Profile Source: Copyright © Peoples of the Buddhist World, Paul Hattaway
The 1982 China language census listed 65,000 speakers of the Buriat language in China. In later censuses the Chinese authorities did not count the Buriat separately but included them under the Mongolian nationality. Large numbers of Buriat people also live in Russia and Mongolia but, because of historical and political influences, the Buriat in each country now speak different languages and should be considered three different groups from an ethnolinguistic standpoint. The Buriat in China are relatively recent arrivals, having migrated from Siberia to Inner Mongolia in 1917.
The Buriat in China inhabit grasslands in the Hulunbuir region of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. This remote area is located where the three nations of China, Russia and Mongolia meet. The Buriat originally consisted of several Mongolian people groups and clans who were recognized as five distinct tribes. The Buriat—who claim to be descended from either a grey bull or a white swan—still share many common traits and customs with the Mongols.
The Buriat language spoken in China is different from the Buriat in Mongolia and Russia. They reportedly 'speak a highly distinctive dialect of Mongolian'. The two main dialects of Buriat in China are known as New Bargu (47,000 speakers) and Old Bargu (14,000). Some sources suggest these two dialects are so different that they may represent distinct languages, but more research needs to be done.
The yokhor folk dance plays an important role in the lives of the Buriat. Young girls imitate the actions and movements of birds and animals. Most Buriat live in mud and wood houses, although some are still nomads.
Historically, most Buriat believed in shamanism, allowing mediums to control all interactions between the gods and their communities. To be a shaman, a person had to be seen to possess utkha, a mystical spiritual energy. In the 1500s, Buddhist missionaries from Tibet travelled into Mongolia and introduced Tibetan Buddhism. It soon grew in influence, and a mixture of Buddhist teachings and shamanist practices emerged. In the past century many Buriat in Russia and Mongolia became atheists under the Communist system, but a significant number of Buriat in China have continued to believe in Buddhism. A new religion called Burkanism has also appeared among them in recent years.
A few of the Buriat in China have recently become Christians, resulting from Chinese house church efforts originating in a revival in Heilongjiang Province. Just one city, Daqing, has more than 200,000 Chinese believers. They took responsibility for evangelizing westward into Inner Mongolia, boldly preaching the gospel and seeing thousands of people converted in many locations, including Hulun Buir. The new Buriat believers are hampered by a lack of Scriptures and other resources in their language.