The Han Chinese---the ethnic group that embraces Mandarin-, Shanghai- and Cantonese-speaking Chinese---make up 92 percent of the population of China, which adds up to over one billion people. The Han Chinese hail from China's Northeast Plain and the Yangtze and Yellow river valleys. Today they are scattered all over the country and many non-Han Chinese feel that their homelands are being overrun by them. Most of the population of Taiwan and Singapore and most of the Chinese found elsewhere in the world are Han Chinese.

Han population in China: 91.6474 percent of the total population; 1,220,844,520 in 2010 according to the 2010 Chinese census; 1,139,773,008 in 2000 according to the 2000 Chinese census; 1,042,482,187 in 1990 according to the 1990 Chinese census. [Sources: People’s Republic of China censuses, Wikipedia]

The Han Chinese created present day China in many cases by conquering territory and overpowering local tribes by sheer numbers through mass migrations. Tribal kingdoms in Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan have a long history of battling the Han Chinese for control of their homelands. Some of these groups were driven from the fertile valleys by the Han Chinese into the hills and mountains where they now live.

The Han nationality is the main Chinese nationality and the largest ethnic group in both China and the world. They Han people have traditionally been concentrated in the Central Plains of China and from there have spread all over the country. The Han ethnic group originated in Huang Ti times—which includes the Xia Dynasty, Shang Dynasty and Zhou Dynasty—and took shape in the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 B.C.) and the Warring states (475-221 B.C.). It claims a civilized history of 5,000 years. The name of "Han" began being used from the Han Dynasty. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science Museums of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~]

Art forms associated with the Han include bronzeware, silk, pottery, architecture, and painting. Among the highlights are Song art and pottery, Tang poetry, and Ming and Qing novels. Four great inventions—papermaking, printing, the compass, and gunpowder—are acknowledged by the world. Traditional festivals include the Spring Festival, the Lantern Festival, Pure Brightness, the Dragon Boat Festival, the Mid-autumn Festival and Double Ninth Festival. ~

The Han ethnic group has its own spoken and written languages. Belonging to the Han-Tibetan language family, the Han language is further divided into nine dialects, the northern dialect, Wu dialect, Hunan dialect, Jiangxi dialect, Hakka dialect, southern Fujian dialect, Shanxi dialect, Guangdong dialect. ~

Many Aspects of Chinese Culture and Life Discussed in this site are those of the Han Chinese. See Clothes, Tea, Cuisines, Courtyard Houses

Cultural Diversity Within the Han

The peoples identified as Han comprise 91 percent of the population, from Beijing in the north to Canton in the south, and include the Hakka, Fujianese, Cantonese and others. These Han are thought to be united by a common history, culture and written language; differences in language, dress, diet and customs are regarded as minor. An active, state-sponsored program assists the official minority cultures and promotes their economic development (with mixed results). [Source: By Dru C. Gladney, Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2009, Dru Gladney is president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College]

Cultural diversity within the Han has not been officially recognized because of a deep (and well-founded) fear of the country breaking up into feuding kingdoms, as happened in the 1910s and 1920s. China has historically been divided along north-south lines, into Five Kingdoms, Warring States or local satrapies, as often as it has been united. Indeed, China as it currently exists, including large pieces of territory occupied by Mongols, Turkic peoples, Tibetans, etc., is three times as large as it was under the last Chinese dynasty, the Ming, which fell in 1644. A strong, centralizing government (whether of foreign or internal origin) has often tried to impose ritualistic, linguistic, economic and political uniformity throughout its borders. [Ibid]

The supposedly homogenous Han speak eight mutually unintelligible languages (Mandarin, Wu, Yue, Xiang, Hakka, Gan, Southern Min and Northern Min). Even these subgroups show marked linguistic and cultural diversity. In the Yue language family, for example, Cantonese speakers are barely intelligible to Taishan speakers, and the Southern Min dialects of Quanzhou, Changzhou and Xiamen are equally difficult to communicate across. The Chinese linguist Y. R. Chao has shown that the mutual unintelligibility of, say, Cantonese and Mandarin is as great as that of Dutch and English or French and Italian. Mandarin was imposed as the national language early in the 20th century and has become the lingua franca, but, like Swahili in Africa, it must often be learned in school and is rarely used in everyday life across much of China. [Ibid]

Interestingly, most...southern groups traditionally regarded themselves not as Han but as Tang, descendants of the great Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D.) and its southern bases. Most Chinatowns in North America, Europe and Southeast Asia are inhabited by descendants of Chinese immigrants from the mainly Tang areas of southern China. The next decade may see the resurgence of Tang nationalism in southern China in opposition to northern Han nationalism, especially as economic wealth in the south eclipses that of the north. Some have postulated that the heavy coverage by the state-sponsored media of the riots in Xinjiang, as opposed to the news blackout in Tibet, was a deliberate effort to stimulate Han Chinese nationalism and antiminority ethnic sentiment, in an effort to bring the majority population together during a period of economic and social instability. [Ibid]

Han Diversity and Unity

The differences among regional and linguistic subgroups of Han Chinese are at least as great as those among many European nationalities. Han Chinese speak seven or eight mutually unintelligible dialects, each of which has many local subdialects. Cultural differences (cuisine, costume, and custom) are equally great. Modern Chinese history provides many examples of conflict, up to the level of small-scale regional wars, between linguistic and regional groups. [Source: Library of Congress]

20080224-Han-2 Nolls.jpg
Han Chinese
‘such diversities, however, have not generated exclusive loyalties, and distinctions in religion or political affiliation have not reinforced regional differences. Rather, there has been a consistent tendency in Chinese thought and practice to downplay intra-Han distinctions, which are regarded as minor and superficial. What all Han share is more significant than the ways in which they differ. In conceptual terms, the boundary between Han and non-Han is absolute and sharp, while boundaries between subsets of Han are subject to continual shifts, are dictated by local conditions, and do not produce the isolation inherent in relations between Han and minority groups. [Ibid]

“Han ethnic unity is the result of two ancient and culturally central Chinese institutions, one of which is the written language. Chinese is written with ideographs (sometimes called characters) that represent meanings rather than sounds, and so written Chinese does not reflect the speech of its author. The disjunction between written and spoken Chinese means that a newspaper published in Beijing can be read in Shanghai or Guangzhou, although the residents of the three cities would not understand each other's speech. It also means that there can be no specifically Cantonese (Guangzhou dialect) or Hunanese literature because the local speech of a region cannot be directly or easily represented in writing. (It is possible to add local color to fiction, cite colloquialisms, or transcribe folk songs, but it is not commonly done.) Therefore, local languages have not become a focus for regional selfconsciousness or nationalism. Educated Chinese tend to regard the written ideographs as primary, and they regard the seven or eight spoken Han Chinese dialects as simply variant ways of pronouncing the same ideographs. This is linguistically inaccurate, but the attitude has significant political and social consequences. The uniform written language in 1987 continued to be a powerful force for Han unity. [Ibid]

“The other major force contributing to Han ethnic unity has been the centralized imperial state. The ethnic group takes its name from the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220). Although the imperial government never directly controlled the villages, it did have a strong influence on popular values and culture. The average peasant could not read and was not familiar with the details of state administration or national geography, but he was aware of belonging to a group of subcontinental scope. Being Han, even for illiterate peasants, has meant conscious identification with a glorious history and a state of immense proportions. Peasant folklore and folk religion assumed that the imperial state, with an emperor and an administrative bureaucracy, was the normal order of society. In the imperial period, the highest prestige went to scholar-officials, and every schoolboy had the possibility, at least theoretically, of passing the civil service examinations and becoming an official. [Ibid]

“The prestige of the state and its popular identification with the highest values of Chinese civilization were not accidents; they were the final result of a centuries-long program of indoctrination and education directed by the Confucian scholar-officials. Traditional Chinese society can be distinguished from other premodern civilizations to the extent that the state, rather than organized religious groups or ethnic segments of society, was able to appropriate the symbols of wisdom, morality, and the common good. The legacy for modern Chinese society has been a strong centralized government that has the right to impose its values on the population and against which there is no legitimate right of dissent or secession. [Ibid]

Han Culture and its Expansion: from the View of Chinese Geneticists

Chinese researchers Feng Zhang, Bing Su, Ya-ping Zhang and Li Jin wrote in an article published by the Royal Society: “ The spread of culture in human populations can be explained by two alternative models. The demic diffusion model involves mass movement of people, while the cultural diffusion model refers to cultural impact between populations (Cavalli-Sforza et al. 1994). Historical records show that the Hans originated from the ancient Huaxia tribes in northern China and experienced a continuous expansion into southern China over the past two millennia (Ge et al. 1997). [Source: “Genetic studies of human diversity in East Asia” by Feng Zhang , Bing Su , Ya-ping Zhang , Li Jin. Royal Society, June 29, 2007 ***]

“To test this hypothesis of demic diffusion, Wen et al. (2004a,b) examined genetic variations on both NRY and mtDNA in 28 Han populations in China. According to the NRY data, northern (NH) and southern Hans (SH) share similar haplogroup frequencies. The M122-C mutation is prevalent in almost all the Han populations studied (53.8 percent in NHs and 54.2 percent in SHs), while M119-C and M95-T, prevalent in southern natives (SNs), are more frequent in SHs (19 percent) than in NHs (5 percent). Some haplogroups prevalent in SNs, such as O1b-M110, O2a1-M88 and O3d-M7, are only observed in some SHs. According to the mtDNA lineages, NHs and SHs are significantly different in their mtDNA lineages. The frequency of haplogroups dominant in the NEAS (A, C, D, G, M8a, Y and Z) is 55 percent in NHs, which is much higher than that in SHs (36 percent). In contrast, the frequency of the haplogroups dominant in SNs (B, F, R9a, R9b and N9a) is much higher in SHs (55 percent) than in NHs (33 percent). ***

These observations of Wen et al. (2004a,b) are consistent with historical records, in which the continuous southward migration of the Hans caused by warfare and famine is mentioned. Taking this genetic and historic evidence into account, it can be concluded that the migration into South China is one of the main causes of the expansion of Han culture. ***

In the past decade, the NRY and mtDNA markers have been used to analyse the genetic structure of almost all the 56 officially identified ethnic groups and other unsorted populations. As well as the major members of the CHGDP, more and more Chinese research groups have been joining this promising field of scientific research. ***

“In Korea and Japan, human genetic diversity projects have also been launched and some interesting findings have been published. Hammer & Horai (1995) found that the insertion allele of YAP (also called DYS287) is prevalent (approx. 42 percent) in Japanese populations. Differing from the E-YAP+ haplogroup in Africans, West Asians and Europeans, the Y chromosomes of YAP+ belong to the D haplogroup (defined by M174), which is at a high frequency in Japanese and Tibetans but is rare in many other East Asian populations, such as the Han Chinese (Jobling & Tyler-Smith 2003). It is suggested that YAP+ chromosomes might have migrated to Japan with the Jomon people over 10 000 years ago (Hammer & Horai 1995). Tajima et al. (2002) used seven biallelic Y-SNPs (DYS257108, DYS287, SRY4064, SRY10831, RPS4Y711, M9 and M15) to analyse 610 males from 14 global populations; their results suggested that three major groups with different paternal ancestries separately migrated to prehistoric East and Southeast Asia. Jin et al. (2003) examined eight Y-SNP markers (YAP, RPS4Y711, M9, M175, LINE1, SRY+465, 47z and M95) and three Y-STR markers (DYS390, DYS391 and DYS393) in 738 males (including 160 Koreans and 108 Japanese) in East Asia to study the paternal lineage history of Korea. The distribution pattern of Y-chromosomal haplogroups suggested a dual origin for Koreans (a northern Asian settlement and expansion from southern into northern China). ***

“By sequencing the complete mitochondrial genomes of 672 Japanese individuals, Tanaka et al. (2004) constructed an mtDNA phylogeny with high resolution and found some new haplogroups. This phylogeny will be very helpful for analysing the mtDNA diversity and tracing the migration of the maternal lineage of East Asians. In addition, Tanaka et al. (2004) combined their data with mtDNA sequences from other populations of Asia and revealed that present-day Japanese have the closest genetic affinity to the northern Asian populations. ***

Han Chinese and Minorities

The Han Chinese created present day China in many cases by conquering territory and overpowering local tribes by sheer numbers through mass migrations. Tribal kingdoms in Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan have a long history of battling the Han Chinese for control of their homelands. Some of these were'driven by the Han Chinese from fertile valleys into the hills and mountains where they now live.

The remainder of China's population is comprised of 55 other ethnic groups. Although they make up only 8 percent of the population, these ethnic minorities still add up to 91 million people, which is a larger population than all but ten countries in the world. These minorities occupy 64 percent of China's land, much of it remote and sparsely populated. Many minorities live in compact communities at the upper reaches of large rivers and in border regions. Much of the land they occupy, such as Xinjiang, is rich in minerals, oil and other resources.

There are 18 ethnic groups with over a million people. They include Tibetans, Mongolians, Uygurs, Zhuang, Manchus and Koreans. The smallest ethnic, the Lhoba, has only about 2,300 members. Many of the ethnic groups still dress in traditional clothes and some of them have some very unusual customs.

Han Family Names

"Strokes in the surnames" is a commonly used phrase in China. "Surname" here specially refers to the family name, namely the character denoting the name of each family. However, before the Qin and Han dynasties, surnames (Xing) and clan-names (Shi) were different, each representing different content and meaning. "Surname" originates date back to when the matriarchal clans were important to the Han. Surnames related to one’s matriarchal clan's name or other characteristics. Surname mainly played the role of "clarifying blood relationships. “ Men and a women with same surname could not marry each other. Clan-names become the branches derived from surnames. Until the patriarchal clan system became dominate, surnames and clan-names became the marks of different patriarchal clans or tribes. Originally only nobles had clan-names. After the Spring and Autumn Period and Warring States Period, surnames and clan-name gradually fused with each other. After the Qin and Han Dynasties, the surname and clan-name were combined, a state that has continued to today.[Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science Museums of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~]

How many Han Nationality surnames are there? The well-known book, "Surnames of a Hundred Families" (the Qing Dynasty edition) records 504 surnames altogether, of which 444 are single-word and 60 are double-word. However, the real number of surnames is far beyond that. As early as in the Eastern Han Dynasty,Ying Shao recorded about 500 surnames in the surname chapter of his book General Meaning of the Custom. In the clan chapter of General Records, the book of Song Zhengqiao, reports: "there are 32 kinds of people who have the surnames and are awarded the clan-names," approximately 1,745 surnames altogether. After a comprehensive study, Zhang of the Qing Dynasty concluded that there were 5,129 surnames altogether. Now there is still no accurate statistical number of surnames. According to the rough estimate, more than 3,000 ones are still being used. ~

Similar to the surnames, the "names (Ming Zi)"—which now refer to given names—had different meanings in ancient times, when people had both "Ming" and "Zi". On top of this people also had aliases. The So-called "Ming" name was actually a name that distinguished someone as a nobleman. In ancient times, people generally had two names, one of which was a name given at birth. For example, the infant name of CaoCao (Emperor of the Wei Kingdom in the Three Kingdoms (220-265)) was Ah Man. Liu Chan, the son of Liu Bei (Emperor of the Shu Kingdom) was called Adou. Another given name was given when a person grew up, This was called the formal name. Women generally only had an infant name. Before the Qin Dynasty, people generally had single-character names. Two-character names became more common place in the Qin and Han Dynasties, and accordingly the ways of giving names to people become much more varied. ~

"Zi" is another title derived from the meaning of "Ming" and functions as the explanation and supplement to the latter. “Zi" is not given to people until they are grown-ups, and indicates that they start receiving other people’s respect from that moment on. For example, Zhu Geliang became known as Kong Ming; Yue Fei became known as Peng Ju; Zhao Yun became known as Zi Long. Originally, giving "Zi" to a person was a privilege only enjoyed by nobles, but later the practice was expanded to intellectuals. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, the system started s to be generally spread among the common people. ~

"Hao" is another name for people, often associated with artists and intellectuals. Scholar-officials in imperial times, especially the writers, often had other names. For example, Li Bai was called Lotus Hermit, Du Fu was called Shaolingyelao, Wang Anshi was called Banshan, and Tang Bohu was called Liurujushi. Ming and Zi were given by others to express the individual's wishes.

Ming, Zi and alias were all people's names, which were given in different ways. Ancient people attached great importance to the social status and etiquette implied by the names and were very fastidious in their use. Ming was generally a name used among friends or equals, or by a person of high status addressing a person of low status. Zis and aliases were used for addressing others or high status. If people did not follow name rules, they were considered to be impolite. It it was perceived to be "greatly disrespectful" or an act of “rebellion" to address the emperors, one’s parents and seniors by their Ming. Such people were condemned; some even received severe punishment.

Bronze Drums

Symbolizing wealth, traditional, cultural bonding and power, bronze drum have been prized by numerous ethnic groups in southern China and Southeast Asia for a long time. The oldest ones—belonging to the ancient Baipu people of the mid-Yunnan area—date to 2700 B.C. in the Spring and Autumn Period. The Kingdom of Dian, established near the present city of Kunming more than 2,000 years ago, was famous for its bronze drums. Today, they continue to be used by many ethnic minorities, including the Miao, Yao, Zhuang, Dong, Buyi, Shui, Gelao and Wa. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

At present, the Chinese cultural relics protection institutions have a collection of over 1,500 bronze drums. Guangxi alone has unearthed more than 560 such drums. One bronze drum unearthed in Beiliu is the largest of its kind, with a diameter of 165 centimeters. It has been hailed as the "king of bronze drum". In addition to all these, bronze drums continue to be collected and used among the people. ~

Ethnic groups in southern China appreciate these gong-like drums for their sound and their reputed ability to expel bad spirits. During important ceremonies have often been used as bowls for offerings and other religious practices. Every village considers its drums as their treasure. Therere are a number of myths about these bronze drums. The long poem sung by some peoples of Yunnan—"The Kings of the Bronze Drum"—describes a community that arrives from distant lands and through their long history have been protected by the bronze drums and alleviated their sufferings in hard times by providing a channel of communication to seek the help of the gods.

Bronze drum are believed to have been developed from bronze kettles. Hollow and bottomless, they look like round stumps, with flat surfaces and curled middle parts. Bronze drums are forged from copper and bronze and differ in size and weight. The largest one exceeds one meter in diameter while the smallest is only over 10 centimeters across. The heaviest weighs over a hundred kilograms while lightest weighs about a dozen kilograms. ~

Most bronze drum tops are engraved with lines simulating the sun, smoke plumes, clouds, combs and flags. Some of them images of frogs, tortoises, cattle and horses forged on their sides. The bodies of bronze drums are also decorated with many lines, drum ears and other adornments. According to their shapes, line decorations and forging craftsmanship, bronze drums can be classified into eight kinds: 1) Wanjiaba type, 2 Shizhaishan type, 3) Lengshuichong type, 4) Zunyi type, 5) Majiang type, 6) Beiliu type, 7) Lingshan type and 8) Ximeng type. Among them, Beiliu, Lingshan and Lengshuichong bronze drums, display the highest levels of skill and achievement of craftsmanship, smelting and foundry. ~

Bronze drums are the artistic treasure and are also considered as vehicles of magical power. The use and function of the drums can be diverse. In ancient times, they were mainly used for religious rites and many were hidden in caves or buried underground and were not allowed to be banged casually. Later they gradually became symbols of power of the rulers: used to gather people for a meetings or even to encourage the soldiers on the battlefield. It was thought that rulers could keep their power as long as the bronze drums were in their possession. Without them, the rulers would no longer hold power. In addition, these drums were also regarded as property that could distinguish the rich from the poor and humble. It was not until the Ming and Qing dynasties that the bronze drums began to be used as instruments. ~

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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