Manchu, Tungusic and Mongol minorities in China

©Edward J. Vajda

The Manchu

The 4.5 million Manchu in China are descendants of the tribe who founded the Qing in 1644, putting an end to the native Chinese Ming Dynasty that had ruled the country since the fall of the Mongols in 1368. These Manchu, who spoke a language related to the Udegei of today's Russian Maritime Province, dominated China politically until 1911. However, this domination of a more populous neighbor came at the cost of eventual assimilation. Today's Manchu have all but lost their original language, and virtually all of them speak Chinese. Most live in Northeastern China in Heilongjiang Province (the northern part of what was once called Manchuria, or "Land of the Manchu"; by the way, Heilongjiang, which means "black dragon river," is the Chinese name for the Amur River). Today most Manchu who do not live in Heilongjiang Province are concentrated in China's large cities and have become thoroughly sinified. The Manchu left in the north are today primarily farmers and grow a variety of crops. Today Manchuria is also predominantly Chinese in population, due to the enormous influx of Chinese peasants during later Qing times. Before the loss of their language, the Manchu had their own vertical script and literature was written in Manchu. Now the Manchu write in Chinese and their old script has fallen into complete disuse.

Before 1635 the Manchu (a name of unknown origin) called themselves Jurchens. These Jurchens played an important role in northern Chinese politics even before the fall of the Ming Dynasty. Jurchens were responsible for the creation of several major states in northern China during periods of Chinese disunity.

The predominant religion of the original Jurchen was a form of Siberian shamanism.

The Sibe (Xibo; pronounced SHE-bo)

One ethnic group related to the Manchu retained its language and ethnicity by moving to the western fringe of Xinjiang Province. During the Qing campaigns against the rebellious Uighurs in the 18th century, several thousand Manchu-speaking Sibe soldiers and their families were stationed in the area as a military colony. These survived and became the Sibe nationality, today over 80 thousand strong. Many still retain their Manchu-related language, which, according to legend, once had its own vertical script (no evidence of which has ever been uncovered, however).

The Sibe were traditionally patrilineal and worshipped a variety of gods and spirits. They have a rich oral literature. Sibe has also been used as a language of education and publishing in the local schools. Modern Sibe writers either use Chinese or write their native Sibe using a recently invented vertical script patterned on Manchu.

The Orochen

The Chinese side of the Amur River is also home to the Orochen (from the Tungusic word oron, meaning reindeer). The Orochen are closely related to the Ewenki, Ulchi, Orok, and Oroch who live in the Russian Federation on the other side of the Amur. Some consider the Orochen language merely another Ewenki dialect. Today, there are over 4,000 Orochen, whose language is sharply divided into dialects. In addition to these Orochen, China's Amur valley (Heilongjiang Province) is also home to two other Tungusic-speaking peoples, the Ewenki (several thousand strong, who are called Solon in China) and the Nanai (fewer than 1,000), who are called Hezhen in China).

All three of these Tungusic peoples (Ewenki-Solon, Orochen, and Hezhen-Nanai) were originally nomadic reindeer herders who crossed the Amur from the Transbaikal region many centuries ago. Each tribe was divided into patrilineal clans and practiced shamanism. A comparative study of the Tungusic peoples in China and Russia has yet to be written.

The Mongol Peoples of Northern China

Although there is an independent Republic of Mongolia containing over two million people, at least as many Mongols and other Mongol-speaking peoples live within the borders of the People's Republic of China. In addition to the Mongols proper, China is home to the following Mongol-speaking minorities: Daur (Dagur), Santa (Dongxiang), Mongour (Tu), and Bonan (Bao'an). These are small minorities left behind when Mongol power receded before the Chinese after the collapse of the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty in 1368.

The Mongols

The province of Inner Mongolia with its capital city Hohhot (pronounced Ho-a-hot) is the home of several million Mongols. (The independent Republic of Mongolia contains only a couple million). But the Mongols of China are today vastly overwhelmed by the nearly 18 million Chinese within the borders of Inner Mongolia.

The Daur (Dagur)

The approximately 94,000 Daur (also known as Dagur) live in the northernmost part of Inner Mongolia (in the northwestern corner of the former Manchuria) and for the most part retain a form of Mongolian that differs enough from the Khalkha Mongol spoken in the Republic of Mongolia to render the two mutually unintelligible. The Daur are believed to be descended from people who fled the Jurchens' destruction of the Khitan state in the 12th century. In the 17th century, as the Russians encroached from the West and the Manchus from the East, some Daur crossed into Russian territory while others became Chinese subjects. The Daur, who were originally pastoral nomads, generally tried to avoid mixing with sedentary peoples as much as possible.

The modern Daur are divided into exogamous patrilineal clans. Brides are acquired from outside the clan but almost always from an appropriate Daur clan. The Daur are still mainly pastoralists, but farming has become more important than in the past. At the same time, the role of hunting has declined. Most Daurs are shamanists (unlike the case with most other Mongol peoples, Tibetan Lamaism did not reach most of them).

The Dongxiang (Santa)

About 280,000 Santa live in Gansu Province near the southwestern part of Inner Mongolia. The Chinese call them Dongxiang, which means "eastern area," because most Santa live to the east of the large city of Linxia. The term Santa is used mainly for those of Moslem faith, and the Chinese term Dongxiang is thus often used to designate the entire nationality without respect to religious affiliation.

The exact origin of the Dongxiang is unclear. Most likely, they are descendents of some of the Mongols who invaded and conquered the area in the time of Chingiz Khan. Although the group preserves its language, many Chinese features have crept into it over the centuries, so that it is a separate language from that spoken in Mongolia proper.

The majority of Dongxiang are Moslems (the name "Santa" applies specifically to Islamic Dongxiang). Farming is the chief occupation, pastoral nomadism having been completely abandoned.

The Monguor (Tu)

The 160,000 or so Monguor live on the south slopes of the Qilian mountains to the west of the Donxiang. Local Chinese call them Turen, or "local people," which has a negative connotation but nevertheless has given rise to the ethnonym Tu used officially for this nationality in the People's Republic of China. The Monguor call themselves either Monguor or Mongol (depending on their dialect). To distinguish themselves from the Mongols in Mongolia proper, they call themselves Chagaan Monggol (or Monggor), which means "White Mongols," and the latter Khara Monggol, or "Black Mongols." To avoid confusion, Western ethnographers simply refer to the group as "Monguor."

The Monguor are believed to be the descendants of Mongol soldiers who intermarried with the local population. Nervertheless, a variety of their Mongol language survives to the present day. The modern Monguors are patrilineal and belong to exogamous groups. The predominant religion is a form of Tibetan Lamaism, but shamanistic practices persist.

The Bonan (Bao'an)

This is the smallest Mongolian minority in northern China. There are about 9,000 Bonan (officially called Bao'an in Chinese) living to the west of the Dongxiang (on the border of Qinghai and Gansu province). Like the other Mongolian nationalities in China, the Bonan are thought to be descendants of Mongol troops. The ethnonym Bonan is of unknown origin. Today, most Bonan are farmers rather than pastoral nomads. Some are Muslims, the rest Lamaist Buddhists like the Tibetans.

It should be mentioned that there are two other Mongol ethnic groups outside our area of study: one is the Kalmyk who live in their own autonomous region to the west of the Volga River in the south of European Russia (see your modern political map of northern Eurasia in this packet). The Kalmyks are descendants of western Mongols (Oirats) who fled the genocide of the 1750's which followed the Manchu conquest of western Mongolia. The other is a tiny, isolated group in northeastern Afganistan called the Mohol. They are the ethnic and linguistic remnants of the Mongol hordes who at one time dominated all of Central Asia and subjugated large parts of India under what is called the Moghul Empire (supplanted in the 18th century by European invaders).