Saving Hakka.

Yes, this piece by Rosalie Chan is another “saving an endangered language” story, but Hakka is really interesting:

It’s 6:30 p.m. at a radio studio in Miaoli, a small city in Western Taiwan. Yin Chang is plugged in. Her headphones are on, and the microphone is adjusted close to her mouth. The lights are dim; a blue banner declaring “Voice of Hakka Radio 97.1 FM” hangs behind her.

Chang, 36, fixes her headphones and pushes a strand of her bobbed hair behind her ear. With a bright voice, she enthusiastically greets the audience: “Hello, tegaho gaihei DJ Yin!” – “Hello everyone, this is DJ Yin!”

Chang hosts a program called Heinai, or “It’s me” in a variety of Chinese known as Hakka, the language of a Han Chinese ethnic group scattered throughout the continent. Heinai is aimed at Hakka youth; it’s part of Chang’s efforts to reinvigorate the dying language.

Chang grew up in Miaoli and, like 62.2 percent of the local population, is Hakka. In Taiwan, the Hakka are frequently referred to as ke jia ren or “guest family people” because throughout their history, Hakkas have been a migrant group, fleeing settlements to avoid one catastrophe after another. The Hakkas arrived in Taiwan during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when they escaped the Manchurian Armies that were taking control of China. The Hoklo people had already settled the fertile land of Taiwan, so the Hakkas were left to make do with the remaining infertile foothills, and, thus are known for their history of hardship and frugality. […]

Every year the Hakka Affairs Council — an organization established in 2001 and dedicated to preserving Hakka culture and promoting Hakka media — surveys Hakka people in Taiwan about the presence of language in their lives. According to a 2013 survey, 47.3 percent can speak Hakka fluently; however, most of those are elderly. Only 22.8 percent of people aged 19 to 29 speak Hakka, and that figure is even lower for children 18 and under.

Chang hopes that by presenting Hakka music to young people in her country, it will spark their interest in learning the language and spur more engagement in the culture, the same way it did for her about ten years ago.

The link is from Victor Mair’s Log post, which contains an introduction to the remarkable history of the Hakka:

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:

The list includes everybody from Sun Yat-sen to Lee Teng-hui, Lee Kuan Yew, and Ne Win. I had no idea!


  1. My mental association with the Hakka is the distinctive hats. (And a Beijing woman who thought Hokkein was my weird pronunciation of Hakka, confusing me for years on end.)

  2. Hi! I think “gaihei DJ Yin” should be “ngai hei DJ Yin”. It litterally means “I am DJ Yin”

  3. Endangered in Taiwan, anyway. The situation on the mainland may be different.

  4. Not much better. Contemporary Southern Chinese is like contemporary Northern German: people learn Standard Chinese as a foreign language, not another register of their own, and then switched completely to it.

  5. From the article: In Taiwan, the Hakka are frequently referred to as ke jia ren or “guest family people” because throughout their history, Hakkas have been a migrant group, fleeing settlements to avoid one catastrophe after another.

    I should point out that kejiaren is simply the Standard Mandarin pronunciation of 客家人, “guest family people”, and Hakka is the Hakka pronunciation of the same first two characters 客家, “guest family”.

  6. My mental association with the Hakka is the distinctive hats.

    You mean I missed a rare chance to feature both languages and hats in a single post? Damn!

  7. Hakka Noodles is one of the essential dishes in the Indian version of Chinese food, along with, say, Gobi Manchurian and Chili Paneer. The original vendors were Hakka, but it is now as much a unique creation as American Chinese food is.

  8. @Jongseong Park

    So does “guest family” come from a Mandarin-imposed meaning on the word Hakka or do the Hakka people consider themselves guest families?

  9. david: Hakka people are called guests (客) in contrast to locals (土), with whom they fought bloody wars. The Chinese Wikipedia page says that the Hakka identity crystallized into its current form during these conflicts, which seems reasonable.

  10. There is actually a World Hakka Conference (link in Chinese), launched in Hong Kong in 1971, and since hosted in Japan, Mauritius, Taiwan, the U.S., Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. Since 2003 it’s predominantly been held in Mainland China.

    A young lady called Miss Charming Zhong (link in Chinese) helped host the opening ceremony at the 27th conference, where she spoke in Hakka. Miss Zhong appears to have been prominent recently in promoting Hakka culture. In 2012 she released a song in Hakka called A Hakka Girl Comes to Wish You a Happy New Year (客家妹妹来拜年) and another Hakka single in 2014 called A-mu’s Ground Tea (阿姆的擂茶). She has been dubbed the Ambassador for Promoting Hakka Culture (客家文化宣传大使) by the mass media. Well, this won’t necessarily lead to a resurgence in Hakka culture, but it’s encouraging…

    Ground Tea (擂茶 léi-chá) isn’t actually a kind of tea. It apparently contains rice, sesame, peanuts, green beans, salt, tea leaves, ginger, and Litsea cubeba.

    (The two songs can be heard here and here — I presume they’re accessible outside China).

  11. Here’s a history of the Hakka that focuses on their identity as “guests” vs. “locals” all over China. Was it Michener’s Hawaii and that first introduced the terms Hakka vs. Punti (Běndì 本地) to a wider English-reading public?

  12. When my wife and I taught English in Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province, in 1987-88, our top students tended to be from Hakka villages (or from Sichuan Province). I used to work with a part-Hakka, part-Hawaiian production editor in Honolulu. She was an overachiever, too.

  13. The funny thing is that although Hakka is commonly perceived to be somewhat Northern, it is in fact one of the bona fide Southern Chinese varieties (along with Mǐn languages). Hakka shares with Mǐn the preservation of the value of Old Chinese *-aj in several important words (like 我 *ŋaj “I”), while ordinary Chinese changed *-aj into /o/ (Beijing wǒ, Canton ngóh). Hakka shares with Min another archaism that it preserves the distinction of high-registered and low-registered sonorants, probably from older sonorants with preinitials. So “six”, something like *k-rok in Old Chinese, is reflected as a yīnrù tone, while in most other Chinese dialects, the tone would be yángrù. Compared with Hakka, Cantonese is a purely a dialect of Mandarin.

  14. So there is a grain of truth in the traditional perception of Hakka people as “half-breed mixes of Chinese and savage southern tribes”. Most Southern Chinese, of course, are. But the linguistic ancestors of Hakkas are in the south for centuries before the linguistic ancestors of the Cantonese etc. arrived.

  15. But the retention of shared primitive characters (barbarously known as symplesiomorphies) is not evidence of special relatedness. I have five toes on each foot and so does an iguana, whereas a horse has only three (or one), but I am far more closely related to horses than iguanas.

  16. John Cowan: Indeed. The only point about these archaisms is that proto-Hakka was neither brought by post-circa-700 AD immigrants from Northern China, nor was in intense contact with speakers of Northern Chinese at that time for the sound changes to have propagated areally.

  17. Punti (Běndì 本地)

    So is “Punti” traditionally pronounced by English-speakers with “Pun” as in “pun” (reflecting the Mandarin version), or with “Poon” (reflecting the Cantonese version)? I need to know how to say it mentally (though I’ll probably never use it in speaking).

  18. @David

    «So does “guest family” come from a Mandarin-imposed meaning on the word Hakka or do the Hakka people consider themselves guest families?»

    Short answer: It’s an imposed (but not “Mandarin-imposed”) meaning. The original meaning is not clear, at least to us. 😀

    What we know is this. The Hakka are related to a “non-Han” tribe called the Shē (畲) by modern officials, or Sanhak by themselves. They’re also neighbors to a “Han” super-tribe called the Hoklo in the English literature. The “Hokkiens” and the “Teochews” are the major branches of the Hoklo super-tribe.

    The modern Sanhak live in scattered pockets, mostly in places where no Hakka live. Yet, nearly all Sanhak speak Hakka as a first language. The few who don’t, speak a Hmong-Mien language known in English as “She”. They speak Hakka as a 2nd or 3rd language.

    The name “Sanhak” alternates with “Sanha”, probably dialectically. This is part of a trend in Hmong-Mien — and some dialects of Hakka, and Hoklo to some extent — for -k endings to “fall off”.

    “San” is always written using the kanji 山 (MOUNTAIN). Hakka folk music is known as “san” music, wherever You find it. Coincidence?

    The Hoklo tend to only have awareness of themselves as “Hoklo” in places where there’s Hakkas, such as in Taiwan. In Taiwan, they call themselves “Holo” while the Hakka word for them is “Hoklo”. The Hoklos of the Hoiliuk area (on the coast between Swatow and Hong Kong) call themselves “Haklau”.

    There’s a word that shows up in the Chinese literature mostly as 半山客. In Hakka, it’d be “pan-Sanhak”. “Pan” means HALF. The Sanhak use this term to refer to the Hakka, pretty much calling them “half Sanhak”. The Hakka of Moiyen (梅縣) and around there, though, use this term to refer to the Hakka that live near the Hoklo-Hakka line. And the Hoklo use this term to refer to that same group of Hakka. In this application, the phrase breaks down as “Hakka halfway up the mountain”. That about sums up where the Hoklo-Hakka line runs.

    To thicken the plot, “pan-Sanhak” is sometimes written as 半山學, with a possible (but not firmly attested by me) pronunciation “pan-Sanhok”. That last kanji is the kanji typically used to write the first syllable in “Hoklo”.

    The word “Hakka” doesn’t seem to show up till the late 19th century. Hakka began migrating to Taiwan in the 17th or early 18th century, yet the idea that they belonged to a tribe called the Hakka was apparently imported in the 20th. What seems to have happened is that the kanji 客 (GUEST) was attached to the ethnonym “Hak” b/c the phonology fits. The rest is history.

    As for “Hoklo / Haklau”, there’s also at least a half dozen theories out there on the etymology of that. None of the well-known ones make much sense. Looking at the history of the region, it seems safe to say that Hakka, Sanhak, and Hoklo grew up together — sisters from different fathers, so to speak.

  19. Wow, thanks for an extremely informative comment!

  20. Wonderful!

  21. At first, I had an instinctive rejection of a term ‘tribe’ to refer to the major ethnic group of tens of millions people.

    But then I realized that nothing else fits.

    Terms like nation, nationality, ethnicity, ethnic group don’t really describe the Hakka. These terms apply to the Chinese as a whole, not to the group like Hakka which a part of that bigger entity.

    So tribe it is.

    PS. I wonder if there are any tribes in the Anglo world. Would the Scotch-Irish qualify as a tribe?

  22. I’m pretty sure they’ve been described that way.

  23. I think some Native Americans regard us not only as a tribe but as a peculiarly savage one.

  24. Terms like nation, nationality, ethnicity, ethnic group don’t really describe the Hakka. These terms apply to the Chinese as a whole, not to the group like Hakka which a part of that bigger entity.

    Why doesn’t ethnic group apply to the Hakka?

    Why does ethnic group apply to the Chinese (Han? or all citizens of China?) and not to the Hakka?

    It is hard for me to grasp an ethnic group with multiple mutually incomprehensible languages, which is what it would mean to call Chinese an ethnic group.

  25. J. W. Brewer says

    I think maybe the problem is the notion that “ethnic group” can occur at only one level of generality, such that if “Jews” are (in the U.S. context) an ethnic group, it is impossible for some relevant subset (e.g. “Ashkenazim,” or “Syrian Jews,” in the same context) to be an ethnic group; if Anglophone-West-Indian-Americans are an ethnic group; Barbadian-Americans can’t be. And so on. But I don’t think that’s how it works. It’s no different than if you asked a particular Italian-American where he was from and he variously but truthfully answered (to different interlocutors in different contexts) “New York City,” “Brooklyn,” and “Bensonhurst.”

  26. J. W. Brewer says

    Here’s an English translation from of a song/hymn/anthem popular among at least one political faction of the current inhabitants of Taiwan:

    “On the southwestern edge of the Pacific Ocean stands the lush Taiwan, the beautiful island (“Formosa”).
    Earlier it was ruled by foreign powers, but now it has achieved its nationhood (“chhut-thâu-thiⁿ”).
    The republic being the basis of its constitution, the four ethnic groups are equal and co-operate with one another.
    Towards humanity, civilization, and peace, the people will come forward to contribute their talents.”

    My guess is that the “Hakka” are one of the “four ethnic groups,” with the other three being: 1) the majority (“Hoklo” or whatever you want to call them); 2) the various non-Han aboriginal “tribes”, lumped together as if a single “group”; and 3) the arriving-circa-1949 “mainlanders” and their descendants (lumped together even though they might have had considerable differences of geographical origin and L1 etc on the mainland). Maybe “ethnic group” is glossing a Taiwanese word that is better suited, or maybe the vocabulary in other languages for categories like this is equally murky.

  27. I was astonished, when I moved to Taiwan in 1977, to discover the virulent animosity between the “mainlanders” and the “native Taiwanese”; I shared an apartment with representatives of both groups, and though they were on friendly terms the animosity sometimes surfaced and caused shouting and tears.

  28. I’m not sure who the four ethnic groups ( 族) are, but the original Republic of China flag had 5 stripes for the “5 ethnic groups of China”—the Han (which includes Hakka, among others), the Manchus, the Mongols, the Tibetans, and the Hui (here just meaning Muslims). This of course excludes many groups living in China, as well as completely excluding Taiwanese aboriginals (as distinct from “native Taiwanese”, who are considered Han). So maybe they dropped two of the groups & added Taiwanese aboriginals or something? I have no idea. But the animosity hat saw was between two subgroups of one , however they might want to be subdivided.

  29. J. W. Brewer says

    Matt A: as I understand it, this song is popular with the partisans of Taiwanese distinctiveness/autonomy/independence (the “green” rather than “blue” faction of voters) and is viewed as an alternative or replacement for the “official” ROC anthem imported to Taiwan by the KMT regime. It is what mainland-centric propagandists would call “splittist” in its outlook. So there’s no reason to think it has anything to do with old ROC themes about the Five Races (which had no original relevance to Taiwan which was at the time under Japanese rule) and no reason to think it assumes the indivisibility of the Han zu.

  30. J.W. Brewer,

    Thanks—I agree it sounds like it has nothing to do with the Five Races then. That would be crazy if the four zú were three subdivisions of Hànzú plus aboriginals, but interesting and pretty cool.

  31. Well, they are not four “zú”s, but four “zúqún/cho̍k-kûn”‘s. Zúqún’s feel smaller than zú’s.

  32. minus273,

    Thanks for pointing that out! I somehow skipped over the 群, & I completely agree that that feels smaller.

  33. David Marjanović says

    It’s no different than if you asked a particular Italian-American where he was from and he variously but truthfully answered (to different interlocutors in different contexts) “New York City,” “Brooklyn,” and “Bensonhurst.”

    I have a colleague who answers “Texas” in all contexts.

  34. “Never ask a man where he’s from. If he’s from Texas, he’ll tell you; and if not, why embarrass him?”

  35. SFReader says

    -hakkas, o hakkas, wherefore are ye “hakkas” – லஞித்ரி @ says:
    July 7, 2016 at 6:22 am

    I presume this poster is 番 from up the thread. I visited his blog (almost entirely about language) and read everything. I particularly liked his 10 part series on his story of language learning.

    Absolutely fascinating and greatly recommended for all hatters.

  36. From Eric Flint’s alternate-history novel 1824: The Arkansas War:

    “I’m not actually sure which clans [two Kiowa chiefs] represent,” [the special commissioner for Indians] admitted.

    “Well, that part’s easy enough,” said [Zachary] Taylor. “They didn’t represent any. The Kiowas aren’t divided into clans.”

    “But:they have to be.”

    Clearly, Zack had contradicted one of Mitchell’s certain pieces of Indian lore. He might as well have said the sun rose in the west. There were two things the special commissioner Knew To Be True. Indian chiefs all wore feather headdresses, and Indians all belonged to clans.

    “Why?” grunted the surgeon. “We’re not divided into clans.”

    “Leaving aside Scotsmen, Baltimore plug-uglies, and opera enthusiasts,” his assistant quipped.

  37. Snakes of Iceland, Pope Joan, religion of Frederick the Great and Kiowa clans.

  38. That blog that SFReader recommended has this incredible passage (here) on losing your language:

    Well, I’ll tell you ánnuá. Coughing up your language is like draining an ocean. All the fish that lived in that sea — stories, histories, standpoints, points of view, nuances, cultural antibodies, rhymes, reasons, and rhythms — will wash up and die … except to the extent that they can swim into your adopted ocean — your adopted language — and survive and thrive there. This is possible to the extent that the adopted language is very similar or very versatile.

    Coughing up your language also puts your people at risk of becoming sibboleths in a shibboleth world. Your identity fades. Y’all become a half-assed version of something else. Other people become gatekeepers to your future for a generation or two, or a dozen generations. They’ll have something over you, and if they have something against you as well, then y’all in big trouble. You’ll be damned if you rise up and damned if you take it lying down. Have fun waiting for your messiah.

    Use it or lose it.

    I don’t think any advocate of revitalising endangered languages could put it better.

  39. That’s terrific, thanks for quoting it!


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