China is one of the world’s oldest civilizations, a fact Westerners often forget. For example, while most of Europe was muddling through the ‘Dark Ages’ after the fall of Rome around the year 500 AD, China had already been a flourishing civilization for 2000 years.
While China today recognizes 56 distinct ethnic groups, the vast majority of Chinese people — over 90% — are Han Chinese. The remaining 10% is split among those 55 other ethnic groups. You don’t have to be a math wiz to figure out how lopsided this is. For example, the second largest ethnic group, the Zhuang, make up only about 1.3% of China’s population. Not one of the remaining 54 groups even tops 1%.
It’s hardly surprising then, that some of these ethnic groups chafe at Chinese authority, Tibet being the most obvious example.
The terrain and the cultures here feel far more central Asian than Chinese. It’s a harsh, windswept land of vast open spaces, big skies and stark beauty, with high desert plateaus ringed by some of Asia’s great mountain ranges like the Karakoram, and the Pamirs.
While the Uyghurs are Xinjiang’s dominant ethnic group,there are many others, like the Kyrghyz, the Tatars,Kazaks,Uzbeks, and Tajiks. Primarily semi-nomadic Turkic peoples, these groups have squeezed out a living in this part of Asia for centuries. They are master horsemen and yurt builders, embracing a way of life little changed over the centuries.
These Turkic peoples have often found themselves at odds with their Han Chinese overlords. Their Muslim culture and nomadic traditions aren’t an easy fit in a communist country ruled by a central government in far-off Beijing. There’s a general feeling of being ‘under the thumb’ of the Han Chinese majority whose language and culture are alien to them.
In choosing images for this collection I wanted to highlight some of these ethnic minorities and their culture. I also tried to include images from lesser visited parts of China, particularly Guangxi and Yunnan provinces in the southwest. Guangxi is a frontier province in the far southwest that borders Vietnam. It is home to the Zhuang people, China’s largest ethnic minority.
Guangxi is also where you’ll find the iconic Chinese landscape of verdant limestone towers rising up from lush green fields. The city of Guilin sits astride the Li River and is the heart of this region.