In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethnicity and the Han

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Han Nation, Han minzu or Han Race
  • Han-ness and Other Collective Attachments
  • Ethnic, Sub-ethnic, or Transitorily Ethnic?
  • Han in China’s Multi-ethnic Regions

Chinese Studies Ethnicity and the Han
Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0150


The present article focuses on the Han (汉) in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) where they constitute the largest of the fifty-six state-recognized population categories referred in Chinese as minzu (民族). Well into the 1990s, the official English-language translation of the term minzu was “nationality”—a direct reference to the Soviet nationality policy which was one of the major influences in the formulation of the Communist minzu policy. Recently, however, minzu has been increasingly often rendered in official documents as “ethnic group,” arguably in an attempt to do away with the national connotation of the term and to discursively distance China’s minzu model from the Soviet Union which disintegrated along the borders of nationality republics in 1991. The Han minzu has a population of 1.2 billion and constitutes, according to the 2010 census, 91.6 percent of China’s total population. The Han are recognized by the Chinese state as the national majority and the core of the Chinese multi-ethnic nation. The Han majority minzu, and the other fifty-five minzu commonly referred to as “minorities” (shaoshu minzu, 少数民族), are the outcome of the Minzu Classification Project (Minzu Shibie, 民族识别) launched by the government in the 1950s. The aim of the project was to get a better grasp of China’s ethnic complexity and classify the multi-ethnic population into a clearly defined, administratively-manageable number of categories. In the aftermath of the project, minzu have become the official blueprint for the reproduction of “ethnic” difference in China. While people who situationally self-identify as Han live also in Taiwan, in Southeast Asia, and overseas, identity processes of these Han differ significantly from those in mainland China due to different political, historical, and institutional contexts. Although Han are popularly referred to as an “ethnic group” not only in the official discourse in China but also in the Western media and in numerous academic publications, ethnicity and minzu classification are not equivalents: Minzu categorization is only a part of much more complex and messy processes of ethnicity in China. With regard to the Han, the identification as Hanzu (汉族, i.e., members of the Han minzu) is only one among a number of collective identities between which Han individuals switch in social interactions and which can all be situationally performed as ethnic. Moreover, the Han identity remains in an opaque relationship with such signifiers like Hua (华) or Zhongguoren (中国人) rendered in English as “Chinese.” Though nominally indicating citizenship shared by all the fifty-six minzu, in practice, even in academic publications, “Chinese” and “Han” are often used as synonyms. Hence, discussion of the contemporary Han must not only include ethnicity and minzu classification, but also other racial and national meanings that this collective identity has been ascribed in 20th-century China.

General Overviews

While the interest in China’s “minorities” has brought about a proliferation of scholarly publications since the 1990s, the research on the Han minzu, on the making of this category, and the theoretical grappling with it in the context of ethnicity and nationalism studies have lagged behind. The field is slowly growing but the size, distribution, and the internal variety of the Han continue to challenge scholars in the humanities and social sciences. Though conducted outside of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the rural hinterlands of Hong Kong, Blake’s Ethnic Groups and Social Change in a Chinese Market Town remains a key ethnographic study of this variety and the complexity of identification processes among the Han. Also Faure and Siu 1995, an edited collection of ethnographic and historical studies of identification processes in Han communities in Hong Kong and southern China, is an important publication also for students of the Han in the PRC. Though partially embedded in a different political regime, these studies demonstrate that those who self-identify as Han divide into a plethora of mutually discriminating identity groups in mundane social interactions. The paramount role of migration, kinship, and place in these identification processes has been discussed by Segawa 1996. Whereas locally-specific categorizations and processes of othering are crucial in grasping the lived complexity of Han-ness, it is also necessary to reflect on the role that the Han minzu as an imagined community has assumed in nation-making projects of 20th-century China. Duara 1996 and Mullaney, et al. 2012 are helpful in understanding the nationalization process initiated in the late 19th century and the re-imagining of the Han which paralleled it. The opaqueness existing between Han-ness and Chinese-ness must be reflected on in the context of these late-19th-century and early-20th-century transformations. Identity politics and the mundane fragmentation of the Han in contemporary China, on the other hand, is discussed by Joniak-Lüthi 2015 who also conceptually anchors Han studies in ethnicity debates. Barth 1969, Eriksen 2002, and Brubaker 2004 should be consulted to get a grasp of the notion of ethnicity and ethnic boundaries which underpin the discussion of the Han and their identity processes here.

  • Barth, Fredrik. Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Culture Difference. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1969.

    This is a seminal publication which discusses ethnicity as a process of boundary making as well as social production and organization of difference.

  • Blake, C. Fred. Ethnic Groups and Social Change in a Chinese Market Town. Asian Studies at Hawaii 27. Honolulu: University Press of Hawai’i, 1981.

    Set in the rural hinterland of the Crown Colony of Hong Kong, this is an ethnographic study of identification, inclusion, and discrimination processes among people who all self-identify as Han but, at the same time, divide into locally significant and mutually discriminating identity groups such as the Punti, Hakka, Hokkien, and Boat People.

  • Brubaker, Rogers. Ethnicity without Groups. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 2004.

    The book takes the discussion of ethnicity further by questioning “ethnic groups” as units of analysis of ethnicity. Brubaker proposes instead to discuss ethnic groups as categories of ethnopolitical practice and “groupness” as a context-dependent conceptual variable.

  • Duara, Prasenjit. Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

    It establishes the necessary historical background of the Han-making projects in 20th-century China. It discusses the rising nationalism in the late imperial period, new approaches to national history writing, and the new ideas of nation and territorial state which have launched a thorough transformation of the idea of China since the turn of the 19th century.

  • Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. Ethnicity and Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives. London: Pluto Press, 2002.

    In an accessible way, the book discusses ethnicity and its place in the contemporary world dominated by nation-states. It relates ethnicity to the debates on nationalism, multiculturalism, minority rights, and identity.

  • Faure, David, and Helen F. Siu, eds. Down to Earth: The Territorial Bond in South China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995.

    The contributions to this edited volume discuss the role of home place, lineage, place of living and occupation, among others, in the processes of identity and power negotiations among people who self-identify as Han in southern China.

  • Joniak-Lüthi, Agnieszka. The Han: China’s Diverse Majority. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2015.

    It discusses the functions and meanings of Han-ness in contemporary China, the complex identity topographies of contemporary Han, and processes of othering and discrimination which fragment them in mundane interactions against the backdrop of state interventions in identity politics in 20th-century China.

  • Mullaney, Thomas S., James Leibold, Stéphane Gros, and Eric Vanden Bussche, eds. Critical Han Studies: The History, Representation, and Identity of China’s Majority. Berkeley and London: Global, Area, and International Archive and University of California Press, 2012.

    This edited volume explores Han-making projects in imperial and republican China, the multiple and historically-contingent functions and meanings of the Han identity, and the socio-ethnic diversity that characterizes the Han today.

  • Segawa, M. 濑川昌久. Zupu: Huanan Hanzu de Zongzu, Fengshui, Yiju (族谱: 华南汉族的宗族, 风水, 移居. Translated by Qian Hang. Shanghai: Shanghai Shudian Chubanshe, 1996.

    This is a rich, fieldwork-based study of southern Han’s kinship, rituals, geomantic practices, and the attempts to territorialize lineage identities. Segawa also discusses the fluidity of boundaries between the Zhuang and Han in southern China’s region of Guangxi.

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