Hakka: "Guest families"

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Hakka (Kèjiā 客家 ["guest families"]) is the name of a Chinese ethnic group and their language.  Their name refers to the fact that, although they came from the north centuries ago, they are now scattered in various locations throughout South China and, indeed, the world.

Although the Hakka amount to approximately only 4% of the total population of China, their influence on politics, the military, culture, and other spheres of life in the past two centuries has been disproportionately large

The Hakka have assumed positions of leadership not only in China, but in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the New World.  To name only a few of the important Hakka statesmen, revolutionaries, and cultural leaders of the last century and a half, we may list the following:

For several decades, I have been deeply intrigued by this phenomenon of Hakka dominance, but could never quite comprehend how it transpired.  Consequently, I was pleased when two American scholars carried out serious research on the Hakkas and their impact on modern China.  See the fascinating studies by Mary Erbaugh ("The Secret History of the Hakkas:  the Chinese Revolution as a Hakka Enterprise" in China Quarterly, 132 [December, 1992], 937-968) and Nicole Constable (Guest People:  Hakka Identity In China and Abroad [University of Washington Press, 2005]).

To turn our focus to their language, Hakka is one of the ten or so major branches within the Sinitic family.  Despite their outstanding political and cultural achievements, the language of the Hakka was gradually dying out until around the turn of the millennium when advocates for the mother tongue began to take steps to preserve it.

Rosalie Chan, who is herself of Filipino and Hakka extraction, has written a lengthy article describing what happened:

"How to Save an Ancient Language Before It Disappears Forever"

For decades, Taiwan’s minority Hakka people were banned from teaching their native language. Now an unlikely coalition of aging academics and millennial radio DJs are doing all they can to keep it alive.

This article, which describes the efforts of a small but energetic group of devotees to preserve Hakka language as it exists in Taiwan, is itself an act of love.  In it, the author tells how Hakka culture and language are being rescued and revived by the likes of female DJ, Yin Chang, 36, and male Henung Zhang, 90, a retired principal.  I was especially interested that their work was foreshadowed by the grass roots Return Our Mother Tongue Movement, which was founded in 1988, and enabled by the 2001 government initiative requiring primary schools to teach mother languages, including Hakka.

I still remember clearly when the move to require schools on Taiwan to teach mother languages was announced.  That was a moment of jubilation for me.  I gave a lot of credit for this enlightened move to the Taiwanese president at the time, Chen Shui-bian.  Colloquially referred to as A-Bian (Mandarin Ābiǎn 阿扁; Taiwanese 阿扁仔 A-píⁿ-à), Chen Shui-bian served as President from 2000 to 2008 when he was removed from office on bribery charges and imprisoned for the next seven years.  Many observers believe that the charges against A-Bian were trumped up by the KMT (Nationalist) Party which, before him, had ruled Taiwan for half a century, from the time when Chiang Kai-shek occupied the island with his legions of Nationalist soldiers.  Be it noted that the leadership of the KMT consists primarily of Mainland Mandarin speakers.

I should mention that Rosalie Chan's absorbing piece appears in the interesting online magazine "Narratively", which is self-described as "a platform devoted to untold human stories".

Rosalie Chan's article complements well my own "How to Forget Your Mother Tongue and Remember Your National Language", which was written in 2003, although my focus is primarily on Taiwanese.

A word to the wise among the supporters of Hakka language.  If you are really concerned about the long-term survival of your mother tongue, you need to develop a standardized orthography for transcribing it.

[h.t. Norman Leung]



  1. Jongseong Park said,

    October 12, 2015 @ 8:17 am

    If you wanted a standardized orthography for Hakka, would it be possible to come up with one that encompasses the two main dialects? I know next to nothing about Hakka, including its internal dialectal variation, but with many minority languages one often sees resistance to standardization based on the fact that it would favour certain dialects over others.

  2. AntC said,

    October 12, 2015 @ 3:26 pm

    Fascinating Victor, thank you.

    I am friends with a Hakka family from Singapore (through UK university connections). They speak Hakka at home. I hadn't realised that the Hakka language was under threat.

    Neither did I realise that Lee Kuan Yew was Hakka. Did he use Hakka language at all in office? I thought he was keen to standardise Singapore on MSM(?) So did that contribute to the decline of Hakka there?

  3. Eidolon said,

    October 12, 2015 @ 4:20 pm


    According to Lee Kuan Yew's autobiography, he spoke English and Malay, and that his "spoken Hakka and Hokkien were pathetic, almost negligible," while "Mandarin was alien to him." To this end, I think Lee Kuan Yew's "Hakka" – and indeed his "Chinese" – identity is primarily one of ethnic memory, rather than linguistic environment. To this end, it is perhaps understandable that Lee Kuan Yew was never that attached to Hakka, which was not his "mother tongue" but the tongue of one of his forefathers. Indeed, this is the case for several of the people listed as Hakka above, as Chinese tend to trace ethnic identity through their agnatic line.

  4. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 13, 2015 @ 10:16 am

    Taiwanese was likewise suppressed/frowned-upon in schools and the public sphere during the period of authoritarian KMT rule, but survived in good shape as a spoken language in a family-and-friends-and-neighbors context. I can certainly see why Hakka would have had problems in parts of Taiwan where its speakers are scattered such that most kids of Hakka-speaking parents had Taiwanese-speaking friends/schoolmates, so the non-Mandarin language they were exposed to on the playground and in the streets wasn't Hakka, but I'm not sure why Hakka should have lost generational continuity in parts of rural Taiwan where its speakers were the local ethnic majority.

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