What is the largest minority group in the world?

The largest minority group in the world are Han Chinese. With over 1.3 billion people, Han Chinese make up around 18% of the global population. They primarily live in China, making up over 90% of mainland China’s population. Here is a quick overview of the key facts about Han Chinese as the world’s largest minority group:

Key Facts About Han Chinese

  • There are over 1.3 billion Han Chinese worldwide, making up over 18% of the global population.
  • Han Chinese originate from China and make up 92% of mainland China’s population.
  • They also have significant populations in Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian countries.
  • The vast majority (over 1.2 billion) live in China, mostly in the eastern half of the country.
  • Han Chinese speak various forms of the Chinese language, principally Mandarin.
  • Most Han Chinese share common cultural traditions, beliefs, and customs that go back thousands of years.
  • Han Chinese have influenced East Asian culture and society tremendously over history.

With over 90% of China’s 1.4 billion people identifying as Han, this ethnic group easily surpasses all other minority groups globally in terms of size and share of world population. But who exactly are the Han Chinese? Where did they come from? And what explains their massive numbers compared to other ethnic groups?

The Origins and History of Han Chinese

Han Chinese trace their origins back over 4,000 years ago to the Huaxia tribes living along the Yellow River valley during the Neolithic era. Over centuries, these tribes expanded their territories southwards and assimilated surrounding peoples to become the Han civilization during the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE).

The Han dynasty was the first real ‘Chinese’ imperial dynasty. It united various regions and kingdoms under central rule, standardized written Chinese, and spread Confucianism widely. This era saw the beginnings of a coherent Han Chinese identity.

As Han Chinese migrated from the north China plains overhistory, they absorbed diverse peoples into their civilization. The Han expanded southwards and southwest starting in the 3rd century CE, assimilating non-Han groups and spreading Chinese language and culture.

Major southward Han migrations occurred during the Tang, Song and Ming dynasties as populations expanded and settled frontier regions. By the 1300s, Han Chinese populated most of modern-day China Proper.

Overseas Han diasporas also emerged across Southeast Asia and Oceania over the past few centuries as migrants settled abroad. However, Han Chinese remain concentrated primarily in China, where they now comprise 19% of the total global population.

Distribution of Han Chinese

Currently, the vast majority of the world’s 1.3 billion Han Chinese live in China. Only about 55 million (4% of the total) live outside China.

Here is the distribution of Han Chinese worldwide as of 2020:

  • Mainland China: 1.2 billion
  • Taiwan: 23.7 million
  • Singapore: 2.8 million
  • Malaysia: 6.6 million
  • Thailand: 10 million
  • Indonesia: 8.8 million
  • United States: 5 million
  • Myanmar: 3 million
  • Canada: 1.7 million
  • Australia: 1.2 million

Within mainland China, Han Chinese inhabit all areas, but are concentrated mostly in the eastern half of the country. The map below shows the distribution of Han Chinese in China.

Province Han Chinese Population
Guangdong 113 million
Shandong 99 million
Henan 94 million
Sichuan 82 million
Hunan 67 million
Hubei 60 million
Anhui 62 million
Jiangsu 80 million
Hebei 74 million
Liaoning 44 million

Coastal provinces in eastern and southern China generally have the highest Han populations. The 10 provinces above account for over 60% of China’s total Han population.


The Han Chinese speak many related varieties of the Chinese language. These include Mandarin, Wu, Yue (Cantonese), Min, Xiang, Gan, and Hakka.

Mandarin is by far the most widely spoken form today. Nearly 70% of Han Chinese speak a variant of Mandarin Chinese. Since the 1950s, Mandarin has been promoted as the national standard spoken language of China for education, media, and formal communications.

However, many other Chinese language varieties retain tens of millions of native speakers. The most common is Wu Chinese (including Shanghainese), spoken by about 90 million people in eastern China. Yue Chinese (Cantonese) meanwhile has 60 million speakers centred in Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Guangxi.

Min Chinese varieties have 50 million speakers, Xiang 40 million, and Gan 49 million. These languages retain their vitality and cultural importance within their regions of China.

Shared Culture and Traditions

Han Chinese have many common cultural traits, beliefs, and customs that go back centuries. These include:

  • Confucian philosophy – A system of ethics and morality that emphasizes hierarchical relationships, education, and ritual propriety.
  • Ancestor veneration – Honoring of deceased ancestors through offerings and rituals for divine blessings.
  • Chinese festivals – Major celebrations include Lunar New Year, Mid-Autumn Festival, Dragon Boat Festival, and Qingming Festival.
  • Chinese cuisine – A shared culinary tradition including foods like rice, noodles, dumplings, tea, and ingredients like soy sauce.
  • Chinese arts – Long traditions in folk handicrafts, music, opera, painting, calligraphy, seal carving, and more.
  • Mahjong – Tile game played widely at social and family gatherings.

However, Han Chinese from different regions also exhibit diversity in customs, cuisine, artefacts, and language.

Reasons for the Large Han Population

Several key factors have contributed to Han Chinese comprising over 18% of the global population and outnumbering all other ethnic groups by a wide margin:

  1. Early civilization and development – The Han emerged among the first civilizations over 4,000 years ago and gained an early dominance in East Asia.
  2. Unification under Imperial rule – Dynastic conquests over centuries united China’s regions under centralized Han rule and culture.
  3. Assimilation of surrounding peoples – The absorption of dozens of minority groups into the Han population boosted numbers significantly.
  4. Spread of Han culture – The outspread of defining elements of Han culture (language, religion, customs) cemented a common identity.
  5. Experience in cultivating rice – Early mastery of wet rice cultivation allowed relatively efficient food production to sustain large populations.
  6. Relative isolation – China’s enclosed geography isolated it from external conquest until modern times.
  7. High fertility rates – Large families with multiple children were traditional in rural China.
  8. Lack of outmigration – Unlike Europeans who migrated overseas, the Chinese tended to stay within China.
  9. Long stability and unity – Multi-century dynasties provided relative stability for demographic expansion.
  10. Modern education and healthcare – 20th century policies improved infant mortality and life expectancy.

In essence, Han Chinese gained an early dominance in numbers that only grew over the centuries as its civilization prospered and assimilated surrounding minority populations. China’s relative unity and stability, abundant food supply, and development allowed high fertility and population growth.

Distinct Han Chinese Subgroups

Despite fundamental cultural unity, Han Chinese across China’s vast landscape exhibit regional distinctions in customs, cuisine, artefacts and language. Major subgroups include:

Northern Han

Originating in the Yellow River basin, Northern Han Chinese make up over 40% of the total Han population. They are concentrated today in northern and eastern provinces like Henan, Shandong, Hebei and Liaoning. Northern Han speak varieties of Mandarin such as Jilu and Zhongyuan.

Southern Han

Southern Han trace their roots to migrations from the north dating from the Tang dynasty. They inhabit southern provinces like Guangdong, Fujian, Guangxi, Hunan and Jiangxi. Southern Han varieties like Yue and Min remain widely spoken alongside Mandarin.

Southwestern Han

Inhabiting Sichuan, Chongqing, Yunnan, Guizhou and other southwest provinces, these Han Chinese have distinct spicy cuisine influenced by local ingredients. Chuan Mandarin dialects are widely spoken.

Coastal Chinese

Settled along China’s eastern seaboard, coastal Chinese subgroups reflect centuries of seaborne trade and migration. Shanghai Chinese, Hokkien, and Teochew Chinese have distinct dialects and traditions. Coastal Han cuisine features seafood.


The Hakka migrated widely from northern China to the southeast centuries ago. Today, they are concentrated in Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangxi and Sichuan. Hakka Chinese has about 50 million speakers worldwide.

Overseas Han

Significant Han Chinese diasporas of several million formed across Southeast Asia and further abroad from the 19th century. While retaining some cultural practices, overseas Han adopted local influences as well.


In summary, Han Chinese represent the world’s largest ethnic group, comprising over 18% of the global population. Their ancestry goes back thousands of years to the Huaxia tribes of the Yellow River valley. The Han identity formed during the Han dynasty and solidified as migrations, assimilation and cultural dissemination united most of China under a common culture.

Critical to the large Han population were China’s early development of agriculture, its relative unity and stability over multi-century periods, and its geographic enclosure. High fertility and population growth in traditional China also contributed to the Han population’s massive size.

While sharing common cultural traits, Han subgroups across China exhibit regional diversity shaped by history. But on the whole, Han Chinese stand apart demographically due to the enormous population concentrated primarily in China that shares a sense of cultural identity going back millennia.

Leave a Comment