Many around the world may be surprised to learn that China has 56 ethnic groups.
Ordinarily, one has to travel far and wide to meet them, but at the University of Ethnic Groups — said to be China’s only university which has all the ethnic groups on campus, one has the luxury to meet them all.
CGTN visited the University to hear how minority cultures, in particular, have been preserved and developed over the years.
Yang Xiaoping, a 25-year-old of De’ang ethnicity, has spent eight years studying at the university.
Like many others, she underwent a year or two of preparatory courses before her undergraduate and postgraduate studies, with a government scholarship.
She is studying linguistics, majoring in her mother tongue, which falls under the ‘Liang’ branch. Beyond this, she said she wants to learn other varieties of the De’ang language used in Myanmar and Laos.
“I want to compare linguistic varieties used by De’ang people living in China and abroad,” she said.
Yang said her perspective on the country has broadened ever since attending university.
“For the first time in my life, I feel that my ethnic minority identity is advantageous,” she said. “Many of my schoolmates are amazed that I am able to speak my mother tongue, because many of them can’t.”
“It’s also beautiful and euphonic to hear other different languages when I walk on the street, although I may not understand.”
When asked about some of the challenges faced by minorities, Yang said the De’ang is already facing the scenario of its language and culture being acculturated with bigger ethnic groups.
De’ang’s population has been increasing over the years, she said, but remains small at over 20,000 and is scattered.
“There is a small village in my hometown where De’ang people live together with the Dais, and many De’ang residents there speak Dai language instead of De’ang language now,” she said. “Also, for De’ang people who marry, for example, the Hans, their next generation won’t speak De’ang language anymore.”
While Yang is concerned, she said there has been a glimpse of hope provided by the Chinese government’s increasing efforts aimed at protecting the ethnic minority cultures.
She has been working on a project by the State Council for a few years now, called the Language Protection Project, where an all-around study into local language in areas such as vocabulary, grammar and folk tales are recorded and uploaded to website archives.
“The country has also provided good conditions to inheritors in my hometown, so they do not have to worry about their lives and can fully participate in activities related to their ethnic group,” she added.
Increased interest on multi-ethnicity culture
Professor Song Min, vice president of the University, said interest in learning about ethnic minority cultures has increased in recent years – not just from locals, but also from overseas students.
“The government has provided scholarships to its neighboring countries, especially those along the Belt and Road…Additionally, we have also increased our overseas cultural exchange programs in the past few years,” she said.
One sensed a hint of pride when the professor mentioned the university’s ethnic minorities having brought forth their arts and dance skills to the rest of the world.
Professor Wu Da, who teaches cultural anthropology and ethnology, said ethnic minorities, though accounting for a little more than 8 percent of China’s population, have a place in society.
And although there are cultural differences in the 56 ethnic groups, he said there are also a lot of similarities.
“As the country’s cultural landscape develops, it is significant to continue to focus on the similarities and not on the differences. This is what we emphasize in our classes,” he said.
Professor Wu Da said ethnic minorities have played a vital role in helping secure China’s borders.
Over 19,000 kilometers of China’s 22,000-kilometer land borders are located in ethnic minority areas.
In the CPC’s 19th National Congress report, Xi Jinping said China must strive to build itself into a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful.
In his opening remarks, Xi has called upon all ethnic groups in China to unite in the pursuit of this goal.
A country’s culture is the heartbeat of its soul. And a nation can only prosper and forge ahead if its culture grows strong and its people unite.