China is one of the few countries in the world that can say it is a united country of different nationalities; indeed, there are 56 officially recognised ethnic groups that call China home. The Zhuang, the Han and the Manchus boast the highest populations but the smaller and less recognised groups deserve attention as well.
The Tu people of China are known as the Monguor in the west, and call themselves either Mongguer or Chahan Mongguer, which can be translated as the White Mongolians. This name may refer to the close relationship between the Monguor and the Mongolians. Indeed, popular legends among the Monguor state that they were Mongolian soldiers and during the Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368), founded by the Mongolians, they intermarried with the native Houers of what is now Huzhu County and formed their own ethnic group, absorbing Han, Tibetans, Mongolian and other neighboring tribes in the vicinity to create the Monguor people.
As on 1990, the Monguor population totaled 191,624 and can be found living in the north-eastern region of China. Their numbers are concentrated in the Minhe and Datong counties and the Huzhu Tu Autonomous County in the eastern Qinghai Province. Others live sparsely in the Tianzhu Tibetan Autonomous County in Gansu Province.
As with many different ethnic groups, the Monguor have their own language which is comprised of three dialects belonging to the Mongolian Austronesian of the Altaic Phylum. However, they do not have their own writing system and use Chinese and Tibetan characters, although in 1979 a new written system based on the Chinese Phonetic Alphabet was created for them.
The religion of the Monguor people is primarily Lamaism but shamanism was also highly practiced. The shamanism of the Monguors’ is based on the overpowering fear of evil spirits existing among the shamanists, as well as by the acknowledgment of their dependence on good spirits in all areas of life. According to one scholar, there might be reason to think “seriously of the thesis of the influence of Iranian dualism upon the shamanism of the Monguors and upon that encountered in west China in a contact zone of Tibetan and Chinese populations “.
The Monguor have a number of different funeral rites according to how a person has died. Those who have died a natural death (those who had been married, had children and died from a long-term illness) are placed in a coffin with a dragon painted on either side if a male, or two phoenixes if the deceased was female. The coffin is usually painted red but since the funeral takes place three days after death, the coffin is not always ready on time. If this is the case, then the coffin is covered with red-coloured paper that is glued to it.
Unnatural deaths are comprised of those who do not meet the above criteria as well as those who have died from drowning, suicide or a sudden or mysterious illness. The bodies of small children are taken to a remote area where their bodies are left to be eaten by birds. If the bodies are not eaten straight away, then they are taken to another area until they are. However, nowadays, these types of birds are rare and so the children are generally thrown into the Yellow River.
Pregnant women who have died are considered to be ‘unnatural’; their bodies are placed into a simple coffin and pushed into the Yellow River. Likewise, unmarried people are either thrown into the river or are burnt.
The Monguors played an important role during the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) when the Ming struggled against the Mongolians during the three centuries of their rule. For a long time, the Monguors suffered the ordeal of having to remain loyal to the Ming ruling house despite the atrocious and callous ravages against their country, and catastrophic attacks of brigands, hunger, disease, and poverty they suffered.
The Monguors have a cultural history and identity that is unique to them; their history shows they suffered many hardships throughout the centuries but they still remained loyal defenders of the Empire despite this.
Schram, Louis .M. J. (1961) The Monguors of the Kansu-Tibetan Frontier: Part III. Records of the Monguor Clans. History of the Monguors in Huangchung and the Chronicles of the Lu Family, Transactions of the American Philosophical Association, American Philosophical Association.