LOCATION: China; Taiwan; (overseas: Southeast Asia, Japan, North America, Oceania, and Europe)
POPULATION: 1 billion in mainland China
LANGUAGE: Mandarin Chinese
RELIGION: Taoism; Confucianism; Buddhism
The Han are the largest ethnic group in China. In ancient times, the ancestors of the Han lived in the Yellow River basin. Over the centuries they met, fought, and merged with neighboring tribes. Later the Han founded Huaxia, which slowly expanded along the Yangtze River.
The Chinese became a unified nation with their center in Huaxia during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 220). They are known to this day as the "people of Han" or simply "Han." Many Han Chinese migrated to south China (south of the Yangzi River). The Han population eventually exceeded that of the north.
After 2,000 years, the Chinese empire was overthrown in 1911. Since 1949, there have been two Chinese governments, one in mainland China and one in Taiwan.
Based on the 1990 census, there are more than 1 billion Han in mainland China. They live mainly in cities and in the river valleys, which are farming areas. The great majority of people in Taiwan are also Han. In addition, many Han have emigrated to Southeast Asia, Japan, North America, Oceania, and Europe.
The Han language is usually called Chinese. The United Nations has named it an official international language. There are seven dialects. The written language, invented over 3,000 years ago, can be used with all of them. The northern dialect (Mandarin Chinese) is the common spoken language ( putonghua ) of China.
The Han people have recorded thousands of myths, as well as popular folktales. In Han folklore, the god Pangu created the world; the goddess Nüwa formed human beings. Ji is the god of all crops, and Shennong is the god of herbs. Huang Di was the first ancestor of the Han people. The Sanhaijing , written 2,000 years ago, recorded Han legends and folk customs.
The Han have historically accommodated religions of diverse origin. Popular oral traditions reflect early beliefs in nature gods and deified heroes. Historical writings dating from the fourteenth century BC testify to the ruling class belief in the deified ancestor and ancestor worship. During the Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 220) three religions grew: Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. They were based on the respective teachings of three men: Lao-tzu, Confucius, and the Buddha. Buddhism had the most followers.
The Han celebrate many holidays. The most important is the Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year, between January 21 and February 20. Almost everybody returns home, even from distant places. Family members share a dinner party on the eve of the New Year. Fireworks and firecrackers are lit. People dress up and celebrate for days in the city and for weeks in the country.
The mid-autumn or moon festival (October 15 on the lunar calendar) is the second most important day of the year. Han people watch the full moon and eat moon cakes, which are a symbol of family unity. The Lion Dance, Dragon Dance, and Dragon Boat Regatta (boat race) are part of this festival.
Han couples in mainland China are supposed to have no more than one child. More than ever before, childbirth is a major event in a family. Eggs cooked and dyed red are often sent to relatives and friends. Couples often have a dinner party when their baby is one month old.
In the past, the dead were usually buried. Today, cremation is common in cities. The Qingming Festival is a day to honor dead relatives and visit their tombs. It is held on April 4, 5, or 6.
New Year visits are very popular during the Spring Festival. Guests usually bring gifts such as fruits, candies, cigarettes, or a bottle of wine. They always get a warm welcome. Holiday greetings by telephone are popular in large cities these days. So are Christmas and New Year greeting cards.
Most young people like to choose the person they will marry. However, parents, relatives, or friends often help out.
Housing styles vary by region. From the 1950s to the late 1970s, newer buildings replaced many ancient dwellings. In the country, many apartment buildings have been replaced by modern two-story single homes. Housing shortages are a problem in big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Guangzhou.
Today many Han live in comfort, both in the city and the country. In addition to meeting their basic needs, many own such items as household electrical appliances.
Men dominate the Han family, and the family name is carried on by male children.
The Han are monogamous (they marry one person). They are free to choose the person they will marry. Most couples stay together, but the rate of divorce has been rising. An average urban Han family consists of a man, his wife, and their only child. In rural areas, it is common for three or more generations to live in the same household.
Just two decades ago, Han Chinese—young and old, men and women—wore clothes of the same plain style and color. Their city streets all looked grey and dull. Today, colorful down and woolen jackets and fur overcoats are worn in the frozen north. In the south, where the climate is milder, people wear suits, jeans, jackets, sweaters, and other stylish clothing all year. Famous brand names are often seen in large cities. In some rural areas, Han peasants still wear their "Mao suits" (the plain two-piece outfit named after the former Chinese leader).
The main foods of the Han are rice, flour, vegetables, pork, eggs, and freshwater fish. The Han have always valued cooking skills, and Chinese (Han) cuisine is well known all over the world. Dumplings, wanton, spring rolls, rice, noodles, and roasted Peking duck are some examples of Han food.
The Han Chinese created the first university over 2,000 years ago. They have always valued education. China has over 1,000 universities and colleges and 800,000 primary and middle schools. They have a total of 180 million students. Still, about five million school-age children do not enter school or have dropped out. About 98 percent of children enroll in school when they reach school age. Only about 10 percent of Han cannot read or write.
There are enough Han musical instruments to form an orchestra. Three of the most popular instruments are the two-string violin (erhu), the lute (zheng), and the pipa. There are also many percussion instruments, including gu (drums), ban (clappers), muyu (a wooden "fish" played by striking with a stick), xiao luo (gong), and bo (cymbals). Han cultural treasures include poems, dramas, novels, and works of history and philosophy. Many works have been translated into other languages. The great poets include Li Bai and Du Fu, who lived in the age of great Chinese poetry (Tang Dynasty, AD 618–907). The great Chinese novels began in the fourteenth century with the epic Water Margin. They also include Pilgrim to the West and Golden Lotus.
The Han invented paper, ceramics, gunpowder, and the compass.
Economic contrasts in Han society are dramatic. Scientists work in nuclear power plants while peasants farm using primitive methods. Two kinds of work that go back thousands of years are porcelain making (from which we get the name "china") and producing raw silk.
As China's main ethnic group, the Han have competed in almost every Olympic sport and in many other sporting events. Soccer, volleyball, basketball, table tennis, badminton, jogging, and swimming are popular sports played by children and adults. Wushu and Taijiquan are two kinds of shadow-boxing that are methods of gymnastics and meditation.
Watching television in the evening is a common pastime for Han families. Video cassette recorders are also very popular in urban areas. Movies are another form of recreation. Many young people enjoy dancing and rock music. The elderly like Chinese opera, drama, classical music, and playing mah-jongg (a tile game). Travel has become popular since the five-day work week took effect in 1995.
Calligraphy (fancy lettering) and traditional Chinese painting are the most popular folk arts of the Han. They are also famous for embroidery, brocade, colored glaze, jade products, clay sculpture, and figures made out of dough. Chess, kite flying, and gardening in pots are hobbies among people of all ages.
China's current social problems include a growing gap between the rich and the poor, rising inflation, and bribery, as well as gambling, drugs, prostitution, and the kidnapping of women. There is also a growing difference in the way people live in rural and urban areas. More than 100 million people have moved to the coastal areas to look for jobs.
Harrell, Stevan, ed. Cultural Encounters on China's Ethnic Frontiers. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995.
Heberer, Thomas. China and Its National Minorities: Autonomy or Assimilation? Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1989.
Moser, Leo J. The Chinese Moustaches Peoples and Provinces of China. Boulder, Colo.:West-view Press, 1984.
Embassy of China, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available http://www.china-embassy.org/ .
World Travel Guide. China. [Online] Available http://travelguide.attistel.co.uk/country/cn/gen.html .