Han Chinese: Definition, Culture & People

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Han Chinese are one of the largest ethnic groups in the world. In this lesson, we are going to talk about Han Chinese history and culture, and see what it means to be Han Chinese today.

Han Chinese

When we talk about the people of China, we often just use the term Chinese. We also use that term to describe a particularly tasty cuisine, a zodiac-based astrology system, and a language. However, this may be a bit of an oversimplification. While all people of China are nationally Chinese, or the people of the Chinese nation that they call Zhonghua minzu, not all people are ethnically Chinese. In fact, China is made up of 56 distinct ethnic groups.

So, which group are the ones we usually just refer to as Chinese? At roughly 92% of the total population, the vast ethnic majority of China are people we call the Han Chinese. Now, keep in mind that China has a population of almost 1.4 billion people. At 92% of the total population, this means that there are over one billion Han Chinese people in China alone, making them one of the largest (if not the largest) ethnic groups in the world.

Han Chinese people in traditional wear.
Han Chinese

Origins of the Han Chinese

So, where do the Han come from? Genetically speaking, researchers place the beginning of the Han ethnic group to roughly 3,000 years ago in Central China. The ancestors of the Han people, called today the Huaxia culture, were among the first people in China to develop agriculture and settled societies. They lived along the Yellow River in northern China, a river that maintained practical and spiritual significance in Chinese culture throughout Chinese history.

The term Han itself, however, first became significant around 206 BCE. Up until this point, what is now China was mostly ruled by a series of smaller kingdoms. There was only one true imperial dynasty that unified all of China before this, called the Qin. As the Qin dynasty fell, two rebels from the Han region of Central China started fighting for power. One, named Liu Bang, emerged victorious and assumed the title of emperor. History remembers him as Emperor Gaozu, founder of the Han dynasty.

The Han dynasty would go on to rule China for nearly another 400 years. This was a period of great imperial expansion, as nearly all of modern China was unified by the Han. It is also remembered as a golden age, during which many traditional Chinese beliefs, customs, and traditions were established. In fact, it was under the Han that the already ancient writings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius were made the state doctrine of China and formally codified into Confucianism.

Due to the power of the empire, Han culture spread across China, as did the Han people. So, that's where the term Han Chinese comes from. Not all Han Chinese people directly trace their lineage back to Central China, but all Han do trace their cultural and ethnic heritage to the rise and glory of the Han dynasty.

The Han dynasty was one of the first to unify almost all of China.
Han dynasty

Han Chinese Culture

Today, the Han Chinese make up almost 20% of the world's population, so it's no surprise that their culture has had some impacts. In fact, some linguists have suggested that the Chinese language will be the international standard in the future. We'll see if that's true or not, but just in case, here's a breakdown.

The Han Chinese language, often just called the Han language, is character based. Each character represents a syllable, which can either be a single word or part of a multi-syllabic word. So, it's not based on individual letters, the way the Latin alphabet is. Whereas the word yes is three letters in the Latin alphabet, it's only one syllable, so could be represented by a single character for that sound.

Now, Chinese as a language is still only a broad category. Technically, the Han Chinese speak Chinese through one of seven primary dialects, which are not mutually intelligible. The most common is Mandarin, the standard dialect of the government. The others -- Wu, Xiang, Gan, Min, Cantonese, and Hakka -- are spoken throughout China, but not as widely. The written form of Mandarin Chinese does represent a system that can be used by all of the language's diverse dialects.

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