The term 少数民族 is typically used to describe the 55 (non-Han) Chinese ethnic minorities, as in the illustration below:

Caricatures of the 55 (non-Han) Chinese ethnic minorities
(Image source; click image to enlarge.)

I'm not sure if 少数民族 can only refer to these 55 Chinese ethnic minorities, or if it can be used for other ethnic minorities (e.g. in other countries). The Baidu Baike page suggests it is exclusive to these 55 Chinese ethnic minorities, but I'm not sure if that's limited to that webpage.

Question: Does 少数民族 exclusively refer to the 55 Chinese ethnic minorities?

  • Obviously, yes, it can be used to refer to ethnic minorities in other countries. Baidu Baike is very Sinocentric, but the article starts with this: 少数民族,是指多民族国家中除主体民族以外的民族, "Ethnic minority [minority ethnic group] refers to an ethnic group other than the main ethnic group in a multiethnic country." From this, it is clear that it has a scope beyond China.
    – imrek
    Jul 26, 2020 at 18:38
  • Tangential topic since this site is about the Chinese language, but from a Japanese language learner, it just means "minority peoples"
    – Andrew T.
    Jul 26, 2020 at 20:04

8 Answers 8


From your link, 少数民族 = 多民族国家中除主体民族以外的民族, so that term applies to other countries as well. However, 中国少数民族 designates exclusively Chinese ethnic minorities. Keep in mind that there are 中国未识别民族(Unrecognized ethnic groups in China), i.e. ethnic groups too hard to identify due to strong similarity with other ones or ethnic groups influenced too much by Hans.


Short answer: No.

It can even refer to Han under certain circumstances, such as "在我们家,汉族是少数民族" (Han is the minority in our family (as only one member is Han, all others are of some other ethnic group).

And of course it can refer to other ethnic minorities in other countries. Baidu Baike gives this definition:


少数民族 refers to ethnic minorities in countries with multiple ethnic groups.


Does 少数民族 exclusively refer to the 55 Chinese ethnic minorities?

In general, yes. In China, when you say: 我是少数民族, that means you are not han's.

You may also use it as its literal sense 少数的民族, as in the example in fefe's answer. Out of context, it means ethnic minorities in general.


"少数民族" means "The ethnic group other than the ethnic group with the largest number in a multi-ethnic country refers to ethnic groups other than Han(汉族) in China, such as Mongolian(蒙古族), Hui(回族), Tibetan(藏族), Uygur(维吾尔族), Kazakh(哈萨克族), Miao(苗族), Yi(彝族), Zhuang(壮族), Buyi(布依族), Korean(朝鲜族), Manchu(满族) and other ethnic groups."

So, in China, "少数民族" included 55 ethnic groups. But in some other countries, its numbers are different.


少数民族 does not exclusively refer to the ethnic minorities in China.

In fact, it literally means “minority races”, so this term isn’t only used by the Chinese government.

In Vietnam, ethnic minorities are known as dân tộc thiểu số. This directly corresponds to 民族少數 in Chữ Hán.

Among the minorities are the người Hoa, or overseas Chinese in Vietnam. So, 汉族 can also be designated as 少数民族 when they are outside of China.


I think it always happens when a general-meaning word is used in a group of people to refer to a specific thing for too many times, it becomes a Proper Noun, at least within the group. But on the other hand, the original meaning is not lost. The answer to your question should be Yes and No.

Yes, because when you hear the Chinese word "少数民族" without any other modifier or further explanations, it almost always means 55 Chinese ethnic minorities. When talking about the ethnic group in other countries, people tend to use the word "少数族裔" to avoid the usage of "少数民族". For example "华人在美国是少数族裔".

No, because you can always use the original meaning of the word 少数民族. There is nothing wrong with that as long as the background is clear. In this case, you might need modifiers or some other explanation. For example, in fefe's answer "在我们家,汉族是少数民族" will not cause any ambiguity. But if you say "汉族是少数民族" without context, it might confuse most of the people who live in PRC.

PS: Answer is based on PRC experience, and might be wrong or different in other regions.


I would say depending on where you live. As the term 少數族裔 would be the preferred term if you are in Hong Kong.

Some may also prefer the term "少數族羣" instead, as the term "族羣" isn't really used in political speech in Mainland China, so it does not invoke the idea of the ethnic minorities living in China, so "少數民族" can be reserved for this express purpose.

"民族" is really quite a confusing term. This term is somewhat influenced by politics. The term "中華民族" refers to: ethnic Chinese, Manchurian, and the rest of the ethnic minorities residing in China. This term was invented sometime in late Qing to be used extensively in the ROC era as a mean to unite people under the idea of having one united nation and language (the so-called Chinese language) under one country. The term itself does not actually refer to one ethnic group.



The term "少数民族" literally means "minority ethnic groups (races)" in plain word, it has nothing special.

Within the context of Chinese cultural textbooks or general knowledge readings, this word implies:

(中国的)少数民族 - minority ethnic groups (or races) (in China).

For example if you're an American, when people around you talked about Department of Justice (DoJ) you immediately imply it's (the US -) Department of Justice.

And thanks to Hollywood movies, you heard "DoJ" a lot in films. For a second you may have thought that "DoJ" exclusively refers to "the US DoJ"...

-- until you realise that Australia's Justice Department uses the exact same name (and obviously not only Australia).

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