Are All Han Chinese Really the Same Ethnicity?

Are Han Chinese really one race?

When living in China as a non-Chinese foreigner, one thing is abundantly clear. You are indeed a foreigner. You concept of self is inextricably linked to your home country in a way that might not be true in many other countries. A Han Chinese living in the US won’t immediately be deemed a foreigner simply because they look different.

In China, as well as every nation of East Asia, however, looking different is an immediate indicator of being an outsider. 95% of the country is Han Chinese and of the 5%, many are recognized minority groups by the government. Further, there are subgroups of Han such as Hakka or Cantonese that are ethnically the same as Han, according to the CCP. Hakka are mainly from the south, but live all over the country.

There are 1.2 billion people who identify as Han Chinese, and over the course of thousands of years of history different groups of people and disparate tribes combined or were unified to create the ethnicity. Surely, they aren’t really all the same, right?

Ethnicity versus Race

This is a pertinent topic in today’s social climate. While there is a clear distinction between race and ethnicity, the two concepts on their own are fluid and difficult to define.

Race pertains to phenotypical appearance, which can be subjective. Mexicans can be considered white or Caucasian, especially if one’s blood is mostly European. Many Mexicans would identify as white, but in the US they can be considered brown or a person of color.

One’s race is entirely a descriptor of appearance and does not indicate any genetics. Make it clear: there is no gene for race. This is where ethnicity can be helpful, be again does not reveal any underlying genetics.

Ethnicity is a self-identifying concept. Simply, if one identifies as a particular ethnicity, then they are that ethnicity. Ethnicity reveals one’s identity in terms of cultural, linguistic, racial, religious or other factors.

In the US, only in Appalachia and the Deep South do a plurality of a given county identify as “American.” Ethnicity is a tricky idea, where it’s a self-applied, self-identifying concept. Many Americans idea ethnically with their origins from abroad (European, African, Asian, etc.)

If someone identifies culturally with a certain ethnicity, one cannot verifiably assert the opposite. It’s subjective. Because of this, it’s hard to argue that someone who claims they are Han isn’t actually Han.

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For example: What does it mean to be Arab?

The idea of being “Arab” can be likened to that of being Chinese. Arabs cover a massive geographic area from Morocco to Iraq. It covers peoples as diverse as Maghrebi, Levantine, Berber and Somali (among others), with different dialects, histories, religious sects, cuisine, music, dance, art, everything.

To be Arab, you should speak Arabic, live in an Arab place and/or identify with Arab culture. The last part is a very inclusive feature.

If you zoom into any one of the regions of the Arab World, you find a unique place, further divided into unique subcultures. The most obvious manifestation of this in language. Although Modern Standard Arabic is taught in schools and is a lingua franca of sorts, it is not spoken literally in this way. People speak their local version of Arabic. Moroccan Arabic is mutually unintelligible with Iraqi Arabic, for instance.

There are also local languages used in various regions, such as Berber in parts of North Africa or Somali. So while, ethnic identities vary widely from region to region across the Arab World, the people identity in no uncertain terms as Arab. We can think of this on a large scale and a small scale.

Macro v Micro Application

On one level, ethnicity can be scaled on a micro- or macro-level. If one zooms out a bit, people in the Arab World are Arab, obviously. But as we focus in, we see pockets of Berber or Maghrebi or other ethnicities.

It’s a concept that must be contextualized. Vis-à-vis a white American of European descent, one can view Moroccans and Iraqis, understandably, as both Arab. Comparing these two to one another, however, reveals that Moroccans and Iraqis are profoundly different peoples

China is much the same in this sense. On a macro scale, all Han Chinese are the same ethnicity. Ask a Han from Harbin in the northeast or Kunming in the southwest if they identify with the thousands of years of Chinese culture, and they are likely to answer in the affirmative.

The stories, myths, recipes, histories of the Chinese peoples across millennia weave a shared tapestry of Chinese-ness. Each individual thread has a distinct past, but they are all Chinese in a broad sense.

If you zoom in, though, then certainly on a micro scale China is a vastly diverse place. As you travel across the massive nation, you will discover every neighboring town and village has a unique history that they will proudly relay to you. Often it is in the form of food.

In the city of Foshan, Guangdong province, it is only specifically in Shunde district that they lays claim to inventing shuangpinai, translated literally as “double skin milk.” The area is also famous for its Chinese sashimi which uses river fish and isn’t super similar to its Japanese counterpart.

In the city of Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, near Shanghai, there’s a tiny village called Longjin that makes world famous tea, eponymously named Longjin tea. In Zhaoqing, Guangdong, they have their own sort of zongzi, or sticky rice dumpling. The list is eternal, of all the local delicacies across various villages

Along with cuisine, language seems to be a unifier for ethnicity. When Mao Zedong made Mandarin Chinese the standard for the country during the advent of the PRC, it helped coalesce a sense of identity. Now people from regions as different as Sichuan, Dongbei, Jiangnan and so forth could communicate. Nothing unifies a people quite like language; we are social beings after all.

It seems every 10 miles one encounters a new language in China. In Guangdong alone I experienced several: Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, Taishanhua, Chaoshanhua. Further, there numerous dialects of Cantonese all across every city. People identify very strongly with their local dialect.

While virtually everyone under the age of 40-50 can speak Mandarin, older folks cannot speak more than their mother tongue. In Sichuan, Guangdong and Shanghai in particular, there is a strong attachment to the local language, which are all quite different from Mandarin in many ways.

If there is to be any sort of regionalism among Han Chinese, it would be found in this way. Even the youth in these areas associate with these tongues. As such, I argue Mandarin is the single most important factor in making Han definitively a single ethnicity.

On a macro level, they are all Han Chinese, and in recent years, nationalism is pretty strong, further cementing the idea.


Genetics and ethnicity

On a genetic level, Northern Chinese are much more similar to Koreans and Southern Chinese are much more similar to Vietnamese. There is a sort of continuum in this regard. In fact, this can be seen physically. Han Chinese along the Korean border look somewhat similar to their Korean brethren. Likewise along the Vietnamese border.

There is no race gene. One cannot point to a sequence in our DNA that identifies someone as black. That is found in melanin and social contextualization, not in our nucleotides.

Genetically, however, we can gauge two individuals’ similarities, though. One can say that two people are similar, and this is one way works for instance. As stated above, yes Han Chinese will have a very wide variance genetically. There are 1.2 billion Han Chinese. That’s a huge ethnic group, so ostensibly they’re not all the same genetically

However, genetics and social science aren’t the same. While genetics can prove useful in one regard, it’s not so meaningful to the question at hand. If we look at the self-identifying portion in the definition of “ethnicity” the idea of genetics is completely extraneous.


The idea of ethnicity itself is very much nebulous, so to definitively call Han Chinese either one or the other isn’t necessarily useful

That being said, if you need a definitive answer it’s this: definitionally, anyone who identifies as Han, is in fact, Han. So yes, all Han are Han.

There is a cohesive set of cultural norms and customs over a long history that binds them.

At the end of the day, however, there is a very good way to test this

One day, just ask someone who identifies with a certain ethnicity: Han Chinese, Arab, etc. I dare you to try to tell them that, no, they aren’t really Chinese. Tell them that they are only tenuously connected to their billion brethren who also self-identify as such. See what happens

Tell a Han Chinese person they aren’t actually Han, and they may respond: so what am I?


Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Like what you’re reading on China? Check out some other related articles in: The China Chronicles!!




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