrical systems and medicine. With their hard work and wisdom, all ethnic groups complemented and depended on each other, forming an inseparable whole within China.

Concerted national defense

The land where all ethnic groups reside and live is an indivisible part of China’s territory. Maintaining territorial integrity, national stability, ethnic cohesion, and cultural inheritance is a mission shared by all Chinese people. In Chinese history, many people with lofty ideals strived for national unification and territorial integrity. Especially in the fight against imperialist aggression in modern times, people from all ethnic groups bravely participated in the defense of the motherland with concerted efforts.

During the First Opium War (1840–42), Chinese soldiers and civilians rose together to resist foreign invasion, and many different ethnic groups valiantly took part in the struggle. For example, a battalion of more than 2,000 Tibetan people marched towards eastern Zhejiang Province to fight against the British invasion of coastal areas in the province, when many soldiers lost their lives. Another Tibetan troop joined the Dabaoshan Campaign near Ningbo in Zhejiang.

In the Second Opium War (1856–60), the Mongolian cavalry of the Qing Empire fought heroically against the invading Anglo-French allied forces at Baliqiao in eastern Beijing. This war also claimed the lives of many soldiers.

In the Sino-French War (1883–85), waged by French imperialists against China and Vietnam, people of the Zhuang, Han, and Yao ethnic groups made up a “Black Flag Army” to resist aggression. Later, the Yunnan Army consisting of ethnic Bai and Yi officers and soldiers also joined the fight.

After Japanese imperialists seized the Taiwan region, the Gaoshan and Han people joined forces to drive back the Japanese aggressors. When defending the Tsengwen River, more than 700 ethnic Gaoshan soldiers went to the front. During this period, together they managed to kill or wound more than 30,000 Japanese soldiers.

When the Eight-Power Allied Forces invaded Beijing, a Qing army composed predominantly of ethnic Hui people held out against the enemy in Langfang, Hebei Province, together with its allies, and successfully repulsed enemy attacks. When Tsarist Russia sent troops to encroach upon Hailanpao in northeastern China, a cavalry troop consisting of 500 Oroqen people dealt a heavy blow to the Tsarist-Russian army.

In 1904, the Ngari Prefecture in Tibet faced armed aggression from British-backed Kashmir. When the formidable British army besieged Gyantse County, Tibetan troops valiantly defended every inch of their land, displaying unwavering determination to protect the territorial integrity of their motherland. The Tibetan army of more than 3,000 officers and soldiers battled against aggressors for three days and destroyed the enemy’s main forces.

During the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931–45), ethnic groups from the entire nation united in a common struggle against the enemy. In 1932, the Communist Party of China (CPC) established the Northeast United Resistance Army, joined by many ethnic Koreans and Manchus. Zhou Baozhong, a communist of the Bai ethnic group, organized and led the democratic allied forces against Japanese invasion and performed meritorious service. In Inner Mongolia, Ulanhu and other comrades mobilized the Mongolian and Han people to fight the Japanese army and save the Chinese nation. In Hebei, there was a Hui detachment led by Ma Benzhai, and in the Shaanxi-Gansu-Ningxia border region, ethnic Hui people also formed an anti-Japanese cavalry regiment. At that time, dozens of Hui armed forces were in action as integral components of the Eighth Route Army and New Fourth Army, both of which were major forces under the CPC command.

The historical battles fought to achieve national unification, particularly the century-long struggle against imperialist aggression in modern times, serve as a testament to the strong will of people from diverse ethnic groups across China to safeguard national unity. These battles provide evidence of the remarkable solidarity and interconnections among theses groups.

All ethnic groups highly identify with the Chinese nation, and have integrated their thoughts and shaped the country’s civilizational genes, deepening each group’s community consciousness and consolidating the foundation for a unified China. Chinese history has proven that ethnic solidarity and national unity are the supreme core interests of people of all ethnic groups.


Shi Jinbo is a distinguished professor from Hebei University, a Member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), and a research fellow from the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology at CASS.

Editor:Yu Hui

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