The Hakka: Nomadic Gypsy-Tinkers or China's Ancient Han?

Culture | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: October 11th, 2011 | Updated: September 15th, 2014 | Comments

Tu lou, Fujian

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 of the Hakka

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

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 Minnan 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 Minnan tribes... AT THE SAME TIME! But what if...

Customs of the Hakka

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 The Hakka Lived

fujian yu lou

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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