James Leibold is a senior lecturer in politics and Asian studies at La Trobe University in Australia, and is currently based in Beijing. His research has focused on the Chinese government’s policies toward ethnic minorities and their effects on people’s daily lives. He recently returned from a trip to the western region of Xinjiang, the nominally autonomous homeland of China’s ethnic Uighurs, a mostly Sunni Muslim, Turkic-speaking people. In recent years, government restraints on cultural and religious expression have bred resentment in Xinjiang that has sometimes erupted in deadly violence.
Q. When did China begin classifying people according to ethnicity?
A. The distinction of groups by language and culture started in the imperial era. More recent attempts to “scientifically” classify people began with foreign adventurers and naturalists who traveled around southern China during the Republican period, and this gets picked up in the People’s Republic of China and mixed with Marxist taxonomies.[Source]