Fortress Village - The Ethnic Minorities of Southwest China  
Brief Historical and Geographical Overview

Ethnic minorities in southwestern China mainly inhabit the mountainous areas and narrow valleys of the east side of the Tibetan Plateau and the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau. This region is known for its complex landscape, hosting everything from tall mountains and deep valleys to hills and plains. As a result, it is rich in natural resources, and the people living here make their living by farming, fishing, hunting, and gathering. They belong to many different ethnic groups, sharing and competing for the various resources vital to their survival.

After the Neolithic era, the Erhai Lake and Dian Lake regions began to show signs of Bronze Age civilization. By the time the Chinese probed their way into this region in the time of the Qin and Han dynasties, Chinese documents already contained references to two indigenous kingdoms called Dian and Yielang, and other miscellaneous groups of people, including the Kunming, Sui, Qong, Zuodu, Mimuo, and the more well-known Di, Qing, and Yi tribes. The Han dynasty historian Sima Qian (ca. 145–86 B.C.) refers to these ethnic groups collectively as the “southwest barbarians,” and divides them into several categories according to their economic activities, communities, and hairstyles. The excavated tomb of the Dian King also partially allows us a glimpse of what the situation might have been like back then. Carvings on a bronze cooking vessel depict the “barbarians” paying tribute, and variations can be noticed in the clothing, hairstyles and facial hair of people carrying different gifts.

During the Tang and Song dynasties, two kingdoms were established—Nanzhao (738-902 A.D.) and Dali (937-1252 A.D.). After Dali was destroyed in the Yuan dynasty, the central government implemented the chieftain system in this region, awarding members of the local ruling class with official titles, and allowing them to pass on the titles directly to their descendants. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the chieftain system became incorporated into the central government’s system, where the chieftains still directly ruled his subjects, but were themselves controlled by the state. This change tightened the Chinese government’s rein over China’s southwestern region. Simultaneously during this time, large numbers of Han people were moving into the southwestern region. The central government abolished the chieftain system completely, letting local governments take over the job of ruling the ethnic minority groups. However, in reality some areas were still ruled by local chieftains until the Republican era.

In addition to the Han influence caused by the continual influx of Han people, there was a political and cultural impact from Tibetan Buddhism, which had been spreading eastward since the Tang dynasty, reaching into the western edge of the traditional Nanzhao and Dai region. Culture from the southern Dai tribe and Theravada Buddhism traveled north and reached the southern tip of this region. All of the above cultural influences are closely related to the establishment of the kingdoms Nanshao and Dali. By the Qing dynasty, many ethnic groups in the region were still located where the above three major cultural spheres met or overlapped. By mid-Qing dynasty, Western powers such as the British and the French had already claimed the Indochina Peninsula and Tibet as their colonies or territories, and were scheming to expand their power to the southwestern region of China from there. After years of exploration, missionary work, and research, these Western countries successfully influenced some southwestern ethnic groups with Christianity. With this historical and cultural backdrop, the already diverse southwestern region of China became an even richer mix and blend of cultures and social identities.

From 1912 to 1949, the majority of China’s political and academic leaders believed that the Chinese nation were comprised of five ethnic groups—the Han, the Manchurians, the Mongolians, the Hui, and the Tibetans, forming a so-called state of “mutual harmony of the five groups.” The people inhabiting China’s southern and southwestern regions had been viewed as “non-Han barbarians” in the past, but the similarity of their customs and practices to those of the Han and their tendency to claim that their ancestors were Han caused many to believe that they have either been Sinicized and will indeed become Han, or been carelessly assigned to the Miao category. However, since the 1920s, thanks to the expeditions undertaken by ethnologists and the intensive research of historians, the physical attributes, language, culture, and historical evolution of each ethnic group are becoming more distinct. These results may also contain a certain degree of imagination. In the fifties and sixties, the newly established government of the People’s Republic of China pushed for more extensive research on the country’s ethnic groups. According to the data collected during this period, researchers finally were able to more clearly distinguish between the non-Han peoples, and classified the ethnic minorities as twenty-five different nationalities.
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