Ethnic Groups of Premodern China
The study of Classical Chinese literature, Chinese and non-Chinese literary
sources and inscriptions, historical linguistics, and archaeological research
are used to identify various or alleged ethnic groups throughout China’s
There are a number of difficulties in studying China’s ethnic groups
because of their long histories and the enormous amount of literature and
historical materials that have accompanied China’s history. This ambiguity
was prevalent in Chinese ethnography, which, like much pre-modern
ethnography, was prone to inaccuracies in its depiction of Chinese-named
groups. When it came to assigning ethnonyms, the Han Chinese authors
often made little distinction between those they considered Chinese and
those they labeled non-Chinese based on distinctions in lifestyle, language,
or administration. It was originally used to contrast with the word
“barbarians” for several of the ethnonyms.
One of China’s 56 designated ethnic groups, the Miao are a group
of linguistically related peoples who live in southern China and southeast
Asia. Guizhou, Yunnan, Sichuan, Hubei and Guangxi are home to the
Miao, who are mainly found in the mountains of southern China.
Migrations from China to Southeast Asia have taken place among some
Miao sub-groups, most notably the Hmong people (Myanmar, Northern
Vietnam, Laos and Thailand). Thousands of Hmong refugees fled the
communist takeover of Laos in 1975 and landed in the United States,
France, and Australia.
They were a nomadic pastoralist people that first appeared in
Chinese history during the 1st century BC in the western part of the modern
Chinese province of Gansu, a dry grassland area in the southwest of the
country. Yuezhi separated into two factions, the Greater Yuezhi and the
Lesser Yuezhi, after a catastrophic defeat by the Xiongnu in 176 BC, which
led to their migration in various directions.
There are even reports that some of the Sakas were replaced by the Greater
Yuezhi in the Ili Valley (on the contemporary borders between China and
Kazakhstan). As a result of the Wusun’s expulsion from the Ili Valley, they
went south to Sogdia and then Bactria. Classical texts have frequently cited
the Tókharioi (Greek o; Sanskrit Tukhára) and Asii as examples of peoples
who conquered the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, like the Greater Yuezhi (or
Asioi). Bactria was ruled by the Kushanas (Chinese for “Greater Yuezhi”;
pinyin: Gushung) in the 1st century BC, one of the five major Greater
Yuezhi tribes. During the 3rd century AD, the Kushan Empire extended
from Turfan in the Tarim Basin to Pataliputra on India’s Gangetic plain.
Buddhism was introduced to China by the Kushanas, who played a
significant part in the growth of trade on the Silk Road.
When the Han ethnic group was established in China, it was based
on a confederation of tribes that lived in close proximity to one other on
both sides of the Yellow River.  It was during the Warring States period
(475–221 BCE) that China’s Huaxia identity began to take shape. Initially,
Huaxia was defined as a civilized culture apart from the savage peoples
that surrounded them. During the Eastern Zhou period, when Rong and Di
peoples arrived in the Zhou regions and exterminated some Zhou states,
the Huaxia identity was formed as a response.
China’s Guizhou region is now home to the pre-historic
governmental unit known as Yelang, or Zangke, which was first mentioned
in 3rd-century BC writings. In operation for well over a century. China
nowadays is most known for the expression “Yelang thinks too highly of
itself,” which refers to the state of Yelang.
According to Han’s Book of Later Han (Ch. 120),
Mounted archery is a specialty of the Wuhuan. They hunt animals and birds
for sport. They move around in search of fresh grass and water. They live
in circular yurts because they don’t have access to permanent settlements.
The yurt’s front door is towards the sun (south). They live off meat and
kumiss. Fine wool is used to produce clothing. They place a high value on
youth and strength, while old age and frailty are devalued. It is in their
nature to be courageous and valiant. Their children’s survival depends on
their mother’s well-being, so they don’t damage each other in their rage.
While fathers and older brothers can form their own tribes, the original
group is not liable for their actions. Elders are picked because of their
courage, strength, and ability to deal with difficult legal situations. The
position of elder is a non-inherited one. The (small commander) is a
traditional member of every nomadic tribe. One hundred to one thousand
yurts make up a village. Because they have no writing, they carve markings
on wood when an elder makes a pronouncement, and no other tribes dare
to break the rule.
On what is now Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, and Northeastern
China, the Xianbei were an ancient nomadic tribe who lived in the eastern
Eurasian steppes. Wuhuan and Xianbei were two of the split Donghu tribes
that formed after the defeat of the Xiongnu in the 3rd century BC by the
Wuhuan. When they killed the Xiongnu chanyu Youliu in 87 AD, Xianbei
became a major player in the nomadic and Han dynasties. However, unlike
the Xiongnu, the Xianbei political structure lacked the organizational
capacity to fight the Chinese over the majority of their nomadic existence
as a group.
At various times in ancient China, the term “Qiang” was used to
refer to distinct groups of people. Some believe that Qiang people hail from
Tibeto-Burma; others believe that they came from other regions of Asia.
The Tang, Sung, and Yuan dynasties’ Tangut people may have Qiang
ancestry. Tibetans and modern-day Qiangs may have ancestry tracing back
to the ancient Qiangs.
During the Jin dynasty (266–420) and the Sixteen Kingdoms
period, the Di were one of the non-Han Chinese people known as the Five
Barbarians, who overran northern China during this period. Nomadic
peoples of northern China who lived in nomadic communities during the
previous Zhou dynasty were not the same as this ethnic group. According
to Chinese scholars, the Di are of pre-Tibetan ancestry, but they are often
believed to have spoken a Turkic language.
In the 4th century, the Jié were part of a northern Chinese tribe. They
were considered one of the Five Barbarians by the Han people during the
Sixteen Kingdoms period. They founded the Later Zhao dynasty under Shi
Le’s leadership. As a result of Zhao’s demise, Ran Min was victorious in
350 AD in the Wei–Jie conflict. It wasn’t until after the Wei-Jie war that
Chinese historians kept track of the activities of the Jie people.
Many different ethnic groups lived in South China and northern
Vietnam between 1st millennium BC and 1st century AD, known as the
Baiyue Hundred Yue or just Yue. Short hair, body tattoos, superb swords,
and naval skill made them famous.
During the late Spring and Autumn period, the Dian people formed
an ancient kingdom around Dian Lake in central northern Yunnan, China,
which lasted until the Eastern Han dynasty. People of the Dian were buried
in vertical pit burials. A Tibeto-Burman language, the Dian is most likely
one of those. As the Han dynasty extended into what is now Yunnan, the
Dian were eventually ousted and incorporated into Han Chinese society.
When the Dian Kingdom was annexed by the Han Empire in 109 BCE, the
Yizhou commandery was established as a result.
As part of the Silk Road’s north-south route, Kucha, or Kuche, was
an ancient Buddhist kingdom located in Tarim Basin, north of Taklamakan
Desert and south of River Muzat.
They were a group of people who lived in Siberia and were
described by Chinese history in the 1st century BCE era. Na-Dené
speakers, who are thought to be linked to Tungusic speakers in the Shiwei
ethnic group, are also thought to be the forefathers of Na-Dené speakers.
After traveling from the west of Lake Baikal to Mongolia and northern
China, they returned to the Lena River. For ages, they were a massive
independent horde but were eventually destroyed and taken over by the
Xiongnu Empire, and so possibly linked to the Huns in the west. Later, the
Tiele, also known as Di or Gaoche or Chile, migrated westward into
Central Asia and integrated them into their culture. Others ousted from
Mongolia by the Rouran was exiled and settled in the Tarim Basin in 5th
century, where they ruled Turpan and established a settlement known as
People of Donghu ancestry created the Rouran
Khaganate, or Juan-Juan Khaganate, was a tribal confederation and later a state.
First to use the term “khagan”: The Rouran supreme kings are known for
being the first to use this term, having taken it from the Chinese. Late in
4th century until the mid-6th century, the Rouran Khaganate reigned in the
The Middle East. This was followed by the advent of the Turks in world history.
Medieval Inner Asia was home to a nomadic confederation
known as the Göktürks, Celestial Turks, or Blue Turks, who were a
nomadic group of Turkic people. When Bumin Qaghan (d. 552) and his
sons succeeded the Rouran Khaganate and created the Turkic Khaganate,
they formed a nomadic dynasty that would mold Turkic peoples’
geopolitical, cultural, and religious traditions for centuries to come.