The Hakka, Revisited
More on their history and their cuisine
Author’s note: I posted this video a long time ago. You can watch it here
I had hit upon the topic largely through my interest in Hakka cuisine. I myself am not a Hakka. But the response that I got from people was really touching and I enjoyed reading people’s stories about their family and life.
I am bringing this script back but with a few new items, some things that I could not fit in last time:
Estimates of Hakka people around the world range from 30-40 million people
Political luminaries with some Hakka heritage include Lee Kuan Yew, Lee Teng-hui, CCP General Zhu De, Ye Jianying, and Sun Yat-sen.
I read a few documents claiming Mao Zedong as a Hakka, but he appears to be of the Xiang sub-ethnic group, as in he comes from Hunan.
More than a few commenters asked me the source for me saying Deng Xiaoping is a Hakka. This is sourced from Yang Shangkun, his friend for over 7 decades, who told journalist Harrison Salisbury of Deng’s Hakka roots.
During the Hakka-Punti wars in the late 1800s and early 1900s, people in Guangdong attempted to wall off the Hakka away from the Cantonese and Hoklo as not being Han at all. This failed, but it would spark a larger awareness amongst the Hakka themselves about who they were and their culture
Hakka cuisine is simple in taste and without expensive ingredients. It is straightforward, but does not mean it tastes bad. They would match seasonal vegetables with some meat. Whatever leftovers they had, they pickled.
Hakka cuisine uses a lot of salt and meat, which made its restaurants popular early on in places like Hong Kong because Chinese people worked high energy jobs like construction. Hakka food helped them recover faster
Over time though, people got richer, and Hakka restaurants struggled a little bit. This is because tourists and cultural experience artists like IG peeps wanted more expensive ingredients like abalone and shark fins. Some Hakka tried to fit such foods into their offerings, but such food could not be said to be Hakka. Hakka are mountainous people. When did they ever have the time to eat shark fins?
I took these photos at the 晉江茶堂 restaurant in Taipei. Highly recommended Hakka restaurant. Prepare to wait a long time in line.
That is all I got for now. My fascination with Hakka culture continues and I hope to bring you more information later.
The Hakka are an ethnic subgroup of the Han ethnicity — one of the largest and most prominent of such subgroups with estimated population of some 50 million residing in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and overseas. They have had a fascinating and rich history over the centuries that mirrors the story of the overall Han people. Here we are going to look at some of the cultural aspects and history of the Hakka people.
Before I get started, let us speak of names. “Hakka” is a Cantonese pronunciation of 客家, the Mandarin goes as “Kejia” and it literally means “guest house”. This monikor is not really a compliment. In the old days calling someone a Hakka used to be like calling someone in medieval Europe a “gypsy” or someone during the Great Depression an “Okie” — a pejorative name other people made up. So what do they like to call themselves? On the whole they do not have a special name for themselves, though some seem to prefer “Tingzhou people” which is derived from a region in China known to feature prominently in their history.
Today the phrase has lost some of its punch and has entered broad usage even amongst the people themselves so I will stick to using “Hakka”. Nowadays, people don’t seem to mind.
The Relationship of Hakkas to the Han
Now, the first thing you might think when you hear the phrase “ethnic subgroup” is — well, what does that mean? Are they Han or not? What race are they reaaaally?
The answer to this is complicated. They look the same as any other 1.3 billion Han in the world. They are not considered a national minority like the Tibetans and Uyghurs are. Those populations have a distinctive look that clearly indicates that they are not Han.
One might be tempted to simply end it at that: Okay they are Han, whatever why are we making such a big deal out of this? But even within members of an ethnicity — especially one as big as the Han ethnicity — there are sub-ethnic divides. These divides are not drawn according to race like as what might happen in the west, but instead along language, region of origin and cultural practices. The Hakka people make up the largest and most prominent of these Han sub-ethnic populations. They share these powerful traits that bind them.
One sledgehammer metaphor that you might use to describe the relationship of the Hakka to the rest of the Han Chinese (but do not think too hard about it!) is to look at the relationship of the Jews to other Europeans. Like the Jews, the Hakka are a migratory group of people with populations scattered across the continent. Yet despite their distance from each other, you can identify a member by their common language and set of traditions.
(Unlike the Jews though, the Hakka stereotype is to be bitterly poor so this does not really hold up to deep scrutiny. A few people have objected to me using this metaphor. If you care to raise an objection, then you have already taken this too seriously.)
So if racially a Hakka looks the same as any other Han — with identical facial traits and skin tones — then how can you tell between them? The answer is that you cannot. You might be tempted just to ask. Just a reminder though, asking a Han Chinese to tell you if they are a Hakka is considered rude. It is kind of like getting asked the “Where are you really from” question as an Asian-American.
In lieu of outright asking, the best way to identify a Han person as a member of the Hakka ethnicity is to look at their birthplace, family ties and whether or not they are capable of speaking/understanding the unique Hakka language.
Confusing? Yes it is. Part of the reason for this confusion is rooted in the different ways people in China differentiate between each other — on the basis of clan or home village/province rather than race or ethnicity as it so often is in the United States. For example, Deng Xiaoping is a Hakka. One Beijing official when told this protested, “Deng can’t be a Hakka! He’s from Sichuan.” It is not about race or looks — it is about where you are from.
It is a subtle policy of the Chinese nation — and in their interest — to play down and de-emphasize the differences between individual Hans within the overall ethnicity. This policy allows the nation to project a stronger, united front to the rest of the world to know that everyone is Han and every Han marches together with the same shared values, identity, and cultures regardless of race — something the Republic of China called “national unity” or 民族團結 or mín zú tuán jié. So emphasizing the Hakka identity is a violation of Chinese principles. It has been as such ever since before the Communist state was founded. To China, Hakka are Han and that is it, period.
There are legitimate reasons for taking this line — see the Punti-Hakka clan wars below for more detail — but from a Western point of view, it does feel a little iffy to suppress movements that emphasize your own cultural identity. After all, doesn’t that imply that this part of you that makes up your personal identity is not “worthy” of being public?
I personally find the history and shared culture of the Hakka fascinating, which is why I began writing it up in the first place.
A Super Brief History of the Hakka
Genetic studies have pinned down their origin to the Chinese north. At that time, they had been like the population of any other Chinese village. But four massive migrations shaped their identity and scattered them far and wide.
The first happened in the 10th century during the Jurchen attacks between the Tang and the Song dynasties — forcing them to settle in modern day Tingzhou in the Fujian province.
The second happened during the turmoil of the transition between the Han-led Song Dynasty to the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty. As with all things involving the Mongol invasions, times then were just peachy. Times were so good that the Hakka moved to the northeastern parts of Guangdong in the 12th century.
Then during the early Qing dynasty they moved once more to the Guangdong coast. The Chinese authorities had “depopulated” a 25-km swath of land along the coast so to prevent piracy and smuggling. Such activities had been funding insurgencies against the Qing. This land became empty so the authorities moved in extremely poor people from overpopulated areas. And if there is one cultural aspect of the Hakkas that define them — it is the fact that traditionally they have been extremely poor.
This massive migration (number three if you are keeping track) would eventually spark animosities and clan wars between the newly arrived Hakka and the Cantonese-speaking Puntis. Lots of arguing and prejudice — stuff like claiming that Cantonese is the “superior” language or that the Hakkas were a wild, backward tribe. The classics, so to say. Such clan wars and prejudices would continue for several centuries — and claim over a million lives — until the Republican era, when Sun Yat-sen promoted Mandarin over both their dialects and cultures.
The fourth massive migration comes as a result of one of the most devastating civil wars in human history: The Taiping Civil War between the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom 太平天國 and the Qing Dynasty. An estimated 10-20 million people would die in this 14 year civil war. The Taiping founder and King Hong Xiuquan had been a Hakka. Hakka made up the majority of his nation and armies, occupying some of the Qing dynasty’s most prosperous tea-growing areas.
Total war meant discrimination, mistrust and retribution enacted upon Hakka families by the Qing officials. Qing armies would enter Hakka villages and indiscriminately slaughter the people there — at one point killing 30,000 a day. This was the main trigger for a flood of Hakka exiles into Hong Kong looking for shelter from the extermination campaigns.
Many years later, the Hakka would play a big role in the rise of the Communist Party. The famous Long March went from Hakka village to Hakka village and many of the Communist Old Guards were Hakka. The most famous and prominent Hakka Old Guard was Ye Jianying, one of the ten marshals of the People’s Liberation Army. Yet at the same time, Hakkas at one point made up half of the Chinese Politburo Standing Committee, the most powerful body in Communist China.
Some lesser-known Hakka communists include Zhu De (founder of the People’s Liberation Army) and of course Deng Xiaoping himself (his Meixian Hakka heritage was confirmed to journalist Harrison Salisbury by Yang Shangkun, former PRC President).
Across the strait, Hakka make up almost a third of the Taiwanese population — referring to the population that had already been on Taiwan before Chiang Kai-shek fled there at the end of the Chinese Civil War. There were three big Han migrations from 1661 to the 1900s populating the island. The Hakkas came during the third migration in 1788 — traveling from Guangdong to settle in Miaoli, Hsinchu, and Taoyuan. They continue to be prominent there. Taiwan presidents Lee Teng-hui and Tsai Ing-wen both have Hakka heritage.
Hakka Cuisine and Culture
I had the inspiration for this based on my readings of the Taiping Civil War (which you can read more about elsewhere in this blog), a visit to the Hakka culture center in Taipei, and a recent dinner at a Hakka restaurant.
The turbulent history of the Hakka meant that they had to constantly be on the run. Their movements would led them to farm marginal lands and lock them into a cycle of poverty.
The best way to tell if someone is a Hakka is to listen to their language. Hakka speak a unique dialect that does not sound like the ordinary Mandarin that is spoke throughout China. This dialect — also called Hakka — is intelligible to all Hakkas across all of China. It is like how Yiddish is for the Jews, their universal language.
Along with their unique dialect, the Hakka culture is at the heart of what differentiates them from the rest of the Han ethnicity. Hakka culture developed in stressful, arduous conditions where the people wandered without a home. They are thrifty folk and their cuisine reflects that:
We lacked money and did not always a have fresh meal for every dinner, therefore, we would buy salted fish or salt the fresh fish and fresh vegetables, which would last enough for 3 days. Hakka people are very thrifty; we plant vegetables for self-use and to sell in the market; any surplus would be again exchange for money or to lay a meal for the family
They had been especially noted during the pre-Republican years for their hard-working women. Many Han Chinese in historic China bound the feet of their women as a status symbol — but not the Hakka.
I also really like their clothing. Traditional Hakka robes are characterized with this pretty but practical blue. I expect that it is made so to perform well while out in the fields. A friend of mine (who is Han but not of the Hakka clan) took a photo of herself wearing them. Looks great but I felt the need to call out cultural appropriation.
I personally enjoyed reading and researching about the Hakka. They are a fascinating tribe of people with an illustrious history. Some aspects of their distinct culture are fading away as the larger Chinese nation emphasizes cultural uniformity and assimilation but some parts remain.
The Asianometry Newsletter covers interesting topics on Chinese and Taiwanese history, tech and more.