Han - Orientation



Identification. Han people are both numerically and politically dominant in mainland China, Taiwan, and the city-state of Singapore; they also reside in nearly every country in the world as Overseas Chinese. In mainland China, where they constituted 91 percent of the population in the 1990 census, they are officially and conventionally known as "Han," a name that originally belonged to a river in central China and was adopted by China's first long-ruling imperial dynasty, which reigned from 206 B.C.E. to 220 C.E. Designation as "Han" distinguishes them from the diverse minority peoples such as Mongols, Uigurs, Tibetans, Miao, and others. Outside mainland China, the term "Han" is less frequently used, and the people usually refer to themselves by some variant of the term "Zhongguo ren," which in Mandarin Chinese means "people of the central country" and is usually translated into English as "Chinese." (The European terms "Chinese" and "China" are of disputed origin.)


Location. The majority of the Han people are concentrated in the eastern half of mainland China. Drawing a line from the Xing'an Mountains in northeastern China, across the northern bend of the Yellow River, through the foothills that separate Sichuan from Tibet, and across the northern part of Yunnan Province to the border of Myanmar (Burma), the area to the east and south of the line has sufficient rainfall for intensive grain agriculture, whereas the area to the north and west is drier and more conducive to pastoralism. Historically, the agrarian civilization built by Han people was confined to the agricultural areas. Even though the drier northern and western regions sometimes came under the rule of Han-dominated regimes, they were not intensively colonized by Han people until the twentieth century. The only areas outside this region that are now predominantly Han are the islands of Hainan, colonized during the last thousand years; Taiwan, settled by Han during the last 400 years; and Singapore, colonized only since the nineteenth century.

Within the core area of Han settlement, there is great climatic and geographic variation. In the northern region, centered on the drainage area of the Yellow River, winters are cold, summers are hot, rainfall is marginal, and agriculture has traditionally been based on dry grains, such as wheat, millet, sorghum, and barley. In the central region, centered on the drainage of the Yangzi River, and in the southern regions, winters are mild, summers hot and humid, and rainfall heavy, permitting multiple cropping and irrigated crops, especially wet-field rice.

Demography. For the past 2,000 years at least, Han people or their precursors have probably always constituted between 15 and 25 percent of the world's population. An imperial census taken in the year 2 C.E. counted over 59 million people; by the beginning of the Qing dynasty in 1644, the population of the Chinese empire was probably around 200 million, the great majority of them Han. This had grown to about 450 million by 1850 and was more than 580 million (and over 90 percent Han) in 1953, when the People's Republic of China took its first comprehensive census. Population grew rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s (with a large setback in the famine years of 1960-1962), finally inducing the People's Republic to institute a series of increasingly strict population-control plans, culminating in the one-child-per-family policy begun in 1979. These policies, largely though not completely successful, have reduced the population growth rate in recent years, but population continues to expand, and the 1990 census showed a total population in mainland China of 1,113,682,501, of whom 1,042,482,187, or 91.8 percent, were Han.

Outside mainland China, the Republic of China government on Taiwan also encouraged population control since the late 1950s, but through much gentler means, relying (ultimately successfully) on urbanization, economic development, and a strong propaganda campaign to curb population growth. The population of the island was 19.8 million in 1988, of whom over 98 percent were Han.

Together with Overseas Chinese populations of approximately 27 million in Asia (mostly Southeast Asia), over 2 million in the Americas, and perhaps 1 million elsewhere, the total Han Chinese population worldwide in 1992 is probably slightly over 1.1 billion.

Linguistic Affiliation. Han people (with the exception of some Overseas Chinese) are all speakers of one or another of the languages usually known as Chinese, which comprise a branch of the Sino-Tibetan Language Family. All are tonal languages and rely on word order rather than morphology to express grammatical relationships.

For essentially political reasons, both the People's Republic of China on the mainland and the Republic of China on Taiwan consider Chinese to be a single language consisting of a series of dialects ( fangyan or "local Speeches"), but nearly all linguists agree that several of these are best classified as separate languages since they are mutually unintelligible and differ greatly in phonology and vocabulary, though only slightly in syntax. The majority of Chinese speakers, including most inhabitants of the Yellow River drainage and parts of the Yangzi drainage as well as southwestern China, speak one of the dialects collectively known as Mandarin. Other important Chinese languages include Wu in eastern China, Gan in most of Jiangxi Province, Xiang in most of Hunan Province, Yue or Cantonese in the far south and overseas, Min in Fujian and Taiwan as well as overseas, and Hakka or Kejia in a widely dispersed series of communities mainly in the south and overseas. Many of these groups are themselves highly differentiated into mutually unintelligible local dialects; the Min-speaking areas of Fujian, in particular, are known for valley-by-valley dialect differences.

This regional linguistic diversity has been countered over the course of history by the unity of the written language. Chinese writing extends back at least to the fourteenth century B.C.E. , when pictographic and ideographic signs were used to represent syllables of a spoken language. The specific forms of these signs or characters have changed since then and many have been added, but the basic principles of the writing system have persisted. Each character represents both a concept and a sound, so that, for example, ming meaning "bright" and ming meaning "name," though pronounced identically in Standard Mandarin, are written with different characters. The characters themselves can be pronounced in any Chinese language, however, making written communication feasible between speakers of related but different spoken languages.

Throughout the imperial period, the standard written language was what is now known as Classical Chinese, evolved over the centuries from what was presumably a representation of the speech of around the fourth to second centuries B.C.E. By late imperial times (1368-1911), the Standard written language was far different from any spoken vernacular; in fact, literacy was largely, though not entirely, confined to the ruling scholar-elite.

In the twentieth century, a fundamental transformation of the nature and purpose of literacy has led to the elimination of the classical written language and its replacement by baihua or "plain speech," a written approximation of the Mandarin spoken in and around the capital city of Beijing. In addition, both the Republican and People's Republic governments have made Beijing Mandarin into a standard spoken language, called guoyu or "national language" by the Republic and putonghua or "ordinary speech" by the People's Republic. All schools in both the mainland and Taiwan use written baihua and spoken Mandarin as the medium of instruction. Thus, most younger speakers in the non-Mandarin regions of the mainland, as well as nearly everyone under about age 60 in Taiwan, can use Mandarin as a second language, and literacy in baihua is over 80 percent in the mainland and nearly universal in Taiwan.


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