Understanding China's ethnic groups, and I love Curzon's map blogs

Martyn in The Pekingduck has a good crash course for Xinjiang's history. See this site for maps of each Chinese dynasties super-imposed on the present boundary, a high resolution set of maps here, a comprehensive set here, or this one, or this history of China, India and Japan.

But history is only history. I guess we care more about the people who live there now. Curzon had a crash course on the ethnic groups as well, in the language of map. It would help you understand the ethnic variety in China.

I love Coming Anarchy's map collections. Thanks Simonworld for the introduction. I do not share Curzon's passion for Robert Kaplan. I think Kaplan's thoughts are rather shallow and he does not really understand the spirit of Sun Zi. I haven't read his new book, but it seems the Economist agrees with me. That is probably one minor difference between Curzon and me. As a map geek, I found more in common with him, and I think Curzon's map blogs are brilliant.

He has also recently discussed about buffer states, shown us the map images via google earth, a great geography game, "The average American's view on the Muslim world", the African Chunnel, and more. I would click through all his older geographic collections when I have time.

Here are two maps (click in to enlarge, and move the cursor to the lower right corner, wait a second for the 4-legged spider to appear, click it to further enlarge if you are using IE) on the ethnolinguistic and linguistic groups in China via Curzon. Some more introduction on these ethnic groups:

Some explanation to the lingustic families (the legends in the map to the right, for more detail see here), but I would skip the obvious ones

  • Sino-Tibetan is one family. In fact, the difference between different Tibetan dialects (and among Tibetans and its close relative Qiang/etc) are as different(or similar) as Cantonese and Mandarin; Burmese (Myanmar) also belongs to the Tibetan sub-group
  • Within the Han dialects, Wu=Shanghainese group (incl Zhejiang), Yue=Cantonese, Min=Minanese/Taiwanese
  • Kam-Tai includes the Zhuang group, Hainan, and related to Vietnamese, and Thai language
  • Mon-Khmer are the Lao and Cambodian language, located in Yunnan bordering Laos, and a bit of Thailand/Vietnam
  • Altai are the Mongols and Turks, which also include Manchurian and Korean, basically those up north
  • Gaoshan is not indicated in the first map (but in the second), their languages are related to the Polynesian, Phillippino and Bahasa. The reason that Gaoshan is regarded as the ancestors of all these people is due to the linguistic variety (and more recently, confirmed with genetic variety). i.e. the difference among the groups on Taiwan Island is as different as between Taiwan Gaoshans and Hawiians (but the difference between Malays and Hawaiians are smaller!), which indicates that if Hawaiians and Malays are n(th) cousins, then the difference Gaoshans (e.g. Bunon and Ataya) are (N+x)th cousins
  • Miao/Yao are scattered, because they used to be as popular as the Han, but were reportedly defeated by Han and retreat to the mountains (around 7000 years ago)
  • In the 2nd map, the little circle represents Han who live in the cities in minority dominated areas, and triangles are Muslims (Hui) who mingled with Han (they are genetically Han)
  • Update: Not all language has a written form. Korean, Tibetan, Mogolian and Manchu have their own alpahbets (Dai uses Thai); Uyghur, Kazakh, Tajik and Kirgiz use arabic alphabets; Xibo uses Manchu alphabets, Yi and Naxi have their own syllabary and script. Most of the rest do not have their own. e.g. Qiang would use Chinese characters, and the Zhuang's (and a few others) created their own Romantized forms using Roman alphabets/pinyin after the CCP revolution
For those who are interested in Chinese histories, Paul Noll has a great site on maps of each dynsaty in the past (though the resolution is not very high), plus great information about the Koreas , see this Koreas at night from satellite picture)
I hope you will understand more about these people. Despite the well publicized ethnic conflict in the west, ethnic groups in China mostly live in good harmony. However, although there are affirmative policies in China, which actually favors minorities in education, low tax for business, etc., and effectively exempt them from the one-child policy (the cap is 3 children, and almost never enforced), since many of the minorities live in these remote and rural areas, they (also the underprivileged Han rural people) became relatively poorer from the recent economic growth (also because they are not used to doing business). As for Han Chinese who travel to or do business in these areas, it is also important to respect and treat the minorities fairly.
Compare the map above with the satellite picture at night, you can see the minorities (also the rural Han) mostly live in the 'darker' areas. With this post I hope to make them better known to (and better understood by) the outside world, and hence draw more help to improve their livelihood and conserve the environment they live in.
(Update Nov 23) A more detailed map is posted.


Anonymous said...

Michael Parenti's 'balanced' piece is COMPLETELY on the side of the communists. Yes, the old Tibetan order was awful, but in many ways so is the communist government, and Parenti completely glosses over everything that they've done.

Sun Bin said...

perhaps more persuasive if you could list parenti's factual error?

he has a long list of sources, almost all of them published by western scholars and journalists.

you may not agree with his political view (i guess leftist?). but let's focus on the facts.

i think he said the old order was awful, but he also said that does not justify other wrong doing. read his final paragraphs as well.

Sun Bin said...

Parenti said at the end,
"To support the Chinese overthrow of the old feudal theocracy is not to applaud everything about Chinese rule in Tibet. This point is seldom understood by today's Shangri-La adherents in the West. The converse is also true. To denounce the Chinese occupation does not mean we have to romanticize the former feudal régime. ...
Finally, it should be noted that the criticism posed herein is not intended as a personal attack on the Dalai Lama. Whatever his past associations with the CIA and various reactionaries, he speaks often of peace, love, and nonviolence. And he himself really cannot be blamed for the abuses of the ancien régime, having been but 15 years old when he fled into exile. In 1994, in an interview with Melvyn Goldstein, he went on record as favoring since his youth the building of schools, "machines," and roads in his country. He claims that he thought the corvée (forced unpaid serf labor for the lord's benefit) and certain taxes imposed on the peasants were "extremely bad." And he disliked the way people were saddled with old debts sometimes passed down from generation to generation.45 Furthermore, he now proposes democracy for Tibet, featuring a written constitution, a representative assembly, and other democratic essentials."

Anonymous said...

You said:

Don't forget the matriarch society of Mosuo/Naxi, which almost represents every man's dream, where men can be promiscuous and irresponsible (but powerless)

This is typical of the patronising and racist attitude of Han Chinaese towards minorities whom they say have a "low cultural level".

The Mosuo are not promiscuous and do not condone casual sex or open marriages, despite what your tour guide might tell you. I thought Chinese people would know a little more about their own country.

Sun Bin said...

There is no need to put such label of "low cultural level". The other way to view this is that Mosuo society could function very well without the hypocritical moral lesson of Han Confuciasm, or that of conservative Christianity.

But thanks for alerting to me how insensitive my choice of word was, which are subject to such interpretation. I have revised it by copying the wiki description.

Anonymous said...

I am curious as to where you go this image from: http://img398.imageshack.us/img398/235/china9ok.jpg

Sun Bin said...

was so long ago i forgot, but it is from some other web-site.

Sun Bin said...

e.g. this one

travelphotos said...


I am the author of the website you mention in the above post dated 1/10/08 14:14.

I would like to let you know that the URL has change following a redesign of the website.

Instead of :


the URL is now simply :

http://viaterra.net/travelpages/yunnan.htm : Ethnic map of Yunnan

If you browse the website, I have photos from teh South-West of China (Yunnan, Guangxi, Guizhou)

As the maps comes from my website, I would appreciate if you could make a hard link in your list of Interesting Links.

Thank you and best regards,


Sun Bin said...


Thank you for correcting the link. I will put a hard link there. btw, would you have a higher resolution map?