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May 1, 2019

When the People’s Republic of China government conducted its first nationwide census in 1953, it decided to be true to its professed principle of national self-determination for minority peoples (民族) by allowing all respondents to self-categorise themselves. They were in for a rude surprise when the census takers reported back over 400 self-identified ethnic groups. Nearly half came from one province: the southwestern region of Yunnan. Scores of the reported ethnonyms were so obscure that the government purportedly failed to find them in written records.

Why did it matter? The Chinese Communist Party had promised representation in the National Congress to all ‘officially recognised’ peoples. Regardless of population, each 民族 would have a minimum of one representative. The unintended consequence was that minority peoples would account for 1/3 of the legislature's members. In the most extreme cases, certain peoples recorded a population of 1 (just the person interviewed). The CCP eventually put together teams of linguists, ethnologists and public servants and sent them to the field to determine how minorities ought to be grouped and defined. Contrary to older historiographic views that it followed the Soviet model of national delimitation, the ethno-taxonomical structure employed by these field researchers was largely derived from late nineteenth-century British colonial linguists such as H.R. Davies.

The 400 peoples comprising the republic were reduced to 56–the same number today.