Gohan was named after Goku's adoptive grandfather, Grandpa Gohan. The name, which comes from the Japanese word , is a continuation of the naming scheme of foods by Toriyama. Rice, being a grain, is not normally considered to be a vegetable, even though it is part of a plant. However, as the word "vegetable" is a culinary term, and not a botanical term, the name can also continue the naming scheme for Saiyan characters, which derives names from puns on vegetables (Saiya being an anagram of the word yasai, meaning "vegetable").
In conceptualizing Gohan's character as a teenager, Toriyama originally included glasses or a jacket to his apparel, and commonly, his hair was not spiked up as seen in the final design. With the ending of the Cell arc, Gohan was meant to replace his father as the main protagonist; Toriyama thought that he was unsuitable for that part so he avoided doing that.
Initially, Gohan is illustrated garbed in a Hanfu-like surcoat with the Chinese character , fixed on the front and the four-star Dragon Ball fitted on top of his hat. Piccolo later supplies him with a keikogi fashioned after Goku's, but substitutes it with the demon character "" as a sign of his admission into the Demon Tribe. Normally thereafter, Gohan is drawn with a keikogi modeled after Piccolo's own, with the anime recoloring his wristbands from blue to red and, during the Cell Games tournament, his obi from red to blue, despite reverting to the original colors for the former. On Namek, Gohan is portrayed in battle armor worn by Frieza's henchmen, having been given it by Vegeta in preparation for their encounter with Frieza. Prior to his second fight with Majin Buu, Gohan asks Kibito for an outfit resembling his father's, and is then drawn in a keikogi identical to Goku's.
After the defeat of Vegeta, Gohan, Bulma and Krillin travel to Namek to use the Dragon Balls there, as the Dragon Balls on Earth had turned to stone due to the Earth god Kami's death. After succeeding in gathering the Dragon Balls, Gohan and the others wish Piccolo back to life, causing Kami and the Dragon Balls to be returned. Gohan, along with Krillin and Vegeta, are then forced into an encounter with Frieza. Later, after Goku transforms into a Super Saiyan and defeats Frieza, Gohan is shown to settle back into school life on Earth, waiting for Goku to return home from Namek.
A year later, Future Trunks kills a cybernetic Frieza and his father, King Cold, and informs Gohan and the others of the upcoming threat of the androids arriving in three years time. Gohan then commits himself to training with Goku and Piccolo until the arrival of the androids. Following the appearance of the Cell, Gohan is taken to the Room of Spirit and Time by Goku. Goku then reveals his intentions: to train Gohan to become a Super Saiyan, and to have Gohan surpass him in strength. Following Gohan's emergence from the Room of Spirit and Time, Gohan is depicted as a Super Saiyan, with Piccolo shown thinking to himself that he barely recognized him before granting Gohan's request to give him an outfit resembling his own. At the Cell Games, Gohan, after stating his reluctance to fight out of fear of being consumed by anger, is tormented by a curious Cell, forced to watch Cell's Cell Jr.'s attack the others in Cell's effort to bring out Gohan's latent power. Following Android #16's death, Gohan, infuriated, ascends to Super Saiyan 2, and later defeats Cell in a Kamehameha struggle, counseled by Goku from the afterlife and winning with the assistance of Vegeta.
Gohan, during the consequent peace that follows, is said to have continued his studies, and later, a sixteen-year-old Gohan is shown enrolling at Orange Star High School in Satan City. Participating in the 25th World Martial Arts Tournament, Gohan is depicted as having grown weaker, which the Daizenshū World Guide book explains as due to a lack of training and anger in transforming. But he is still much stronger than his kid brother Goten. Gohan, after having his chi absorbed by Spopovich and Yamu, pursues the two and enters Babidi's spaceship with the Supreme Kai, Goku and Vegeta, where Gohan later fights with Dabura. Following Buu's release and Gohan's defeat at his hands, Gohan is taken to the Planet of the Kai by the Supreme Kai and Kibito. After pulling out the Z Sword and accidentally breaking it in a training session, Gohan unwittingly releases the Elder Kai, who then performs a prolonged ceremony to unlock Gohan's latent powers. Gohan then returns to Earth and confronts Buu for a second time, and very easily beats him in a fight. However, he, along with Gotenks and Piccolo, are later absorbed by Buu. Once revived, Gohan is able to aid Goku's Super Spirit Bomb by lending his chi. Following Buu's defeat and a ten year gap at the end of Dragon Ball Z, Gohan has finally become a scholar and is depicted with a wife, Videl, and a daughter, Pan.
In this timeline, Gohan has become a Super Saiyan, and is depicted wearing a uniform similar to his father's, one with his own kanji symbol on the back, Han, . Gohan states he wears it in hopes of becoming as strong as his father one day, and Trunks mentions that his mother, Bulma, finds Gohan bears a striking resemblance to Goku when donning it. In appearance, Gohan's hair is cut much shorter than his counterpart's, as well as having a scar running down the left side of his face, and is implied to have had lost his left arm fighting #17 and #18.
He is eventually killed by the two androids in a battle trying to defend Pepper Town, with #17 boasting that, in previous encounters, the most he had ever used was half his strength; Gohan reacts with alarm at this statement, with #18 chuckling before the manga cuts away to an unconscious Trunks, who cannot feel Gohan's chi upon waking.
Due to his mixed heritage, Gohan's character also exhibits unusual abilities, possessing power that surpasses that of regular Saiyan's. Vegeta suggests that mixing human and Saiyan blood begets powerful hybrids, which Nappa refers to as a Super Saiyan. On Namek, Saichoro helped unlock a portion of his untapped potential, unable to bring out the fullest of his tremendous latent abilities.
Gohan can also freely manipulate his chi for the use of abilities such as the , enabling him to fly, or concentrate it into beams of chi energy blasts, such as the Kamehameha or . Gohan also possesses enhanced strength, as well as superhuman speed and reflexes. He is able to ascend to Super Saiyan and Super Saiyan 2 levels.
A playable character in various Dragon Ball Z-related video games, Gohan first appeared in the 1990 Japanese-language game Dragon Ball Z: Kyôshū! Saiyan (with Future Gohan selectable in Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi 3 and Dragon Ball Z: Shin Budokai - Another Road). Gohan has also appeared in crossover media such as Battle Stadium D.O.N and Jump Super Stars.
Gohan, along with Goku, is parodized in the Robot Chicken episode Easter Basket. Gohan has been used in promotional merchandising at fast-food chain Burger King, and collectible cards, such as the Dragon Ball Z Collectible Card Game, have featured Gohan frequently.
Gohan premiered in the United States when Dragon Ball Z first aired in September 1996 on the WB Television Network, and later in the original format when Shonen Jump began distribution in January 2003. Portions of the character's design data have been released to the general public in Japan under the Dragon Ball Daizenshū, encyclopedic guides for Dragon Ball written and compiled by Toriyama's staff members, Bird Studio. Viz Media announced in May 2008 that the first Daizenshū book would be translated and released in August 2008, under the title The Complete Illustrations. However, no indication has been made if later volumes will be released.
In 1993, Gohan placed first in an official Shonen Jump character popularity poll; the closest Dragon Ball character to rank behind him, Goku, took fifth. Due to the popularity of Gohan, other merchandise, such as action figures, video games, and clothing have featured Gohan in Japan and in various countries around the world. The character of Gohan is frequently depicted in fan art and fan fiction by supporters of the series and Toriyama, its creator.
In an interview featured in the second Dragon Ball GT Perfect Files, a companion book released in December 1997 by Shueisha's Jump Comics Selection imprint, Masako Nozawa, Gohan's seiyū, stated that her favorite episode voicing Gohan was Sorry, Robot-san - The Desert of Vanishing Tears, an episode originally cut from the American release of Dragon Ball Z. Saffron Henderson, Gohan's original Ocean Group voice actor, has stated she felt protective of the role and considers it to be one of her favorites.