Dimitris Stamatios | March 5, 2023
The Han (pinyin: hànzú or hànrén) are the majority ethnic group in China-the largest ethnic group in the world by number of individuals-and make up about 92 percent of China”s population and 20.52 percent of the world”s entire population.
The term “Han” refers to the majority ethnic group of China (as well as the dynasty that ruled China from 202 B.C. to 220 A.D.), those who in Western languages are generically identified as “Chinese.” In contrast to the Western belief that the Han are a homogeneous ethnic group, there are considerable genetic, linguistic, cultural, and social differences among the various subgroups of the Han ethnic group. Originating in the Great Plain of North China, the Han have over the centuries assimilated various non-Han peoples who inhabited the rest of the territory that makes up present-day China, forming an ethnic group of astonishing linguistic and cultural variety.
The locution “Han Chinese” is used to distinguish the majority ethnic group from the non-Han ethnic minority groups within China itself. The name “Han” is derived from the Han Dynasty that succeeded the short-lived Qin Dynasty, which was credited with unifying the Chinese territory and from which the name “China” is derived instead. The period of the Zhou Dynasty, which preceded the Qin Dynasty, was a period of turbulence, in which rivalries between the various tribes gave rise to the so-called “Warring States Period,” all of which were later absorbed into the Qin Kingdom. It was precisely during the reign of the Qin Dynasty and the subsequent Han Dynasty that the various Chinese tribes began to experience a feeling that united them, as descendants of a single ethnic group, and distinguished them from the “barbarians” around them. Indeed, the Han Dynasty represents one of the peaks in Chinese civilization, capable of imposing its power as far as Central Asia and northeast Asia.
Many Chinese use the expression “Han people” (Hànrén) to refer to themselves. In the West, the locution “Han Chinese” is often improperly used as a synonym for “Chinese” or “Chinese nationality,” without any regard for the other 55 ethnic minority groups in the territory and recognized as citizens by the state. In the Chinese language, on the other hand, there is no such confusion, as the term “Chinese” in the political sense (of citizenship) is rendered by the locution Zhongguó rén (中國人, literally “people of the Middle Kingdom,” i.e., “citizens of China”) and the term “Chinese” in the sense of belonging to Chinese civilization, history, and culture is rendered by the locution Zhonghua minzu (中華民族, “ethnicity of the Middle Kingdom”). Other locutions the Chinese use to refer to themselves as a civilization, as a sign of their ethnic identity, are “Descendants of the Dragon” and “Descendants of Huangdi and Yandi” (the two divine ancestors of the Han).
Another term is in use among the southern Chinese, which varies according to the different languages spoken in those provinces, such as Cantonese, Hakka, and Minnan, but basically means the same thing. The term is Tángrén (唐人, literally “Tang people”) and is derived from another Chinese dynasty, the Tang Dynasty, which represents another zenith in China”s civilization, so much so that the expression survives in many Chinese indications of Western Chinatowns, often known as 唐人街 Tángrén Jiē (“Tang people”s street”), due to the fact that the majority of Chinese immigrants in the West come from southern China.
The history of the Han Chinese ethnic group is inextricably linked with that of China. The Han Chinese trace their roots to the time of the Huaxia civilization, which lived along the Yellow River in northern China itself. The famous Chinese historian Sima Qian, in his monumental historical work Shiji, dates the reign of the Yellow Emperor, the legendary ancestor of the Han Chinese, to the period between 2698 and 2599 BCE. Although the study of this period is complicated by the lack of written records, the discovery of several archaeological sites has made it possible to identify a succession of Neolithic cultures along the Yellow River. Along the middle reaches of the river developed the Yangshao civilization (from 5000 B.C. to 3000 B.C.) and the Longshan civilization (from 3000 B.C. to 2000 B.C. ), while along the lower reaches of the river were the Qingliangang civilization (5400 BC to 4000 BC), the Dawenkou civilization (4300 BC to 2500 BC), the Longshan civilization (2500 BC to 2000 BC), and the Yueshi civilization.
The first dynasty to be described in Chinese annals is the Xia Dynasty, during a legendary period for which very little archaeological evidence exists. They were overwhelmed by peoples from the west, who gave rise to the Shang Dynasty (these are characters engraved on oracular bones used by oracles for divination. Since these characters are already very well delineated, this means that Chinese writing had already developed in earlier eras.
The Shang were later conquered by the Zhou people, who had already formed a nation along the Yellow River around the second millennium BCE. The Zhou Dynasty took over the legacy of the Shang Dynasty. Sharing their language and culture, they extended their domains to the north far beyond the Yangtze River. Through conquests and colonization, much of this area was subjected to the process of sinization and the proto-Han culture extended southward. Subsequently, the Zhou Empire began to fragment resulting in a series of independent states.
This period is traditionally divided into two parts, the Period of Springs and Autumns and the Period of Fighting Kingdoms. It was a period of important cultural and philosophical developments known as the Hundred Schools of Thought, of which the teachings of Confucianism and Daoism remain.
With millennia of history behind it, Chinese culture is part of one of the world”s oldest and most complex civilizations. The Han believe themselves to be descendants of common ancestors, identified in the mythical figures of the Yellow Emperor and Emperor Yan, who probably lived thousands of years ago. Hence the custom of referring to themselves as the “Descendants of Emperor Yan and the Yellow Emperor” (simplified Chinese: 炎黄子孙), a locution not without special meanings, especially in the politically tense climate that exists between China and Taiwan.
Notable was the influence of Confucianism on Chinese culture. In addition to largely shaping its thought, Confucianism was the official philosophy of the empire. Moreover, mastery of Confucian texts was the main selection criterion adopted for entry into the imperial bureaucracy.
All Han Chinese speak one of several forms of the Chinese language. In fact, one of the names by which the Chinese language is known is hanyu, literally “Han language.” Similarly, Chinese characters are called hanzi or “han characters.”
Although there are many dialects, Han ethnic identity is found in the written language, which always uses the same basic characters, regardless of local variations. This structure is traced back to the Qin Dynasty, which unified the various forms of writing existing at the time. For millennia the standard written language was classical literary Chinese, which used a vocabulary and grammar substantially different from those of the various forms of spoken Chinese.
Since the early 20th century, a standard pronunciation has been adopted for the written Chinese language. This standard pronunciation is based on the pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese, a family of dialects spoken by the majority of the Chinese population. This allows inhabitants of different regions, who are often unable to understand each other”s spoken languages, to use a common parlance as well as a common written language.
Chinese names generally consist of two or three syllables, with the surname preceding the first name. Surnames are usually composed of only one character, although there are also surnames-not very common-which consist of two or more syllables. This is, for example, the case with the surnames Zhuge (诸葛), Sima (司马), and Ouyang (欧阳). Names are composed of one or two syllables.
Between 4,000 and 6,000 surnames exist in China, but about 1,000 are the most commonly used. According to a study by Chinese historian Li Dongming (李栋明), published under the title of “Surnames” in East in Dongfang Magazine (东方杂志) in 1977, the most common surnames are:
These are the ten most common surnames, identifying about 40 percent of the world”s Chinese.
Other surnames are:
identifying more than 10 percent of Chinese people.
The following surnames occur in percentages around 10%:
Less prevalent are:
The Han have long abandoned the use of traditional clothes, and wear Western-style clothing. The use of traditional clothes takes place only in religious and ceremonial events. For example, Taoist priests wear robes proper to Han Dynasty scholars.
The traditional female dress still worn by Chinese women during important occasions such as banquets and Chinese New Year is the qipao, known in the West as the “china dress.” Ironically, the qipao is not a traditional Han dress. It originated from a modification to the traditional Manchurian costume introduced during the Qing Dynasty. The Qing Dynasty, which ruled China from 1644 to 1912, was in fact a non-Han dynasty, but an ethnic Manchu dynasty.
Contributions to humanity
The Han Chinese played a leading role in the development of the arts, sciences, philosophy and mathematics. In antiquity, Chinese technological innovations consisted of the construction of seismographs, matches, the invention of paper, the nonio caliber, the dry dock, the piston, cast iron, the iron plow, the seeder, the wheelbarrow, suspension bridges, the parachute, the use of natural gas as fuel, the invention of the magnetic compass, Geographical Maps, the propeller, the printing press, gunpowder, and the crossbow. In addition, Chinese astronomers were among the first to make observations of a supernova.
Printing, paper, the compass and gunpowder are considered by Chinese culture to be the Four Great Inventions of ancient China.
Chinese art, philosophy, and literature have millennia of history behind them. Several sites such as the Great Wall of China and the Terracotta Army are among the World Heritage Sites. Since the inception of the program in 2001, UNESCO has included many aspects of Chinese culture among the Oral and Intangible World Heritage Sites.
Throughout history successive Chinese states have exerted a profound influence on the art, music, and religion of neighboring states, as well as on their customs of food, dress, philosophy and language, forms of government, and culture in general.
Han Chinese constitute the majority ethnic group in China, while tens of millions of Chinese diaspora members have spread to various states, bringing their own contributions.
One of the main factors favoring Han unity, despite China”s enormous dialectal variety, is the written language. The standardization of Chinese characters is due to Qin Shi Huangdi, the founder of the Qin Dynasty, who unified all the various forms of writing existing at the time. For thousands of years, Classical Chinese has been used for the written language. Its vocabulary and grammatical structure varied greatly from those of the spoken language. Since the 20th century, the standard used for the written language has been based on vernacular Chinese, itself based on the Beijing dialect, rather than other dialects. An exception, however, is the informal practice of using written Cantonese.
Despite the fact that residents of different provinces are not always able to understand each other”s dialects, communication is facilitated by the use of a common form of writing. This has greatly slowed the development of dialect literature, in the few areas where it is present.
One of the few dialects that has managed to differ from the common script is written Cantonese, particularly the variant spoken in Hong Kong. Given the prevalence of Han literature and writing, local languages have become-with the sole exception of Xinjiang Province-neither a vehicle for localism nor a means of manifesting feelings of belonging to one”s province.
According to the variant of Chinese nationalist theory embraced by the People”s Republic of China, China is composed of multiple ethnic groups, and all members of the various ethnic groups and sub-ethnicities belong to a single nationality called Zhonghua minzu (中华民族). Some unofficial interpretations take a diametrically opposite view, identifying the true Chinese in the Han alone, and thus establishing an equivalence between Chinese nationalism and Han nationalism.
Both cultural and linguistic differences exist among the Han. The differences among the linguistic and regional sub-groups of Han Chinese are as great as those that exist among the various peoples of Europe. There are many variants of spoken Chinese, which are generally considered to be as many dialects of Chinese, although in reality the differences between them are equal to the differences that exist among the languages of Europe. Equally great are the cultural differences (cuisine, customs and traditions). Modern history provides many examples of conflicts-some of them resulting in small regional wars-between language and regional groups. Therefore, it is difficult to speak of homogeneity among the Han.
The existence of these differences has not produced exclusive ethnic identities, and differences in religion or political affiliation have not reinforced regional differences. Rather, there has existed a tendency in both Chinese thought and practice to downplay differences among the Han, and to regard them as minor and superficial factors.
The definition of Han identity has changed through history. Before the 20th century, some Chinese-speaking ethnic groups, such as the Hakka and Tanka, were not considered Han Chinese, while some non-Chinese-speaking ethnic groups, such as the Zhuang were considered Han. Today the Hui are considered to belong to a different ethnic group, although nothing distinguishes them from the Han except for their belief in Islam. The differences in language, customs and culture between two Han living in different provinces can be much greater than the differences between a Han and a Hui living in the same province.
During the Qing Dynasty, Han Chinese who became members of the Eight Flags military system were considered Manchus, while nationalists attempting to overthrow the Qing monarchy emphasized their Han identity in contrast to that of the Manchu rulers.
After its founding, the Republic of China recognized five major ethnic groups, the Han, Hui, Mongolian, Manchu, and Tibetan. Currently, the People”s Republic of China recognizes the existence of fifty-six ethnic groups.
Genetic evidence of diversity among han
Southern Han Chinese residing south of the Chang Jiang (Hubei and Shanghai) are more similar to residents of the northern provinces than to Chinese residing in the far southern parts of China. There are strong differences in mitochondrial DNA-that is, the part of the DNA inherited from the maternal side-between northern and southern Han Chinese in China. These differences become greater the further south and southeast the population samples examined are located.
This diversification makes the study of Han ethnicity of great interest to researchers in various disciplines, particularly anthropology and human biology. Recent genetic studies have shown the existence of particularly strong genetic differences between the Han Chinese of the coastal areas of southern China and inland areas (Guangdong, Guangxi, Fujian, Guizhou, Yunnan, Hainan, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan) and the Han of the rest of China. The line of distinction lies much further south than the Huai River or the Chang Jiang, which are conventionally used as regional boundaries.
According to recent scientific research conducted both in China and among the diaspora, northern Han Chinese are genetically different from people in southern China, including Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou, Yunnan, Fujian, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and Hainan. In fact, it has been said that the southern Han Chinese are more genetically similar to groups such as the Vietnamese, while the northern Han Chinese are closer to the Mongols than the southern Chinese. This is because southern China is predominantly mountainous, and so historically migration from these areas has been difficult, and much less than the migration that has occurred from other parts of China. There are also differences between the dialects and customs of these groups, even though they are culturally related.
Han diversity and the history of China
Historical sources indicate that the Han would have been descendants of the ancient Huaxia tribe, originally from northern China. Over the course of two millennia, Han culture (the language and its associated culture) spread to southern China, a region originally populated by indigenous peoples that included groups of Dai language, Austroasiatic languages, and Hmong-mien languages.
In the course of its expansion into the Yellow River basin, Huaxia culture absorbed several ethnic groups, which were later identified as Chinese because of their adoption of the Han language (and its variants) and Han customs. For example, during the Shang Dynasty, people from the Wu area along the Chang Jiang Delta were considered “barbarian” tribes. They spoke an almost certainly non-Chinese language, and were described as discreetly dressed and tattooed. During the Tang Dynasty this area was part of the core of Han civilization, and today it is one of the most densely populated areas with the most dynamic economic development-as well as the territory of present-day Shanghai, one of China”s largest cities.
Residents in the Wu area speak Wu dialects, which are part of the language family of Chinese. Although Wu speakers are not understood by speakers of other Chinese dialects, they do not consider themselves as a separate ethnic group. The Wu area is just one example of the cultural absorption processes that have contributed to the enrichment of the culture and language of the Han ethnic group. Many southern Han Chinese, such as those from the Wu area, retain their Han identity and ancestry in their surnames. They are therefore certain to be descended from the Huaxia tribes as a result of the migrations that took place after the fall of the Song Dynasty. It is said, however, that the number of native Yue is no less-and perhaps even more-than the Han who migrated beyond the Chang Jiang.
- Han Chinese
- ^ Of the 710,000 Chinese nationals living in Korea in 2016, 500,000 are ethnic Koreans.
- ^ Overseas Chinese include both Han and non-Han people (see overseas Chinese for related references).
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