Han Chinese: Constructing the Largest Ethnic Group in the World

Han Chinese: Constructing the Largest Ethnic Group in the World
Jul 10, 2013 By Zoe Croom , eChinacities.com

With over 1.2 billion people, Han Chinese is not only the largest ethnic group in China but also in the world. The basic tenets of an ethnic group are common ancestry (encompassing both blood and culture), language and geographical space (the idea of a common homeland). Travelling around China you will experience some very different places, people, languages and culture, and yet many of the people you meet will describe themselves as Han. After a while one can be excused for finding it hard to believe that Han Chinese are any sort of homogenous ethnic group.   

Photo: wenzhousx.com

Han, like every other ethnic group in the world, is a construction. With the nomadic nature of life the idea that any group can have a clear linear history is far flung. In China the standardization of language only really started after the creation of the Republic in 1912 and even now many people still prefer to communicate using their local dialect. If you put a person from Beijing, from Shanghai and from Guangdong in a room together and told them to only speak their local dialect, they would not be able to communicate.

Defining China’s nationalities

In China, as with much of the rest of the world, discussions of ethnicity and nationalism often focus on minority groups, despite China’s minorities only making up 8.49% of the population. The majority ethnic group is then often defined in response; it is defined by what it is not, and the nation becomes divided between the centre and the periphery, the ‘us’ and the ‘other’. This division was summed up nicely by Dru Gladney when he said, “Widespread definition and representation of the ‘minority’ as exotic, colourful and ‘primitive’ homogenizes the undefined majority as united, monoethnic and modern.”

Despite knowledge of peripheral groups in China, it wasn’t until the Long March that the leaders of the CCP began to grasp the extent of China’s social diversity. In the 1950s the CCP began a process of investigation and identification of the various ethnic groups living within its borders. According to Dr. Sam Mitchell, an Asian History professor based in Kunming, Yunnan, The Minzu Shibie (Nationalities Identification Project), was for its time “incredibly broad in scope and remarkably accurate”. It is only recently that examinations into the Han majority have gained traction.

Constructing the ‘majority’

When it comes to ethnicity construction, history is key – building a lineage that you can point to is important. With an ancestry, arguments of ‘we were here first’ can be effectively used to rally the public against an enemy. And so the Han majority takes its name from one of early China’s prosperous dynasties, Han (206BC-220AD).

Towards the end of the Qing dynasty there was a drive for unity within the country. However, it wasn’t until Sun Yat-sen unified opposition against the ‘foreign’ invaders that the Han identity took off, and nationalism in China found its bearings. Sun “turned anti-Qing sentiment into anti-Manchu racism”. The Manchu’s were invaders that had taken control of Han China. The concept of a unified Han helped unite resistance not only against the Manchu’s but also against the Japanese invasion, and Western imperial powers with their “unequal treaties”. A narrative had been born and history re-written in terms of these relationships, the ‘insiders’ vs. the ‘outsiders’.

Fei Xiaotong and ‘snowballing’

The Yellow river valley has been critical in most discussions of Han lineage. Many believe this is where the Chinese race began. Archaeological excavations around Anyang, Henan province, have been used to date the Han Chinese race back to the Shang civilizations. However, this is a small area in relation to the whole of China, so how did the race spread?

Fei Xiaotong, a Chinese ethnologist, recently put forward the concept of ‘snowballing’. His argument is that the Yellow River basin was the core of Han ethnicity. This core culture was more prosperous than indigenous and nomadic groups surrounding it, and so as its people spread out, those surrounding groups were enveloped into the folds of Han ethnicity. And like a snowball, as it spread it grew more dense and compact, forging the worlds largest ethnic group. 

In the name of Han (or China)

The ‘us’ and ‘them’ narrative is still very much a part of identity in China today. Han has become synonymous with Chinese. The two ever interlinked, despite China actually being a multiethnic nation. Key points in history are understood in terms of this narrative. It is established within the society’s consciousness. For the government it is an important tool in building their legitimacy of control. In Taiwan the term Han is not commonly used as a way of describing identity, however, in China it is the bedrock of the ‘One China’ policy. We are one group, one ethnicity.

It has become about including groups within the ‘us’ and reconfirming who is the ‘other’. As a result China is able to include groups of people who are definitely not Han and in fact claim independence, while the idea of the dangerous foreigner still seems to sit at the forefront of society’s psyche. Examples of the latter have been most noticeable in the growing aggression towards white men hitting on Chinese women, in anti-Japanese sentiment and in the casual racism towards black people. While the issues behind these examples are far more complex than can be expressed here, they are a product and a continuation of the narrative of China.

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Keywords: Han Chinese largest ethnic group in the world


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Apr 21, 2020 00:52 Report Abuse



As a multilingual foreigner, I just have to share a story relating to the spirit of this article. Formerly teaching in N.E. China, I had students from various backgrounds who were studying various languages, from English, French, Korean, some learning Japanese, etc. Likewise, we occasionally had foreign students within our ranks, as well. So, often I found it convenient to cross reference one language's grammar or vocabulary with another if I found the students knew a little bit about the other language, for an analogy or broader understanding. Well, although they were studying English in this class, I asked if anyone in class could speak Korean. One Han-Chinese individual boldly announced, "I don't speak Korean - I'm Chinese!". I new one of my top students was Han Chinese who studied Korean very well to get an international job in Shanghai. I quipped, but you are using English right now. So, what does that mean?" I was stunned for the rest of the students in class, as I believed this was one of the most insensitive comments and ways of thinking I've witnessed (in class). And it wasn't the first time - so, with this kind of mindset, as the article illustrates, minorities are not generally thought of as a "Chinese". Mind you, in class was also a South Korean student, and Japanese student (who could also speak Russian, Chinese, Korean, and English), plus the majority there who were local Korean-Chinese or ethnic Koreans (Chao Xian Zu). To the ethnic Korean Chinese, this must have hurt, because technically they are Chinese, too.

Jul 21, 2013 09:47 Report Abuse



Good ol' Chinese xenophobia and racism.

Jul 12, 2013 16:07 Report Abuse



And right after the Han Dynasty was the 3 Kingdoms period: Wei, Shu and Wu. People in Zhejiang and Shanghai speak a Wu dialect. Or is Wu a language? If Wu was officially designated as a language then the Wu people would be officially designated as an ethnic minority and their high school kids would get concessions in the gaokao.

Jul 10, 2013 13:44 Report Abuse



Should that heading then read: Han Chinese: Constructing the Largest RACIST Ethnic Group in the World?

Jul 10, 2013 08:15 Report Abuse



Very interesting article. Hats off to you for the research done. I too have gradually become aware of the 'Han' syndrome which many people spout about at every opportunity. To my mind the Han ethnic classification is largely nonsense. Having travelled around China the differences in appearence alone are significant. Even between Beijing and Shanghai there is a noticable differernce in ethnic looks. I feel educating people to believe in the Han groupings superiority is similar to Aryan race propaganda that was dished out in Germany during the 1930s. Little truth and a lot of exaggeration.

Jul 10, 2013 01:08 Report Abuse



It's a tragic situation. However I believe it's important to remember that: just as Northern Europeans were not responsible for the Nazi program of mass brainwashing, false education and rampant murder; The average Chinese Joe cannot be held accountable for the actions and goings on in the upper echelons of their downtrodden society.

Jul 10, 2013 22:36 Report Abuse



So sad that posts get deleted. Does the truth hurt that much in China? Are people that afraid of those in power? That is not living, that is simply existing. Like animals destined for the slaughter house.

Jul 17, 2013 11:04 Report Abuse