On the Record

Tibet Crisis: Questions Answered

Jeffrey A. Bader

Jeffrey Bader answered questions regarding recent unrest in Tibet in an Online NewsHour Forum.


Janine Vaillancourt of Delaware, and Tim Tulloch of New York: Could you please clarify the use of the term ‘Han’ Chinese? How do Han Chinese differ from other ethnic Chinese throughout China? Also, do Han Chinese regard Tibetans as an inferior people. And if they do, why?

Jeffrey Bader: The term “Han” comes from the Chinese Han dynasty, which ruled China from 206 B.C. to 220 A.D. It was an era of political, artistic and cultural achievement in China and a period on which Chinese look back with pride. China in those days occupied a much smaller portion of modern China, in the eastern half of the present borders. Since then, ethnic Chinese have been referred to as “Hans.”

Approximately 1.25 billion of China’s 1.3 billion people are of Han ethnicity. The remaining 55 million of China’s people are from ethnic minorities, of whom the most well-known outside China are Uighurs (living in Xinjiang in northwest China), Tibetans, Mongols and Manchus. Some of China’s minorities have been effectively Sinicized and display little distinct cultural or ethnic character from Hans. Tibetans and Uighurs have not been Sinicized.

Prejudice toward Tibetans among Hans is fairly widespread, but by no means universal. Many Hans recall earlier periods of Chinese history when Tibetans were regarded as fierce warriors and fighters, inspiring both admiration and fear among Hans. The negative assessment among some Hans toward Tibetans probably stems in large measure from the lower standard of living enjoyed by Tibetans, and to the fact that minority populations like Tibetans are statistically so small amidst China’s vast population that they are seen as strange and different. Chinese have considerable pride in their language and culture, and since the Tibetans do not share either they are frequently seen as inferior, meaning not Chinese.

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