Charting the Future of China’s Ethnic Minorities

On the table directly opposite my desk sits a wedding portrait of my wife, Jasmine. To many who come into my office, this picture is all they know of my wife.  Beautiful, even stunning, in her white satin gown against a background of floral bouquets, her lovely smile shining radiantly out from the silver and gold frame—the portrait certainly gives my visitors a glimpse of how special Jasmine is.

To really know her, however, they would have to meet her personally. Only then would they have a sense of her character, her aspirations, her hopes and dreams for life. The wedding picture, taken on a beautiful July afternoon nearly nine years ago, tells something of where Jasmine has been, but only by meeting her would one be able to know where she is going.

During the past decades researchers (several of whom are featured in this issue) have spent countless hours studying China’s ethnic minorities.  Detailed profiles of many are now available. Through these profiles we can learn much about their histories, their cultures and customs, their religious beliefs and practices, where they live, even how they dress and what they like to eat.  Such information is invaluable to those who seek to understand these peoples and share the love of Christ among them.

Yet, like my wife’s wedding portrait, these profiles give, at best, only a partial image of the peoples they aim to represent.

Photos and printed words are static.  Peoples are dynamic.  To adequately engage the peoples of China in this new century requires a research agenda that not only addresses the peoples as they have been but also anticipates how they are likely to change given the myriad forces currently transforming China.

Consider, for example:

  • The shift of China’s population from the countryside to established urban centers and newly emerging cities will loosen existing social ties and loyalties, exposing hitherto isolated minority populations to massive forces for change.
  • Key members of minority communities are not necessarily found in traditional minority areas but may live in major cities where, as students, entrepreneurs or officials, they serve as informal conduits of information and resources.
  • Television, VCD’s and the Internet are linking ethnic minorities not only to the rest of China but also to the world beyond, hastening their assimilation into a rapidly developing global culture.
  • Minority status and poverty often go hand in hand, as Huo Shui points out in this issue of ChinaSource.  China’s growing gap between rich and poor will have an inordinate effect upon the ethnic minorities.

Each of these examples raises obvious questions about how best to serve among China’s minority peoples. Many more factors could be listed that will shape the future of these peoples in this new century. Unless we begin now to think seriously about the implications of these dynamics, we may be left with strategies that are appropriate for peoples that exist only on paper. Understanding where China’s ethnic minorities have come from is important.  Equally important is understanding where they are going.

Image credit: Journal Entry (Joel Montes de Oca) by Chris Lott, on Flickr.
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Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio