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"Hakka" -birth, climax and decline
Dear Hakka and non-Hakka friends,
I have considered for a few minutes to think of a suitable title for my
opinion to the problem "Hakka".
First, "Hakka" is a group of people, a culture, a language which is placed
under the rank of a Chinese dialect. Hakka is real and existing. Like other
similar groups it has its people, its territory, its way of life and a
tongue to link the people together. Hakka has been defined in many ways,
but I like the definition of Hu et al. (1997), who defined Hakka in a less
rigid and scientific way. Please refer to my previous mails.
The Hakka issue becomes a bit complicated when a wave of emigration from
China began from the 19th century, and offshoots of Hakka culture are also
founded in SE Asia, Middle and South America, Africa and Britain. These
people carry the traits of Hakka and live in a Hakka way, but are slowly
assimilating to the local communities. However, as long as they consider
themselves Hakka, they are by definition Hakka.
The first point I want to clarify is the origin of Hakka. Although many
people point the origin of Hakka to the migration of northern people to the
South since the 4th century AD, I have shown in a series of studies to show
that "Hakka" is the name given by cantonese speakers around the beginning
of the 18th century, when "Guest families" from the Jiaying Prefecture were
invited to fill the population loss in the coastal region around the Pearl
river Delta (PRD). Before this incidence, no one in the Jiaying prefecture
claimed himself "Hakka". In the past documents, Jiaying speakers named
themselves only "Chengxiangren", "Guangdongren", "Tangren" (Chinese). They
lived in Jiaying province, their native place, for centuries peacefully
without any dispute with the other group. Their language is close to that
of the Official language of the Song Dynasty because their ancestor from
North and Middle China moved there via western Fujian around 1200.
Meanwhile, another group of immigrants from the North also moved to the PRD
via Southern Jiangxi. They also brought the official language of the Song
Dynasty which evloved into Cantonese during the last 800 years. This is the
reason why most dialects in Guangdong, including both Hakka and Cantonese,
are so similar to "Guangyun", the official rime book of the Song Dynasty.
Also, Hakka is most similar to Cantonese if we compare the eight "major
dialects" of China in their basic words and grammar. The major difference,
however, is that Hakka people had adapted to live in mountanous areas, but
Cantonese on fertile plains.
Disputes between new comers and local inhabitants are no big deals in the
past history of China, which happened almost everywhere and every century.
Sometimes it resulted in bloodshed. But normally, there are three outcomes:
(1) The incoming group has either higher culture, large number of people or
higher political status. The local people become assimilated into the
(2) Opposite to (1), the incoming people are of small number, poorer or
less educated. They learn the way of life of the local people.
(3) Both group are of similar number, education background and political
status. The incoming group will maintain their culture in their new home.
The third model is less common and is always the source for ethnical dispute.
"Hakka" belonged to the third type of immigrants when they moved to PRD. As
mentioned in my previous mails, they were "invited" by the Qing government
to come to restore the normal economical activity because of the
"Evaculation". At first when they were invited to cultivate the land
abandoned by the Cantonese speakers around 1700, the realtionship between
local Cantonese and the new immigrants was not very bad. The Cantonese
speakers were at first quite glad to see the people coming to help them
cultivate their land, but when the Hakka increased in number and refused to
assimilate, they felt their existence threatened.
Other immigrants from the Jiaying prefecture who moved into other places
like Northern Guangdong and eventually Hunan and Sichuan did not obtain the
name "Hakka" (until around 1980, when they were informed that their
language is "Hakka").
Misunderstanding between both groups was growing and at last the "Guest
families", and in 1808 a Hakka scholar, Xu Xuzeng, wrote to express his
view. He thought that Jiaying speakers were called Hakka by the Cantonese
because they were true Chinese from the North. It marked the beginning of a
big misunderstanding: while the Cantonese thought that "Hakka" are
barbarians of non-Chinese ethnicity from the Eastern mountains, the
"Hakka", in return, think that Cantonese are not as "Chinese" as they were.
This view, however, is still maintained among most less educated people in
Unfortunately, Hakka fought with the local people in Taishan and Kaiping
for about 15 years beginning from 1850. The Hakka-Punti dispute marked the
climax of "Hakka" identity formation. 600 000 people were killed in the
dispute. The people there saw Hakka as invaders who wanted to occupy they
land and change their way of life. At last the central government
intervened and Hakka were allowed to set up a county in Taishan, the Chixi
county, but most chose to leave. The Chixi county has now merged again with
county of Taishan, with most Hakka speakers also assimilated to the locals.
However, the fighting was only the beginning of the hakka identity
movement, and the center of gravity moved to Hong Kong! The bloodshed has
stops, but polemic began. around 1920, Cantonese writers attacked the
hakkas with essays telling that Hakkas are barbarians, and the Hakka fired
back. this lead to the foundingof the Tsung Tsin Association to unite all
Hakka speakers. The Tsung Tsin Association also established a Hakka school
and taught the Hakka children in Hakka to learn Chinese. Later it was
changed into mandarin, and in accordance with the education policy of Hong
Kong, it was changed to Cantonese since more than 40 years.
In 1933, the Hakka historian, then also a professor of Hong Kong U, Luo
Xianglin published his "Introduction to Hakka Studies". He made use of
historical records to prove that Hakka are true Chinese from the North, who
are different from Cantonese and Min speakers, whom he believed to be
locally sinicized groups. He represented the Hakka speakers to claim for a
Northern identity, and unfornately, also meaning the surrender of our
homeland. His claim was useful to stem the attack of Cantonese, but the
shortcomings are obvious: Hakka have to give up their land claim in the
South, on which they lived for more than 700 years (e.g. my Zupu,
genealogical record, says that my ancestor, Liu Kaiqi, reached Guangdong
around 1230). What is left is only a language. Therefore, Luo viewed Hakka
language as indispensable for the identity of a "Hakka".
Interesting, as reflected by most opinion on this forum, Luo's notion of
the impotance of the Hakka lanugage was objected vigorously. As a firm
believer of Luo at the beginning, I have to apologize for insisting too
much on the language in the past few years, and now I would like to focus
on the right of land. Language, culture, etc are subjected to changes, but
the land is more permanant. Jiaying speakers has the right to keep their
life of living on their own land, including the keeping of their languages.
They deserve some kind of protection. Hakka is bleeding, this time not from
fighting, but from the media. Hakka as a subculture of Guangdong has no
hope. It is destined to vanish. If less than 50% of the children are not
learning the language, the language will perish in 200 years. this is
exactly the picture of hakka at the marginal towns like Huiyang, Zengcheng
and Dongguan. It is extending terribly quickly to the North.
I saw that my idea of a Jiaying province was also objected strongly by many
Hakkas. This is also within my expectation. One of the weakpoints of Hakka,
unlike Minnan or Cantonese, is fear of measures involving Hakka
enhancement. For most people, Hakka identiy is a burden, and for some
others, it is only a piece of ornament on top of other identities. The main
reason can be traced to the lack of confidence in a Hakka culture, because
Hakka was always labelled backward and ignorant. This runs in a vicious
cycle. Outstanding hakka scholars are not living in Jiaying, but earning
moeny in non-Hakka speaking world. Even the secondary school graduates
would like to go and live in Guanggzhou, Hong Kong or Beijing, leaving only
the elass educated to work in Meizhou, and leave Miezhou less easily
developed. Why? because Meizhou is not a province capital, it is less
developed than the other cities. Hakka is not a provincial tongue and
children are shame of speaking it, if they do not learn Cantonese they are
teased as country folk. This is why Hakka people are willing to give up
I hope most of us can try to stand in the position of Hakka speakers in
Guangdong. They are struggling for their existence. They must try to earn a
life and look for a better future. Hakka language and culture are now
obstacles for them to make money or to stay in a big city, as long as no
big city is Hakka speaking. Hakka is a great culture only if Meizhou is as
economically important as Hong Kong. The provincial model works in Hainan,
and Hainan is growing quickly in economics. This is why I like to introduce
the Hainan model and everyone understands what a province in China means.
It has almost nothing to do with the stablitity of China.
On the other hand, to maintain Hakka language and culture outside China is
inpractical and against my belief. If we try to maintain a culture outside
our land, it causes only ethnical disputes. This is what we have learnt
from the Hakka-Punti war. If we do it in a large scale, the local people
will view the act as an invasion. If it is just a matter of learning a few
Hakka sentences, it is a drop of water on a hot stone. What is more
practical, peaceful and rational is to prevent the loss of Hakka language
and culture in situ.
Notice that we have little time to consider the question: should Hakka
continue to live, or should we give it up? We are losing thousands of
speakers per year. Only keeping the dialect inside a family is not
effective, and my action of keeping Hakka with my children faced a lot of
criticism from my relatives and friends who think I am just crazy. If
everyone thinks you are mad, then you will get psychological problems even
if you believe you are right, right? Anyway I cannot guarantee that my
grandchildren can speak Hakka in Hong Kong in view of the immense pressure
against its existence. Everyone knows that keeping a plant in greenhouse is
less effective than to keep it in its native habitat.
I am sorry that I am misunderstood because I might not have expressed
clearly. I also apologize to those who think I have offended them, although
I have not the slightest intention to offend. I just hope that everyone on
this forum can just talk calmly and don't make any personal attack to
anyone. I would also like to talk to anyone in e-mail who do not want to
expose their words on the forum.
Liu Zinfad / Lau Chunfat