Bookworm ’16: “Minority Matters: Focus on Ethnicity in Chinese Culture”

The ethnic minorities talk was probably the dark horse of the festival; at least for me. I was curious how it was going to be packaged, since there are 55 ethnic minorities in the country and one hour is hardly enough to touch on even a quarter of that.

As it were, the focus was on Tibetans, or rather Tibetan women, and Manchurians. This, I think, was a marvelous contrast, since the former is still very much an established culture within China, while the language and customs of the latter are in grave danger of dying out.

The speakers of the event were an array of highly fascinating people; to my surprise, Xinran reappeared and shared her experiences of working with minorities. Again very insightful and this time even more substantial compared to her talk the day earlier. The other speakers included Dolma, a young Tibetan woman, who studied gender issues among Tibetan society for her PhD, and Li Dan, a Manchurian, who is involved in NGO work to save the Manchurian language, culture and customs, for example by launching a typing system for smart phones. The moderator of the event, Jocelyn Ford, journalist and documentary filmmaker who produced “Nowhere to Call Home”, a look into the hardships of Tibetan women. I said it was a fascinating group of people, didn’t I?

The Plight of Tibetan Women

Dolma began her talk by explaining the Tibetan view of women and men, rooted in their religious beliefs, which said that women are often seen as evil spirits or demons. This is why they often wear such elaborate head wear; it is said to contain the women’s evil spirit.

The academic then went on to explain the three different types of Tibetan women she had identified during her studies. Traditonal Tibetan women, who live very repressed and difficult lives, often being excluded in some form or other from public life but accepting their fate. The second, and most tragic type are women who are unhappy at being discriminated against, but are stuck in their current position due to low education and resources. Sadly, especially this group of women is at risk; one of Dolma’s friends who belonged to this group of women committed suicide only weeks earlier, because she simply couldn’t see a way out of her misery. The final group is the one Dolma herself belongs to – women who have learned Mandarin and received higher education, who have consequently left their Tibetan surroundings and undergone further education somewhere else in China. I didn’t get a chance to ask, whether she would consider marrying a Tibetan, though I have a faint feeling the answer might be no.

The moderator of the event Jovelyn Ford, was also able to contribute her own experiences, as a documentary filmmaker showing the lives of Tibetan women. She chose this topic because, as she points out very rightly, minority women are often neglected in the media narrative, especially when it comes to Tibet, where Western headlines tend to focus more on the Dalai Lama and the Chinese as aggressors, and less on the more unpleasant aspects of the culture such as shocking gender inequality and mistreatment of women, many of whome are purposefully kept illiterate and experience domestic violence.

The Pride of Manchuria

Li Dan, the proud Manchurian, went on to outline the evolution of the Manchurian consciousness. The reason that the language and customs have almost entirely died out is that for the longest time being Manchurian in China could almost have been considered a kind of shame. Since the puppet state of Manchukuo was installed under the Japanese, the Manchurians were seen as traitors. As a result, to blend in better, in the past century many Manchurians would change their surnames to Han surnames. However, more recently there has been a shift in perception around Manchurian heritage; as it is associated with royalty, it is now carried with much more pride than in previous decades. As it is “in” to be Manchu, the minority culture is receiving a much needed push to survive and Li Dan’s efforts are part of that – definitely a worthy cause. He has launched an input system for the Manchurians language for smart phones (incidentally this made me discover that the Manchurian and Mongolian writing systems are very similar).

In terms of language preservation his talk revealed a curious difference between the areas with Manchurian residents and even Xinjiang with its Uighur minority, who retains a strong, separate identity from Han, and on the other hand Inner Mongolia. In Inner Mongolia, all signs in the public space, i.e. government buildings, road signs down to even the smallest restaurants, are all sign posted bilingually with both Mandarin simplified characters and Mongolian script. in fact, as I remember mentioning before, since the Mongolia, the country, discontinued use of traditional script in favour of the Russian cyrillic alphabet, China’s province of Inner Mongolia has become the only place in the world, where this form of writing can be found.

Neither in Xinjiang, nor in Northeastern China, the Manchu stronghold, are these languages being used on road signs or with vendors; only official government buildings continue, according to Li Dan, the bilingual approach. I cannot say for certain what the reasons for this discrepancy are; though Mr Li pointed out that bilingual signage in Inner Mongolia is required by law, so it is possible the law differs across the provines; a faily common occurrence.

Language and Culture Preservation

However, the presence of Mongolian characters does not actually mean the language is being preserved better than Manchu or Uyghur language; in fact probably the opposite is the case. Hardly any Mongolians Mr Li’s age can still speak fluent Mongolian, let alone read it, often leading us to bitterly joke that there is probably one person in Hohhot who can read the signs and they are the one making them for the entire city. Since there has been a fairly successful “assimilation” of a majority of Mongolians into Han culture, especially through inter-marriage, there are many mixed children in the area who weren’t taught about their heritage because it is not deemed “useful”. But even those “pure-blood” Mongolians whose parents belong to the minority and who speak the language in the home often do not develop the language enough to actively use it or pass it on; they might understand it but tend to reply in Mandarin. Often these young people are just as eager as the rest of us to leave their home towns and go and explore the world; mostly the Han-ethnicity, Mandarin-speaking, simplified-character using world, in which there is no space for their Mongolian heritage. It’s a sad reality and a real shame that, if nothing is done to stop this trend, probably this is the last century in which Inner Mongolia is home to “true descendants” of Ghengis Khan.

In terms of choice of language and lifestyle, what does in fact tend to happen is a fractioning of the minorities into two opposing camps; the conservative conservationists, who will only speak in their native tongue, i.e. Tibetan, Uyghur or Mongolian, and strictly follow their own culture and only socialise with members of their minority, and on the other side the liberal hybrids, who speak Mandarin and go to educational instituitons run by Han Chinese and socialise with people from different backgrounds. It is very common for members of the former group to accuse the latter of being traitors to their own culture and pandering to the Chinese imperialists. However, being able to speak the lingua franca tends to be the only way that members of these communities can persevere and be professionally succesful.

Naturally, when talking about preserving culture, one major factor is tourism. When asked whether minorities were in danger of truly dying out, XInran said she didn’t believe so at all, mainly because Chinese people love their food. But aside from the culinary aspect tourism has given the country’s minority cultures a double-edged push. For example, in Dolma’s hometown an entire block of fairly modern skyscrapers was torn down only a few years after construction to be replaced by lower architecture in the traditional Tibetan style. More interestingly, as soon as the tourists came the local authorities insisted that locals put Tibetan translations on the forefront of their stores, restaurants and hotels, no matter whether they wanted to or not. And more poignantly, in many cases there are grave typos and mistranslations in the language. But none of this matters to the tourists, both Han and international, who really just pop by to take a picture in traditional dress in front of exotic looking architecture with weird writing on the wall. (And, yes, I am also one of those silly tourists, I won’t pretend otherwise.)

Xinjiang; Ethnic Minority and Profiling

Moving on to the topic of Xinjiang, a hot topic if ever there was one, Li Dan shared an interesting “anecdote” for want of a better word, that was suprisingly and uncomfortably familiar. A French female friend of his got on a tour bus (possible destination Xinjiang, though I don’t remember) and initially felt that her fellow passengers, all Han Chinese, were treating her with distance and unease. It was not until one of them started engaging the young woman in conversation and she mentioned she was from France, that the entire bus gave a collective sigh of relief; they thought she was a Uyghur from Xinjiang. Probably a bit of background information is in order here. The Uyghur minority is descended from Turkic ancestors; hence they don’t acutally look Chinese at all but much closer to Europeans, especially from the Mediterranean. They are of muslim faith and are so ethnically different because the territory lies on the border of such countries as Kazakhstan, Kyrgizstan and Tajikistan.

Xinjiang literally means “New Frontier”, indicating that the territory has been a contested one for quite some time. The region was a vassal state in the distant past, but it was not until the 1830s that Han Chinese began to settle there. In the 1930’s a short lived Republic of East Turkestan was proclaimed but since the Chinese regained control, it has belonged to the PRC. Still the settling and intermingling that happened in Inner Mongolia did not occur in this region, and so the two ethnicities are still largely separate, there have been many violent clashes, and mostly there have been attacks by Uyghurs in other provinces of China, most notably a car driven into a crowd in Tian’anmen square a few years ago, that has given the ethnicity the classification of being terrorists. So, very similar to the experience of identifiably Muslims back in Europe being treated with fear and blanket suspicion, the same tends to happen in China.

Ironically, the minute the passengers on the bus discovered the young woman was French, their worries turned into excitement and passionate exclamations of welcome. This double standard, as Li Dan quite rightly pointed out, is very frustrating. Especially in the case of the Beijing attacks it has worrying ramifications, because when people thought the attacker was Han Chinese, reports Li Dan, there was an attempt to understand the reasons for their actions; had they been mistreated by institutions or faced personal tragedy? Yet, the minute media released information that the attackers were from Xinjiang province, so Li Dan, all these questions just stopped. The person became a one-dimensional terrorist, again revealing the different approach towards people of the mainstream Han versus especially the Uyghur minority.

The French girl’s episode resonated with me also, because I myself have often been mistaken for a Xinjianger, even by members of the ethnic minority themself. The most intense case so far was when I boarded a plane from Nanjing to Hohhot wearing a black scarf around my neck, a passenger went into a panic and kept asking the cabin crew if they had “checked my documents”. He was convinced I was going to blow up the plane. Sadly, he was behind me so I couldn’t see his face, or I might have shadily walked past him a couple of times. What it has taught me is that life is hard for Uyghurs, that’s for sure, in a country they don’t necessarily belong to, where they are treated as outsiders.

Bookworm Event Review

Puh, this turned into a rather long post; but there is just so much to say about minorities in China, although we have only touched upon four here. There are over 50 more out there, all with their own languages, traditions and struggles to create an identity that fits in both with tradition and modernity. It don’t think there is much to say about the talk in itself at all, it actually turned out to be one of my favourites of the entire festival.
I award this talk 5 out of 5 Aubergines.

Reads and Documentaries for this talk: Xinran’s “Sky Burial” and Jocelyn Ford’s “Nowhere to Call Home”

4 thoughts on “Bookworm ’16: “Minority Matters: Focus on Ethnicity in Chinese Culture””

  1. What an interesting recapture of the topics of the readings! I never wondered why there was no Manchurian to be seen anywhere here (we don’t have it on government buildings in the town we live in), but it seems like almost no-one speaks it anymore nowadays, so I didn’t think much about it. We have a Japanese professor at my university who researches Manchurian language and as far as I remember he can even speak Manchurian. I’m also interested to read about the gender issues Tibetan women face, I second your opinion that this topic isn’t talked about much and Tibetan culture as a whole is exoticised so much that it seems to be much harder to talk about these issues without stereotyping.


    1. Thanks for your feedback Ruth! It is a really interesting topic isn’t it, especially the different levels of how engrained a culture still is in minorities from Uyghurs and Tibetans at one end of the scale to more mid-level Mongolians and then the Manchurians who have almost lost it completely – I’d love to produce a kind of spectrum chart or something 😀


  2. Thank you for your review!

    But one correction here: The Uyghur people are not actually descendants of Turkic ancestors. They are descended from both the Tiele people, the mix of some local, Caucasian-like tribes and ruling tribes such as the Huns and the Xianbei. Later, they also started mixing with Han soldiers since Han dynasty. The reason this ethnic group is considered Turkic is that the ancient Uyghur people had been ruled by Kara-Khanid Khanate and converted to Islam. Later, the Uyghur people was ruled by Mongols and started further mixing with Mongols.

    The modern idea of “Uyghur people” wasn’t created until early 20th century.


    Li H, Cho K, Kidd JR, Kidd KK. Genetic Landscape of Eurasia and “Admixture” in Uyghurs. American Journal of Human Genetics. 2009;85(6):934-937. doi:10.1016/j.ajhg.2009.10.024.



    1. Hi Allen – thanks a lot for sharing – this is a really fascinating topic and I learned something new 🙂 thumbs up you know your stuff!


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