20111102-Wiki com  Chang The Chinese Giant 1870.jpg
Chinese Giant in 1870

Chinese is both a noun and an adjective and singular and plural. It is the name of the people of China and can be used to describe things having to do with them or with China. Chinese can be used as a name for Chinese citizens and long term residents of China or it can be used to used to describe the Chinese (mostly Han Chinese, See Below) ethnic group which can be found in China and outside it. The word Chinese comes from the word China, whose origin is of some some dispute but some say was coined by Europeans from the ancient Ch'in Dynasty of the 3rd century B.C. This dynasty in turn was named after Emperor Qin (Chin) Shihuang, the man credited with unifying China in 221 B.C.. Chung-kho, the Chinese name for China, means "Middle Kingdom." It is derived from the traditional Chinese belief that China lay in the middle of a flat earth, with deserts and oceans around the edges.

China is the most populous nation on Earth. The Han Chinese are the largest ethnic group in the world. The population of China in 2020 was around 1.4 billion, The number of Han Chinese at that time was 1.29 billion, accounting for 91.11 percent of the total population. The population of ethnic minorities was 125.5 million, or 8.89 percent. Compared with the 2010 census, the Han Chinese population increased by 4.93 percent, while that of ethnic minorities increased by 10.26 percent. [Source: : National Bureau of Statistics of China,, Reuters, May 11, 2021]

Kate Merkel-Hess and Jeffrey Wasserstrom wrote in Time: “Chinese cultural tradition features regional and ethnic variations of sufficient breadth to support dozens of doctoral theses. We need to think about China, with its mutually unintelligible languages,”not merely dialects,”as more equivalent to a continent than a country. Asians, Africans, Europeans and Americans both South and North shouldn't find it hard to appreciate that a continent-size country might have a culture that is more complex than outsiders imagine or populist nationalists imply.” [Source: Kate Merkel-Hess and Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Time, January 1 2011]

About 64 percent of of all Chinese now live in urban areas (compared to 81 percent in the U.S.), Only 11. percentof China's population inhabited urban areas in 1950. In 2010, more than half the population still lived in rural areas. The population growth rate in China is now virtually zero.

Good Websites and Sources: Book: Understanding the Chinese Personality ; Understanding Chinese Business Culture ; Status of Chinese People Blog ; Chinese Human Genome Diversity Project ; Opinions on Asian Fetish ; Wikipedia article on the Mongoloid Race Wikipedia ; Essay on Humor, China and Japan

Han Chinese

The Chinese people call themselves Han in honor of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), which itself was adopted from the name of a river. The Han dynasty's founding emperor, Liu Bang, was made king of the Hanzhong region after the fall of the Qin dynasty, a title that was later shortened to "the King of Han". The name "Hanzhong", in turn, was derived from the Han River, which flows through the region's plains. Modern Hanzhong — meaning “Middle of the Han River” is a prefecture-level city in the southwest of Shaanxi province, bordering the provinces of Sichuan to the south and Gansu to the west. Hanzhong is located at the modern headwater of the Han River, the largest tributary of the Yangtze River.

Han is pronunced “hahn”. There are no alternate names. They live in mainland China and Taiwan. Overseas Chinese are most numerous in Southeast Asia, Japan, Korea, North America, Oceania, and Europe). Their main language is Mandarin Chinese (Putonghua). The predominate religions are folk beliefs, Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

The Han Chinese are the largest ethnic group in the world not just in China. They embrace traditionally Mandarin-, Shanghai- and Cantonese-speaking Chinese. They 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.

Chinese-Han Identity

According to The Economist: Ethnicity is central to China’s national identity. It is the Han, 1.2bn of them in mainland China alone, that most people refer to as “Chinese”, rather than the country’s minorities, numbering 110m people. Ethnicity and nationality have become almost interchangeable for China’s Han, says James Leibold of La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. That conflation is of fundamental importance. It defines the relations between the Han and other ethnic groups. By narrowing its legal labour market almost entirely to people of Han descent, ethnicity is shaping the country’s economy and development. And it strains foreign relations, too. Even ethnic Han whose families left for other countries generations ago are often regarded as part of a coherent national group, both by China’s government and people. [Source: The Economist, November 19, 2016]

“The Han take their label from the dynasty of that name in the third century BC. Yet the people labelled Han today are a construct of the early 20th century, says Frank Dikötter of the University of Hong Kong. For well over half of the past 650 years, the bulk of territory now called China was occupied by foreign powers (by Mongols from the north, then Manchus from the north-east). Chinese history paints the (foreign) Manchus who ran China’s last dynasty, the Qing, as “Sinicised”, yet recent research suggests that they kept their own language and culture, and that Qing China was part of a larger, multi-ethnic empire.

“But after the Qing fell in 1911, the new elite sought to create an overarching rationale for the Chinese nation state—its subjects spoke mutually incomprehensible languages and had diverse traditions and beliefs. Patrilineage was already strong in much of China: clans believed they could trace their line to a group of common ancestors. That helped Chinese nationalists develop the idea that all Han were descended from Huangdi, the “Yellow Emperor”, 5,000 years ago.

“Race became a central organising principle in Republican China. Sun Yat-sen, who founded the Kuomintang, China’s nationalist party, and is widely seen as a “father” of the Chinese nation, promoted the idea of “common blood”. A century on President Xi Jinping continues to do so. One reason for his claim that Taiwan is part of China is that “blood is thicker than water”. In a speech in 2014 he set his sights even wider: “Generations of overseas Chinese never forget their home country, their origins or the blood of the Chinese nation flowing in their veins.”

“Many Chinese today share the idea that a Chinese person is instantly recognisable—and that an ethnic Han must, in essence, be one of them. A young child in Beijing will openly point at someone with white or black skin and declare them a foreigner (or “person from outside country”, to translate literally). Foreign-born Han living in China are routinely told that their Mandarin should be better (in contrast to non-Han, who are praised even if they only mangle an occasional pleasantry).

“China today is extraordinarily homogenous. It sustains that by remaining almost entirely closed to new entrants except by birth. Unless someone is the child of a Chinese national, no matter how long they live there, how much money they make or tax they pay, it is virtually impossible to become a citizen. Someone who marries a Chinese person can theoretically gain citizenship; in practice few do. As a result, the most populous nation on Earth has only 1,448 naturalised Chinese in total, according to the 2010 census. Even Japan, better known for hostility to immigration, naturalises around 10,000 new citizens each year; in America the figure is some 700,000.

What It Means to Be Chinese in an International Sense

In can be argued that in China citizenship and rights are dictated by ethnicity. Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: In China, it is clear when you are a foreigner. Unless you are born Chinese, you can never become Chinese. Blood is the defining factor that makes you Chinese. The expression used for foreigners in China is laowai. Alternated with ‘hullo’, it is the most common greeting and exclamation of surprise when you are sighted in less worldly parts of the country. Laowai is a combination of two words that mean ‘old’ and ‘outsider’. Together they are a polite word for foreigner. Chinese hold a strong sense of national pride. In part because they are well-taught in school to do so, and in part because both ancient and modern China have made an indelible mark on the world. [Source: “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]

According to The Economist: “Five men who ran a bookshop in Hong Kong disappeared in mysterious circumstances in late 2015. One was apparently spirited away from the territory by agents from the mainland; another was abducted from Thailand. All later turned up in Chinese jails, accused of selling salacious works about the country’s leaders. One bookseller had a British passport and another a Swedish one but the two suffered the same disregard for legal process as Chinese citizens who anger the regime. Their embassies were denied access for weeks. The government considered both these men as intrinsically “Chinese”. This is indicative of a far broader attitude. China lays claim not just to booksellers in Hong Kong but, to a degree, an entire diaspora. [Source: The Economist, November 19, 2016]

China’s foreign minister declared that Lee Bo, the British passport-holder, was “first and foremost a Chinese citizen”. The government may have reckoned that his “home-return permit”, issued to permanent residents of Hong Kong, trumped his foreign papers. Since the territory returned to mainland rule in 1997, China considers that Hong Kongers of Chinese descent are its nationals. Gui Minhai, the Swede taken from Thailand, said on Chinese television, in what was probably a forced confession: “I truly feel that I am Chinese.” China felt it could act this way because it does not accept dual nationality. The law is ambiguous, however. It stipulates first that a person taking a foreign passport “automatically” loses their Chinese nationality and then, contradictorily, that an individual has to “renounce” their nationality (hand in their household-registration documents and passport) and that the renunciation must be approved. According to Mr Gui’s daughter, he went through the process of relinquishing his citizenship. Yet the Chinese authorities considered that his foreign passport was superseded by birth and ethnicity: both Mr Gui and Mr Lee are Han, the ethnic group that makes up 92% of mainland China’s population.

Naomi Thurston of the University of Alabama said: “Reality or not, the Chinese themselves tried to redefine Chinese identity as cultural rather then ethnic in attempts to unify the empire.” Magnus Fiskesjö of Cornell University said : “On identities generally, I think it is important to see that no identity is real, other than as part of the imagination of people embracing that identity, typically because they've been taught and told to do so. There is no underlying reality of ethnicity or culture or nation, that can somehow be uncovered as the "true" one. If anyone argues that there is, then, to me at least, they are engaging in another game of imagination or fantasy. Playing these games isn't necessarily evil in itself, but the more guns, the more potential for trouble.” [Source: MCLC List, August 2017]

“I think the key distinction in the world today isn't between immigrant nations and non-immigrant nations, but between nations that allow people to join their identity and citizenship, thus in effect acknowledging the fundamental impossibility of the original nationalist idea of one true people-one true nation; and, on the other hand, nations that don't allow it because of xenophobia and nationalism.

“Everything is relative, of course: If you are Estonia, a small country living under the acute threat from a huge and increasingly militaristic neighbor, it will be difficult to accept too many people from that neighbor as citizens; but if you are China, immigrants like the Filipinas who have lived and worked most of their life in HK but are still denied residency or citizenship, can't credibly be said to represent any kind of threat to your nation's purity or survival.

“Instead, the case of the Filipinas is just one expression of what should be recognized as a xenophobic nationalism based in racism; its flipside is the grotesque refusal to respect the new non-Chinese citizenship of those "Chinese" who decided to cancel their one-time Chinese citizenship (such as, among many others, the citizenship of my fellow Swedish citizen the bookseller Gui Minhai, who was abducted by Chinese agents from Thailand in 2015, and, horribly, remains in arbitrary detention in China).

Cultural Diversity Within the Han Chinese

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.

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.

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.

Northern Chinese Versus Southern Chinese

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Dongxiang child
People from northern and southern China are physically and genetically different from one another. Head shape, body size and susceptibility to disease vary greatly between the north and south.

People from Beijing and northern China are often heavier and taller and have broader shoulders, lighter skin, smaller eyes and more pointed noses than Southerners. They favor noodles over rice, have the blood of horsemen from Manchuria and Mongolia, and are regarded as "imperious, quarrelsome, rather aloof, political, proud, and less ostentatious and flashy with their money than Southerners.” Beijingers often saw goodbye to one another with an expression that is translated as "Take it slow."

People from Shanghai, Canton and southern China are generally smaller, thinner, browner, and have rounder eyes and more rounded noses than Northerners. They favor rice over noodles, looks more like Vietnamese, Filipinos and Southeast Asians and are regarded as "talkative, friendly, complacent, sloppy, commercial-minded and materialistic."

The dividing line between Northerners and Southerners is the Yangtze River. In the 19th century one man from northern China wrote: "The Cantonese...are a course set of people...Before the times of Han and Tang, this country was quite wild and wasted, and these people have sprung forth unconnected, unsettled vagabonds that wandered here from the north."

Variety, Animosity and Unity in 19th Century China

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “As one goes north, physical stature increases,.. The men of the central provinces are very unlike the men of the south, unlike in physical appearance, in speech, in temper. Both are very unlike the men of the north, and once discriminated, they are never again mistaken for each other. The Chinese habit, hereditary for ages, of reverting to one's native province and native village, considering that alone to be " home" where one's ancestors are buried, has crystallised different types of Chinese character into lines rigid as adamant. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894. Smith (1845 — 1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, “Chinese Characteristics” was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang, a village in Shandong]

“There is a character in one of Richter's novels, who assumes the first meridian to lie through his own skull. Every Chinese unconsciously does the same. His own village, his own district, his own prefecture, province and country are his, all others are " outside." (What possible objection by the way can there be to the Chinese terming foreigners " outside countrymen," when this is the idiom by which they speak of their own countrymen in relation to every territorial division less than a country, and by which they themselves are spoken of by other Chinese?) But the Chinese do not simply regard other provincials as outsiders, they treat them with undisguised contempt. The shrewd trader and skillful artificer -who -lives in Canton, thinks of (those who come from the northern part of the Empire as northern barbarians, but his contempt is retained in overflowing measure by the men of the north, who always think and speak of the Fuzhou and Canton men, as southern barbarians. Both of them unite in ridiculing their long-headed, but often ill-favored neighbours who hail from Shanxi, whose hands are against every man, and every man’s hands are against them, but who always seem to prosper, "caring not for life, but for gain."

“This appears to to be a general principle throughout the Empire — a Chinese is never regarded as a "brother," because he hails from some point within the "four seas," but is an alien and a stranger, because his province is an "outside" one. And if this is true of those of pure Chinese .race, much more is it true as between them and "the strange people who have at some distant time poured into China in vast floods, and are now settled in little communities or in large ones through many of the richest parts of the Empire. At first sight, a Muslim is simply a Chinese, and nothing more. "His dress, his occupation, his habits, language and general environment suggest nothing of alienage. His weddings, his 'funerals, and his diet may differ, but these are not vital -points. But on a closer examination the Muslims are seen to be in a condition of mechanical, as distinguished from chemical, union with the Chinese. They are not Chinese, never were, and never will be, and no one expects it or supposes it possible that they should be.

“These are the aspects in which a resident as distinguished from a traveler sees China. Many peoples, not one. Many "languages," many customs, a brood of a hundred (but not assimilated) peoples, united by a common literature, history and government, still essentially different. Yet this view of China and the Chinese may rightly be criticised as misleading and inadequate. Notwithstanding the wide variations in provincial types, and despite differences due to local causes, the more China is contemplated in the relations of all its parts to each other, the more China is felt to be a unit...The sense of China as an essential unity is not stronger than the sense of her disunity. A wise instructor of youth cautioned his pupils when they became travellers,' to observe what things were " taken for granted." In some provinces of China two story-houses are the rule, and in others only thatch. In. some, the final consonants are sounded and in others there are none; in some, trade leads and in others, agriculture; in some there are bleak winters, and in others mild, but we must believe that what we already know of China, and what is every day more and more coming to light, tends to show, that what the Chinese people, as a whole, take for granted; is the same.

Chinese Solidarity

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: ““Among the Anglo-Saxon: race the idea extensively prevails, that each man is a individual' by himself and is to be dealt with as such. In China all is quite different. Ancestry is reckoned a long way back with definite terms for each generation. Relationships are complicated and precise, with a complexity, and precision which to a stranger are bewildering and confounding. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

The social fact of capital importance, that each Chinese family is practically rooted to the spot where it exists; and that it always has been so rooted, is of itself well nigh incomprehensible to the roving Occidental, who has visited half the countries on the globe, not improbably with a view to a settlement. Chinese social life runs in grooves, or rather in ruts, and in very ancient ruts. A man in China is a part of a gigantic social machine, a mere cog in one of many wheels, and from ancient times, until now, it has always been customary for the, wheels to move the cogs, never for the cogs to control the wheels! In fact the mere mass to be moved makes it impossible for any particular part to move any family as a whole, except in lines and on planes to which the social machinery is already adjusted.

A Chinese family is like a hill of potatoes — one cannot get at any of them, without a process by which all are brought to view. The shrewdly practical ancients, who laid out the plan on which the Chinese race was to be governed, understood perfectly this characteristic of their people and have used it to the utmost. The Empire, is (theoretically) a vast whole with a head who governs by the decree of heaven. Each gradation from the Empire as a whole, down to the individual and collective family, is likewise a unit, of which the parts are mutually inter-dependent and mutually responsible for each other.

To what an extent this theory and practice of responsibility for others is pushed, we are continually reminded not less by the occurrences in daily Chinese life, thaw by the acts recorded in the singularly self-revealing documents published in the Peking Gazette. Let the reader run through a. year of this unique publication, and mentally compare — or rather contrast — the principles which evidently rule in the adjustment of cases, whether arising from the destructive outburst of the Yellow River, or from a flagrant case of parricide, with Western ideas. He will have an instructive series of pictures of the practical workings of the Chinese theory of 'solidarity,’ but it is not only alone in the natural relationship, or in the artificial political ones, that Chinese solidarity is manifested. There seems to be in the Chinese nature an inherent capacity for combination, united with a powerful tendency to combine, which it 'might be difficult to equal in any other race.

Guilds are inventions by no means peculiar to China, but where are there any trade guilds with stronger cohesive powers, than those in China. There seems, in fact, to 'be not cohesion simply, 'but a 'kind 'of chemical union...which 'operates like the pressure of the atmosphere, equally small 'directions' and which it seems equally hopeless to resist. There are occasionally collisions of. guilds with guilds, and in dealing with them.

A cook, a "bay," a coolie, comes to-some (invisible) crisis of his 'career, and deserts us. Of the many reasons which he may not improbably assign for this step, eight will have no relevancy whatever, and the ninth will not be the real clue. It is impossible, in fact, to ascertain exactly why he does as he does. Perhaps he does not know himself. But one thing he knows, which is that he must go. And he goes. The truth issocial machinery of which he is a part, he has been in the course of many revolutions, pressed upon by another cog and is thrown "out of gear," A Chinese is always a part of the machine — not the machine itself. Or if he be a very important wheel and turn the rest, then solidarity impressively asserts itself in a new form. We have heard of Chinese joint-stock companies in which solidarity had a great deal too much to do. In fact, solidarity in a Chinese sense, and individual equality in an Occidental sense are scarcely compatible. This essential and significant quality of Chinese society is of great consequence in estimating the future of Chinese reformations. As long as China remains in the condition in which she has been for so many ages, solidarity is the incarnation of inertia. But if she is beginning to exhibit signs of an "awakening," there is hope that if once awake she will be wide awake.

Ethnic Minorities of China

The Chinese government counts 55 minorities (ethnic groups, people). The population of ethnic minorities was 125.5 million, or 8.89 percent according to the 2020 Chinese census. Compared with the 2010 census, the ethnic minorities population increased by 10.26 percent compared 4.93 percent for Han Chinese population, who numbered about 1.29 billion in 2020.

Classifications are often based on self-identification, and it is sometimes and in some locations advantageous for political or economic reasons to identify with one group over another. There is also some debate about what constitutes a separate ethnic group in China. Some officially-designated groups—such as the Nu—seem be comprised of groups that are different enough they should be regarded as distinct ethnic groups but are conveniently grouped together based on geography. [Source: Library of Congress]

Ethnic distinctions are largely linguistic and religious rather than racial. Although non-Han peoples are relatively few in number, they are politically significant because they occupy about two-thirds of China's land area. Most live in strategic frontier territories in the southwest, Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia and have religious or ethnic ties with groups in adjoining nations. Since the take over of China, by the Communists in 1949, the dominance of non-Han groups in their traditional homelands — such as Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia — has been weakned as Han Chinese have entered these regions in increasing numbers since 1950.[Source: U.S. State Department report, December 1996]

Identity and Assimilation Among Chinese and Minorities

Eleanor Stanford wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: The vast majority of Chinese people are of Han descent. They identify with the dominant national culture and have a sense of history and tradition that dates back over one thousand years and includes many artistic, cultural, and scientific accomplishments. When the communists took over in 1949, they worked to create a sense of national identity based on the ideals of equality and hard work. [Source: Eleanor Stanford, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Some minority groups, such as the Manchu, have assimilated almost entirely. While they maintain their own languages and religions, they identify with the nation as well as with their own groups. Other minority ethnic groups tend to identify more with their individual cultures than with the Han. For example, the Mongolians and Kazakhs of the north and northwest, the Tibetans and the Zhuangs in the southwest, and the inhabitants of Hainan Island to the southeast are all linguistically, culturally, and historically distinct from one another and from the dominant tradition. For some minority groups, the Tibetans and Uigurs of Xinjiang in particular, the issue of independence has been an acrimonious one and has led those groups to identify themselves deliberately in opposition to the central culture and its government.

Image Sources: 1) Wiki Commons; 2) Nolls China website 3) Bao Xishun blog

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

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