The Chinese people gather together in Tiananmen Square, to see the daily flag-raising ceremony. This is a popular tourist destination for visitors to the capital of the PRC.

The Han comprise the majority of the people among the fifty-six state-recognized nationalities (fifty-five minority groups and the Han) of mainland China and Taiwan. The largest nationality in the world, the Han are what people around the world generally think of as “the Chinese.”

The Han are the most numerous of the world’s nationalities, numbering about 1.27 billion in 2006, with sizable populations in Indonesia, Singapore, the United States, and numerous other locales. They are renowned for their highly distinctive and powerful languages and cultures, and for their long and eventful history. The main concentrations of Han Chinese are in the eastern half of China, as well as Taiwan. Under the People’s Republic of China, the state decides who belongs to which nationality. This decision is made based on Joseph Stalin’s rigid definition of what factors determine nationality. One group that on occasion has requested separate identity is the Hakkas, but the state considers them part of the Han nationality.


In the mid-seventeenth century, China’s population was about 200 million, the overwhelming majority being Han. The 1953 census showed the Han population at 547 million, which was 93.9 percent of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) total. Census figures for 1990 and 2000 put the Han population at 1.04 billion and 1.16 billion, or 91.99 and 91.59 percent of the PRC total. Since the late 1970s, Han families in the PRC have been subject to a very strict policy rarely allowing more than one child per couple, without which the 2000 Han population would have been somewhat higher than it was. About 97 percent of Taiwan’s 2008 population of 23 million was Han.

At the end of the nineteenth century, there were an estimated 4 million overseas Chinese. In 2006 this figure had grown to about 40 million Chinese living outside China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao, and about 31 million living elsewhere in Asia. The country with the largest Han population outside China was Indonesia, with about 7.5 million Chinese. The country with the highest Han proportion was Singapore, where in an estimated 2005 total population of 4.27 million, 2.68 million (62.8 percent) were Han. In 2007 Hong Kong and Macao had combined total populations of about 7.5 million people, overwhelmingly Han Chinese in both places. Outside Asia the country with the largest Chinese population is the United States (about 3.38 million in 2005).


Chinese belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. The Chinese written language dates at least to the fourteenth century BCE and consists of monosyllabic characters, or ideographs. The characters were standardized in the third century BCE and remain essentially unchanged even though the PRC adopted a simplified writing system in the 1950s. Literate Chinese have always been able to understand each other through writing, which has acted as a unifying force throughout history.

Each character in the Chinese written language represents both a sound and a concept, but meaning is conveyed through characters either singly or in combinations. Chinese is not monosyllabic. Objects, actions, or ideas are more likely to be represented through groups of two or three rather than a single character.

Spoken Chinese is sharply regional and divided into several sublanguages and numerous dialects. All of these are tonal and express grammatical relationships through word order, not word endings. The official language is Modern Standard Chinese, or Mandarin, which is based on the pronunciation found in Beijing. The north and southwest of the Han regions of China (the eastern half of those territories ruled as part of the People’s Republic of China, plus Taiwan) are dominated by the Mandarin dialects, most of them intelligible to a speaker of Modern Standard Chinese. Sublanguages of the southeast include Yue (Cantonese), Wu (spoken in Shanghai), Hunanese, Jiangxi, North and South Fujian, and Hakka. In the south even dialects are often mutually unintelligible. Fujian is known for strong dialect differences from one valley to the next.

Approximately two-thirds of Han Chinese speak one of the Mandarin dialects as their mother tongue. In the twentieth century successive regimes have attempted to have Modern Standard Chinese spoken, or at least understood, by all Chinese through education, radio, and television. Of the southern sublanguages, Wu has the greatest number of speakers, followed by Cantonese.

Culture and Economy

Under Emperor Han Wudi (reigned 140–87 BCE), Confucianism dominated the Chinese state, including its ritual, and formed the ideological basis of duty and service for the scholar-official class that ruled the country. Confucianism placed great emphasis on morality within hierarchical human relationships, on creating and maintaining harmony within society, and on the family as the central social unit.

Confucianism accorded greater social respect to men than to women and to sons than to daughters. Until the twentieth century, marriages were arranged by parents through the aid of matchmakers, and women were very subordinate. Although the revolutions of the twentieth century greatly raised women’s status, allowing them to enter the work force, gender equality is nowhere on the horizon among the Han, especially in the countryside.

Confucian ideology was one reason why Han governance was generally far more secular than that found in other great civilizations. In the twentieth century, Confucianism came under strong attack from modernist nationalism and Marxism-Leninism. Modernist nationalists denounced Confucianism as hierarchical, patriarchal, and oppressive, even though Confucianists argued that they were the real nationalists because they upheld Chinese values and traditions. Mao Zedong (1893–1976) orchestrated attacks on Confucian and religious values everywhere in China, but there has since been a major revival of Confucian influence in the PRC, and it remains strong in Han communities outside China.

Secularity of governance does not mean the Han are irreligious. To this day folk religions, which attempt to harmonize relations between humankind and the cosmic order, remain highly influential. Buddhism and Daoism still have Han followers, and their places of worship are common. But religions that emphasize belief in a single God have never attained more than minor influence among the Han. Muslims are never classified as Han, but as Hui.

Below the scholar-official, Confucianism prized the peasant. Han society is based on agriculture. The staple in the south is rice and in the north wheat-based products, supplemented by a wide variety of vegetables, dominate the Han diet. The meat most associated with the Han is pork. The Han do not care for dairy products, a taste even extensive Western influence has failed to change. To this day local markets are important for the economy.

During the Song dynasty (960–1279), China was the world’s most technologically developed society. Although Confucianism looked down on the merchant, China underwent a commercial revolution during that time, which produced a degree of prosperity that Marco Polo marveled at in the thirteenth century. But China later fell far behind technologically and failed to undertake an industrial revolution until the second half of the
twentieth century. Under Mao the Han entrepreneurial spirit was suppressed. But since the late 1970s, it has revived, with heavy industry being replaced by more consumer-oriented enterprises and self-reliance by foreign trade.

The commonalities of the Han should not disguise important regional differences. These apply not only to language but also to many aspects of culture and society, including cuisine, festivals, clothing, marriage customs, village architecture, music, and theater. Cuisine provides one example. The Han of the southwest (Hunan, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces) favor spicy dishes. In the southeast Cantonese food is noted for its quick cooking and stir frying at high temperatures and for rich, sweet dishes.

Unity in the Twenty-First Century

The strength of their culture and the size of their population have made the Han at times inwardly focused, at times outwardly focused. Although there are periods of division in China’s long history, and although localist elements remain influential to this day, the Chinese have shown a highly enduring sense of national unity. China’s joining the World Trade Organization late in 2001 should reduce isolationist tendencies but will not undermine the essential features of Chinese culture or eliminate nationalism.

Further Reading

Blunden, C., & Elvin, M. (1990). The cultural atlas of the world, China. Oxford, U.K.: Andromeda.

Ebrey, P. B. (1996). The Cambridge illustrated history of China. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Gernet, J. (1996). A history of Chinese civilisation. 2d ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Harrell, S. (1991). Han. In P. Friedrich & N. Diamond (Eds.), Encyclopedia of world cultures, Vol. 6 (pp. 439–449). Boston: Hall.

Hook, B., & Twitchett, D. (Eds.). (1991) The Cambridge encyclopedia of China. 2d ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Pan, L., (Ed.). (1999). The encyclopedia of the Chinese overseas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Spence, J. D. (1990) The search for modern China. New York: Norton.

Source: Mackerras, Colin. (2009). Han. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 982–984. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Han (Hàn ?)|Hàn ? (Han)

Download the PDF of this article