The Xibe ethnic minority
Major areas of distribution: Xinjiang, Jilin and Liaoning
Religion: Polytheism, Shamanism and Buddhism
The Xibe ethnic minority, with a population of 127,900, is widely distributed over northern China from the Ili area in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in the west to the northeast provinces of Jilin and Liaoning.
The Xibe people in northeast and northwest China have each formed their own characteristics in the course of development. The language and eating, dressing and living habits of the Xibes in the northeast are close to those of the local Han and Manchu people. Living in more compact communities, those in Xinjiang have preserved more of the characteristics of their language script and life styles. The Xibe language belongs to the Manchu-Tungusic branch of the Altaic Language Family. Legend has it that the Xibe ethnic group once had its own script but has lost it after the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was founded. A growing number of Xibe people came to learn the Manchu and Han languages, the latter being more widely used. In Xinjiang, however, some Xibe people know both the Uygur and Kazak languages. In 1947, certain Xibe intellectuals reformed the Manchu language they were using by dropping some phonetic symbols and adding new letters of the Xibe language. This Xibe script has been used as an official language by the organs of power in the autonomous areas.
The Xibe ethnic minority in Xinjiang believed in Polytheism before China¡¯s national liberation in 1949. In addition to the gods of insect, dragon, land and smallpox, the Xibes also worshipped divine protectors of homes and animals. Besides, some Xibe people believe in Shamanism and Buddhism. The Xibe people are pious worshippers of ancestors, to whom they offer fish every March and melons every July.
In clothing, the Xibe women in Xinjiang like close-fitting long gowns reaching the instep. Their front, lower hem and sleeves are trimmed with laces. Men wear short jackets with buttons down the front, with the trousers tightly tied around the ankle. They wear long robes in winter. The Xibe costume in northeastern China is basically the same as that of the Han people. Rice and flour are staples for the Xibes. Those in Xinjiang who raise cattle and sheep like tea with milk, butter, cream, cheese and other dairy products. April 18 on the lunar calendar is the festival of the Xibes, who would make flour or bean sauce on this day to mark the successful conclusion of their ancestors' westward move. In autumn, they would pickle cabbage, leek, carrot, celery and hot pepper. The Xibes enjoy hunting and fishing during the slack farming season. They also cure fish for winter use.
There are usually 100 to 200 households in each Xibe village, which is enclosed with a wall two or three miles long. A Xibe house usually consists of three to five rooms with a courtyard, in which flowers and fruit trees are planted. The gates of the houses mostly face south. Xibe women are good at paper cutting, and windows are often decorated with beautiful paper-cuts.
In the past, each Xibe family used to consist of three generations, sometimes as many as four or five generations, being influenced by the feudal system. Marriage was, in most cases, decided by parents. Women held a very low status and had no right to inherit property. The family was governed by the most senior member who had great authority. When the father was living, the sons were not allowed to break up the family and live apart. In family life, the old and the young each had his position according to a strict order of importance, and they paid attention to etiquette. "Hala," a council formed by male clan heads, handled major issues within the clans and enforced clan rules.
The Xibes think they are descendants of the ancient Xianbei people, and there are many versions of the origin of this ethnic group. Xianbei was a branch of the ancient Donghu ethnic group in northern China, roving as nomads over vast areas between the eastern slopes of the Great Xinggan Mountains in northeast China. In A.D. 89, the northern Xiongnus, defeated by the Han Dynasty troops, moved westward, abandoning their land to the Xianbeis. Between A.D. 158 and 167, the Xianbei people formed a powerful tribal alliance under chieftain Tan Shihuai. Between the third and sixth centuries, the Murong, Tuoba, Yuwen and other powerful tribes of Xianbei established political regimes in the Yellow River valley, where they mixed with Han people. But a small number of Xianbeis never strayed very far from their native land along the Chuoer, Nenjiang and Songhua rivers. They were probably the ancestors of the Xibe people.
Before the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Xibe ethnic group lived in a vast area centering around the present-day Fuyu County in Jilin Province and reaching as far as Jilin in the east, Hulunbuir in the west, the Nenjiang River in the north and the Liaohe River in the south. In the late 16th century, the Manchu nobility rose to power. In order to expand their territory and consolidate their rule, the Manchu rulers repeatedly tried to conquer neighboring tribes by offering them money, high position and marriage, and more often by armed force. Various Xibe tribes submitted themselves one after another to the authority of the Manchu rulers. By the end of the 17th century, the Xibe tribes in different areas had all been incorporated into the "eight banners" of Mongolia and Manchu. According to the "eight-banner system," soldiers in the banners worked the land in time of peace and went to battles during wartime, shouldering heavy military and labor services. In less than 150 years after the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was founded, the Xibe people were removed from their native land in northeast China to various other places as far as Yunnan and Xinjiang. The Qing court also gave different treatment to various Xibe tribes according to the time and way of their submission to show varying degrees of favor and create differences in classification among them.
In the mid-18th century, the Qing government quelled the rebellions in Junggar and other localities of Xinjiang, and moved Xibes and people of some other ethnic minorities from northeast China to Xinjiang to consolidate and reinforce the northwestern border defenses. For this garrisoning assignment which was to last 60 years, 1,016 Xibe officers and soldiers were dispatched, and they took along more than 2,000 family members. In one year and five months, the poorly-equipped Xibes scaled mountains and forded rivers, eating in the wind and sleeping in the dew, trekking across deserts and grasslands in Mongolia to the faraway northwestern border. With striking stamina and tenacity, they endured starvation, drought, diseases and difficulties brought about by Qing officials, big and small, who embezzled army provisions and goaded them on. This was how the Xibes came to live far apart in northeast and northwest China. The heavy toll taken by the trip sharply reduced the originally small Xibe population.
The ancient Xibe people lived by fishing and hunting generation after generation. By the mid-16th century, the social organizations of the Xibe ethnic group had shifted from blood relationship to geographical relationship. The internal links in the paternal consanguineous groups became very loose. In each Xibe village lived members with different surnames. Because of the low productivity, collective efforts were required in hunting and fishing. Members of the same village maintained relatively close links in productive labor, and basically abided by the principle of joint labor and equal distribution. By the mid-17th century, the "eight-banner system" had not only brought the Xibe people under the reign of the Qing Court, but also caused drastic changes in their economic life and social structure.
The Xibes are a hard-working and courageous people. Although geographical isolation has given rise to certain differences between the Xibes in northeast and northwest China in the course of history, they have all made contributions to developing and defending China's border areas. The Xibes in Xinjiang in particular have made great contribution to the development of farming and water conservancy in the Ili and Tacheng areas. Since the Qing court stopped supplying provisions to the Xibes after they reached Xinjiang, they had to reclaim wasteland and cut irrigation ditches without the help of the government. They first repaired an old canal and reclaimed 667 hectares of land. With the increase of population, the land became insufficient. Despite such difficulties as lack of grain and seeds and repeated natural disasters, the Xibe people were determined to turn the wasteland on the south bank of the Ili River into farmland to support themselves and benefit future generations. After many failures and setbacks, they succeeded in 1802 after six years of hard work in cutting on mountain cliffs a 200-km irrigation channel to draw water from the Ili River. With the completion of this project, several Xibe communities settled along the channel.
Later, the Xibe people constructed another canal to draw water from the upper reaches of the Ili River in the mid-19th century. In the 1870s, they cut two more irrigation channels, obtaining enough water for large-scale reclamation and farming. The local Kazak and Mongolian people learned a lot of farming techniques from the Xibes.
While building irrigation channels and opening up wasteland, the Xibes also joined soldiers from other ethnic groups in guarding the northwestern border. In the 1820s, more than 800 Xibe officers and soldiers fought alongside Qing government troops on a punitive expedition against rebels backed by British colonialists. In a decisive battle they wiped out the enemy forces and captured the rebel chief.
In 1876, the Qing government decided to recover Xinjiang from the Tsarist Russian invaders. The Xibes stored up army provisions in preparation for the expedition despite difficulties in life and production inflicted by the marauders and cooperated with the Qing troops in mopping up the Russian colonialists south of the Tianshan Mountain and recapturing Ili.
The Xibe people in Xinjiang staged an uprising in support of the Revolution of 1911 soon after it broke out. Those in northeast China joined the Han and Manchu people in anti-Japanese activities after that part of the country fell under Japanese rule in 1931. Many Xibes joined such patriotic forces as the Anti-Japanese Allied Forces, the Army of Volunteers and the Broad Sword Society. Quite a few Xibes joined the Chinese Communist Party and the Communist Youth League to fight for national liberation. In September 1944, struggle against Kuomintang rule broke out in the Ili, Tacheng, Altaic areas in Xinjiang. The Xibes there formed their own armed forces and fought along with other insurgents.
Before 1949, the feudal relations of production in Xibe society emerged and developed with the incorporation of the Xibes into the "Eight Banners" of the Manchus, under which the banner's land was owned "publicly" and managed by the banner office. Irrigated land was mostly distributed among Banner officers and soldiers in armor according to their ranks as their emolument. The rest was leased to peasants. This system of distribution from the very beginning deprived the Xibe people of the irrigated land which they had opened up with blood and sweat.
In the 1880s, the "banner land system" for the Xibe people in northeast China began to collapse, and the banner land quickly fell under the control of a few landlords. Although the banner system stipulated that the banner land could not be bought or sold, cruel feudal exploitation gradually reduced the Xibe people to dire poverty and deprived them of their land, and an increasing number of them became farmhands and tenants, leading a very miserable life.
Life After 1949
The founding of the People¡¯s Republic of China in 1949 ushered in a bright future for the Xibe people, who have since enjoyed political equality as one of the smaller ethnic minorities in China. In March 1954, the Qapqal Xibe Autonomous County was established on the site of Ningxi County in Xinjiang, where the Xibe people live in compact communities.
Since 1949, a series of social reforms have been carried out in the Xibe areas. Industrial and agricultural production has grown tremendously and people's living standards have gone up accordingly. The economic and cultural leaps in the Qapqal Autonomous County are a measure of the great success the Xibe people have achieved. As a result of their hard work, grain output in the county in 1981 was nearly four times the pre-liberation average, and the number of cattle three times as big. Small industrial enterprises including coal mines, farm machinery works, fur and food processing mills, which were non-existent before, have been built for the benefit of people's life. There are in the county 12 middle schools and 62 primary schools enrolling 91.3 per cent of the children. The Xibe people have always been more developed educationally. Many Xibe intellectuals know several languages and work as teachers, translators and publishers. Horse riding and archery are two favorite sports among the Xibe people. Since 1949, endemic diseases with a high mortality rate such as the Qapqal disease have been stamped out, and the population of the Xibe has been on the increase.