- Chinese: 漢人 (Hàn rén)
The Han people are the dominant ethnicity of China, constituting as much as 92% of the Chinese population in the late Qing Dynasty, and outnumbering the ruling Manchu ethnic group at that time by around 300 to 1. Originally inhabiting only a small area in what is now considered northwestern China, the Han expanded over the last 3,000 years to become the majority ethnic group of a land area more than 3.5 million square miles in size, and continue to expand today, slowly gaining demographic dominance in areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang. Han people have also emigrated overseas in large numbers for centuries, despite official bans on overseas settlement, forming a sizable Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, Hawaii, North America, and throughout the world.
Some traditional treatments of Han origins place them as first emerging in the loess plains near the great bend of the Yellow River, in the area surrounding what is today the city of Xi'an. As late as around 1000 BCE, they are believed to have inhabited an area no larger than ten percent of what is today considered "China proper." Other peoples known today as the Yue, Li, Shu, and Zhuang, among others, lived beyond that area.
As early as the 200s BCE, however, the Han people established a strong state, the Qin Dynasty, followed by the Han Dynasty, which controlled a vast area encompassing much of China proper, and even incorporating Vietnam, which was ruled as an integral part of the Chinese empire for as long as a thousand years, from 111 BCE until 939 CE.
Raids and attacks by nomadic peoples from the steppes spurred many Han people to begin migrating south in the 4th-5th centuries CE, however, and by the 8th-12th centuries (Tang Dynasty through Song Dynasties), the ancestral Han homeland in the northwest was surpassed by southern China - especially the Jiangnan area south of the Yangtze River, around Hangzhou, and the southern coastal provinces of Fujian and Guangdong - which now became the center of gravity of Han Chinese population. While the population in northwest China grew by around 50% over the course of the 8th-12th centuries due to regular population growth, that of southwest China multiplied by a factor of seven in that same period, and by the year 1200, as much as 75% of Han people lived in southern China. As late as the 16th century (during the Ming Dynasty), population and settlement remained relatively sparse away from the coast, and many inland areas remained completely undeveloped. While millet and barley remained the chief crops in the north, people in the south took up rice as their staple crop, forming the core of dramatic cultural changes.
In the Ming Dynasty, the Imperial Court actively encouraged migration into less densely settled areas of the empire, especially in border regions along the Great Wall of China and near Burma; roughly one million people moved into Yunnan province during this period, encouraged by various incentive policies of the Court. Similar incentives were also deployed in the early decades of the Qing Dynasty (in the 17th century) to encourage settlement in Sichuan province. Meanwhile, many people moved west on their own (without government incentive), as well as to Taiwan and elsewhere, dramatically increasing the extent of settlement of many of these regions. The population of Sichuan increased by 35 million in the period from the 1780s to 1850s alone, more than quadrupling from its earlier levels. In many of these regions, Han settlers bought land from non-Han people, or took it by force, and aided other Han settlers, providing them with seed, livestock, or money, and helping them obtain land.
In the 19th century, the Taiping Rebellion and other events caused considerable destruction and depopulation of the southeastern coastal regions; the western regions, meanwhile, to which people had been migrating for several centuries, now began to grow overpopulated. Migration west dwindled, and many people began to instead move back east, as well as to the northeast (into Manchuria), and overseas. Han Chinese settlement in Manchuria was initially prohibited under the Qing, and as late as 1800 the Manchu homeland had a population of only around one million. However, in the last decades of the Qing Dynasty, the Court succumbed to various pressures, and began to allow Han people to settle in the area. The construction of a railroad into Manchuria in 1902 aided Chinese settlement, which strengthened Chinese/Qing claims to the territory against Russian encroachment. By the 1950s, Manchuria was home to as many as 47 million people, including many Han Chinese, and various areas of Southeast Asia were home to strong diasporic communities, totaling as many as 13 million.
Today, Han people represent a considerable majority in Taiwan, where indigenous groups constitute, in total, a percentage of the population in the single digits. The Chinese government also encourages Han settlement in Tibet, Xinjiang, and other such areas, where Sinicization continues to threaten the survival of local cultures.
- Lloyd Eastman, Family, Fields, and Ancestors: Constancy and Change in China's Social and Economic History, 1550-1949, Oxford University Press (1988), 8-13.
- Overseas settlement was banned by the Ming and Qing Courts until 1893. Eastman, 12.
- That is, excluding Manchuria, Mongolia, Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang, to which the Chinese Empire expanded only in the 17th-18th centuries.
- Evelyn Rawski, Early Modern China and Northeast Asia: Cross-Border Perspectives, Cambridge University Press (2015), 192.