The colorful Xibe people are one of China’s remotest and least-known minority peoples. For a start, they only number 172,847 people (1990 census) - which in Chinese terms is not very much, the equivalent of a small town. Then visiting the Xibe presents real problems - one group dwell in rural northeast China in Liaoning province just east of the great city of Shenyang. However, the other main grouping live in an inaccessible area on the far borders of Xinjiang, over 2,000 miles to the west! Xibe is pronounced somewhat like Sheba (as in Queen of...).
About 50,000 Xibe live in Liaoning in the Shenyang and Kaiyuan areas. 30,000 live in the Chabucha’er Xibe Autonomous County and other areas near Yining in northern Xinjiang. The remainder are scattered in small areas of Jilin, Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang.
The fascinating story of the Xibe and how they became so widely separated is not easily unravelled. Our story begins nearly two thousand years ago during the time of the great Han dynasty. The Great Wall had already been built to keep out various tribes such as the Huns. At that time there lived in the mountains of northeast China a tribe called the Xianbei.
In 89AD the Han emperor defeated the Huns who were driven westward (they took three centuries to reach Europe and terrified the decaying Roman Empire under their great leader Attila). The Xianbei, who are believed to be the ancestors of the Xibe, seized their opportunity and occupied the retreating Huns’ territory. Over the next few centuries their power expanded and they set up a minor dynasty in the Yellow River area. Gradually through trade and intermarriage they were assimilated by the Han Chinese. But a minority still remained in the woods and mountains of northeast China, their original homeland.
A thousand years passed. In the late sixteenth century a new power arose in northeast China, threatening the decadent Chinese Ming dynasty. These were the Manchus, close cousins racially and linguistically of the Xianbei. They seized control of all northeast China, the Xianbei included, and in 1644 conquered China itself, establishing the Qing (Ch’ing) dynasty which lasted nearly three hundred years. In the early years of the great Qing Emperor Kangxi (1662-1722) (who, by the way, showed himself very favorable to Christianity and welcomed the Jesuit scholars to his court) the Xibe were amalgamated under the Manchu military Banner system, and moved east of Shenyang in Liaoning province. They largely abandoned their original hunting and fishing for agriculture.
However, under the reign of the Emperor Qianlong (1736-95), one thousand Xibe soldiers and officials were selected from the tribe and sent, together with 3,000 of their family members and dependents to the remote Yili border area of Xinjiang. This was part of the Qing process of "pacification" of the turbulent Moslem areas of Xinjiang. By 1760 most of Xinjiang had come under Chinese control. It was turned into a military region with a Manchu military governor stationed at Yili with 60,000 troops. The Xibe became part of this huge force of troops providing garrisons for the major cities of the region. And there they have remained ever since, long after the fall of the Qing dynasty itself in 1911. On the southern bank of the Yili river they created a fertile oasis.
The Xibe people are part of the great Tungusic group of peoples, and are thus close cousins of the Manchus and the Mongols. Their language is Altaic and very closely related to Manchu. Manchu itself is now virtually extinct. However, the Xibe still use their own language to some extent. In 1947 Xibe scholars reformed their written language, adding some new letters, and this written script is still used in the Xibe Autonomous County. However, in Xinjiang with its medley of different races, the Xibe are necessarily multi-lingual. Most speak Chinese and many also know Uyghur and Kazak.
In the past Xibe society was patriarchal with three or even five generations all living together. Marriage was arranged by the parents, and women had a very low status with no right of inheritance. Great attention was paid to tradition and to ceremonies; all important matters were decided by a council of the male heads of the clan called the "kala." Because of their status as soldiers, boys were trained in horsemanship, archery and wrestling from their early years. Women were especially skilled in making decorative paper-cuts.
The Xibe have always placed a high stress on education. This is unusual among many Chinese minority people, who, for various reasons, often have a high level of illiteracy. More than 5,000 have received university-level education. Only 6.2% of their population over the age of 15 are classified as illiterate or semi-illiterate (compared to 63% of the Lisu, 50% of the Yi and 27% of the Uyghur, for example.) Under the Qing they traditionally translated diplomatic documents from Manchu, Mongol and Uyghur and now they have a large class of intellectuals. So today they are sometimes nicknamed "the tribe of translators."
The religion of the Xibe is animistic. In northeast China some are still shamanistic. In Xinjiang a minority follow Lama Buddhism. Most worship their ancestors and sweep their graves annually. The Xibe’s most important deities include the god of the grain and "Mother Xili." This latter is a goddess of fertility and a protectress of the home.
So far as is known the Xibe have never heard the gospel as a people group. There is no church among the Xibe and there are no known Christians.