The Hakka Difference

Outwardly, the Hakka people are indistinguishable from other Han Chinese. Yet, Hakka culture differs significantly from that of the dominant Hoklo population.

The origins of the Hakka are somewhat in dispute among scholars but are believed to be traceable to 33 purely Hakka villages in northern China. The group migrated southward over the centuries, settling in numerous areas of China from Jiangxi to Sichuan, with the largest concentration in Guangzhou. Many later migrated further to Southeast Asia and Taiwan.

The most striking thing about the Hakka is the astonishing number of powerful leaders they have produced. Hong Xiuquan, who led the Taiping Rebellion against the Qing Dynasty in the mid-nineteenth century was a Hakka. So was Sun Yat-sen, the “father” of the Republic of China, and Charlie Soong, patriarch of the famous family that included his daughter May-ling, better known as Madam Chiang Kai-shek. Hakka accounted for a disproportionate number of warlords and Kuomintang military and political figures, as well as representation within the Communist Chinese leadership, including such prominent figures as Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang, Zhu De, Chen Yi, and Guo Moruo. At one time, half of the Standing Committee of the Politburo in Beijing consisted of Hakka, though the group comprises only 3% of the mainland Chinese population.

In Hakka tradition, women always played strong, “equal but different” social and economic roles. The Hakka rejected the general Chinese practice of foot-binding that effectively hobbled half of China’s population for a millennium.

In Southeast Asia, notable Hakka leaders include Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kwan Yew; his son Lee Hsien Loong, the current prime minister; and former Thai leaders Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck. In Taiwan, former president Lee Teng-hui can be added to the list, although he has said that he was unaware of his Hakka ancestry until a mainland reporter traced his genealogy.

The Hakka success story includes the achievements of many women, particularly in politics. Prime examples are Annette Lu, Taiwan’s first female vice president (2000–2008), and Democratic Progressive Party chairperson Tsai Ing-wen, her party’s candidate in the presidential election to be held in January next year. In Hakka tradition, women always played strong, “equal but different” social and economic roles. The Hakka rejected the general Chinese practice of foot-binding that effectively hobbled half of China’s population for a millennium. Eschewing this life-long shackling meant Hakka women were able to work side by side with men in the fields.

Englishman William A. Pickering wrote in his 1898 work Pioneering in Formosa that the Hakka women “almost rival the men in energy and enterprise.” According to traditional Hakka concepts of the family, males pursued success in scholarly pursuits and seeking official positions, while women took charge of the hearth. Working together made it possible to achieve an ideal family circumstance of both studying and farming.

Agriculture and agricultural products have always been central to Hakka culture. Photos: Hakka Affairs Council
Agriculture and agricultural products have always been central to Hakka culture. Photos: Hakka Affairs Council

Hakka women’s role was to manage “three fronts and three behinds” with respect to their work in life: “Stove in front and wok behind” for cooking, “needle in front and thread behind” for sewing, and “field in front and land behind” for farming on the fields and hillsides.

Besides success in the public sphere, the Hakka are known for their passion for the land. “Farm when the sun shines and study when it rains,” one Hakka saying goes. Pickering describes them as “enterprising agriculturalists” who value hard work and especially education: a Hakka proverb says, “Not having a proper education is like having eyes but not being able to see.”

Today the Hakka green thumb is readily observed in Hakka communities, which are mainly concentrated in the foothills of Hsinchu and Miaoli Counties. Hard-working Hakka farmers till the land and are omnipresent as vendors in the traditional markets and manning roadside stands.

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Drying persimmons in a Hakka village.

Hakka ideals are literally stitched into their traditional blue tunics with embroidered butterflies, pine cones, and suns. The butterfly motif signifies beauty and continuation of life – and therefore Hakka culture in general. The sun symbolizes industriousness, as in the Hakka proverb, “start work when the sun rises and finish when it goes down.” The pine cone represents strength and endurance.

The Hakka have been particularly innovative in their agricultural practices, creatively experimenting with potential cash crops. In the process, they have pioneered the introduction of several important products to the region, such as oranges and grapefruit.

Language seems to be the real bonding agent of Hakka culture. Hakka is considered a dialect of Mandarin Chinese, and is remarkable for having remained unchanged over the course of centuries. It is clearly intelligible across an entire region, serving as a lingua franca for trade and offering a key strategic and military advantage during times of war. For example, during the Long March, when the Red Army was famously in retreat during the Chinese Civil War, the Hakka were able to beg for local support when they passed through Hakka regions. Meanwhile, the Nationalists made the Hakka city of Shaoguan its Guangdong capital from 1937-45.

The Hakka reverence for the written word is also distinct, likely the stimulus behind lofty achievements in the realm of literature. “Holy Writing Pavilions” exist only in Hakka communities, whereby any paper with writing is disposed of by burning at these sacred word shrines, called Shengji-ting or Jingzi-ting, both translated as “Reverence of Writing.”

Hakka people believe they carry on central China’s culture, so they deeply respect learning and the words of ancient sages. As a result, Hakka writers have seen great success in literature. Three distinctive features of Hakka writing, according to critic Peng Jui-chin, are an unyielding ethnic spirit, interpreting life in terms of the relationship between humanity and the land, and a prominence of characteristically strong Hakka women figures.

Traditional Hakka architecture is also unique, with its iconic circular multistory housing structure called a tulou. Although no examples of this structure exist in Taiwan, in China these giant fortified structures housed an entire village while protecting against attack from bandits. The communal, “kibbutz-like” atmosphere also aided in strengthening social harmony and a sense of community for the residents, who were all generally from the same clan.

Long history of migration

Most people get a sense of self from belonging, and belonging to somewhere, having ‘roots’ as it were, usually in the geographical sense of the word. But Hakka are different, deriving their sense of identity from being, historically and literally, “Guest families” (客家). “Hakka” is the Cantonese pronunciation.

According to historical documents, the Hakka have experienced a long series of relocations. At the end of the early fourth century, the Han forebears of the Hakka, originally from the Yellow River valley, moved south of the Yangtze River in order to escape famine and the civil unrest of the Six Dynasties period (222-589AD). These same groups continued their southward migrations at various times of unrest, eventually crossing the Yangtze River and moving to Jiangxi, Fujian, and Guangdong provinces, where they were called “Hakka” by local residents.

The cumulative effect of centuries of assimilation and a century-long campaign against local cultures in Taiwan waged by first the Japanese colonialists and then the Kuomintang (KMT) administrations effectively wiped out many of Taiwan’s indigenous cultures.

As the Hakka spread southward, they occupied a considerable portion of Guangdong province, to the alarm of the native Puntis (本地, “original land” occupants). The native Cantonese sought to retain the most fertile swathes of land for themselves, while the Hakka newcomers were forced into the less-fertile outer fringes of plains, or settled in more mountainous regions where they could eke out a living.

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The iconic Hakka circular multistory housing structure called a tulou. No examples of this structure exist in Taiwan, but in China these giant fortified structures housed an entire village while protecting against bandits.

Many territorial conflicts arose between the two groups, and “Hakka” became a term of derision, as the notion of “Guest” was equated with “rootlessness.” But over time, the newcomers began to adopt the term “Hakka” in reference to themselves, perhaps acknowledgement of migratory tendencies as being an inherent, defining part of their culture.

The seventeenth century saw further migration by the Hakka across the Strait to Taiwan. A study of Dutch historical documents discovered that most interpreters hired by the Dutch colonists to communicate with Taiwan’s aboriginals, as well as farmers employed to cultivate the land, were Hakka, indicating that some Hakka must have already been residing on the island prior to the Dutch colony established in 1624. Hoklo speakers from Fujian who now comprise the majority of Taiwanese began arriving in large numbers with the famous pirate-king Zheng Cheng-gong, or Koxinga, who expelled the Dutch from Taiwan in 1661.

Tension eased between the Hakka and the Hoklo speakers when, after centuries of assimilation, Hakkas were no longer perceived as migrants. In modern times, as the Hakka moved from rural to urban areas and adopted urban lifestyles, they often lost consciousness of their ethnic difference and assimilated.

The cumulative effect of centuries of assimilation and a century-long campaign against local cultures in Taiwan waged by first the Japanese colonialists and then the Kuomintang (KMT) administrations effectively wiped out many of Taiwan’s indigenous cultures. As a result, the Hakka language and traditional culture were diluted, became more difficult to transmit, and the group’s ethnic consciousness, language, customs and culture diminished.

Lai Ho, a Hakka often deemed “the father of Taiwanese new literature,” used the Hoklo dialect in his stories because no one in his family spoke Hakka anymore. In a poem he laments this crisis of Hakka identity:

I belong to a Hakka family

But have forgotten my native tongue.

I grieve for my cherished ideals,

Ashamed to have lost sight of my origin.

Then, with the end of the Martial Law period in the late 1980s, Hakka identity saw a revival. The Hakka sought – and won – the establishment of many important civil and language rights, and a sounder policy on ethnic relations, which positively benefited all of the island’s native cultures.

With the advent of the “Return to the Mother Language” movement in Taiwan – which sought for a more respectful and multicultural society for all of Taiwan’s diverse languages – and innovations such as the implementation of Taiwan studies programs at Taiwanese universities, recent scholarly attention has moved to the study and promotion of Hakka language and culture. One landmark development was the 2001 founding of the Hakka Affairs Council under the Executive Yuan in Taiwan, the only central authority responsible for Hakka affairs in the world.

In Taiwan, there are now seven Hakka Chinese radio channels, in China there is Hakka TV, the world’s first Hakka Chinese TV channel, as well as Hakka language Meizhou TV-2. Taiwan’s lone English-language radio station, ICRT, features the show “We Love Hakka,” a program which introduces Hakka language and culture, in Mandarin Chinese and English.

And of course, Hakka food has withstood the test of time. Hakka cuisine, or Kuhchia, uses the same ingredients as other Han Chinese cuisines but is far less spicy and more sparsely seasoned. Hakka cuisine includes such delicacies as Hakka soup, tang yuan (湯圓), and dongjiang salt-baked chicken 東江鹽焗雞. Another important Hakka culinary delight is leicha (擂茶), a mix of tea leaves, peanuts, mint leaves, sesame seeds, mung beans and other herbs, ground into powder and served in hot water as a healthful dietary brew.

Hakka food has had a significant impact on Taiwanese cuisine as a whole.
Hakka food has had a significant impact on Taiwanese cuisine as a whole.

Taiwan’s general cuisine bears the stamp of Hakka influences, including the tasty practice of putting fresh basil in thick soups, and Hakka mi-fen rice noodle dishes.

Hakka culture has survived and continues to thrive due to the powerful ethnic bonds that hold Hakka identity, a shared language, common values, and love for the land.

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