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When used as an adjective, it refers to anything that is originated from China, e.g. Chinese cuisine.

When the word is used as a noun, it means either:

  • one of the Chinese languages.
  • "zhong guo ren" (中國人): a person from the country of China.
  • "hua ren" (華人): a descendant of the former, including people of any nationality (e.g. Chinese Americans).

The two terms are generally used interchangably within the People's Republic of China and among overseas Chinese in North America. Overseas Chinese in southeast Asia, particularly in Malaysia and Singapore, make a clear distinction between "hua ren" (Chinese in the ethnic sense) and "zhong guo ren" (Chinese in the political sense) as do supporters of Taiwanese independence within Taiwan.

When used by non-Chinese, the term has also been used synonymously with "han zu" which is the "majority" ethnicity (>90%) within China. Chinese themselves tend to reject this usage, and conflicts over these particular usage tend to come up in discussions about Tibet.