There are 56 officially recognized ethnic groups in China. In terms of numbers however, Han Chinese is by far the largest group. Throughout history, many groups have merged into neighboring ethnicities or disappeared. At the same time, many within the Han identity have maintained distinct linguistic and regional cultural traditions. The term Zhonghua Minzu has been used to describe the notion of Chinese nationalism in general. Much of the traditional identity within the community has to do with distinguishing the family name. They were located on the Yellow and Yangtze River. Those were its borders also.
The Han Chinese are the largest ethnic group, where (as of 2010) some 91.51% of the population was classified as Han Chinese (~1.2 billion). Besides the Han majority, 55 other ethnic groups are recognised in China by the PRC government, numbering approximately 105 million people, mostly concentrated in the northwest, north, northeast, south, and southwest but with some in central interior areas.
The major minority ethnic groups in China are Zhuang (16.9 million), Uyghur (11.5 million), Hui (10.5 million), Manchu (10.3 million), Miao (9.4 million), Yi (8.7 million), Tujia (8.3 million), Tibetan (6.2 million), Mongol (5.9 million), Dong (2.8 million), Buyei (2.8 million), Yao (2.7 million), Bai (1.9 million), Korean (1.8 million), Hani (1.6 million), Li (1.4 million), Kazakh (1.4 million), and Dai (1.2 million).
Zhonghua minzu (Chinese: 中华民族), translated as “Chinese nation” or “Chinese races”, is a key political term that is entwined with modern Chinese history of nation-building and race.
Since the late 1980s, the most fundamental change of the People’s Republic of China’s nationalities and minorities policies is the renaming from “the Chinese People” (Chinese: 中国人民 or Zhongguo renmin) to “the Chinese Ethnicities” (Zhonghua minzu), signalling a shift from the communist statehood with people of various nationalities to a multi ethnic statehood based on a single nationality.
During the early Republican (1912–27) and Nationalist (1928–49) periods, the term Zhonghua minzu comprised Han Chinese people and four major non-Han ethnic groups: the Man (Manchus), the Meng (Mongolians), the Hui (ethnic groups of Islamic faith in northwestern China), and the Zang (Tibetans), a notion of a republic of five races (Chinese: 五族共和 or Wuzu gonghe) that is advocated by Sun Yat Sen and the Nationalist Guomindang Party. During the Communist period after Mao’s death, the term Zhonghua minzu was resurrected to include the mainstream Han Chinese and 55 other ethnic groups as a huge Chinese family.
Defining the relationship between ethnicity and the Chinese identity has been a very complex issue throughout Chinese history.
The complexity of the relationship between ethnicity and the Chinese identity can be seen during the Taiping rebellion in which the rebels fought fiercely against the Manchus on the ground that they were barbarian foreigners while at the same time others fought just as fiercely on behalf of the Manchus on the grounds that they were the preservers of traditional Chinese values. It was during this time that the concept of Han Chinese came into existence as a means of describing the majority Chinese ethnicity.