The Han people (汉人 Hànrén) are the world's largest ethnicity, with one of the longest histories, mysterious origins, and many accomplishments. They are 91% of China's population and are also the dominant ethnic group of Singapore. There are about 1.5 billion Han people in the world, and they are about 19% of the global population.
The Han are superlative in a number of ways besides population. Other than Jews, they have the longest unbroken written history that is 3,000 years old. They were the innovators of some of the world's greatest inventions. Their origins and many other things about them are interesting.
The Han have a written history that extends back do about 1,000 BC.
Sima Qian's account, Records of the Grand Historian, were written between about 109 and 91 BC. He tells about the origins and the history of the the Xia Dynasty of the Huaxia tribe along the Yellow River.
Based mainly on the ancient historical traditions, most Chinese identify themselves as descendants of the Huaxia tribe of the Xia dynastic clan.
The Shang Dynasty (1600—1046 BC)
Modern historians believe that the Shang Dynasty began in the year 1600 and ended about the year 1046 BC. The Shang Empire spread to cover northern and central China during the next 1,500 years.
The Shang introduced important cultural elements such as the complex pictographic writing system, silk manufacture, metallurgy, artistic style, tea culture and dynastic rule. For more information, see Ancient Chinese Culture (1600—221 BC) — Development and Features
Zhou Dynasty to Qin Dynasty (1046 BC—206 BC)
The first king of the Zhou Empire (1046 BC—221 AD) conquered the Shang about 1045 BC. During this era, Daoism and Confucianism developed.
Then the Qin State succeeded in conquering all the other states of the Zhou Dynasty. The Qin Empire (221–206 BC) forcibly imposed a common philosophy and writing system, built the First Great Wall and monumental water projects, and expanded the empire at the cost of a great loss of life and the enormous destruction of their ancient cultural heritage. The Han regard Qin Shi Huangdi as the first emperor of their imperial culture.
The Han Dynasty (206 BC—220 AD) Developed Chinese Culture
The Han Dynasty (206 BC—220 AD) conquered the Qin Empire. The development of Han culture that started in the Qin Empire crystallized during the 400 year reign of the Han Empire. The Han Empire is so important in Han history they they take their name from this empire. The ancient homeland of the Han is basically the areas you see in the accompanying map. Paper and block printing, two of the world's greatest inventions, were invented
For more about the history and development of the Han people, see our Chinese History and Chinese Culture pages.
Intermittent Han Control Over Their Homelands
For about 2,500 years, from the time of the Shang Dynasty until around the fall of the Tang Dynasty (618–907), the Han generally retained control of their homeland territories of the Yellow River, Yangtze River, and most of the territory captured by the Qin Dynasty though their were invasion attempts by other peoples. However, after the fall of the Tang, the Han empires had difficulty warding off invasions during several periods.
First, the Liao Empire (916–1125 AD) invaded the northeast region including the Yellow River Basin and Beijing. Then, the Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227) carved an empire in the northwest. Then, the Jurchens (Manchu) invaded from further in the northeast and captured the Liao Empire. Their Jin Empire (1115–1234) conquered much of the territory north of the Yangtze.
Then the Mongols descended from the northeast, and captured the whole region to form the Yuan Empire (1279–1368). It was the biggest empire in China's history. Han people rebelled to form the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). But the Manchus invaded again in alliance with Mongols and formed the long-lasting Qing Empire (1644–1912) that survived until modern times.
Sun Yat-sen, a Han, led a revolution that overthrew the Qing Dynasty in 1912. He was the first President of the Republic of China. The Republic of China and People's Republic of China era marks the return of Han rule over the whole territory of China. The Han didn't control their homelands north of the Yangtze including the original territory of the Yellow River for about 600 of the last 1,000 years.
Where the Han Live in China
The ethnic Han in China, about 1.3 billion people, live all over the country, but most are concentrated in their ancestral homelands in the provinces that are along the middle and lower parts of the Yellow River Basin, along the Yangtze River basin, and along the Pearl River.
Han people generally dislike living in high altitude mountains and arid deserts. Their culture is agricultural and urban, so the southwestern and western high mountain chains are still the domain of several ethnic groups such as the Tibetans, and only a minority of the Han population live in high altitudes. Until recently, few Han people lived in the Gobi Desert or the deserts of Xinjiang.
During the last 200 years especially, there was a large migration of Han people into provinces of the former Manchu/Jin areas of Northwest China called the Songliao Basin's prairies and forests. The migration was largest after the fall of the Qing Empire in 1912.
The Han Language
Mandarin and other Han dialects or Hanyu (meaning 'Han language' 汉语 Hànyǔ /han-yoo/) are interesting because they are tonal languages that use pictograms called hanzi (汉字 hànzì /han-dzrr/ literally: Han characters) instead of letters to write with. It is also interesting in that though China has many dialects that are quite different from each other, they can all use their common writing system to communicate even if they don't know how to speak the others' languages.
The national language of the country that is taught in schools is Mandarin or Putonghua (普通话 pǔtōnghuà /poo-tong-hwah/). Nowadays, most Mainlanders can speak it.
In addition to using characters, modern Chinese often use the alphabet to write Hanyu using a semi-phonetic system called pinyin (拼音 pīnyīn /pin-yin/) in daily life. Pinyin is useful for typing in words on cell phones and computers, and it often appears on street signs in and around ethnic regions.
It is said that Mandarin is the most widely spoken language by native speakers in the world with about 1.4 million speakers and the most commonly used language on the internet. Learn more about .
The Han grew skilled in creating some of the world's largest constructions such as the Great Wall and some of the world's largest surviving ancient wooden buildings. Han building architecture comprises not only wooden construction, but brick construction for pagodas and walls, stamped earth buildings, big stone or brick bridges, and other forms of architecture.
Chinese wood architecture was their forte. They developed their own indigenous wood construction techniques that were the best in the world for literally riding out China's frequent large earthquakes with little or no damage. This is because they made their buildings tied together with flexible joints that allow buildings to flex, and their buildings were not firmly planted into a foundation but sat loose on the ground to move with the earth tremors. Their wood buildings proved very durable over the centuries. Their ancient wood buildings, such as the Forbidden City, were unique, highly practical, durable, and well adapted to the weather, tectonics, and culture of the people.
See more about Chinese Architecture.
Chinese clothing or "hanfu" (漢服 Hànfú literally means 'Han clothing') has always had a distinctive look that also was adopted by other East Asian countries. Since the Shang era, the rulers preferred silk, and commoners wore clothing made of other materials such as linen, cotton, and animal skins.
But by the time of the Han empire, the silk industry grew so large that it was a major Han export, and the higher classes as well as the rulers wore it. Silk exports brought much wealth to the empire. It wasn't until the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) era that peasants could legally wear silk.
To read about Chinese traditional clothes styles, see Traditional Chinese Clothes — Hanfu, Tang Suit, Qipao, Zhongshan Suit.
Han Cuisines: Delicious and Varied
Chinese food is appreciated around the world for the tasty flavors. In China, each region developed its own cuisine style, and there are 8 main styles or "schools" of cuisine.
The dishes of the various cuisines are quite varied in taste and flavors, and they are not like the samey, samey food at your local Chinese fast food restaurant. The cuisine can also be unusually healthy because Chinese have a long medicinal food tradition of using their herbal medicine techniques to cook healthy meals suited for the weather, climate, and the individual needs of each person.
For more information see: Discover China's Regional Food Through 10 Dishes.
Han customs are handed down from the ancient past. Many customs and traditions are religious or stem from the political culture, and these were handed down from the Zhou and Han Dynasties.
For example, their eating customs surprise most visitors. The traditional seating arrangement for meals is still respected by many Chinese in important banquets or meals. The person with the highest status at the table or the person who is the host should be seated in the center facing east or facing the entrance.
People will seat themselves in accordance with their status. The higher the status due to age or seniority, the closer they sit next to master of the banquet. The guest with the lowest status sits furthest from the seat of honor.
There are many other eating customs that are unfamiliar to foreigners. For example, there are conventions about the way chopsticks may be used. One such is that people should never plant their chopsticks upright in a bowl since it signifies death or wishing death to those around them. See more about Chinese Dining Etiquette.
Each major festival has its own set of special festival traditions. To learn more about Chinese customs, read Chinese Culture, Customs, and Traditions.
Chinese traditional festivals are mostly of Han origin, except in minority areas. They help the Chinese to remember ancient customs and history. Visiting during a festival holiday helps you to see Chinese practice old traditions and take a break from their busy modern day lives, office, schools, and factories.
The two major traditional Han festivals are half a year apart, Chinese New Year or the Spring Festival and the Mid Autumn Festival.
China's 55 Official Minority Groups
Though the Han are about 91% of the population of China, there are 128 million people in China who are ethnic minorities who have amazing and varied ancient cultures and histories. The government classified these people into 55 minority groups such as the quite culturally different Hani who live far south along the southern border.
Each of these peoples have their own distinctive culture, but they are becoming more and more 'Hanized.' If you are interested, China Highlights can take you to these minority areas and help you meet with them. See Top China Minority Cities Tour.
How to Visit the Han People with China Highlights
Modern China is a fascinating amalgam of Han culture: high technology, ancient traditions, and urban and rural ways of life. China now has many of the world's largest cities, and there are notable Han archeological sites such as the Terracotta Army, wonders of nature such as Zhangjiajie to see, as well as modern marvels such as the Three Gorges Dam to visit.
Touring the Highlights of China
To quickly learn about Han culture, there is no better place than Beijing, the capital city and the capital of imperial dynasties, where the ages-old traditions reached a pinnacle of refinement in the Imperial Forbidden City.
Here are popular tours for seeing China's major cities.
- The Golden Triangle — Variations on the 8-day Beijing–Xi'an–Shanghai itinerary are the most-chosen first-time China trip over 20 years. Our guides are experts at introducing customers to Han culture and people.
- 1-Day Beijing Highlights Private Tour — Specially designed and flexible, it’s ideal for those who are short on time in Beijing.
Tell us what interests you and we can create a wonderful tour of China.