When was "Han" first used to mean "Chinese people"?

Sure, it’s the name of a dynasty and all that. But when did they start distinguishing between “Han Chinese” and other types of Chinese?

Can anybody cite an example prior to 1928?

1928 is the year of the earliest appearance of Buck Rogers–in a serialized novel called “Armageddon 2419 AD,” by Philip Francis Nowlan, published in Amazing Stories. In it, the future America has been conquered by an evil Asiatic race called the Airlords of Han. They are the product of interbreeding between Asians (not sure what kind) and space aliens. Autopsy revealed that they lacked souls. (Of course, the sound “Han” is also used of Korea, but that would have been pretty obscure information in 1928, no?)

I haven’t any references to hand but I think it goes back centuries.
The Han reference is not universal in China:
While Mandarin speakers call themselves Han, AFAIK Cantonese speakers refer to themselves as the Tang (as in the dynasty) so Chinatowns (formed predominantly by Guangdong emigrants) are

Asked around: The earliest reference clearly distinguishing the Han that my learned friend could come up with was the Qing legal system which differentiated Han from Manchu. HTH

I refer to myself as Tong Ngin (

Then were did the other enthonyms come from, like Chung Guo Ren and Hua Ren, etc.? How old are they?

My suspicion was that “Chinese” have always considered themselves (and been considered by others to be) different from Tibetans, etc., but the 20th century messed things up by making them change their ethnonym. Now Salmon tells me that the Ching used “Han” in essentially the same way. Hmmm…so was “Chung Guo” etc. always a political rather than ethnic designation?

There’s an interesting debate about the origins of Zhongguo and Zhonguo ren here. Zhongguo has certainly cropped up in texts from early (Zhou) times:

[quote]There is a good explanation about the meaning and evolution of the word Zhong Guo in Ci2 Hai3 by Shanghai Dictionary Publisher, 1979.

The original usage of Zhong Guo was much earlier than I expected. Ci2 Hai3 listed the usages of Zhong Guo in the ancient historical documents and literatures: Shi1 Jing1, Li3 Ji4, Shi3 Ji, and Jin4 Shu1.

The original meaning of Zhong Guo is the center of a country and thus was used to mean the capital of a country. Since the ancester of Han Chinese, Hua2Xia4 people, had their capitals almost all in the middle range of the yellow river, and that Hua2Xia4 people was surrounded by the minority groups at that time, the area was called Zhong Guo (around the current Henai province). Later the area meant by Zhong Guo was expanded to all that ruled by Hua2Xia4 or Han people. Ci2 Hai3 doesn’t mention if Yuan and Qing were called Zhong Guo but I believe so.

It seems that the following observations can be made:

  1. Zhong Guo has been used as a geographical term for the area dominated by Hua2Xia4 or Han Chinese (not necessarily ruled) for at least about 3000 years.
  2. Zhong or “central” here is a local concept, it has nothing to do with being at the center of the world.
  3. After the founding of the ROC, Zhong Guo was used as its abbrev. and later PRC uses the same abbrev. And thus using Zhong Guo Ren as the name of the citizen od ROC and/or PRC is widely accepted.
  4. However, this does not exclude using Zhong Guo Ren by its ethnical meaning, the peoples living in the geographical Zhong Guo and their descendants.[/quote]

But pre-revolutionary use of Zhongguo doesn’t seem very common. Could it’s modern usage just be a convenient contraction of ROC/PRC?

[quote]Incidentally, the name of ROC (Zhong1 Hua2 Min2 Guo2) came from the following words of Dr. Sun Yat-sen:

“Qu1 Zhu2 Da2 Lu3, Hui1 Fu4 Zhong1 Hua2, Chuang4 Jian4 Min2 Guo2, Ping2 Jun1 Di4 Quan2”

(Expelling Manchurians and foreign invaders, restoring China, establishing
a republic, and initiating land reform.)[/quote]

I wonder–do Chinese really refer to themselves as “Han,” except for the limited purpose of contrasting themselves to their traditional subject races? I realize that they DO say things like “Han xue” and “Hanzi,” but this doesn’t feel like the use of an ethnonym–it seems more like a distinction between high culture and everything else.

I note in passing that when we take “Chinese” classes or study “Chinese” literature and philosophy, we never need reminding that this means Han Chinese and not Tibetan or whatnot.

Imperial Chinese histories are full of sneering references to the non-Han and the historians made great efforts to distinguish between their civilized selves and the barbarians beyond. I think the distinction was as much based on the level of “Chinese culture” a people possessed as their ethnicity though. The Qin, who went on to unify the warring states, were considered barbarians by the writers of the Zuozhuan.
The confusion of ethnicity and culture persists. You still meet people in China who think that non-Chinese cannot speak (not simply don’t know how to speak) Chinese.

As for the Tibetans, your standard Chinese histories mark them out clearly as separate people. There are oracle bones referring to a people to the west, the Qiang. Official histories of China’s 50 cheerful minorities agree that these are the Tibetans (see how far back Sino-Tibetan friendship extends!) on the basis that Tibet is west of Shandong (!) and that the character Qiang

What did the Chinese emperors call their empire then?


didn’t Chinese emperors rule

In most pre-Qin contexts though, Zhong guo means “the central states” and refers the culturally Chinese states of the Yellow River valley.

Historically, what we now call China was referred to by as Da Qing (“The Great Qing”), Da Ming ("The Great Ming) and the like. The emperors did not refer to their dominions as Zhongguo. Zhongguo in the sense of China is a modern usage.