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The Han Chinese

The Han People

Han Chinese (Simplified Chinese: 汉族 or 汉人; Traditional Chinese: 漢族 or 漢人; Pinyin: hànzú or hànrén) are an ethnic group indigenous to China and the largest single human ethnic group in the world.

Han Chinese constitute about 92 percent of the population of the People's Republic of China and about 19 percent of the entire global human population. There is substantial genetic, linguistic, cultural and social diversity between its various subgroups, mainly due to thousands of years of regionalized assimilation of various ethnic groups and tribes in China. The Han Chinese are a subset of the Chinese nation (Zhonghua minzu). An alternate name that many Chinese peoples use to refer to themselves is "Descendants of the Dragon." Han Chinese are traditionally symbolized by the color red.

Terms and Etymology

The name Han comes from the Han Dynasty, which succeeded the short-lived Qin Dynasty that united China. Whether the idea of Han Chinese is recent or not is a controversial topic in China studies. Scholars such as Ho Ping-Ti argue that the concept of a Han ethnicity is an ancient one, dating from the Han Dynasty itself. By contrast, scholars such as Evelyn Rawski have argued that the concept of Han Chinese is a relatively recent one, and was only invented in the late 19th and early 20th century by scholars such as Liang Qichao who were influenced by European concepts of race and ethnicity.

In addition, the Han Dynasty is considered a high point in Chinese civilization, able to expand its power and influences to Central and Northeast Asia, and rivaled the Roman Empire in population and territory.

In English, the Han Chinese are often, and in the view of many Chinese incorrectly, referred to as simply "Chinese". Whether or not the use of the term Chinese correctly or incorrectly refers only to Han Chinese often becomes heated as the restriction of the term Chinese to Han Chinese can be viewed as calling into question the legitimacy of Chinese rule over non-Han areas.

Amongst some southern Han Chinese, a different term exists within various languages like Cantonese, Hakka and Minnan – Tángrén (唐人, literally "the people of Tang"). This term derives from another Chinese dynasty, the Tang Dynasty, which is regarded as another zenith of Chinese civilization. The term survives in one of the Chinese names for Chinatown: 唐人街 (Pinyin: Tángrénjiē); literally meaning "Street of the people of Tang".

Another term commonly used by Overseas Chinese is Huaren (Simplified Chinese: 华人; Traditional Chinese: 華人; Pinyin: huárén), derived from Zhonghua (Simplified Chinese: 中华; Traditional Chinese: 中華; Pinyin: zhōnghuá), a literary name for China. The usual translation is "ethnic Chinese". The term refers to "Chinese" as a cultural and ethnic affiliation and is inclusive of both Chinese in China and persons of Chinese descent residing abroad.

Cultural Diversity

In addition to a diversity of spoken language, there are also regional differences in culture among Han Chinese. For example, China's cuisine varies from Sichuan's famously spicy food to Guangdong's Dim Sum and fresh seafood. However, ethnic unity still exists between these two groups because of common cultural, behavioural, linguistic, and religious practices.

According to recent scientific studies, there are slight genetic differences throughout China. Due to several waves of immigration from Northern China to Southern China in China's history, there are strong genetic similarities in the Y chromosome between Southern and Northern Chinese males. However, the mitochondrial DNA of Han Chinese increases in diversity as one looks from Northern to Southern China, which suggests that many male migrants from northern China married with women from local peoples after arriving in Guangdong, Fujian, and other regions of Southern China. As this mixing process continued and more Han people migrated south, the people in Southern China became Sinicized and identified themselves as Han.

Historical documentation indicates that the Han were descended from the ancient Huaxia tribes of northern China. During the past two millennia, the Han culture (that is, the language and its associated culture) extended into southern China, a region originally inhabited by the southern natives, including those speaking Dai, Austro-Asiatic and Hmong-Mien languages. As Huaxia culture spread from its heartland in the Yellow River basin, it absorbed many distinct ethnic groups which then came to be identified as Han Chinese, as these groups adopted Han language (or variations of it) and customs.

For example, during the Shang Dynasty, people of the Wu area, in the Yangtze River Delta, were considered a "barbarian" tribe. They spoke a distinct language that was almost certainly non-Chinese, and were described as being scantily dressed and tattooed. By the Tang Dynasty, however, this area had become part of the Han Chinese heartland, and is today the most densely populated and strongest performing economic region in China, the site of China's largest city Shanghai. The people in the Wu area today speak the Wu dialects, which are part of the Chinese language family but are mutually unintelligible with other Chinese languages/dialects, and do not see themselves as a separate ethnic group. The Wu area is one example of many involving the absorption of different cultural groups in contributing toward the diversity of culture and language throughout the Han Chinese ethnic group.


Han Chinese speak various forms of the Chinese language; one of the names of the language group is Hanyu (Traditional Chinese: 漢語; Simplified Chinese: 汉语), literally the "Han language". Similarly, Chinese characters, used to write the language, are called Hanzi (Traditional Chinese: 漢字; Simplified Chinese: 汉字), or "Han characters."

Despite the existence of many dialects of Chinese spoken languages, one factor in Han ethnic unity is the Chinese written language. This unity is credited to the Qin dynasty which unified the various forms of writing that existed in China at that time. For thousands of years, Literary Chinese was used as the standard written format, which used vocabulary and grammar significantly different from the various forms of spoken Chinese. Since the twentieth century, written Chinese has been usually vernacular Chinese, which is largely based upon dialects of Mandarin, and not the local dialect of the writer (with the exception of the use of written Cantonese). Thus, although the residents of different regions would not necessarily understand each other's speech, they would be able to understand each other's writing.

Chinese Names
Chinese names are typically two or three syllables in length, with the surname preceding the Chinese given name. Surnames are typically one character in length, though a few uncommon surnames are two or more syllables long, while given names are one or two syllables long.

There are 4000 to 6000 surnames in China, but only around 1000 surnames are popularly used. The common Han surnames are:

Top 10 surnames, which together account for about 40% of Chinese people in the world, (transcriptions in Pinyin:
Li 李, Wang 王, Zhang 張/张, Zhao 趙/赵, Chen 陳/陈, Yang 楊/杨, Wu 吳/吴, Liu 劉/刘, Huang 黃/黄, Zhou 周

The 11th to 20th common surnames, which together account for more than 10% of Chinese people in the world:
Xu 徐, Zhu 朱, Lin 林, Sun 孫/孙, Ma 馬/马, Gao 高, Hu 胡, Zheng 鄭/郑, Guo 郭, Xiao 蕭/萧

The 21st to 30th common surnames, which together account for about 10% of Chinese people in the world:
Xie 謝/谢, He 何, Xu 許/许, Song 宋, Shen 沈, Luo 羅/罗, Han 韓/韩, Deng 鄧/邓, Liang 梁, Ye 葉/叶

The next 15 common surnames, which together account for about 10% of Chinese people in the world:
Fang 方, Cui 崔, Cheng 程、Pan 潘, Cao 曹, Feng 馮/冯, Wang 汪, Cai 蔡, Yuan 袁, Lu 盧/卢, Tang 唐, Qian 錢/钱, Du 杜, Peng 彭, Lu 陸/陆
Prehistory and the Huaxia

The history of the Han Chinese ethnic group is closely tied to that of China. Han Chinese trace their ancestry back to the Huaxia, people who lived along the Yellow River in northern China. The famous Chinese historian Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian dates the reign of the Yellow Emperor, the legendary ancestor of Han Chinese, to 2698 BCE to 2599 BCE. Although study of this period of history is complicated by lack of historical records, discovery of archaeological sites have identified a succession of Neolithic cultures along the Yellow River. Along the central reaches of the Yellow River were the Jiahu culture (7000 BCE to 6600 BCE), Yangshao culture (5000 BCE to 3000 BCE) and Longshan culture (3000 BCE to 2000 BCE). Along the lower reaches of the river were the Qingliangang culture (5400 BCE to 4000 BCE), the Dawenkou culture (4300 BCE to 2500 BCE), the Longshan culture (2500 BCE to 2000 BCE), and the Yueshi culture.

The first dynasty to be described in Chinese historical records is the Xia Dynasty, a legendary period for which scant archaeological evidence exists. They were overthrown by peoples from the east, who formed the Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 BCE). Some of the earliest examples of Chinese writing date back to this period, from characters inscribed on oracle bone divination. The Shang were eventually overthrown by the people of Zhou, which had emerged as a state along the Yellow River sometime during the 2nd millennium BC.

The Zhou Dynasty was the successor to Shang. Sharing the language and culture of the Shang people, they extended their reach to encompass much of the area north of the Yangtze River. Through conquest and colonization, much of this area came under the influence of sinicization and the proto-Han Chinese culture extended south. However, the power of the Zhou kings fragmented, and many independent states emerged. This period is traditionally divided into two parts, the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period. This period was an era of major cultural and philosophical development known as the Hundred Schools of Thought. Among the most important surviving philosophies from this era are the teachings of Confucianism and Taoism.

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