Han. (Image by Yuninjie, GFDL)


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ETHNONYMS: Chinese, Han Chinese, Hua, Zhongguo ren


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.

History and Cultural Relations

The probable Neolithic forebears of the Han were farming in the valleys of the Yellow River and its major tributaries as early as 6000 b.p. In the late third and early second millennia b.c.e., a series of city-states arose in the same area; the best-documented of these, historically and archaeologically, are the Xia (centered in the Fen River valley), the Shang (centered in the western part of the North China Plain), and the Zhou (centered in the Wei River valley). Traditional historiography portrays these as successive "dynasties," but they are best seen as successively dominant city-states. By the later part of the period of Shang dominance (c. 1400-1048 b.c.e.), written records afford us a portrayal of a highly stratified, kin-based state. The Zhou conquest of Shang in 1048 initially brought about little social change, but throughout the 800-year reign of Zhou kings, China was transformed fundamentally by the intensification of agriculture, the development of bureaucracy, the invention of iron technology, and the spread of commerce and urbanism. The latter part of the Zhou reign, referred to as the Spring and Autumn (771-482) and Warring States (481-221) periods, saw great demographic and economic expansion as well as the development of rival systems of political and social philosophy that formed the basis of Chinese intellectual life for the entire imperial period, which lasted from the unification of China by the Qin in 221 b.c.e. and continued until the overthrow of the Qing in 1911.

The 2,000 years of imperial Chinese history encompass great cultural change within a self-consciously continuous tradition. The first long-lasting imperial dynasty, the Han (206 b.c.e.-220 c.e.), was characterized by the development of a cultural and political orthodoxy often known as Confucianisman attempt to create a social, political, and cosmic order on the basis of highly developed ideas of individual and social morality. The breakup of the Han was followed by a period of disunity, during which Buddhism became an important cultural force; the early part of the next unifying dynasty, the Tang (618-906 CE.) witnessed the flourishing of a cosmopolitan culture, but its later years were marked by a partially xenophobic tendency. In the late Tang and Song (960-1280), the late imperial culture took shape; it was characterized by a bureaucratic ruling class, deriving its legitimacy from philosophical orthodoxy, and an economy involving an increasingly free peasantry interacting with large urban commercial, manufacturing, and administrative centers. This basic pattern was consolidated in the Ming period (1368-1644) and persisted with changes into the nineteenth century, when intensive interaction with the industrializing, expansionist Western countries led to a series of reevaluations of traditional forms and ultimately to Republican and Communist revolutions.

The overthrow of the Qing in 1911, led partly by Han ethnic nationalists, resulted in the establishment of the Republic of China. Under this banner, a series of regimes, culminating in that of the Nationalist party, or Guomindang, ruled parts of mainland China until 1949, when they retreated to the island of Taiwan, where the Nationalist party remains in power today. On the mainland of China, the Communist party, founded in 1921, gained control over the whole country in 1949, when they established the People's Republic of China and set about building a Socialistand ultimately a Communistsociety. Increasingly radical collectivist reforms culminated in the Great Leap Forward and Peoples Communes in 1958-1960, resulting in one of the largest famines in world history and in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. Utopian ideological and educational ideas combined with rather rigid Socialist social policy and strict Socialist economics and caused cultural stultification and economic stagnation. Beginning in 1979, the ruling Communist party initiated the Reforms, loosening the ideological grip, decollectivizing agriculture, beginning a slow transition from a planned to a market economy (by no means finished as of 1993), and expanding commercial, diplomatic, and cultural ties to foreign countries.

Both preimperiai and imperial China developed in interaction with surrounding cultures. In addition to the advanced civilization in northern China, by the end of the first millennium b.c.e. there were other centers of advanced technology in southwestern China; these were linked with more distant centers in what is now Southeast Asia. The earliest historical accounts, probably written around 800 b.c.e., already refer to non-Chinese peoples inhabiting the four directions surrounding the Chinese center. Since that period, proto-Chinese and then Han culture has expanded, mainly southward and southwestward, to its present extent, through intermarriage, conquest, assimilation, and cultural interchange. It is certain that the Han people of central and southern China are partially descended from the non-Han peoples displaced and assimilated by the Han expansion. The cultural interchange, however, has not been entirely one-way, and southern and particularly southwestern Chinese languages, customs, religion, and other cultural elements show strong signs of influence from the non-Han inhabitants either completely displaced, as in most of the Yangzi valley, or still living in contact with the Han, as in most of the southwest.

Cultural interaction on China's northern frontiers, by contrast, has involved the ecological boundary between agriculture and herdingpastoral peoples of Central Asia have not been easily displaced or assimilated into Han society and culture. Several times in Chinese history, tribal confederations to the north or northeast of China have adopted some of the bureaucratic features of the Chinese state and used these along with their considerable military skills to conquer all or part of China and establish their own imperial dynasties. The most prominent of these have been the Toba, who established the Wei dynasty (386-534 CE) ; the Khitan, who established the Liao (907-1125); the Jurchen, who established the Jin (1115-1260), the Mongols, who established the Yuan (1234-1368); and the Manchu, descendants of the Jurchen, who ruled the Qing, the last imperial dynasty, which lasted from 1644-1911. In all of these regimes, Han people played a prominent part, but in many cases the tension between an imperial ideology, which was universalistic, and a more particular ethnic ideology of Han difference contributed to the ultimate breakup of the regime.

In both the Republic and People's Republic governments, Han leaders and officials have been overwhelmingly predominant. Leaders of the Republic, although recognizing the existence of non-Han peoples within China's political borders, based much of their legitimacy on the continuing superiority of Han civilization along with the adoption of modern technology and limited modern social forms from the West. In the People's Republic, by contrast, the multiethnic nature of China is celebrated in state ritual and protected in law. Han culture is not seen as intrinsically superior, but Han people in general are considered more advanced, because they were already moving from feudalism to capitalism at the beginning of the People's Republic, whereas many non-Han minorities were still in early feudalism or even earlier stages of the historical progression of modes of production. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), this meant the imposition of modern, Socialist (in reality, Han) cultural forms on non-Han peoples; since the Reforms, Han cultural hegemony has been less emphasized, but certain aspects of assimilation continue through the education system and through various schemes for economic and social development and modernization.

In Overseas Chinese communities this process is somewhat reversed; Han people who migrate undergo various degrees of cultural assimilation to the host country. In Thailand, for example, many people of Chinese origin simply become Thai after a few generations; they remember their Chinese heritage but cease to identify with Chinese as an ethnic group. In North America, where ethnic distinctions are often based on racial distinctiveness and Chinese are easily distinguishable from Euro-Americans by sight, people usually lose most of their Chinese language and culture after a few generations but retain the emotional and cognitive group ties of ethnic identity.


In agrarian China, 80 to 90 percent of the population lived in rural areas, most of them in nucleated villages concentrated in plains and valleys. In less productive areas of northern China and in mountainous areas in the south, villages rarely exceeded a few hundred in population; in more productive rice areas in eastern and southern China, a village could contain two thousand or more people. (In much of Sichuan and a few other areas, isolated farmsteads predominated.) Before the advent of modern transport, each village was within walking distance of a standard market town, a basic-level urban center with a periodic market and one or more commercial streets with small stores and teahouses. From the standard market town, with a thousand or a few thousand people, up to the largest cities, containing several hundred thousand each, there was a hierarchy of commercial and administrative centers, each level with a larger population, more commercial activities, and more services available.

Traditional rural housing was built of tamped mud or sun-dried mud bricks in most areas, or of fired bricks for those who could afford them. House styles vary regionally; the most common general variants are houses built on two, three, or four sides of an enclosed courtyard, usually with peaked thatch, tile, or slate roofs, and multistory houses (usually of brick and often with flat roofs) built in rows along a street, with courtyards in front or in back. Both types, in higher-density arrangements, were also found in traditional cities; courtyard housing predominated in primarily residential areas and row housing, often with the store downstairs and the family quarters upstairs, in commercial areas. Wealthier families built larger and more elaborate structures on the same principles.

In recent times all these styles are still found, but in large cities most housing built since 1949 on the mainland has consisted of four-to-six story (and more recently much taller) concrete apartment blocks in which families are allocated one or more rooms. In Taiwan urban housing is also of the apartment-block type, but apartments are much larger and better appointed. Over the past 40 years or so, rural housing of mud has gradually been replaced by more substantial brick and/or concrete structures; mud houses disappeared in Taiwan in the 1970s and in some parts of the mainland in the 1980s, but in more remote and poorer parts of mainland China people are still building new mud housing.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The great commercial revolution in Chinese history occurred in the late Tang and Song periods, which saw the transformation from a basically subsistence economy to one of a peasantry firmly tied into local and long-distance trade networks. From then until the twentieth century, the great majority of the 80 to 90 percent of Han families who tilled the soil were also dependent on markets for purchase of cloth, oil, implements, furniture, condiments, alcohol (and later tobacco), and a variety of services. To obtain cash to purchase these goods and to pay taxes, they sold grain and, in some areas, commercial food and nonfood crops as well as home-produced handicrafts. By the Qing period, some areas in eastern China were given over entirely to the production of such nonfood crops as silk and cotton, and many farmers near cities grew mainly vegetables. Still, most peasants in most places continued to grow grain.

Grain agriculture was and still is predominantly one-crop, dry grains in the north and double-crop, dry grain and rice or two crops of rice in the south. Rice agriculture in particular is highly productive, and since the first green revolution in the Song period, constant improvement of varieties and intensification of effort have allowed increases in production, in surpluses, in population density, and in the commercialization of agriculture. In modern times, there has been some mechanization of agriculture as well as the expansion of irrigation to some parts of the north but in many places traditional technologies continue with little change other than the addition of chemical fertilizer and insecticides.

Industrial Arts. Chinese peasants were using the iron-bladed plow in the preimperiai era, and Chinese soldiers fought with iron weapons. Chinese inventors developed the three devices Francis Bacon considered to be most essential to the Age of Discovery in the West (paper, the compass, and gunpowder); during the Song dynasty Chinese engineers developed the spinning jenny and the steam engine, the invention of which is traditionally considered to have set off the Industrial Revolution in Europe. Why the Industrial Revolution did not begin in China in 1050 instead of England in 1750 is still a subject for dispute, but seems to be attributable to economic rather than technological factors.

In the late imperial period, however, Chinese invention and technology began to lag behind those of Europe and North America, and China's industrial weakness was a major factor in its humiliation by Western powers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Contemporary Chinese industry is that of a developing country, derived from, and in many cases technologically and economically inferior to, the comparable industries of Japan, Western Europe, and North America. Since 1979, China has shifted from a one-sided emphasis on heavy industry to a more consumer-oriented industry and from national self-sufficiency to increased reliance on foreign trade and investment.

Trade. Local and interregional trade were vital to the economy of late imperial China; in addition, trade and tribute formed an important part of the Ming and Qing regimes' relations with their Inner Asian and, to a lesser extent, their Southeast Asian neighbors. Because of the size of the Chinese economy, however, foreign trade has been less important overall than for many polities in both the late imperial and modern times.

Certain regions of China have subsisted heavily on trade. Coastal Guangdong and Fujian were important trading centers in the Song, Yuan, and Ming periods; much of the overseas migration of Han people was for purposes of trading; and Overseas Chinese in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have controlled much of the commerce of Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines and are prominent in overseas trading from Polynesia to Japan to North and South America. Han-dominated Singapore and Hong Kong are primarily trading economies, and Taiwan, which has always had a substantial agricultural population, now derives substantial surpluses from manufactures for export.

Division of Labor. The basic division of labor in agrarian China was set out in Confucian social philosophy: scholar-bureaucrats ranked at the top, because they provided the wisdom and knowledge to maintain the social order. Next came farmers, who produced the necessary goods; then artisans, who added value with their skills; last were merchants, who merely moved things around. By late imperial times, merchants had acquired power and influence beyond their lowly normative position, as well as the ability to convert wealth into prestige by investing in land and education. In contemporary mainland China, the basic division of labor has until very recently been that between peasantsbound to subsistence labor on the land by restrictive social policy and using traditional, human- and animal-powered technologies to grow foodand urban workers and officials, working for wages in factories or at various kinds of desk jobs. Since the 1979 Reforms this distinction has begun to break down, with much rural and increasing amounts of urban private commercial and entrepreneurial activity.

The division of labor by gender was nearly absolute in imperial China, except among the poorest classes. Women were barred from holding office and prevented by foot binding from many kinds of physical labor. They worked hard at domestic tasks, however, in all but the most elite families. These tasks included the production of textiles for home use and for sale, as well as some assistance in agricultural tasks and care of livestock. During the Republican period, women gained some forms of legal and educational equality and began to take on a limited number of professional positions, as well as being hired as low-wage industrial laborers. Foot binding basically disappeared by the 1930s, enabling women to do more kinds of work.

In Communist China, women have gained full legal equality, and the participation of women in all walks of life has been a prominent feature of propaganda, especially during the Cultural Revolution. This equality probably always existed more in theory than in practice, though, and, since the Reforms, there has been some backsliding. There is much evidence of job discrimination, but it is less overtwomen are considered suitable for and do pursue just about any career in business, the professions, or the public sector, but expectations that they also manage a household and care for children have kept them from achieving equality in practice.

Land Tenure. For the last 1,500 years, land tenure in China has involved a struggle between the tendencies of governments to allocate land administratively and the tendencies of a commercial economy to make land into a freely exchangeable commodity. In the early Tang dynasty, the equal-field system allocated land to families according to their population and their social rank; this system, which was never universal, broke down entirely by the middle of the dynasty. The early Ming emperors also advocated an inkind rather than a cash economy and looked with disfavor on land transactions. Finally, between 1956 and 1979, the Communist party collectivized all agricultural land.

In between these government efforts at domination, land has been a marketable commodity and has tended to concentrate in the hands of landlord classes in some areas, though not in others. In the late imperial and Republican periods, most land in northern China was worked by owner-cultivators, whereas much greater proportions of the rich rice lands of the south were held by noncultivating landlords. Tenancy arrangements in these areas were of three sorts: tenants paid either a share of the crop, a fixed rent in kind, or a fixed rent in cash. In general, there does not seem to have been a strong trend toward greater or lesser concentration of land from the Ming period to the twentieth century, but the forms of tenure tended to gravitate away from more paternalistic, "feudal" forms involving personal service and patronistic protection and toward more strictly commercial forms involving cash or in-kind rents and little else.

The Communist party based much of its appeal to peasants in the 1921-1949 revolutionary struggle on a promise to eliminate the power and wealth of the exploitative landlord class. This was done in a sometimes violent program of land reform in 1949-1951 and was followed in the middle 1950s with a series of collectivization campaigns, culminating in the establishment of the large, centralized Peoples Communes in 1958. The communes were rather quickly decentralized as unworkable, however, and from 1962 to 1978 land in effect belonged to a production teama group of twenty to forty households whose members were compensated in shares of the collective harvest by a complex system of labor points. The Reforms of 1979 involved a devolution of land rights (except for purchase and sale) and agricultural labor organization to the individual family; in effect, the prerevolutionary landlord system has been restored with the state rather than the private landlord claiming rights to part of the crop.


Kin Groups and Descent. Han people have had patrilineal kin groups since the period of the earliest written history, and a hierarchical arrangement of clans was the basis of stratification in the feudal order of the Shang and Zhou periods. Nothing is known about the kin group organization of the nonruling classes before the Song period.

In the Song period, the Chinese patrilineage as we now know it began to appear. The core of this type of lineage includes all male descendants of a founding ancestor; women tend to become more attached as they grow older to their husbands' and son's lineages and to relinquish their minor roles as sisters and daughters of their natal lineages.

Han lineages, until very recent times, have been rigorously exogamous (even a common surname was enough to prohibit marriage in the late imperial period), and with patrilocal marital residence this resulted in lineage villages or even lineage districts populated almost entirely by members of a single lineage. Particularly in the core areas of southern and eastern China, where agriculture and commerce were most developed, lineages often held large amounts of land collectively, using the income from tenant rents to fund ritual, educational, and sometimes even military activities. Such wealthy lineages often contained corporate, property-holding, sublineages within them, and a large lineage of 10,000 or more members might have ten or more genealogical levels of property-holding segments. Such lineages were highly stratified internally, often containing both scholar officials and ordinary peasants.

The importance of lineages varied greatly by region and locally, however, and probably only a minority of Han people in the late imperial period were members of a large, powerful lineage; indeed, many were not members of any lineage at all. In the overall social structure, lineages were one important kind of corporation, but they might be locally eclipsed by local, occupational, ethnic, or sectarian organizations.

The new government effectively destroyed the power bases of lineages when they confiscated all lineage-held land in the Land Reform and replaced lineage-based local governments with structures responsible to the party. But lineages remained localized during the collectivist period, and, since the 1979 Reforms, lineages have returned in some areas to the local scene in limited ways, sponsoring ritual and other activities and becoming the focus of local loyalties.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology reflects the patrilineal bias of kinship relations. Agnatic cousins are partially equated with siblings and distinguished from both cross cousins and matrilateral parallel cousins, who are ordinarily not distinguished from each other. Some Chinese kin terminology systems display Omaha features, such as the equation of mother's brother with wife's brother with son's wife's brother. The most important distinction is between elder and younger relatives; elder relatives are always addressed with a kin term, whereas younger relatives are addressed by name. Rural people in some areas use kin terms to address people of a senior generation who are not relatives.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In late imperial China, parents or other seniors inevitably arranged their children's first marriages. Surname exogamy was absolute in most areas, and village exogamy was often, though not always, the rule.

There were four types of marriage widely practiced in late imperial times. Major marriage was a patrilocal union between a young adult woman and a young adult man; this was the normative form everywhere and the model form almost everywhere. It involved both a bride-price (some or all of which would return to the couple as an indirect dowry) and a dowry in furniture, household items, clothing, jewelry, and money, paid for partly out of the groom's family's contribution and partly out of the bride's family's own funds. In the ideal major marriage, bride and groom laid eyes on each other for the first time at their wedding ceremony; this ideal was not always observed.

Minor marriage involved the transfer of a young girl (anywhere from a few days old to 8 or 10 years old, depending on the region and the individual case) from her natal family to her prospective husband's family, where she was raised as a low-status daughter of that family and then forced into a conjugal union with her "foster brother" when she was in her late teens. This form of marriage, practiced mainly in certain parts of the south, had the advantages of avoiding costly bride-price and dowry payments and of binding the bride more closely to her husband's family. It had the disadvantages of having low prestige and often a lack of sexual attraction between the partners, especially if the bride had been brought in very young.

Uxorilocal marriage involved the transfer of a man to a woman's household and was practiced mainly in the south and in situations where a couple with no sons needed either a laborer to work their land, descendants to continue the family line, or both. In some areas, an uxorilocal son-in-law changed his surname to that of the wife's family; in others, he kept his surname, and the children were divided between the two surnames according to a prenuptial contract. In many areas of the north, uxorilocal marriage was not practiced at all; in some parts of the south and southwest, it accounted for as much as 10 to 20 percent of all unions. In the absence of uxorilocal marriage, or as a complement to it, the alternative was adoption of an agnate or, in some cases, of an unrelated boy.

Delayed-transfer marriage was practiced primarily in Guangdong, and involved a woman's remaining in her natal home after her marriage, sometimes until the birth of a child and sometimes permanently. This custom was common among many non-Han peoples in the south and southwest and may have influenced Han practice in these areas. At the same time, delayed-transfer marriage was most common in areas where women had economic autonomy because of their wage-earning power in the silk industry; perhaps a combination of these factors accounts for this highly localized practice. In addition to marriage, the wealthiest Han men in the late imperial and Republican periods often took concubines, sexual partners whose status was less than that of a wife and whose children were legally children of the wife rather than of their birth mothers. Since concubines were social and sexual ornaments not expected to do domestic labor, only the richest men could consider concubinage. Multiple wives, as opposed to concubines, were not ordinarily permitted to Han men.

In late imperial times, men could remarry after the death or (rarely) divorce of a wife; widows were normatively discouraged from remarrying, but often remarried anyway because of economic straits. By law, a remarrying widow would have to leave her children with her husband's family, because they belonged to his patriline.

Reform of marriage practices has been a keystone of social reformers' programs from the late nineteenth century on. The early efforts of Republican governments were successful only among educated urban classes, but in the PRC and in contemporary Taiwan, change has been much greater. The Marriage Law of 1950 in the People's Republic prohibited underage marriage, arranged marriage, minor marriage, bride-price, and concubinage and gave women full rights to divorce. Although not all the ideals embodied in this law have become universal practice, in urban China people usually marry in their mid-twenties by mutual consent and reside virilocally, neolocally, or uxorilocally according to individual preference and availability of housing. Spartan weddings of the collectivist era have given way to lavish banquets and huge dowries, at least among those who have benefited economically from the Reforms. In rural China spouses still often depend on relatives or neighbors to introduce them, but they know each other before the wedding and can call the plans off if they do not get along. With the increased prosperity of much of the countryside, bride-price and dowry have risen dramatically since the 1970s. The prohibition against same-surname marriages seems to have disappeared.

In Taiwan, love marriage is the ideal in theory and practice, and there is little difference between urban and rural practice in that wealthy, densely networked society. Wedding banquets are lavish, and dowries include such things as cars and real estate. Marital residence, as in mainland cities, depends on individual circumstances and preferences, though there is still some pressure to reside patrilocally. Minor marriage, while not illegal, no longer exists.

Domestic Unit. The Han domestic unit was usually coterminous with the property-holding unit. Its developmental cycle was the result of the processes of virilocal marriage and family division. Sons and their wives were expected to reside with the parents until the parents' death, at which time the sons would divide their household and property. If a couple had more than one son, their household would progress from nuclear (a married couple with children, recently separated from the husband's brothers) to stem (the couple with sons, unmarried daughters, and the wife and children of one son), to joint (the couple with sons, their wives, and their children), and back to nuclear when the original couple died and their sons divided their household and property. Demographic differences, of course, meant that not every family went through all the phases of this cycle in every generationa couple with only one son, for example, could never be the head of a joint family, and an eldest son whose own son had children while his parents were still alive would never head a nuclear family. Censuses of local communities usually show from 5 to 20 percent joint families at any one time, with the balance about equally divided between nuclear and stem families.

This familial configuration produced a constellation of alliances and rivalries. Sons, for example, often resented the absolute authority of their fathers, but cultural norms of filial devotion prevented them from expressing this resentment. Sons and their mothers, by contrast, often remained close throughout their lifetimes, making the position of the son's wife, a potential rival for her husband's affection, a very difficult one, especially in the early years of her marriage. Mother-in-law/daughter-in-law rivalry is a recurrent theme of literature and folklore. Brothers, because of their increasing loyalty to their wives, developed rivalries over the course of their adult lives, culminating in almost inevitable family division when their parents died or sometimes before.

In recent times, the developmental cycle has simplified in most cases. In urban mainland China, the nationalization of property and housing has removed the economic hold parents once had over their adult children. The emotional ties remain, and they can be satisfied through a network of linked nuclear and stem families, who share child care, meals, and sometimes financial resources, but who do not coreside. In rural areas, collectivization of property spelled the end of joint families, but one son continues to reside with the parents after his marriage. In Taiwan many families have become geographically extended, retaining some common property rights though often scattered over a series of houses and/or flats. In addition, the rapidly declining birthrates in both areas mean that the personnel to form joint families are rarely available anymore; this trend will become even more acute in the future.

Inheritance. In traditional Chinese law, inheritance was equal and patrilineal. Daughters received dowry upon marriage, but at most periods this did not include land or other real property. In some areas, the eldest son received a slightly larger share than his brothers; in others, the eldest son's eldest son received a small share. In the absence of a son, a daughter inherited rather than a distant male agnate; such an heiress often married uxorilocally.

Daughters in Taiwan under the Republic now have an equal share in inheritance by law, but they usually waive this right formally when they marry. Daughters also have such a right in the People's Republic, but until very recently there has been no significant property to inherit, and little documentation is available on current practices there.

Socialization. Little is known of socialization in earlier periods of Chinese history, but in traditional rural communities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries people had many children; they acted affectionately toward small children although they did not lavish immense attention on them due to alternative obligations. Mothers were primary caretakers, while older sisters, grandmothers, fathers, grandfathers, and other relatives often took a secondary part. People generally indulged boys more than girls, since boys were the link to the future of the family line as well as potential sources of security in old age. Where resources were short, girls might be neglected or even killed at birth if they could not readily be adopted by a wealthier family.

When children reached the age of 7 or so, there was somewhat of a hardening of attitudes, as indulgence and care gave way to discipline, which meant learning farming or other practical skills and conventional morality for most boys, learning household skills and modesty for most girls, and learning the classical Confucian texts for boys of elite families or aspiring to be of the scholar-elite. From this age on, father-son tensions developed.

In the twentieth century, childhood has been altered in important ways by the spread of education (almost universal for a few years, at least, in mainland China in the late 1980s, and completely universal for both sexes through at least grade six or nine in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore) and by the decline in fertility. Children cannot be significant sources of labor, but they can provide hope of social mobility through educational advancement, outside of remote areas of the rural mainland. They must therefore be pushed to do well in school, but also must be afforded time to study. The decline in fertility means more attention to the individual child and also higher expectations. Mainland Chinese psychologists have recently started studies of the "little emperors and empresses" that many people think today's only children have become.

Sociopolitical Organization

Political Organization. Throughout imperial, Republican, and Communist China, varying political philosophies have all emphasized the creation and maintenance of order by establishing benevolent authority and preserving proper relationships between superior and subordinate. At the same time, counterideologies have stressed egalitarianism, distrust of authority, and mass action. The interplay of these two themes has shaped Chinese political history for more than 2,000 years.

For the twenty-one centuries of the imperial era, the ideology of order took the form of reverence for the emperor and respect for his appointed ministers and officials. The emperor was often referred to as Tian Zi, or "Son of Heaven," indicating that he played a pivotal ritual role in ordering the relationships between the human world and the cosmos. In addition, his formal power in human society was theoretically absolute, and most emperors were active executives as well as symbolic foci.

The power and position of the emperor were both supported and circumscribed by the ideology and actions of the bureaucratic officials. Beginning in the late Tang period, the officials were primarily drawn from the gentry or literati class, a nonhereditary group whose primary economic base was landlordism and whose ideological basis of legitimacy was their knowledge of the political philosophy of the Confucian school, which emphasized government by virtuous men as the key to social order and harmony. The literati needed the emperor (otherwise they would have nowhere to serve), and the emperor needed the literati (he needed men to administer his realm), but there was always tension between them, with the literati fearing the despotic tendencies of emperors and emperors fearing the factionalism, localism, and class privilege of the literati.

The literati, or gentry, also formed a kind of hinge between the formal hierarchical structure of the bureaucracy and the kinship-, locality-, and religion-based structures of local society. Because the literati participated both as subordinates in the imperial bureaucracy and as leaders of local communities, their loyalties were divided. From the standpoint of the ordinary peasants, the literati were their neighbors and relatives and, at the same time, their landlords and often tax collectors.

In times of prosperity, this system was relatively stable, due at least partly to the system of civil-service examinations, in which almost all males were eligible to participate, and to the free market in land, which allowed economic as well as political status mobility. But when corruption, mismanagement, natural disaster, foreign invasions, or other destabilizing factors were introduced, the links between emperor and literati and between literati and peasant became strained and eventually the regime was unable to restore order, causing periods of chaos and eventually the overthrow of the dynasty and its replacement by a new and vigorous ruling house. In these periods of interdynastic turmoil, counterideologies, such as those held by Buddhist and Daoist millennarian sects, successfully challenged the imperial orthodoxy for a while but eventually retreated when a new regime was consolidated. This dynastic cycle repeated itself every few centuries over the imperial era.

In the nineteenth century, however, this political system was fundamentally altered in response to the threat posed by European and U.S. colonial and imperialist expansion. After China was forced to sign a series of unequal treaties with the Western powers, Chinese intellectuals were forced to reevaluate their political institutions and increasingly found them wanting as responses to the advance of world capitalism. Socialism, anarchism, militarism, liberal democracy, and finally Marxism all gained their advocates in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The political ideology of the Republic was an amalgam of traditional ideas and Western concepts of socialism and democracy; neither of these, however, was realized, and the government became more conservative in the 1930s and 1940s as its rivalry with the Communist party increased, culminating in the 1949 establishment of the People's Republic. That Communist government bases its ideology on the Marxist ideas of class struggle and of the proletariat as a vanguard class; it implemented its programs through a combination of all-pervasive propaganda and a party-state political organization that penetrated every village, factory, and neighborhood in the country.

Initially, the Communist party in power followed a course of Socialist development based on the earlier Soviet experience, but Mao Zedong's impatience with the slowness of orderly Socialist development led to radical, voluntarist politics of mass movements in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Especially in the latter period, the party and state organizations themselves became targets of populist propaganda and mass action, and orderly development was shunted aside in favor of voluntarist fervor. With the Reforms of 1979, however, the party retreated both from its mass-action mode of operation and from its immediate Socialist goals. In recent years, China has increasingly become a conventional one-party bureaucratic state, interested more in furthering economic growth and suppressing dissent than in directing the lives of the populace in much detail.

Social Control and Conflict. Traditional Chinese political philosophy emphasized the avoidance of conflict and the creation of social harmony by rule of an elite of morally cultivated scholars. Law and litigation were considered backup measures applicable only in the partial breakdown of moral government and society. Disputes ought ideally to be settled locally by lineages, villages, guilds, and other unofficial organizations, and were only supposed to come before the courts when local settlement failed. Nevertheless, Chinese magistrates were often overwhelmed with litigation, and legal codes were in fact highly developed.

In recent times, both the Republican and People's Republic governments have adapted European-derived notions of law and legality, but in neither case have these entirely superseded the earlier ideas and institutions of rule by virtuous officials. Especially in the People's Republic, most disputes are mediated by semiofficial mediation committees or by local officials, and neither legal codes nor procedures are highly developed.

Many Han people are reluctant to enter disputes and will go to great lengths of politeness and accommodation to avoid conflict. When conflict does begin, it is often difficult to stop. Most people are worried about maintaining face, or the feeling that one is respected by the community, and losing a legal dispute threatens loss of face as much as it threatens loss of money, land, or other material goods. For this reason, avoidance of conflict and persistence in conflict both continue to be features of Han culture.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. Han religion is conveniently, though oversimplistically, divided into three elite, literate traditionsState Religion, Daoism, and Buddhism; a series of folk beliefs and practices that varies widely in regional detail but contains a common substratum; and the beliefs and practices of various syncretic sects. None of these religious traditions is completely independent of any of the others, and with the exception of the sects, adherents of one tradition rarely reject or oppose the others.

Han folk religion is centered around the efforts of individuals and communities to create and maintain harmony in relationships between the human and the cosmic order. The soul is a necessary complement to the body in forming a whole person; as the physiology of the body must harmonize internally and with the external environment, the soul must harmonize with cosmic forces of time and space. If the soul leaves the body unintentionally, listlessness, madness, and eventually death can result, but the soul can intentionally leave the body in mediumistic séance, to be replaced by a deity, or in shamanistic travel to the realms of the dead. Upon death, the soul disperses to the Earth, where it remains in the bones, to the realm of the dead, where it takes up an existence roughly similar to that on Earth, and to the wooden or paper spirit tablet where people worship it as an ancestor.

Like society, the cosmos has an ideal order, represented by the relationships of time and space. Every person, through the soul, is part of this order, and it is prudent to maintain a position that is harmonious with the order. To do so, people harmonize important actions in time by consulting specialist horoscope readers or widely available almanacs; they harmonize their use of space by consulting geomancers, specialists in the harmonious siting of houses, public buildings, and especially graveswhere the bones must be placed in a site and a direction that will preserve harmony between soul and environment and bring good fortune to descendants.

In addition to living humans, the cosmos is inhabited by purely spiritual beings, souls without bodies, which are of three kinds. Ancestors are the souls of agnatic forebears, worshiped at graves and in tablets with daily incense and food offerings on holidays. They are ordinarily benign beings and will harm their descendants only if neglected or insulted. Ghosts are the souls of people who are angry at having died an unnatural death or being without descendants; they are malicious and capriciousdangerous particularly to children. People propitiate them on regular occasions and when they have cause to expect ghostly attack. Gods are the souls of people who have lived particularly meritorious lives and have retained spiritual power that they can use to benefit worshipers. People worship them at home and in temples; specific gods are often patrons to particular neighborhoods, villages, cities, guilds, or even social clubs, and the yearly religious ritual to a community's god is one of its most important occasions.

This folk religion has, over the years, absorbed and assimilated elements from the State Religion, Daoism, and Buddhism. Folk religion is not an independent system, since specialists trained in one or another of the elite traditions are necessary to carry out many rituals on behalf of folk believers. Magistrates and officials up to the emperor performed rituals for harmony that would prevent natural and human disasters; Buddhist monks and Daoist priests performed exorcisms, funerals, soul-retrievals, and healing rituals. Yet each of the elite traditions also has its literary, specialist side, engaged in only by the specialist practitioners or literate lay adherents.

State Religion was the ritual basis of the imperial regime, the site of the emperor's and the officials' cosmic ordering functions. In postimperial times, it has largely been supplanted by the secular rituals of the Republican and Communist regimes, though adulation and worship of Mao Zedong, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, amounted to a sort of deification.

Daoism is still an active force in China. Beginning from the late Zhou period, Daoism developed both as a philosophy of living in harmony with nature and as a system of esoteric rituals designed to confer personal immortality, cure disease, and superimpose a superior, eternal order of unchanging life on the earthly order of daily and seasonal change, life and death, growth and decay. The priests of this latter tradition were important in the development of science and medicine in imperial China, though their actions seem at odds with the natural harmony practices advocated by the philosophical Daoists.

Buddhism was introduced to China from India beginning in the early centuries of the Common Era and by Tang times was firmly established as one of the primary religions of China. Chinese Buddhist monks went on to develop some of the most sophisticated Mahayanist philosophies, some of which spread to Japan and Korea as well. Mahayana Buddhism combines the original Buddhist goals of realization of the transitoriness of material existence with a posited cosmology of myriad Buddhas and bodhisattvas (Buddhas-to-be) who are potential helpers of those who believe. The Buddhist tradition in China thus afforded its adherents everything from a sophisticated system of philosophy and psychology, to the opportunity for monastic meditative practice toward the goal of relief from existence, to help from Buddhist divinities enshrined in local temples. Over the last thousand years, many Buddhist and Daoist divinities, beliefs, and practices were absorbed into the folk religion, so that bodhisattvas function as local gods, for example, and Buddhist monks are as likely as Daoist priests to perform funerals, exorcisms, and other rites for the common people.

Sectarian traditions emerged periodically in Chinese history; by late imperial times most sectarian groups held a syncretic series of beliefs taken from Daoism, folk religion, the official tradition, and particularly from the Maitreya (Buddha of the Future) tradition of Mahayana Buddhism. Exclusivist in their membership, often secret in their activities, many sects fomented millennarian uprisings, especially at times of dynastic turmoil and decline. Other sects were quietistic, striving for personal salvation rather than social revolution. Because of their exclusivist practices and their intermittent advocacy of violent social change, imperial, Republican, and Communist governments have all persecuted the sectarians, but they have reemerged after the Reforms in mainland China, and draw a large following in Taiwan, where they have entered a quietistic phase and currently pose little threat to the sociopolitical order.

Foreign religions other than Buddhism have historically had limited appeal to Han people. Islam has been present in China for over a thousand years, and there are Muslims throughout the northwest and in most cities of China. Muslims, however, are not considered Han in mainland China; they are given the separate ethnic designation of Hui. There was a Jewish community at Kaifeng in Henan for several hundred years; its members were largely assimilated by the late nineteenth century. Christian missionaries have proselytized in China intermittently since the Tang period; their most recent period of intense activity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries produced perhaps 4 million converts to both Protestant and Catholic Christian churchessuppressed in the Cultural Revolution, they are reviving in the Reform period. But Christians remain a tiny minority of Han people, probably no more than 10 million converts and adherents.

During the most radical periods of the People's Republic, all Han religion was suppressed, and very little activity went on. Since the Reforms, folk religion in particular has revived in many areas, particularly in the south and southeast, with many temples rebuilt and traditional funerals and other rituals quite common. A certain number of Buddhist monasteries and Daoist temples have been allowed to reopen, but it seems unlikely that the elite practitioners of either of these traditions will soon regain their former numbers or prominence.

Arts. Early Chinese literature consists primarily of historical and philosophical prose as well as various kinds of poetry. The earliest extant poems, probably transcriptions of folk songs, date from the eighth century b.c.e.; since then there is an unbroken tradition of poetry both as a folk form and as a gentlemanly literary endeavor. In classical poetry, lyric and narrative forms are both found, but the epitome of the tradition is the short lyric on the themes of nature, the transience of life, or male friendship.

Fiction is a rather late entrant to Chinese literature, with the earliest extant stories written in a semivernacular style in the Tang period. In the late imperial period, the multivolume episodic novel, written in vernacular style, gained great popularity; its themes range from historical romance to Buddhist fantasy to psychological family chronicle. Fiction and political essays, now written entirely in the vernacular or baihua, have been the primary genres in the postimperial period.

Painting has been preeminent among the visual arts. The earliest extant paintings reside on the walls of Buddhist temples and caves; painting on paper or silk survives from as early as the Song period. The two major traditions of classical painting were the court tradition, depicting urban or rural scenes in meticulous detail, along with portraiture, and the literati tradition of more suggestive and evocative landscapes and still lifes. In recent times, Chinese painters have pursued a mix of traditional literati styles, adaptations of Western oils and other media, and systematization of folk styles. Communist attempts to institute Stalinist-style Socialist Realism in arts and literature have been largely abandoned by serious artists in the Reform period.

Along with painting goes calligraphy, an art engaged in by almost all literati in the imperial period and still widely learned and practiced today. Not only professional artists but also political leaders and other prominent persons are asked to inscribe their characters on important public buildings and monuments, and good calligraphy is still universally admired.

Other visual arts have not been accorded the same status as painting or calligraphy, but the works, usually by anonymous artists, show every bit as much skill and style. Wood carving, jade and other stone carving, and the architecture of palaces, private homes, and gardens are all highly sophisticated.

Medicine. For more than 2,000 years Han people developed a complex system of medical theory based on humoral balance and imbalance, and a series of diagnostic and therapeutic modes used to maintain and restore such balances. Diagnosis is primarily by history taking and a complex system of twelve or twenty-four different pulses; therapeutic modes include the administration of humorally active medicines orally and topically as well as the stimulation of a series of surface points with needles (acupuncture) or burning moxa (moxibustion). Practitioners of this tradition included both professionals and literati-amateurs, and they developed an extensive literature of manuals and pharmacopoeias.

In twentieth-century China there have been ongoing debates over the scientific validity and practical utility of this tradition and whether it still has a place in a world dominated by Western allopathic medicine. At present, traditional Chinese medicine is still practiced in mainland China, and there are special medical schools to train Chinese doctors. There is also considerable research on the biochemistry and physiology of traditional pharmaceuticals and point-stimulating procedures. In recent years as well, acupuncture has received attention and respect in Western countries, and several states in the United States now regulate its practice and license its practitioners.

At the same time, allopathic medicine is now the dominant form of practice in both the mainland and Taiwan. More important than clinical practice, however, have been the extensive public-health measures taken by the Japanese colonial and Republican governments in Taiwan and by the People's Republic on the mainland; these have brought the morbidity and mortality patterns of both Chinese areas close to those of the industrialized nations.


Ebrey, Patricia Buckley (1981). Chinese Civilization and Society : A Sourcebook. New York: Free Press.

Huang Shu-min (1989). The Spiral Road: Changes in a Chinese Village through the Eyes of a Communist Party Leader. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Naquin, Susan, and Evelyn Rawski (1987). Chinese Society in the Eighteenth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Norman, Jerry (1988). Chinese. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Skinner, G. William (1985). "Presidential Address: The Structure of Chinese History." Journal of Asian Studies 44:271-292.

Spence, Jonathan D. (1990). The Search for Modern China. New York and London: Norton.

Wolf, Arthur P., and Chieh-shan Huang (1980). Marriage and Adoption in China. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.


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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 bcad 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 bcad 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 Chineseyoung and old, men and womenwore 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 618907). 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.

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Han (Chinese dynasty)

Han (hän), dynasty of China that ruled from 202 BC to AD 220. Liu Pang, the first Han emperor, had been a farmer, minor village official, and guerrilla fighter under the Ch'in dynasty. During the period of civil strife that followed the fall of the Ch'in, he advanced from the Huai River valley, defeated his rivals for the throne, and then established himself in Chang'an (see Xi'an) near the old Ch'in capital. Under Liu Pang and the succeeding Han emperors the task of unification begun by the Ch'in was carried further. However, the harsh laws of the Ch'in were repealed, taxes were lightened, the absolute autocracy of the emperor was lessened, and, most importantly, Confucianism was made the basis of the state. The pyramidal bureaucracy of Ch'in administration was retained, and the Han period saw the beginnings of one of the distinguishing features of the Chinese educational and state system, the recruiting of members of the bureaucracy through civil service examinations. The dynasty attained its greatest territorial expanse under the emperor Wu Ti (reigned 140 BC–87 BC), who extended Han power W to Xinjiang and Central Asia, N to Manchuria and Korea, and S to Yunnan, Hainan island, and Vietnam. One of China's greatest historians, Ssu-ma Ch'ien, flourished during the reign of Wu Ti. The Han emperors ruled for 400 years with one interruption; in AD 8 an agrarian reformer usurped the throne and established the Hsin dynasty. This short-lived dynasty has come to mark the division between the Early, or Western, Han period and the Later, or Eastern, Han period, which began AD 25, when the Han capital was moved east to Luoyang. The entire Han era was one of political and cultural centralization and expansion. The writing brush and paper and ink came into wide use and the manufacture of porcelain had its beginnings in this period. Many classic texts were edited, and the first dictionary was compiled. The coming of Buddhism increased cultural ties with India and parts of the Middle East. Trade with border states was increased to pacify these regions and to gain their allegiance. The dynasty collapsed c.AD 220 and was followed by some 350 years of smaller political units, including the Three Kingdoms and the Tsin dynasty. China was eventually reunited under the Sui dynasty.

See P. Ku, The History of the Former Han Dynasty (tr., 3 vol., 1938–55); Ssu-ma Ch'ien, Records of the Grand Historian of China (tr., 2 vol., 1961); M. Loewe, Everyday Life in Early Imperial China (1968); J. Gernet, Ancient China from the Beginnings to the Empire (tr. 1968); Tung-hsi Ch'u, Han Social Structure (1972).

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Han (rivers, China)

Han:1 River of S China, 210 mi (338 km) long, rising in W Fujian prov. and flowing S through Guangdong prov. to the South China Sea at Shantou; navigable for about 100 mi (160 km) upstream. The densely populated delta is a rich agricultural area; two crops of rice are grown annually. Manganese and tungsten are mined in the upper valley. 2 River of central China, c.700 mi (1,130 km) long, rising in SW Shaanxi prov. and flowing E between the Qinling and the Daba mts., then SE through Hubei prov. to join the Chang at Wuhan; navigable for about 300 mi (480 km) upstream. The river floods its fertile lower valley in summer. There is a hydroelectric power station near Xiangfan, Hubei prov.

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The Han (Hankutchin) are an Athapaskan-speaking group who live in the western part of the Yukon Territory in Canada and the east-central part of Alaska in the upper Yukon River drainage area. It has been estimated that there are about thirty-five speakers of the Han language who, along with a few hundred others, are assimilated into White society.


Crow, John R., and Philip R. Obley (1978). "Han." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 6, Subarctic, edited by June Helm, 506-513. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

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Han Imperial Chinese dynasty (202 bc–ad 220). Liu Pang, a rebellious peasant, overthrew the Qin dynasty and established the Han's dynastic capital at Chang'an. Under the Han, Confucianism became the state philosophy, and China achieved unprecedented power, prosperity, technological invention, and cultural growth – especially under Han Wu Ti in the 2nd century bc. A usurper, Wang Mang, interrupted the dynasty between ad 8 and 25; this period divides the dynasty into the Former Han and Later Han.

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HanAberfan, Adrianne, an, Anne, artisan, astrakhan, ban, began, Belmopan, bipartisan, bran, can, Cannes, Cézanne, Cheyenne, clan, courtesan, cran, dan, Dayan, Diane, divan, élan, Elan, fan, flan, foreran, Fran, Friedan, Gell-Mann, gran, Han, Hunan, Ivan, Jan, Japan, Jinan, Joanne, Kazan, Klan, Kordofan, Lacan, Lausanne, Leanne, Limousin, Louvain, man, Mann, Marianne, Milan, Moran, nan, Oran, outran, outspan, Pan, panne, parmesan, partisan, pavane, pecan, Pétain, plan, Pusan, ran, rataplan, rattan, Rosanne, Sagan, Saipan, saran, scan, scran, sedan, span, spick-and-span, Spokane, Suzanne, Tainan, tan, than, tisane, trepan, van, vin, Wuhan, Xian, Yerevan, Yunnan, Zhongshan •koan • kanban • Seremban •Cardin, Teilhard de Chardin •Rodin • Ramadan • dauphin •turbofan • Afghan • Gauguin •Callaghan

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"Han." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. 2007. Encyclopedia.com. 24 May. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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