The Han Chinese trace a common ancestry to the Huaxia, a name for the initial confederation of agricultural tribes living along the Yellow River. The term Huaxia represents the collective neolithic confederation of agricultural tribes Hua and Xia who settled along the Central Plains around the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River in northern China. The two tribes were the ancestors of the modern Han Chinese that gave birth to Chinese civilisation. In addition, the Huaxia (literally "the civilized Xia people") was distinctively used to represent the Huaxia as a civilised ethnic group in contrast to what was perceived of different ethnic groups as barbaric peoples around them. Hence, Han people (Chinese: 漢人; pinyin: Hànrén) has become general term for people of Han Chinese descent all over the world.
The Han Chinese are bound together with a common genetic stock and a shared history inhabiting an ancient ancestral territory spanning more than four thousand years, deeply rooted with many different cultural traditions and customs. The Huaxia tribes in northern China experienced a continuous expansion into southern China over the past two millennia. Huaxia culture spread from its heartland from the Yellow River Basin southward, absorbing various non-Chinese ethnic groups that became sinicised over the centuries at various points in China's history. The Han dynasty was considered to be the one of the first great eras in Chinese history as it made China the major regional power in East Asia and projected much of its influence on its neighbours while rivalling the Roman Empire in population size and geographical reach. The Han dynasty's prestige and prominence influenced many of the ancient Huaxia to begin identifying themselves as "The People of Han". To this day, Han Chinese have since taken their ethnic name from this dynasty, and the Chinese script is referred to as "Han characters".
The name Han was derived from the Han dynasty, which succeeded the short-lived Qin dynasty, and is historically considered to be the first golden age of China's Imperial era due to the power and influence it projected over much of East Asia. As a result of the dynasty's prominence in inter-ethnic and pre-modern international influence, many Chinese began identifying themselves as the "people of Han" (Chinese: 漢人; pinyin: Hànrén), a name that has been carried down to this day. Similarly, the Chinese language also came to be named the "Han language" (simplified Chinese: 汉语; traditional Chinese: 漢語) ever since. In the Oxford Dictionary, the Han are defined as "The dominant ethnic group in China". In the Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Asia and Oceania, the Han are called the dominant population in "China, as well as in Taiwan and Singapore." According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the Han are "the Chinese peoples especially as distinguished from non-Chinese (such as Mongolian) elements in the population."
The Han dynasty's founding emperor, Liu Bang, was made king of the Hanzhong region after the fall of the Qin dynasty, a title that was later shortened to "the King of Han" (漢王) during the Chu-Han contention. The name "Hanzhong", in turn, was derived from the Han River, which flows through the region's plains. The river, in turn, derives its name from expressions such as Tianhan (Chinese: 天漢, "the heavenly river"), Yinhan (Chinese: 銀漢, "the silver river"), Xinghan (Chinese: 星漢, "the star river") or Yunhan (Chinese: 雲漢, "the cloud river"), all ancient Chinese poetic nicknames for the Milky Way and first mentioned in the Classic of Poetry.
Prior to the Han dynasty, ancient Chinese scholars used the term Huaxia (simplified Chinese: 华夏; traditional Chinese: 華夏; pinyin: Huá Xià, "the magnificent Xia") in texts to describe China proper as an area of illustrious prosperity and culture, while the Chinese populus were referred to as either the "various Hua" (諸華) or the "various Xia" (諸夏). This gave rise to a term commonly used nowadays by overseas Chinese as an ethnic identity for the Chinese diaspora – Huaren (simplified Chinese: 华人; traditional Chinese: 華人; pinyin: Huá Rén, "the Hua people"), as well as a literary name for China – Zhonghua (simplified Chinese: 中华; traditional Chinese: 中華; pinyin: zhōnghuá, "the central Hua").