The Bonan ethnic group is one of China’s smallest ethnic groups. With a population of about 16,000, they mainly cluster in the area around Mt. Jishishan and Linxia County in southwest Gansu Province. Buddhist Bonans live in the neighboring Qinghai Province.
Judging from their legends, language features and customs, many of which were identical with those of the Mongolians, the Bonan minority seems to have taken shape after many years of interchanges during the Yuan and Ming (1271-1644) periods between Islamic Mongolians who settled down as garrison troops in Qinghai’s Tongren County, and the neighboring Hui, Han, Tibetan and Tu people. The Bonans used to live in three major villages in the Baoan region, situated along the banks of the Longwu River within the boundaries of Tongren County.
During the early years of the reign of Qing Emperor Tongzhi (1862-1874), they fled from the oppression of the feudal serf owners of the local Lamaist Longwu Monastery. After staying for a few years in Xunhua, they moved on into Gansu Province and finally settled down at the foot of Jishi Mountain in Dahejia and Liuji, Linxia County. Incidentally, they again formed themselves into three villages – Dadun, Ganmei, and Gaoli – which they referred to as the “tripartite village of Baoan” in remembrance of their roots.
The Bonan’s language belongs to the Mongolian branch of the Altaic language family. Both the Muslim Bonans in Gansu and their Buddhist cousins in Qinghai (officially classified as Monguor) have historically spoken the Bonan language. The Buddhist Bonans of Qinghai, however, speak a slightly different dialect than the Muslim Bonans of Gansu.
Due to frequent daily communication with the neighboring Han people, the Bonan language of Gansu has undergone Chinese influences. Whereas, the Bonan language of Qinghai has been influenced by Tibetan.
They don’t have a written script.
The Bonans mainly engage in agriculture, livestock raising, and handicraft. The forged broadswords they make, called “Bonan knives,” are delicate and durable, and enjoys a great reputation near and far. Production of these knives began about a hundred years ago.
Their staple diet consists of wheat, highland barley and corn, and the meat they only eat mutton and beef. The four distinctive foods are: kangguo steamed bun; green barley steamed stuffed bun; Hezhou steamed stuffed bun; pigeon meat porridge.
Bonans fast from pork, dog meat, horse meat, donkey meat, mule meat, snake meat, turkey and all fierce poultry. Eating the blood of animals and dead animals are forbidden. Bonans also don’t drink and smoke, etc.
The raiment of the Bonan ethnic group has been adopted from Mongolian, Tibetan, and Hui dress. Men usually wear a round-top cap made of black or white fabric, a white jacket with a black waistcoat on it. Women wear clothes in bright colors, with sleeves and sides of trousers bound in different colors. Married Bonan women wear black veils, while unmarried women wear green veils.
The Bonan people, mainly Muslims, practice Islam.
In daily life and social customs, they share the same living styles as the Hui and Dongxiang nationalities in the local area. Weddings are usually held on Fridays, and the new couple stays with the groom’s parents. During the first three days after the wedding, the bride can only eat the food cooked by her parents to show gratitude to her parents for raising her.
The Bonan ethnic group has a rich store of folk tales and ballads transmitted orally. Bonan people are skilled in singing and dancing; the vast majority of people can sing the folk song “Bonan Flower.” Their dance has absorbed some characteristics of Tibetan dance, the rhythm of the action is bright, lively and vigorous. Besides, Bonan men like to play silk-and-bamboo music and the women are good at paper cutting.
The main festivals of the Bonan people include the Corban Festival, the Almsgiving Festival, and the Kaizhai Festival. They also celebrate the traditional Chinese festivals, such as Spring Festival.