I think New Zeralanders tend to think of China as homogenous. Massive, but homogenous. We’re guilty of this. It’s part of the reason that China has been further down our list of priorities than destinations in South East Asia.
There are good reasons we arrive at that conclusion, but we’re wrong. At home Chinese food is presented as a single cuisine full of fried rice, noodles and spring rolls. Here there’s so much variation that it’s grouped into four or more separate, regional, cuisines. For the record, virtually the only place we’ve seen fried rice on a menu is in hostels catering to Westerners. One went so far as to call it ‘Western style fried rice’.
At home our interaction is so overwhelmingly with Han Chinese that we probably don’t even know there’s such a thing as Han Chinese. All I really knew of Chinese ethnic minorities, other than Tibetans which is a slightly separate issue, was a vague memory of a token minority dance item at a Beijing Olympics ceremony.
The Han make up more than 90% of the population and hold most of the political and economic power. But the remaining ten percent still amounts to more than a hundred million people. The government officially recognises fifty six separate minority groups. Other groups are still fighting to be recognised as minorities. The ethnic minorities tend to cluster around China’s periphery.
We’re currently in Yunnan province on China’s mid-southern frontier. Viet Nam, Laos, Burma and Tibet are all within a (long) day’s travel. This morning we visited the largest market in Yunnan. The Bai ethnic minority was verging on the majority there. They account for less than two hundredths of China’s population, but there’s still two million of them. They dress in a traditional way that’s reminiscent of indigenous peoples we saw in Latin America. In fact I have to try hard to avoid using Latin American categorisations, calling the ethnic minorities indigenous and the Han the colonists (or even conquistadores) because that’s not correct. Everyone’s indigenous here, more or less.
There’s also a visible Muslim minority in Yunnan. Sometimes it takes me a beat to realise I’m looking at Arabic script rather than Mandarin characters. The Muslims bring their own cuisine, which is very much to our tastes. Today we recovered from the hubb-ubb of the market with a freshly cooked kind of roti bread filled with honey. Historically the Southern Chinese Muslims, like the Uyghur people, have suffered from religious discrimination. These days it seems the government preaches freedom and equality, but that may be primarily lip service. Minorities still suffer labour market discrimination and are overwhelming poorer than the Han majority.