A Population of Diverse Origins
Yunnan has 43 million inhabitants one third of which is made up of the 26 ethnic minorities identified there. The Chinese state consists of 55 ethnicities (the Han being the majority representing 91% of the total Chinese population.) This makes Yunnan the richest province in terms of ethnic diversity.
Since Yunnan is a border region it has provided a refuge since the earliest times for populations driven by successive invasions from the north-eastern China. Thais were probably the first inhabitants of south-western China, joined by the Qiang of Tibetan origin and then the Miao/ Yao who left the Yangtze River Valley around 3000 BC.
Some groups have not been recognised by the official nomenclature which has decided to integrate them with other ‘nationalities’, to use the official term. For example, the Mosuo of the Lugu Lake area are included in the Naxi group.
Characteristics of the minorities
China recognizes 56 minorities, whilst scientists speak of more than 400; two-thirds of whom live in South-East China. The minorities (except the Hui) are not subject to birth control policies, they gain entry into universities without going through the general selection process and are represented in parliament. Yet in spite of development assistance, almost 50% of the poverty in China is experienced by the ethnic minorities.
There has been growth in some of the “minority populations”, yet the tide of rural depopulation and propaganda advocating a very Han based model of society is threatening the very existence of some of the smaller ethnic groups. Nevertheless, the minority cultures have by no means been silenced or reduced to a folklore status and are still robust in the Yunnan region. They are characterised by the variety of their costumes, their language, their own history, their geographical location, their lifestyle, their founding myths and their religions.
A kaleidoscope of beliefs
All the major religions are represented in China and the Yunnan region (with the exception of Judaism, which is very marginal.) They include Taoism, the Buddhisms of the small and large vehicle, Islam and Christianity, as well as animism and syncretic beliefs such as what is commonly known as the “Chinese religion” or in the limited area of the Naxi ethnic group the Dongba religion which combines Shamanism, Bön (pre Buddhist religion of Tibet) and Buddhism.