China Travel blog > The Hakka: Nomadic gypsy tinkers or China's ancient Han?

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Southern China's Miao ethnic minority

Tu lou, Fujian

The earthen fortress homes of the Hakka houses kept the outside out, and the inside in

With a population of 1.3 billion and counting, China constitutes just under 20% of the world's inhabitants. Making up the vast majority of residents (91.59%) are the ubiquitous Han, leaving just a little over 8% to the 56 ethnic minorities officially recognized by the People's Republic. In Minority Report, we explore the colorful characters, customs and cultures of these fascinating peripheral groups. >>>

The Hakka People are perhaps China's most mysterious minority. Some commentators place them above the rest of the population as some sort of "leadership caste," based on the fact that Sun Yat-sen, Deng Xiao Ping and Lee Teng Hui had Hakka heritage. Others claim that the Hakka are the "original Han," the last remnant of the first people descended from the Yellow Emperor. For skeptics, the Hakka are just another wandering tribe, loosely connected by a dying language and clinging to a collective story far grander than the actual truth.

Unfortunately, the Truth is always hard to come by.

The Hakka trace their history back to the first unified China, the Qin Dynasty, which saw them fleeing war, famine, natural disaster and all around bad times. The fire and blood of the northern Qin Empire forced a number of tribes to head south. Although all of them were "guests" of the indigenous southern tribes they encountered, only the Hakka took the name to be their own: in their own tongue, Hakka translates to "guest." In Mandarin, the Hakka are referred to as 客家人, Kèjiā rén.

Why they did this is another mystery. Some say the Hakka feared generational retribution if the true name of their tribe were known. Others claim that the Hakka maintain the secrecy of their name because they are the Chinese Illuminati. Others say the name "Hakka" actually refers to a collection of displaced peoples who banded together centuries ago and have gained an aura of mystique in the time that has passed. The Truth is far less glamorous.

Origins

What we learn from the study of Hakka origins is that China is a very diverse country—as rich in culture and different DNA strands as America, no matter what the current government would have everyone believe. For a government, a solid, homogenous population all bleating their adherence to an identity provided by that government is like a fat turkey on a platter. However, on our quest for the Truth, we must bypass dehumanizing simplifications and get lost in obscure maybes and what ifs.

The huns

The fearsome Xiongnu, barbarians of the north

Maybe the Hakka are the Sinicized descendants of the Xiongnu (Europeans might know these guys as the Huns). These northern warriors were seen as barbarians by their refined, fat southern neighbors, and even after the horsemen crushed the Song Dynasty they were considered inferior and unfit to rule. Nevertheless, the Jin Dynasty (as the barbarian kingdom to the north was called) forced all Han south of the Yangzte River to maintain the agrarian—commercial nature of the Song Dynasty until the arrival of the Mongols, who slayed all, regardless of color or creed.

But what if the Hakka were actually the descendants of the original Han Dynasty rulers, those who emerged out of the wreckage of the Qin and created China's greatest Empire? If so, then the Jin Dynasty warriors may have intermarried with the Hakka (or forced themselves upon innocent women, the dirty savages) and that might explain the DNA mixtures discovered by Japanese scientists when they studied the eastern peoples. Indeed, the Qin were one tribe of many and the Han was built upon the bones of the Qin. Does an overarching superstructure cancel out the plurality it arches over?

Well then maybe the Hakka are the original Han, forced to move from a rock to a hard place—mixing with locals along the way—until they finally found themselves in the Fujian, Jiangxi, Guangdong area where they rested for a while, before being pressed to move on yet again.

But what if the Hakka are actually indigenous to the south, sharing cultural, genetic and anthropological traits with the Yue, She and Min-Nan peoples that ruled the southern provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, and also traveled to Taiwan and other South Pacific islands? This whole moving south story could just be a fable, because the Hakka are actually nomadic gypsy-tinkers who have masked their humble polyglot selves behind a tale of persecution and dogged loyalty to ancient mores.

Well then maybe the Hakka are ancient Han peoples (themselves the mixture of the Warring States-era survivors) who encountered the Xiongnu and "interacted" with them, then slowly moved south and over time "interacted" with enough southern people to gain a collection of traits that could make the "guests" at home anywhere. Thus the Hakka would be the original mixed-blood Han, descendants of the Xiongnu/Song love/hate relationship and related to the southern Yue, She and Min-Nan tribes... AT THE SAME TIME!

But what if...

Customs

If anyone sees a similarity between Jews and Hakka raise your hand.

Good class. There are a lot of similarities between the two tribes. Both have a huge, varied and active diaspora. Both have been hounded wherever they go. Both have faced persecution, risen to power, been accused of nefarious schemes and been sold into slavery. There are a couple of major differences, though, and in this case, the exceptions help clarify the rule. Besides having endured an organized attempted genocide, the Jewish tribe has one other thing the Hakka do not: an organized religion that binds where language, geography and memory cannot.

Then what binds the Hakka together, if not a spiritual connection to an all-knowing Father in Heaven?

We have seen that DNA and blood are poor guidelines for identity and tribe. Although the Hakka claim bloodlines to one another, our path to the Truth shows us that bloodlines tend toward murkiness. So what we have are the following:

  • a shared memory; the story of flight and re-settlement
  • a shared language, once the preeminent language of nobles and poets
  • outposts in the wilderness, like the Hakka town south of Chengdu, Luodai (Luò Dài, 洛带), and the tǔ lóu settlements of Fujian (土楼)
  • family trees
  • an active diaspora

The shared memory is a story told by the old to the young, corroborated by the historical sources available and agreed upon by the listeners and readers as Truth. If the story continues to be told, then the identity survives, no matter what happens over time to the blood, the language, the outposts or to the family trees of the Hakka people. The story of Abraham and his descendants is the key to the Jewish identity, and the reason the Jewish spirit has remained so united after thousands of years. For the Hakka, there is no Abraham per se and no deity to save him, but the story lives on today and has contributed to everything that makes one Hakka.

The Hakka language is fascinating for a few reasons. First off, it is still spoken by 37 million people, an incredible feat for a tribe that has wandered across China and the world, staying one step ahead of the sword the entire way. Second, before the fall of the Song and the multiple invasions from the north, the Hakka tongue was most likely the lingua franca of the realm. This would make Hakka one of the oldest dialects in China. It is also interesting because of its close relationship with Cantonese. If the poems of the Han, Song and Tang dynasties rhyme best in Hakka (as they do) this would point to a northern origin of the tribe; but the close relationship with Cantonese points towards if not a southern origin, then at least a deep and lasting impact upon the south. The connection would also make Cantonese a far older dialect than Mandarin and perhaps even one of the original languages of central China.

How they live

fujian yu lou

Outposts in the wilderness: The tulou of Tianluokeng in Fujian

Outposts in the wilderness are what we, the visitors, see most when we see the Hakka at all. The tǔ lóu in Fujian and other regions of southern China's coastline are basically mini-fortresses, built by outsiders who not only wanted to protect themselves from hostiles, but also to isolate their culture from influence. This second part is the key to the preservation of Hakka culture: if the tribe who arrived in Fujian (no matter what they called themselves) had such a strong sense of identity that they refused to let their way of life be "polluted" by outsiders, then we have a true new tribe. A tribe that uses language, a shared story and customs to maintain self.

In Luodai, the Hakka were in a new situation. Instead of the poor outsiders making do with the worst land, the Hakka in Sichuan were rich and skilled farmers that brought great knowledge and expertise from the civilized center to the barbarian periphery. They built guildhalls in Sichuan—great commercial palaces—that displayed their superiority and worked like a wall: protecting the mystique and nurturing the tribe.

I lived in a Hakka village for one year in Sichuan. I happened upon them by accident. I moved into a farmhouse outside of Chengdu and only over months of interaction did I learn that I was living amidst the last of Sichuan's Hakka people. They had a family tree, put together by one of their oldest, that traced the clan back to the Kangxi era of the Qing Dynasty. Kangxi offered cash to any Hakka family that would migrate to the depopulated west, and the Li clan was one of them. Few of the elders spoke the language, and no one younger than middle age had any idea how to speak their mother tongue. They were Chinese first, Sichuanese second, Hakka a distant but proud third. There were, and still are, attempts to retain their heritage (the family tree one of them), but the massive simplification of the last 60 years has made it very difficult for the Sichuan Hakka to regroup and reclaim their ancient identity.

And this brings us to the final component: the active diaspora. When Israel was in the hands of foreign kings, the sons and daughters of Abraham would sing of the Return. And so it is with the Hakka diaspora. The Hakka outside of Mainland China have fared very well without Big Brother, thank you very much. Communities across the world have flourishing businesses, clear ties to the shared story, schools for the language and scholars unfettered by any agenda. There is no attempt to reclaim anything, because all that needs to be reclaimed is a memory and a story: the language is alive and the ancient customs are quaint, but nothing is as important as remembering where you came from, and how you got there.

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  1. Interesting post on something I know nothing about. What was living in that tiny village like? How is your Mandarin, and did you learn any of their native tongue? And how the heck did you end up living in a tiny, ancient village in Sichuan? I know you said you found it by accident, but who owned the farmhouse, how'd it happen...etc? I want to hear more about that.
    Anyway, that's some cool stuff. I've only lived in China for a year (Beijing) and I've certainly never lived in the woods with an ancient people. Awesome.

    By Ted October 12,2011 11:15 AM

  2. Interesting how my own maternal genetic search, which has yielded a surprising nomadic Sephardic and Ashkenazic, and even "Hadza" ancestry all the way back to ancient Egypt has even more retrospectively lead me from the Tocharians, aka Yuezhi, Beidi, and I thought until a recent genetic study proved otherwise, to the Xianbei. Now, I learn that my IndoEuropeanAsian heritage may have not been Xianbei, but instead intermarried after being conquered by the Xiongnu, and as your comments suggest, perhaps to the Hakka. My research suggests a people living in prehistoric times on the northern side of the Yellow River. Hmmm....any thoughts or information?

    By Shana November 17,2011 01:44 AM

  3. To Shana, I'm Hakka. As I grew older, I realized that my facial features were somewhat different from the other Chinese and Asians in general. I have deeper eyesockets and my eyebrows are thick. I've observed enough Hakkas to come to the conclusion that they are not 100% Chinese or East Asian in origin. It leads me to think that the Hakkas are partly related to the Caucasian populations of Central Asia, certain parts of the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

    Yes, it could be that the Xiongnu were related to the Askhenazi whose ancestors also came from Central Asia where the Xiongnu originated. If this is the case, then the Hakkas and the Jews are long lost brothers, and the analogy fits accordingly.

    People have made all kinds of assumptions about the Hakkas, from being the original Hans, the descendants of the Xiongnu, ancestors of the Chinese nobility, to being Ming loyalists. I suspect that some Hakkas could be of a forgotten Islamic heritage, that is if they were associated with the Ming Dynasty. Perhaps Persian or Arab blood might be flowing in the veins of these Hakkas.

    In disposition, Hakkas are also different from other Chinese especially comparing to their southern kin the Cantonese and Min. They are warmer and more experessive. Again, their temperament alone dictates that the Hakkas are outsiders.

    This guy sets a perfect example as to why Hakkas are different from other Chinese both physically and emotionally. LOL...

    http://www.kungfucinema.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/chanwm1.jpg

    By Chris April 26,2012 09:17 AM

  4. Thanks for a great comment, Chris! I stayed at the Hakka Homes in Chengdu a few weeks ago, and hung out with the owner who is a gracious Hakka woman. She certainly was warm and expressive, and was very different from a lot of the folks I've met in China (mostly in Shanghai). It's interesting to think of a long-lost Hakka/Jewish connection.

    By James Weir April 26,2012 09:44 AM

  5. Thank you James. I've come across several Hakkas who had facial features resembling those of Iranians. Better yet, some Hakkas jokingly said that they might be related to Italians. And you know that many Jews, Greeks, Iranians and Italians can pass for each other. But I'm not here to say that the physical features of the Hakkas is what makes them outstanding. We were always different from the other Chinese because our mode of thinking is similar to the Jews' bearing the light to all nations. We are more likely to take action when needed.

    The irony about Hakkas living in less desirable hilly areas was that those lands inhabitated by them were the most green and lush. In fact desirable in a naturalist standpoint. Because of this, Hakkas became superb farmers.

    By Chris May 01,2012 01:00 AM

  6. I'm Hakka. Having read voluminously in search of my roots, I find your article and its conclusions somewhat amusing. But like you say, the truth is usually prosaic than we think. And it is probably even more prosaic than your article implies. Why do I say that? Linguistically speaking, Hakka is squarely a member of the Sinitic family of languages, which also include the following branches : Mandarin, Cantonese (Yue), Shanghainese and others in the Wu family, Xiang of Hunan, Gan of Jiangxi, and the Min of Fujian. Thus there are seven main branches Chinese languages, all of which descended from Middle Chinese (spoken during the Tang/Song eras) except for Min which apparently descended from Archaic Chinese. In addition, a special relationship between Hakka and the Gan of Jiangxi. In fact the Hakka and the Jiangxi Gan languages form a linguistic continuum from the Yangzi basin down to the borders of HongKong. This implies that the Hakka and Gan languages branched off from each other later than from the rest. This also implies a possible migration route for the Gan/Hakka peoples from the Yangzi basin. Where they were before the Yangzi is open to conjecture. Jiangxi is south of Jiangsu, which is in turn south of Henan, the ancestral home claimed by the Hakka. By the way, the Qin people lived in Shaanxi, to the west of Henan. Thus linguistic studies of Hakka simply did not indicate a Xiongnu or other exotic Northern origin. It indicates a population which predominantly spoke a Sinitic language descended from Middle Chinese. Now it is wrong to say that Hakka was spoken during the Tang / Song Dynasties. It was Middle Chinese that was spoken. Hakka, like most other modern Han Chinese languages, evolved from Middle Chinese. In fact if you were to look for exotic non-Han influence on Chinese language, look no further than Mandarin, which has been subjected to centuries of Manchu and Mongol influence.

    Another area that has been researched is that of DNA. It has been shown that the Hakka y-chromosome haplogroups are predominantly Han Chinese, with a minority of She DNA. The She originates from the central Yangzi valley and are a branch of the Hmong peoples. No northern DNA found to indicate Xiongnu or Turkish y-chromosomes. And furthermore, Hakka mitochondrial DNA, same with all other southern Chinese, indicate a mixture of both northern and southern Han Chinese DNA.

    So based on this, it is safe to say that the Hakkas are no different from other Han Chinese, who have migrated south of the Yangzi and intermarried with the local non-Han aborigines. The only difference is they likely migrated later than other Chinese such as the Cantonese or the Min of Fujian, and ended up living in less hospitable conditions. Hakka culture is no less Han than other Han Chinese, and just as distinct as Cantonese or Shanghainese. Their legends of having originated in the Henan area might not be too far off. Certainly nothing exotic after all.

    By Wayne Leigh May 22,2012 12:05 PM

  7. Wayne, I don't know what to say other than the fact that many Hakkas are physically distinguishable from the other Chinese. They neither look like their Northern Chinese brethen nor their Southern neighbors with whom they have intermarried, but not as frequently as many people think they did. Hakkas mostly kept to themselves as they lived in isolated hilly areas of Southern China. Culturally or what I called disposition, Hakkas were also different from the other Chinese. They were well grounded in hard labor and their women were much more egalitarian than those of other groups. They also took pride in developing a socially concious culture that the Westerners have refined, better known as humanism or philosophy (hence many Hakkas embraced education for its own sake), something that the other Chinese have abandoned, for a rapacious ruthless materalist culture which is the root of the social ills that have been plaguing China for a long time.

    Now how do these 2 Hakka guys look like other Asians?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lY0h8zs87X8

    By Chris June 09,2012 02:40 AM

  8. The 2 Hakka guys in youtube do not look typically mainland/HongKong/Taiwan Chinese because they are Hakka descents from Indonesia/Malaysia. I am also a Malaysian Hakka, so I understand their entire conversation. Many Chinese descents in non-Chinese homeland within Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, etc., do not look typically Chinese (but then, there are also a great portion of those who have retained the shallow facial features + fair skin). I highly suspect it is simply a result of adaptation to the tropical climate and eating habit. This is true for not just the oversea Hakkas, but also for the other oversea Han Chinese (the Hokkians, the Teo Chiews, you name it!). I'll have to agree with what Wayne Leigh has posted. That's what I've mostly read from my own Hakka research (though I am not of any credentials to claim certainty on the subject). Being descended from a migratory group is really nothing exotic or romantic. The migration came out of pure utilitarian needs. Hakkas did not mix-married with other ethnic groups as often throughout their history (there WERE and there ARE mix-marriage, let me be clear). But then, this was true for many other Han Chinese as well. Even nowadays, Han Chinese do often identify and differentiate among themselves into their sub-ethnic groups (and by provincial origin too). In some sense, it is a kind of racism/bias (but hey, nobody can claim themselves to be perfectly non-racist/bias really). Also, being restricted by technology and transportation to a certain geographical region, most Chinese in the olden days do not tend to inter-marry among the various sub-ethnic groups, these was simply no such opportunity. Hakka culture is somewhat different from other Han Chinese (and I do stress that the differences are not too great at all. Similarites far out-tallied the differences). This, I suspect is due to their new-immigrant status. As can be observed from the new-immigrants in other parts of the world, particularly in North America, they just have to work harder on their less-favourable land, with their little assets to begin with. With poor agriculture land to farm (they were cast by local people to the hilly, non-agricultural land), most Hakka men opted to venture out of homeland, into government offices, business industry and work as foreign labours in other cities, which meant that the women left behind will have no choice but to take up all the farm labour left at home. While women of other Han Chinese groups are restricted to domestic labour (and farm labour was restricted to men), Hakka history dictates that Hakka women would be strong, hardened, and full-rounded in skills to tackle both the domestic and public activities. There is a popular saying: "It's good to marry a Hakka woman, because she will be the ideal, all-rounded housewife, a great helper to husband. It is worst for a woman to marry a Hakka husband, because he will never help out with anything at home, but expect her to be able to tackle everything, just like his Hakka mother." I don't think there were many other Han Chinese families who would like to marry their sons and daughters into the Hakka. With that said, the Hakka is really not very different from other Han Chinese afterall.

    By Swee October 20,2012 12:02 AM

  9. Oh, by the way, attention to education and literature were taken off much of its importance in China only roughly a century ago, during the end of the Qing Dynasty, when the Ke Ju (or imperial governed examination system to get into the central bureaucracy) was ended. Before that, being able to nurture scholars and officers were of the utmost pride and importance for all Han Chinese. Scholars and officers stood at the top of the labour pyramid in pre-1900 China. It was only after 1900, when the central system collapse and everything went into chaos in China, that people tend to take up a more materialist worldview. However, oversea Han Chinese, no matter it is the Hakka, the Hokkian, the Teo Chiew, etc., still value education with high significance as in olden day China.

    By Swee October 20,2012 12:16 AM

  10. i'm hakka, family of zhong, born in west borneo and yes understand 100% of that youtube video. after reading all these, i don't know what to think.. but i do think that my family's physical appearance is slightly different from other han chinese. we have wavy hair, sharp nose. once i was shown the photo of my great great grandfather (the guy who fled from china) and i can't help but thinking he doesn't look anything han chinese with sharp nose and high nose bridge. ok, here's the pic of my son http://www.flickr.com/photos/65110242@N02/8228067193/in/photostream/ what do you think?

    By baddogbites November 29,2012 12:26 PM

  11. Hi, does anyone have any leads to Hakka family with surname FOONG or THAM?
    My grandparents were from China, Guangxi, fled to Malaysia and they look nothing like Chinese. Very dark ( i thought it was because they worked in fields), but they had very long noses. not incredibly sharp. my grandmother looked like a tan and plump version of Empress Dowager. I'm just trying to find my ancestral roots.. if anyone has anything to contribute it be very helpful. I am from Singapore and not sure which is best way to start searching....

    Thanks!

    By J January 20,2013 04:08 AM

  12. Howdy J,

    If you can find the character for their family names, this would be a good start. There may be some record of their arrival in Malaysia depending on how they entered the country. This may be helpful depending on how detailed such records are. You may be able to contact the government in that part of Malaysia and also if there are any Mormon temples or groups there, they may also have records (strange recommendation, but they apparently keep very good family lineage records and not just for their members).

    If you are able to find the town or village they left, records may still be kept by the village head about your family's lineage.

    Best of luck! Let us know if you find anything out,

    Miller

    By Miller Wey January 24,2013 03:50 PM

  13. I am Hakka from Thailand. My Grandparents came to Thailand over 100 years ago. My father's last name is Lu and my mother's last name is Fu. We are the third generation. My Parents passed away many years ago. I wish they were still alive. I have so many questions that I want to ask them about Hakka people.

    There are many successful hakka people in Thailand, both in business, politics, and other professions. We have, as I know, at least 3 Thai Prime ministers with Hakka Parents: Thaksin Shinawat, Apisit Vejacheva, Anan Panyarachul and other ministers in Thai government, excluding many Generals in the Army.

    There are many successful businessmen as well in Banking, Television and manufacturings.

    Overall, I am proud to have Hakka origin.

    Who are really us? I do not know.
    A sample of 148 Hakka males DNA's is just too small to draw any conclusion.

    By James Jantrarit February 24,2013 12:42 AM

  14. I am a pure Hakka. My grandparents were born in China .They came to Malaya about 100 years ago and settled down here.We speak Hakka dialect all the time within the family and outside also to all the Hakka people. Most of the Hakka people here still practise the traditional Hakka culture and life style.

    I strongly believe that we are the Han people of the Mainland China. I have read quite a lot of books and articles on Hakka's history and culture. I am very proud to be a Hakka and I am writing a book on the culture and spirit of the Hakka people.Topics include the Hakka dialect , traditional food , Hakka Mountain Songs and many more. Hopefully, by the end of this year ,the book may be able to expose itself in front of million of people aross most Asian countries and some Euro countries.

    My problems are to look for kind sponsorship to print the book and my plan is to bring it to China to do the designing and printing where I suppose should be cheaper that here. My first print target is 10,000 copies. Any individual or company who is interested in promoting Hakka culture is warmly welcome to contact me at : No.T.159, Kg. Sempalit, 27600 Raub, Pahang , Malaysia. Tel. : 0600-09-3558081 h/p:019-3068580

    By chin July 31,2013 11:57 AM

  15. All theories about Hakka was done either by biologists ,
    (DNA studies) or linguistics , or anthropologists.
    @James: as far as I read in internet of DNA studies, all conclude that Hakka DNA comes from North Chi
    na, different than DNA of SouthChinese
    About hospitality, I as a Fukien person endured many bashings from elder sumatran Hakka women, who seemed to hate me once she know I am a Fukienese.

    By sin yin February 14,2014 07:32 PM

  16. The ex-president Ma Ying Jeou of Taiwan is of Hakka ancestry. Observing him, you will understand most Hakkas are different from other Chinese, physically and behaviorially. Hakkas are more expressive, outgoing and friendlier, and are usually better looking.

    By Chris February 24,2014 11:46 AM

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