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The Hidden China

For centuries the outside world has yearned to understand the mysterious land of China. Since the late 1970s—when China again opened her doors to foreign tourists and businessmen— millions of visitors have flocked into the “Middle Kingdom,” sampling her sumptuous food, photographing her scenic beauties, and experiencing her bustling marketplaces.

Few, however, have been fortunate enough to experience the “hidden” China. Woven into the mosaic of the largest population on earth is a rich thread. China’s ethnic minorities, though numbering more than 100 million people, are largely lost amid the vast ocean of 1.2 billion Han Chinese.  Although numerically the minorities of China account for only 6.7 percent of China’s population, they live in 62.5 percent of China’s territory.[1]

Changing Fortunes

The name the Chinese use for their country is Zhong Guo, meaning “The Middle Kingdom.” For more than a thousand years the Chinese have believed they are the cradle of all civilization, the axis for all of mankind. This attitude surfaced frequently as foreign powers attempted to open China up to trade.

By the beginning of the 20th century, however, the Chinese felt great shame as a nation. Parts of their country had been divided up and were controlled by foreign powers, their economy was in tatters, and the countryside was effectively ruled by warlords and gangsters.

On the 1st of October, 1949, Chairman Mao ascended to the podium before one million spectators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and triumphantly declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China.  China, once shamed and humiliated, sensed in the founding of the People’s Republic that a new dawn had arrived.  However, her reaction was to close the door to foreigners for most of the next 30 years. Christian missionaries were ordered to depart.

The Communist government brought a mixture of fortune to China’s minority peoples. For some, such as the Tibetans and Uygurs, the nation’s new leaders reacted mercilessly and violently, not tolerating even the slightest suggestion of claims to independence by these two peoples. Many soon found the word of the law and the application of it were two different things.  China’s law states:

If any worker of the government unlawfully deprives the citizens of their rights of lawful religious freedom, or violates the customs and practices of any minority nationality, he may be sentenced to imprisonment or compulsory labor for up to two years.[2]

Yet for some of the smaller groups, the change meant an end to centuries of exploitation by greedy landlords and slave owners. It also meant, for some, the first time they were allowed to “officially exist.”

Sun Yat-sen in the 1920s considered China to consist of only five nationalities. The Kuomintang government simply denied the existence of ethnic minorities, regarding them simply—and erroneously—as branches of Han. The original flag of the Republic of China displayed five colors, representing these peoples: the Han, Manchu, Mongolians, Tibetans and Uygurs.

Centuries of hostility and prejudice between the Han Chinese and the minority peoples had been best illustrated by the Chinese use of the character for “dog” after the name of a tribe. This was officially banned by the new government in favor of using the character “nationality.” Each officially recognized minority was allowed a representative to the National Party Congress in Beijing. More recently, health and education benefits have been given to minority people. Only those minorities residing predominantly in urban areas are subject to China’s “one-child” policy. Most minority parents are allowed two children, while others in more remote regions are allowed three. Some small yet significant gestures of goodwill have been appreciated by minority peoples. The Miao, for example, who use an abundance of silver in their traditional costume, are allowed to purchase silver at a much cheaper rate than other Chinese citizens. As Ralph Covell notes, “Efforts are being made to remove tensions that have existed for centuries between Han Chinese and minority nationalities living in the same or nearby areas.”[3]


Today there are hundreds of distinct ethnic groups scattered throughout China’s territory. Their languages belong to linguistic families as diverse as Persian, Turkish, Malayo-Polynesian, Tibeto-Burmese and Siberian. This ethnic composition is a result of thousands of years of history. Many groups and peoples migrated their way across the continent, some fleeing persecution, others famine, and still others just searching for a land where they could live in peace. Other peoples that appeared in different times in history can no longer be traced, having been assimilated into the huge Han Chinese race.

Prior to the 1950s little was known about China’s minority peoples. Chinese scholars did little or no research. The lack of motivation and practical and geographical barriers kept the minorities of China hidden from the knowledge of the world.

The majority of missionaries did not progress past the Chinese coastal areas where they worked faithfully and valiantly, among the Han Chinese, sowing the seeds for the great revivals of the last generation. Of course, there was mission activity among some of the larger and better-known minority groups such as the Tibetans, Miao, and Mongolians. Some brave and faith-filled souls ventured to extremely remote border areas to proclaim the gospel among groups such as the Lisu, Lahu, Wa, and Jingpo.

Due to the lack of research before the arrival of Communist rule and the ensuing anti-religious fervor which still continues today, the smaller ethno-linguistic peoples of China  have remained hidden from the Christian world, and therefore from prayer, awareness, and efforts to evangelize them.

In the 1950s, motivated by the need to extend its rule to all corners of the nation, the government commenced a massive project to improve the country’s infrastructure.  Millions of miles of railway and roads were constructed across the width and length of China. Minority villages that had been an arduous two-week horse ride through dangerous bandit-filled mountains in the 1940s were now a short flight and bus ride away from a provincial capital.

Perhaps most important of all, Mandarin became the national language, used in all schools throughout the nation. Minority tribesmen who previously only saw Han Chinese on their irregular visits down the mountains to the marketplace are now able to speak their language. This has made it possible to research and document the smaller peoples of China and will greatly benefit the advance of the gospel among them.

How Many Groups Are There?

Early writers were aware of a large number of different tribes and peoples in China, but had no way of conducting ongoing research or gathering further information or biographical data. Most simply offered a list of names and locations to the interested world. The Christian world marveled at the results of a 1944 survey by missionary John Kuhn who documented 100 tribes in Yunnan Province alone.

In the early 1950s, China’s new constitution declared China to be “a unitary, multi-national socialist state.”[4] Leaders from China’s minority groups were invited to come forward and register their groups with the government to be considered for official recognition.  The results, first released in 1953, were staggering. Over 400 names of groups were submitted of which more than 260 were located in Yunnan Province alone.[5]

The Han Chinese, however, have long viewed the different tribes and nationalities in China with suspicion at best, and utter contempt at worse.  Sun Yat-sen had ominously stated, “The name ‘Republic of Five Nationalities’ exists only because there exists a certain racial distinction which distorts the meaning of a single republic. We must facilitate the dying out of all the names of individual peoples inhabiting China.”[6]

The new Communist government, obviously not willing to deal with so many different tribes and groups, began to artificially trim the list down to manageable proportions.

In 1956, sixteen teams were established by the government, with a total of more than 1,000 people, and sent across China to investigate the claims of the 400 groups that had applied for recognition. “The members included linguists, archaeologists, historians, economists, and experts in literature and the arts.”[7] These teams “collected a large body of data and presented their views on the classification of minority languages. These form most of the language information used today on China’s minorities.”[8] The researchers rejected most of the 400 names, claiming, “Some were different names referring to the same group of people, some were different branch names of one ethnic family, some were place names of the areas where the minority groups lived and some were Chinese transliterations of a group of people.”[9]

While this is no doubt partially true, any casual researcher of China’s ethnic composition will soon be aware of the existence of many groups in China today which defy official classification.

By 1964, the government had managed to reduce the number of groups on their official list to only 183.[10] Dismayed at being rejected, many minorities applied again in the late 1960s.

With the central government still uncomfortable with the prospect of dealing with so many collective needs, and with administrators in Beijing no doubt unwilling to welcome hundreds of new “Deputy to the National Party Congress” representatives, the scholars were sent back to work. From their revised list of 183, they squeezed together dozens of groups into broad ethnic classifications, grouping tribes together who, in many cases, shared no historical kinship and who could not understand a word of each other’s language. In 1976, the State Council of the People’s Republic arrived at a total of just 51 selected “minority nationalities” in China. Since that time four more have been added, arriving at the current total of 55 artificially constructed minorities. The State Nationalities’ Affairs Commission now “considers the work of identifying nationalities virtually complete and is unlikely to accept any of the outstanding claims.”[11]

This has created a curious situation. At present there are only 21 officially recognized minorities living in Yunnan Province, but these 21 groups have 138 ethnic names, with an additional 157 ethnic names given to them by neighboring peoples.[12] The small Shuitian people, living on the Yunnan-Sichuan border, have been officially included as part of the large Yi minority group, but “they think of the Yi as mountain barbarians and have no wish to be associated with them; they are both puzzled and bitter that they have not won recognition as a separate nationality.”[13]

The Eastern Lipo people of northern Yunnan were also officially assigned to the Yi nationality even though their language is much more closely related to Lisu than Yi. This official classification horrified the Eastern Lipo, who had been slaves to the Nasu (another Yi group) for centuries. Eastern Lipo leaders petitioned the government saying they didn’t care what minority group they were assigned to as long as it wasn’t the Yi. The government officials ignored their pleas until recently. Today, on a national level, the Eastern Lipo continue to be classified as Yi people. On the district, county and prefecture administrative levels, however, the Eastern Lipo are now counted as Lisu!  The confused classification of the Eastern Lipo embodies all that is wrong with the government’s approach.  If any lesson has to be learned from the Eastern Lipo case, it is that a people group’s self-identity counts for much.

The Nosu people of northern Yunnan and southern Sichuan, themselves considered only a branch of the Yi nationality, consist of “44 subgroups with different self-designations and obscure dialects.”[14] The eight million Yi people, rather than being a cohesive ethno-linguistic people group, are instead a collection of 110 smaller groups, many speaking mutually unintelligible languages and coming from diverse cultural and historical backgrounds. One source even goes as far as dividing the Yi into 485 clans—with each clan occupying a distinct territory.[15]

Many outsiders view the nine million Miao as one people group, but from a linguistic viewpoint they “consist of 3040 mutually unintelligible dialects [i.e. languages].”[16] These languages are not merely slight variations of a common language, but as Joakim Enwall explains: “In Europe various languages may be mutually comprehensible to a large extent, like Swedish and Norwegian, or Spanish and Portuguese. In China dialects are usually not mutually comprehensible, and in many cases speakers of various sub-dialects have difficulty in understanding each other.”[17]

In addition to the Yi, similar cases of many distinct ethno-linguistic peoples being combined are found with the Tibetans, Miao, Hani, Zhuang, Yao, Dai and Mongolians. Even Chinese scholars have admitted the true number of distinct ethnic groups in China is staggeringly high. Among the Yao minority, for example, “There are thought to be as many as 300 such different appellations…making research and classification ethnically an impossible task…[the different Yao groups] are probably not of the same ethnic stock.”[18]

Reaction to the rejection of official recognition has been violent in some locations. The small Deng minority group living in southeast Tibet have even “threatened succession from China if they were not officially recognized as a nationality…. The Tibetan authorities strongly oppose such a move, arguing that it would split the Tibetan nationality.”[19]

To form the Ewenki minority, the Solon and the Yakut were combined.[20] Even the relatively small Pumi minority of Yunnan, comprising less than 30,000 people, is a collection of several tribes, each speaking their own language.[21] Few of the 55 official minorities in China have not been created by a similar artificial fusion of smaller groups.

Furthermore, 748,380 people in the 1990 census were not assigned a minority group because they did not fit into any of the established categories.[22] Most of these are members of small, distinct tribes. The 1982 census had listed 817,810 people in unclassified communities, but one Chinese source stated that “the actual number is higher.”[23] This probably indicates that a number of groups had already been provisionally placed or marked for placement in existing nationalities.

New information is continually coming to hand.  As anthropologists and linguists begin to conduct studies in more remote mountainous areas of southwest China, it can be expected that dozens of more tribes and languages will come to light, especially among the artificially constructed Yi, Hani, Yao, Tibetan and Miao nationalities.

Ethno-linguistic Importance

Since the gradual opening up of China in the 1980s, numerous Christian workers and ministries have commenced work in China.  Many ministries in China have wished to focus their energy on China’s minority groups. Unfortunately, because almost all literature on China’s minorities excludes any mention of groups apart from the official 55, most Christians have been forced to follow the government’s artificial classifications. Operation China contains information on approximately 300 people groups that have never before appeared on Christian mission ethno-linguistic lists.

Some may argue it is not important from a missiological view to break the groups down into an ethno-linguistic classification.  They explain that the gospel can penetrate into each people group cluster once indigenous believers are mobilized to spread the gospel. In China this has proven to be a false assumption.

Observers have noted that the Yi nationality contains an estimated 200,000 Christians. Many would immediately classify them as a “reached” group. This is not the case, however:

People have the impression that these groups should be able to effectively evangelize the other members of the Yi…. However, upon closer inspection it is found that almost all of the Yi Christians are among the Gani and Lipo…. The other 70 or so Yi groups are totally unreached…. They live as far as 1,000 km [620 miles] away from the center of Yi Christianity. But even if the Gani or Lipo Christians should decide to travel and share the Gospel with other Yi groups they would find it a completely cross-cultural experience. They would have to learn a new language, in many cases with hardly a single word the same as their mother tongue, and they will have to learn the customs and culture of the new people…. Far better if we view all these groups as separate Gospel targets to begin with.[24]

It is hoped that Operation China may spur many to learn about and to pray for the unreached people groups of China, and to give their time, talents, energy, resources, and lives, to do whatever is necessary for all of China’s people groups to know the saving grace and the indwelling life of Jesus Christ. May the Body of Christ of this generation not fail in its attempt to see God’s Kingdom come among all of China’s peoples!

Paul Hattaway’s 12 years of research on China’s unreached people groups has included 150 expeditions into China’s cities and remote areas to compile and verify his data.  This article is condensed from the introduction of his forthcoming book Operation China available in September 2000 (Piquant Publishers, ISBN: 0-9535757-5-6, 500 pp).


  1. ^ Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), Information China (London: Pergamon Press, 1989), Vol.3, p.1248. 
  2. ^ Article 147 of the Chinese Penal Code. 
  3. ^ Ralph R. Covell, The Liberating Gospel in China: The Christian Faith Among China’s Minority Peoples (Michigan: Baker Books, 1994), p.24. 
  4. ^ CASS, Information China, Vol.3, p.1247. 
  5. ^ Fei Xiaotong, “On the Question of Identification of Nationalities in China,” Chinese Social Sciences, No.1, 1980. 
  6. ^ Sun Yat-Sen, Memoirs of a Chinese Revolutionary (Taipei: China Cultural Service, 1953). 
  7. ^ Colin Mackerras, China’s Minorities: Integration and Modernization in the Twentieth Century (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp.142-43. 
  8. ^ CASS, Information China, Vol.3, pp.1281-82.
  9. ^ . Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Language Atlas of China (Hong Kong: Longman Group, 1987), p. A-3.
  10. ^ Fei Xiaotong, “Guan Yu Wo Guo Minzu de Shi Bien Wenti” [On the Question of Ethnic Identification in China], Minzu Yi Shehui, Renmin Chubanshe, Beijing, 1981, pp.5, 26. 
  11. ^ Mackerras, China’s Minorities, p.143. 
  12. ^ Li Youyi, Ethnology in China (Griffith University Press, 1980), p.10.  Also see Lin Yuehua, “Zhongguo Xinan Diqu de Minzu Shibie” [Ethnic Studies in Southwest China], Yunnan Shehui Kexue, 1984, No.2, p.1. 
  13. ^ . Stevan Harrell, “Ethnicity and Kin Terms Among Two Kinds of Yi,” in Chiao Chien & Nicholas Tapp, Ethnicity and Ethnic Groups in China (The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1989), p.183. 
  14. ^ Yunnan Shaoshu Minzu [The Ethnic Minorities of Yunnan], Kunming, 1986, pp.627-28. 
  15. ^ Hsu Itang [Xu Yitang],  Leibo Xiaoliangshan zhi Lomin [A Report of the Lolo in Leibo, in the Xiaoliang Mountains] (Chengdu: University of Nanjing Institute of Chinese Cultural Studies, 1944). 
  16. ^ Joakim Enwall, A Myth Becomes Reality: History and Development of the Miao Written Language (Stockholm University: Institute of Oriental Languages, 1995), Vol. 1, p.14.
  17. ^ Ibid., p. 20. 
  18. ^ Fei Xiaotong, “Fifty Years Investigation in the Yao Mountains,” p.24 of Jacques Lemoine & Chiao Chien, The Yao of South China: Recent International Studies (France: Pangu, 1991).
  19. ^ Mackerras, China’s Minorities, p.143. 
  20. ^ Zhang Tianlu, Zhongguo Shaoshu Minzu de Ren Kou [Population of China’s Minority Nationalities], (Liaoning: Renmin Chubanshe, 1987), p.2. 
  21. ^ R. P., “The Pumi People of China,” unpublished research paper, 1995. 
  22. ^ Frontiers Focus, Vol.4, No.3. 
  23. ^ Guizhousheng Shaoshu Minzu Renkou Tongji Ziliao, Minzu Yanjiu Cankao Ziliao No.21 (Guiyang: Guizhousheng Minzu Yanjiusuo, 1985), preface.
  24. ^ Paul Hattaway, “The Yi of China,” research paper cited in A-A-P Advocate, newsletter of the New Zealand Adopt-a-People Programme, No.18, August 1996.
Image credit: Gaylan Yeung 
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Paul Hattaway

Paul Hattaway’s 12 years of research on China’s unreached people groups has included 150 expeditions into China’s cities and remote areas to compile and verify his data.  View Full Bio