updated 12/16/2008 6:48:27 AM ET 2008-12-16T11:48:27

China has issued guidelines for ethnic harmony classes in schools, underscoring the importance Beijing places on national unity in a year marked by turmoil in its far flung minority regions.

Classes will begin in third grade and teach youngsters that China's 56 ethnic groups make up "one big family," according to the guidelines seen Tuesday on the Ministry of Education Web site.

Older students will learn about the importance of "protecting national sovereignty," while high schoolers will study what the document said were the advantages of the Communist Party's policies on ethnic groups as compared with those of other multiethnic countries.

Though more than 90 percent of China's population is ethnically Han, the remainder includes groups with distinctly different cultures: Tibetans in the far west, Uighurs in neighboring Xinjiang, and Zhuang in the mountainous southern region of Guangxi.

Simmering discontent over Han dominance erupted into violent riots in Tibet in March , while some 33 people were killed in attacks this summer in the Muslim territory of Xinjiang. The government blamed the turmoil on separatists who were seeking to split those regions from the rest of the country.

Though courses on China's ethnic groups have long been a part of the country's curriculum, the guidelines standardize the classes. Elementary and middle school students will receive 10 to 12 classroom hours of instruction on ethnic harmony every year, while high schools will receive eight to 14 hours.

More on China | Tibet | Uighurs

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