CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 19, September 2009


Hushuo 胡說: The Northern Other and Han Ethnogenesis| China Heritage Quarterly

<< Introducing Critical Han Studies

Hushuo 胡說: The Northern Other and Han Ethnogenesis

Mark Elliott, Harvard University

Historians face a difficult problem in trying to understand the recurrent unity of Zhongguo, or of what in English we today call 'China'. When compared with the failure of other antique empires to maintain their existence into the modern age, the longevity of the Chinese state seems to be something of a historical anomaly. For this very reason, it demands our attention; indeed, it is the basis for that oft-asked question, How is it that China lasted when Greece and Rome (or Egypt, or Parthia) did not? One may be inclined to frame a response in terms of the enduring qualities or customs believed to define the Hua 華—a kind of cultural core of 'Chineseness'—and the close connection seen to obtain between it, a geographic core (what is often called 'China proper' or in older Chinese documents neidi 内地, the 'inner lands'), and a demographic core made up of the people who have historically inhabited China proper, i.e., the group typically referred to as the Han 漢. But this response only raises further uncertainties as to these various core notions: What set of beliefs, values, or practices makes Chinese culture 'Chinese'? Where precisely do its geographic sources lie? And who are the Han?

As part of the effort made in this volume to develop a critical approach to the study of the Han, this essay seeks to address the last of these questions: Whom or what we are talking about when we talk about some group of people identified, whether by ourselves, by others, or by themselves, as 'Han'—that is, Hanren 漢人, Hanzu 漢族, or Han minzu 漢民族? The challenge is greater than it might at first seem. For as will become apparent below, the historical usage of the term 'Han' is highly unstable, and even in the contemporary world the term is quite slippery and imprecise. Sometimes it is used synonymously with 'Chinese', sometimes not; people who might be considered Han in some contexts might not be in others—they might call themselves Tangren 唐人, for instance; and there is a long and lively debate over who the 'true' Han people are and where they came from. In short, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the label Han is just one of many untidy terms that clutter the world we live in.

The goal of this essay therefore is not so much to answer the question, 'Who are the Han?' as it is to ask, 'Why is Han used to talk about the people we know as the Chinese?' In other words, how has Han acquired the sense of an ethnic identifier? What does this category mean today and what has it meant in the past? What can we learn about the Han, or, more precisely, about Han as a classificatory imperative, by understanding its origins and evolution? To address the above questions, this paper offers a preliminary investigation of the history of the term Han and how it came to be applied to the Chinese, that is, to the people of the Central Plains. This is not to say that the matter of the actual origins of the Han people themselves—as represented by the question, 'Who are the people who now make up the majority population of China?'[1]—is not an important one. But it would seem that this is a problem not so much for historians, but for geneticists. We are already getting parts of the answer, and more will come as new techniques involving DNA analysis become more widespread.[2] Instead, for historian and anthropologist alike, a critical approach to Han means investigating the complicated processes of definition, discrimination, identification—as well as, crucially, the discourse on these processes—all the different things people do as part of forming into larger, more-or-less discrete entities we now call ethnic groups. Assuming, that is, we agree that the Han constitute an ethnic group—a problem to which I shall shortly return.

The essay offers two main conclusions: First, the development of the name Han as an ethnonym owed greatly to the intervention of the Hu, the nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples living to the north of the Central Plains. I propose that just as the name Hu was an invention of the people of the Central Plains, so the name HanHan that is, as an ethnonym, a label for people who, by descent, language, and cultural practice, were recognized as Central Plains dwellers (or their descendants)—was largely the invention of the people of the steppe. In short, Han was a Hu proposition—hence my title. Second, I would suggest that the ethnic unity of the Chinese as seen in the adoption of Han to describe themselves is really more the product of repeated efforts to create and foster political unity tHan it is the source of that unity. For while Han as an ethnic term can be dated at least as far back as the sixth century CE, its meaning and usage varied greatly over the succeeding millennium, stabilizing only in the fifteenth century or so, after the founding of the Ming dynasty. In the interim, Han was applied to all kinds of people, some of whom we would regard as 'Chinese' and others decidedly not. In other words, the notion of a durable, unified conception of the Han people as a people dating back millennia is largely a myth; for much of Chinese history, divisions of various sorts—both those between Chinese and non-Chinese and those between northerners and southerners—prevented such an idea from taking hold.


[1] Adachi Fumito, Kanminzoku to ha dare ka: kodai Chūgoku to Nihon rettō o meguru minzoku, shakaigakuteki shiten, Tokyo: Yubun shoin, 2006, p.168.

[2] Still, whatever information is produced through such work will not really help us understand the category 'Han' as such, especially not when nearly all the DNA research that is done focuses on China's 'ethnic groups', generally understood as referring to the non-Han. See Yonggang Yao, et al., 'Genetic Relationship of Chinese Ethnic Populations Revealed by mtDNA Sequence Diversity', American Journal of Physical Anthropology 118.1 (2002), pp.63-76; and, 'Mitochondrial DNA Sequence Polymorphism of Five Ethnic Populations from Northern China', Human Genetics 113.5 (2003), pp.391-405. In this and other work, geneticists have established the fact of a broad division between what they term northern and southern haplotypes. To be sure, some of this research does involve Han populations (e.g., Yao, 'Phylogeographic Differentiation of Mitochondrial DNA in Han Chinese', American Journal of Human Genetics 70.3 (2002), pp.635-651), but this is not framed as work on 'ethnic groups'.