Updated 31 August 2011
Despite China’s vast size and population, China is rather homogeneous; because it has been largely isolated from the rest of the world – mountains to the east and south, oceans to the west and the wilds of Siberia to the north.
- Population of >1.3 billion, growing at 0.6% and slowing; mainly due to the one-child policy, even though it applies to 2/3 of the total population. This is a worry and a concern that China will “grow old before it gets rich“.
- Males outnumber females to such an extent that kidnapping of young girls by families with a boy in order to have a ready-made bride when she grows up is becoming an issue in some rural areas. This imbalance is due to the combination of an ancient desire to have sons rather than daughters and the one-child policy. This policy is being relaxed but a demographic time bomb has already been lit.
- Ethnic groups and languages: 92% Han, with 55 ethnic minorities, each with its own language. The main ones being Tibetan, Mongolian and Uighur; single written language Mandarin as labelled in the West is readable by all though some in the more remote provinces speak dialects that have a remote resemblance to Mandarin. Manchu has more or less disappeared and absorbed.
- Chinese language – commonly called Mandarin by the west, but actually termed Zhongwen (language of the middle kingdom) or Hanyu (or Han language) from which is derived the Japanese term Kanji, meaning ‘Han words’ – is a nearly unique pictogram language. There is no alphabet, although the government is trying very hard to introduce Pinyin, a phonetic version of Mandarin based on Roman characters. If two Chinese from different regions find they cannot understand what the other is saying, they resort to finger writing the words on the palms of their hands!
- But most urban and some rural kids now learn English as the international language of trade and communications – not least caused by IT being mostly English-based (American if you insist). One author, Ted Fishman, says that as many Chinese spoke English as a second language as there are English speakers in the US, Canada and UK combined.
- Religions: mostly atheist, only 30% consider themselves to be religious. 200m are Taoist–Buddhist, 65m are registered Christians and c20m are Muslims.
- Most of the Muslims are Hui’s (who are ethnic Chinese, converted around the 1300 CE, many with the surname Ma apparently Chinese shorthand for Mohammed) and Uighur’s who migrated from the Altai Mountains around 800 CE onwards. The latter mostly live in Xinjiang (new province), formally designated in 1884.
- Interestingly, just as foreign invaders who conquered China sooner rather than later were assimilated, so also foreign originated religions. Buddhism acquired quite a different nature and several local deities (e.g. Kwan Yin), although the Buddha was assiduous in not invoking divine powers in seeking enlightenment and his sutras on how to achieve a better future now or in some future incarnation can be summarised by: “You are the sole arbiter of your own destiny”.
- Talking of names, there are around 100 common surnames and, apart from possibly Ma, there is no religious or regional clustering. The colloquial for ‘the public’ is lao bai xing, which literally means “old hundred surnames”.
- Traditionally the second name is the ‘generation’ name where siblings would all have the same second name. The third name is the personal name. In places like Singapore and Hong Kong, sometimes married women would keep their maiden name along with the husband’s surname, making it four names. In modern China, the middle generation name is either not followed or sometimes dropped. This causes huge problems for the authorities as, it is not uncommon, at roll call in school, several kids would answer – for example – to Wang Ta (= Wang senior). The authorities are encouraging parents to revert to a middle name when naming their children.