Profile Source: Copyright © Operation China, Paul Hattaway
The Buddhist Bonan in Tongren consider themselves a separate people from the Muslim Bonan in Gansu. Their languages are now also different. Using the definition of a people group as "a significantly large ethnic or sociological grouping of individuals who perceive themselves to have a common affinity for one another," the Tongren Bonan definitely qualify as a distinct people group.
The Tongren Bonan are the descendants of Mongolian troops who were stationed in the region during the Mongolian world empire of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. After the collapse of Mongol rule in 1368, most soldiers retreated to Mongolia, but a few remained behind. After centuries of intermingling with other nationalities, they became a distinct group called the Bonan.
The Tongren Bonan observe all Tibetan festivals and have culturally become almost indistinguishable from the Tibetans. "Those Bonans who retained their Buddhist faith became strongly acculturated to their neighbors ... as a result, only a small number of persons remain in Tongren who from an ethno-linguistic point of view can still be considered Bonan."
The Tongren Bonan are Tibetan Buddhists. In the early nineteenth century, a portion of the Bonan converted to Islam. This caused deep friction among the two Bonan groups. The Muslim Bonan were forced to migrate into Gansu Province where they remain to this day.
The first foreign missionaries among the Tongren Bonan were workers affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance. They commenced work in Bao'an Township around 1910. Despite being in the Bonan neighborhood, the missionaries' primary focus was on the Tibetans, not the Bonan. By 1922 the mission was closed due to lack of workers. It opened again, but after years of slow and unfruitful progress the work gravitated towards the more receptive Han Chinese. Today, there are no known Christians among the Tongren Bonan.