Guys and gals: Or, why the "Chinese" are called "Han"

« previous post | next post »

In the comments to "Easy versus exact" (10/14/17), a discussion of the term "Hànzi 汉子" emerged as a subtheme.  Since it quickly grew too large and complex to fit comfortably within the framework of the o.p., I decided to write this new post focusing on "Hàn 汉 / 漢" and some of the many collocations into which it enters.

To situate Language Log readers with some basic terms they likely already know, we may begin with Hànyǔ 汉语 ("Sinitic", lit., "Han language"), Hànyǔ Pīnyīn 汉语拼音 ("Sinitic spelling"), and Hànzì 汉字 ("Sinograph, Sinogram", i.e., "Chinese character").  All of these terms incorporate, as their initial element, the morpheme "Hàn 汉 / 漢".  Where does it come from, and what does it mean?

"Hàn 汉 / 漢" is the name of a river that has its source in the mountains of the southwest part of the province of Shaanxi.  It is the longest tributary of the Yangtze River, which it joins at the great city of Wuhan.  The fact that Han is a river name is reflected in the water semantophore on the left side of the character that is used to write it.

The name of the river was adopted by Liu Bang (256-195 BC), the founding emperor, as the designation for his dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) — more specifically, the dynasty was named after Liu Bang's fiefdom Hànzhōng 汉中 / 漢中 (lit. "middle of the Han River").  After the Qin (221-206 BC), from which the name "China" most likely derives, the Han was the second imperial dynasty in Chinese history.  Because the fame of the Han Dynasty resounded far and near, it came to be applied to the main ethnic group of China, as well as the language they spoke and the characters used to write it.  Note that there could have been no Han ethnicity or nation before the Han Dynasty.

After the Han Dynasty fell, many of the dynasties that ruled in the northern part of the former empire during the following centuries were non-Sinitic peoples (proto-Mongols, proto-Turks, etc.) who actually looked down upon their Han subjects.  During that period, in their mouths, "Hàn 汉 / 漢" became a derogatory term, especially in collocations such as Hàn'er 汉儿 and Hànzi 汉子, which we might think of as meaning something like "Han boy / fellow / guy".  Such terms derived from "Hànrén 汉人 (漢人)" ("Han people"), which generally became a respectable designation again after the collapse of the northern dynasties.  It is remarkable, however, that during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), when the Mongols ruled over China, non-Sinitic peoples such as the Khitans, Koreans, and Jurchens were referred to as "Hànrén 汉人 (漢人)" ("Han people").

Here are some terms in Mandarin that are based on the Han ethnonym but refer to different types of people in various ways:

hànzi 汉子    39,300,000 ghits

1. man; fellow

2. husband

3. Historically, as mentioned above, during the Northern Dynasties (386-577), hànzi 汉子 was a derogatory reference for Sinitic persons used by non-Sinitic peoples (who were rulers in the north at that time).

nánzǐhàn 男子汉 ("a real man")    11,600,000 ghits

nǚ hànzi 女汉子 ("tough girl")    7,180,000 ghits

dà nánzǐhàn 大男子汉 ("a big guy; macho man")    53,100 ghits

Comments by native speaker informants:

In terms of nǚ hànzi 女汉子, I think your translation "tough girl" sounds good! But sometimes it conveys a slight derogation to women with traits which are conventionally attributed to men, such as strong physical strength, independent mode of life, and tough personality, etc. In this sense, I would like to say "nǚ hànzi 女汉子" might also be "a masculine woman / female".

I know all these terms and I agree with all your translations. However, I also think that nǚ hànzi 女汉子could mean "tomboy" (girls who can do things that men can do). I once saw a translation of nǚ hànzi 女汉子as wo-man. I think that’s interesting too.

I think the term nǚ hànzi 女汉子 emerged only in the last few years in the Chinese-speaking world. So it is a bit difficult for someone like me who has been living outside for the last forty years to accurately tell its exact meaning. If it applies to young women only, then "tomboy" may not be too far off.

See also:

"What does the Chinese word '女漢子' mean?" (Quara)

"Renewal of the race / nation" (6/24/17)

Joshua A. Fogel, "New Thoughts on an Old Controversy: Shina as a Toponym for China", Sino-Platonic Papers, 229 (August, 2012), 1-25 (free pdf)

Victor H. Mair, "The Classification of Sinitic Languages: What Is 'Chinese'?, in Breaking Down the Barriers:  interdisciplinary studies in Chinese linguistics and beyond (Festschrift for Alain Peyraube), pp. 735-754 (free pdf), esp. pp. 739-741.

[Thanks to Yixue Yang, Jinyi Cai, Sanping Chen, and Jing Wen]


  1. J said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 6:09 pm

    In the first sentence of the first paragraph, you wrote 汉子,but I think you meant 汉字, right?

  2. J said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 6:12 pm

    Oops, maybe you meant it! ;-)

  3. Carl said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 8:04 pm

    What about one of the names of Korea, hanguk? Just a coincidence?

  4. J said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 8:18 pm

    Isn't 한 국 'hanguk' is from 韩国/韓國 Hánguó? In Mandarin, 'han' Chinese is distinguished from 'han' Korean by tone (falling for Chinese, rising for Korean). But is the original Korean 'han' related to 汉/漢?

  5. Alex said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 9:02 pm

    @J: from Wikipedia (

    Han is a native Korean root for "leader" or "great", as in maripgan ("king", archaic), hanabi ("grandfather", archaic), and Hanbat ("Great Field", archaic name for Daejeon). It may be related to the Mongol/Turkic title Khan.

    Han was transliterated in Chinese records as 韓 (한, han), 幹 (간, gan), 刊 (간, gan), 干 (간, gan), or 漢 (한, han), but is unrelated to the Chinese people and states also called Han, which is a different character pronounced with a different tone.

  6. Chris Button said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 9:12 pm

    In terms of its Old Chinese pronunciation, 漢 is actually quite an interesting case.

    It is often reconstructed as something like *ʰnán-s due to it being written with the same phonetic as characters like 難 which is usually reconstructed as something like *nán.

    The problem with this is that characters like 艱 *krə́n (which is often how itself is interpreted in the oracle-bone inscriptions) show a back initial (the basic ə/a ablaut in the rhymes -ə́n and -án is attested across the OC lexicon).

    Fortunately this is not an isolated case since characters like 憂 and 獶(夒), which would suggest OC reconstructions like *ʔə̀w and *nə́w show a similar alternation of a back velar or glottal articulation with a coronal nasal.

    What seems to have happened here is what Jim Matisoff has termed Rhinoglottophilia referring to the connection between glottal and nasal articulations. As such, unless the character 漢 was coined after the nasalising effects of rhinoglottophilia had taken place, it is very possible that 漢, like its phonetic , did not originally have a nasal initial.

  7. J said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 10:32 pm

    @Alex I saw that. However, it doesn't explain anything. It claims that 'han' is a native root that may have a Mongol-Turkic connection (e.g. Old Turkic kaɣan). It also says that it was often transliterated by many characters, including 漢; however, I was asking for a more detailed (and better cited) explanation for the 漢/韓 convergence (?) than Wiki-it's free, invite your friends!-pedia.

  8. J said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 10:32 pm

    @Alex I saw that. However, it doesn't explain anything. It claims that 'han' is a native root that may have a Mongol-Turkic connection (e.g. Old Turkic kaɣan). It also says that it was often transliterated by many characters, including 漢; however, I was asking for a more detailed (and better cited) explanation for the 漢/韓 convergence (?) than Wiki-it's free, invite your friends!-pedia.

  9. ohwilleke said,

    October 20, 2017 @ 1:21 am

    "Note that there could have been no Han ethnicity or nation before the Han Dynasty."

    There might not have been an ethnicity or nation called "Han" before that point, but the population genetic, linguistic and cultural roots of the "Han people" in the eyes of archaeologists and paleo-geneticists and anthropologists and historical linguists are at least 1,000-2,000 years older than the Han Dynasty and arguably go all of the way back to the point where people started to cultivate millet along the Yangtze River and its tributaries in the early Chinese Neolithic era at the dawn of the Holocene (ca. 8000 BCE). Those people are widely and anachronistically called "Han" in those contexts (and honestly, it really isn't any more anachronistic than calling people on the Pontic-Caspian steppe Indo-Europeans for the 2000+ years before there were any of them in India).

    The basic story of the first eight thousand years of the Holocene in China is of the Han people expanding their cultural influence and population genetic admixtures further and further into South China and then west into Southeast Asia, with occasional detours like the post-Han period of rule by Altaic peoples.

  10. jick said,

    October 20, 2017 @ 2:21 am

    @J The three Han nations ("samhan 三韓") existed around 1st century AD, and their names are recorded in the Chinese historical text 三國志 ("Record of the Three Kingdoms", not to be confused with the famous novel of the same name), written in the 3rd century. So 韓 has been used to denote Koreans at least since then.

    I'm not a history expert, but I think the origins of the particular character (to refer to Koreans) might have been lost in time.

    * There was also an earlier Chinese kingdom called 韓, which is unrelated to Koreans as far as I know.

  11. Matt said,

    October 20, 2017 @ 3:58 am

    Is the use of 汉 in the Buddhist 阿罗汉 (aluohan, corresponding to Sanskrit arhat, but probably directly from a more Prakrit-y form; e.g. the Pali nom. sing. is arahaṃ)… whew… is that thought to be purely about the sound? Or is there an intended semantic meaning in the 汉 as well, along the lines of "tough enough dude to break free of Samsara"?

  12. ouen said,

    October 20, 2017 @ 12:17 pm

    on the topic of korea, why is 漢 used in the old name for Seoul 漢城 ?

  13. Chris Button said,

    October 20, 2017 @ 2:49 pm

    @ J

    I think the similar pronunciations of 漢 and 韓 represent little more than phonological convergence. Even if there were some historical/geographical evidence for a link, of which I'm not sure why there would be any, this is not a clear-cut case like for example the homophonous characters 粵 and 越 that refer to the same Southern group now referred to separately as Cantonese and Vietnamese. If 漢 did indeed have an original nasal initial as *ʰnáns, then any link with 韓 *gán (g- being either voiced or a lenis k-) can be easily ruled out. Of course, the suggestion in my earlier post that 漢 might not actually have had a nasal initial (as evinced by undoubtedly related characters like 艱 *krə́n) would bring it phonologically somewhat more in-line with 韓, but it would still have been different and the loanword card could hardly be played here to account for those differences.

  14. Chion said,

    October 20, 2017 @ 5:57 pm


    The name 漢城 Hanseong or 漢陽 Hanyang is derived from the Han river 漢江 that flows through the city of Seoul. As for why that river is called the Han, I believe the common explanation is again the native root of Han to mean "great river", with the character 漢 as a convenient transcription as it was already in use as a river's name.

  15. Chuck said,

    October 23, 2017 @ 5:21 am

    Those of you who are younger than me, or who have or had children who you hoped would one day speak Chinese are perhaps most familiar with 男子漢/nánzǐhàn from the Mandarin and/or Cantonese versions of "Mulan". The eponymous line of the song "I'll make a man out of you"—"Mister, I'll make a man out of you." is translated:

    Yào chéngwéi nánzǐhàn bù rènshū
    [If you] want to be a nánzǐhàn don't admit defeat

    And the Chinese title of the song is indeed also "男子漢" (nánzǐhàn).

    Jackie Chan performs both the Mandarin and Cantonese versions. Search for 男子漢 in youtube listen.

  16. Kasey Chang said,

    October 24, 2017 @ 1:49 am

    It's worth noting that Cantonese speakers prefer to use "tonghua" 唐話 (Tong Dynasty language) and tongyan 唐人 (Tong people) instead of Han language and Han people.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    October 25, 2017 @ 6:20 pm

    For nánzǐhàn 男子汉 ("a real man") as "strong man", see the lead illustration for this article:

    "China Refuses to Admit It Has a Rape Problem. I Would Know:
    The Communist Party wants to blame Hollywood and 'loose women,' instead of acknowledging its own epidemic levels of sexual assault."

    By Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian
    | October 25, 2017, 11:48 AM

  18. KIRINPUTRA said,

    October 26, 2017 @ 11:47 am

    Anybody who believes in Santa Claus — oops, I mean the idea of a continuous, essential Han identity through time — should take a look at CRITICAL HAN STUDIES: THE HISTORY, REPRESENTATION, AND IDENTITY OF CHINA'S MAJORITY. The PDF can be had at

    Han-as-we-know-it — matched by 唐 in tropical contexts (e.g. Cantonese TONG4) — is just a figment of the political set-ups of the last six centuries. This is why "ethnic Vietnamese" are not considered 唐 in Malaysia, nor in Saigon — not b/c they lack some "Han-Tong essence", but b/c they haven't (substantially) been Ming, Qing, or Hua (P/ROC) subjects.

    The illusion of a timeless Han essence flows from the continual emergence of Yellow + Yangtze polities (i.e. "China") along with the recycling of the ethnonym itself … brought to you by the modern Chinese state of your choice.

  19. Eidolon said,

    October 27, 2017 @ 7:53 pm

    "Han-as-we-know-it — matched by 唐 in tropical contexts (e.g. Cantonese TONG4) — is just a figment of the political set-ups of the last six centuries. This is why "ethnic Vietnamese" are not considered 唐 in Malaysia, nor in Saigon — not b/c they lack some "Han-Tong essence", but b/c they haven't (substantially) been Ming, Qing, or Hua (P/ROC) subjects."

    Do the Vietnamese speak a Sinitic language and consider themselves Tang 唐 people? If not, I can't see how this is anywhere close to being an accurate analogy. Since language and self-identity are two of the central markers around which modern ethnic identities were built, it seems a bit of a stretch to conclude that the only reason Vietnamese weren't considered "Han" or "Tang" in Malaysia or Saigon of all places, was because they weren't subjects of the Chinese state.

    On the other hand, being the subject of a Chinese state, likely encourages both the adoption of a Sinitic language and the assimilation of a "Chinese" identity. So in that sense, the political history of a population DOES matter in the eventual construction of its ethnic identity. So it was that the famous Marquess of Azeglio once said, "L'Italia è fatta. Restano da fare gli italiani."

  20. Chris Button said,

    October 28, 2017 @ 7:30 pm

    As I mentioned above, the connection with Vietnam is interesting since the same Chinese word (pronounced "yuè" in Mandarin) is used to refer to Vietnamese and Cantonese. That it came to be written with different characters, 越 and 粵 respectively, just obscures the common origin of the term. Such confused nomenclature is of course commonplace everywhere. One might cite for example the association of "Deutsch" with "German" nowadays yet "Deutsch" in English is of course the word "Dutch".

  21. KIRINPUTRA said,

    October 31, 2017 @ 12:02 pm

    @Chris Button —

    Yeah! From reading some of James Chamberlain’s papers, apparently the “Viets” 越 of antiquity were “largely of Kradai stock”, and today’s Vietnamese were “largely” descended in a cultural sense from a people that took over the Red River valley AFTER it had already been Sinicized for centuries; and then they appropriated the name 越…

    @Eidolon —

    It wasn’t an analogy at all. The point is that not having been (substantially) subject to Ming, Qing, and Hua is the main (or even the only) reason why the Vietnamese are not considered Tong/Han by others or themselves.

    The “Sinitic language family” as we know it is basically 19th century state-of-the-art. The chief (and only major) criterion for whether a language is Sinitic is whether or not it’s chiefly spoken by “Han Chinese”, which is itself a Hua remake of a more limited and erratic Ming-Qing concept. The last time I googled this in English, I came across a paper by Prof. Mair that also finds this to be the real-world “definition” of “Sinitic language”. So “the Vietnamese are not Tong/Han because they speak a non-Sinitic language” is like saying “the Vietnamese are not Tong/Han because they’re not Tong/Han”.

    To elaborate a bit more… “Language family” implies that all member languages descended from a common root. However, it hasn’t been demonstrated that Teochew and Shanghainese (for example) really descend from a common root. It’s just assumed. The strength of the assumption probably mostly has to do with the similarity of Yellow- and Yangtze Basin languages to each other. Scholars noticed the “family resemblance” and just kind of assumed the Southern seaboard and mountain tongues must be more of the same.

    Remember how Zhao Yuanren could learn most Sinitic languages in a matter of days, but couldn’t crack Hokkien or Teochew? I bet he wouldn’t have gotten far fast with Hoisan either, but he did “do” Cantonese, and may have assumed that Cantonese somehow “represented” Hoisan as well. Modern linguists seem to entertain this kind of assumption as well.

    Point is, if Hokkien, Hainamese, and the “Han-spoken” languages of the mountains between Canton and the Yangtze drainage basin can be considered “Sinitic”, why can’t Vietnamese? Even coming at this question from a “pure linguistic” standpoint, with no agenda, at best we might “discover” something like a “Chinese sprachbund”, with some kind of Yellow+Yangtze language family at its core. And again, 600 years of political history (“laughably short” in Sinological terms) can stir up plenty of linguistic convergence, as well as bring any identity from 0 to 100 km/h. Even a few generations can lead to the creation of perceived “essences”…

  22. Chris Button said,

    October 31, 2017 @ 2:17 pm


    Vietnamese is considered an Austroasiatic language that has been very heavily influenced by "Chinese". I don't believe this to be a contested identification.

    Many academics have tried to posit large macro-families linking "Chinese" with non Tibeto-Burman languages (e.g. Laurent Sagart with Austronesian; Edwin Pulleyblank with Indo-European; Sergei Starostin with North Caucasian), but these have not been widely accepted.

    While I personally believe that Pulleyblank was on the right track regarding a basic schwa/a ablaut in Old Chinese and Proto-Indo-European, I don't believe that constitutes any common origin for the two (beyond the occasional wanderwort). What I do believe is that the reconstruction process that attained the underlying schwa vowel (with its lower a variant) reflects the inherent underlying phonological "vowellessness" of language (distinct from surface phonetics replete with vowels) demonstrating the universal primacy of the syllable as its basic building block.

RSS feed for comments on this post