Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Hakka

Before I get too far into the narrative of my life as a white Chinese daughter-in-law, I need to tell you about the Hakka. The Liu family are Hakka speakers. The Hakka are a linguistic minority of the Han Chinese. Their tradition says that they were nobility from the Yellow River valley that fled South before barbarian invasions throughout the centuries. There are pockets of Hakka speakers in China scattered throughout the mountainous areas of Sichuan, Jiangxi, Fujian, and Guangdong Provinces on the mainland. Later waves of Hakka migrated out of the coastal provinces of Fujian and Guangdong to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, Hawaii, and the rest of the world. Legend has it that Kuala Lumpur was founded by a Hakka-speaking business leader.

According to their oral tradition, the Hakka strictly adhere to the Confucian code and traditional ancestor worship. Their language and customs preserve the oldest of Chinese traditions. The word Hakka means “guest people”. And since they are perpetual sojourners, bereft of their true ancestral homes, their women never had to bind their feet. Hakka women are traditionally strong, and if they industriously earn money for the clan, they are treated as equals with the men. This fact caused many of my friends from other linguistic sub-groups to fear for me because I would be expected to work harder than in other Chinese sub-cultures. Teacher Chin thought I would have an easier time of it because the Hakka are also known for their fairness and straight-speaking. She knew I was not afraid of hard work and felt that this was a good match for my temperament.

The rest of this post is a series of quotes from James Michener’s epic book Hawaii. He gets most of the legend right, and it is quite cool that the ethnic story of my family by marriage was featured in a best-selling novel by one of my favorite authors.

In the year 817 … the northern sections of China were ravaged by an invading horde of Tartars whose superior horsemanship, primitive moral courage and lack of hesitation in applying brute force quickly overwhelmed the more sophisticated Chinese … The effect of the invasion fell most heavily upon the great Middle Kingdom, the heartland of China, for it was these lush fields and rich cities that the Tartars sought, so toward the middle of the century they dispatched an army southward to invade Honan Province … In Honan at this time there lived a cohesive body of Chinese known by no special name, but different from their neighbors. They were taller, more conservative, spoke a pure ancient language uncontaminated by modern flourishes, and were remarkably good farmers. (p. 373)

As [the] resolute group moved south from Honan Province they acquired people from more than a hundred additional villages whose sturdy peasants … refused to accept Tartar domination. In time, what had started as a rabble became in actuality a solid army … The years passed, and this curious, undigested body of stalwart Chinese, holding to old customs and disciplined as no other that had ever wandered across China, probed constantly southward, until in the year 874 they entered upon a valley in Kwangtung Province, west of the city of Canton. It had a clear, swift-running river, fine mountains to the rear, and soil that seemed ripe for intensive cultivation. (p. 382-383)

Finally, when military occupation of the entire valley proved unfeasible, [they] decided to leave the lowlands to the southerners and to occupy all the highlands … and in time the highlanders became known as the Hakka, the Guest People, while the lowlanders were called the Punti, the natives of the Land.
It was in this manner that one of the strangest anomalies of history developed, for during a period of almost a thousand years these two contrasting bodies of people lived side by side with no friendly contact. The Hakka lived in the highlands and farmed; the Punti lived in the lowlands and established an urban life … The upland people, the Hakka preserved intact their ancient habits inherited from the purest fountain of Chinese culture … The second difference was … the self-reliant Hakka women refused to bind the feet of their girl babies … Hakka girls were known to make powerful, strong-willed, intelligent wives who demanded an equal voice in family matters. (p. 384-385)

, by James Michener


Cloudia said...

Before, all I knew was the name: "Hakka."

Now I know what it means, and also more about my Hawaii neighbors (mostly Hakka immigrants, I believe).

You are a gem, Teresa, and MUST publish these remeniscences of your life!


Cloudia's Comfort Spiral

Teresa said...

Hi Cloudia,

I recommend the entire book. There is quite a bit about the Hakka in Hawaii and their role in the businesses and sugar plantations. Interestingly, it was a woman Hakka who features most prominently in the novel. She came as the concubine of a Cantonese Punti businessman and bore him five sons who all called her auntie because the first wife left behind in China had no sons and got to claim them all. The first wife could not come to Hawaii because she had bound feet.

I won't say more because I don't want to spoil the book for you.

murat11 said...

Teresa: A perfect match, I'd say, for the White Chinese daughter-in-law and the Hakka prince. I love "Guest People," descriptive both of their own status as sojourners and as people of gracious hospitality. Mr. Liu could surely be the protagonist of your own Hakka novel.

The background from Michener was delightful.

Teresa said...

Hey Murat,

Glad you liked the post. I'm actually working on a collection of stories based on Ma and Pa Liu's stories of their early married life. I've got 4 or 5 of them done. In between the papers and the thesis and the translations. Who knows when I'll get enough written to do a book?

murat11 said...

Teresa: I'll want a copy of the Liu stories when they're done. Excellent. What a world, the Hakka world.

Teresa said...

Hi Murat:

I will let you know when it's published and available. Then I'll have to send you an autographed copy!

Glennis said...

What an interesting story, and it's all real! I read another couple of episodes too and enjoyed them.
I read the James Mitchener book many years ago and it is one of my favourites, there was so much in it, the Chinese Hakka side just one of the interesting sides to it. The story of the early missionaries was also a great read, I couldn't put the book down at the time, maybe I should read it again some day.
All the best for your special multi cultural marriage.

Teresa said...

Hi Glennis,
Welcome to my blog. Glad you enjoyed some of my stories. I agree that Michener's entire book Hawaii is a great read with many interesting strands.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for providing this interesting look at the Hakka people. I'm sure that the family that you married into has a rich and interesting history.

Paul Yap said...

I am Hakka, born and bred in Medan, Sumatra. I just came across your blog and would love to buy a copy of your book if it is available.


Teresa said...

I do not have a book, just a blog. Thanks for your kind words.

NAM Low said...

I like this wording.........highlanders......... leave the lowlands to the southerners and to occupy all the highlands … and in time the highlanders became known as the Hakka, the Guest People, while the lowlanders were called the Punti, the natives of the Land. ............