The Hakka are regarded as Taiwan’s second-largest ethnic group. The Hakka dialect, originally from Guangdong Province, is spoken mostly in the two northwestern counties of Hsinchu and Miaoli and parts of southern and eastern Taiwan. Many Hakka speakers live around Hsinchu Science-based Industrial Park.
The Hakka are a large group that is widely scattered throughout southeast China and throughout the world. There are about 40 million of them in China, where they make up 3.7 percent of the population. By some estimates there are 75 million of them worldwide. The Hakka are well represented in southwestern Fujian, southern Jiangxi, eastern Guangxi, Hainan Island, Hong Kong and Taiwan. There are many in Southeast Asia, Britain and the United States. Their name means “guest people” or ‘stranger families.”
Hakka were originally Chinese tribesmen who migrated from northern China to Fujian. They are known for the pugnacity, ability to make money and clannishness. Although the Hakka language was for a long time the primary unifying force behind the Hakka few people speak it anymore. It is regarded as a southern Chinese language even though many linguist regarded as more similar to Mandarin than Cantonese. The Hakka language is spoken so little it is in danger of dying out.
Hakka, called kejiaren in Mandarin Chinese, means “guest people.” They are called guests because they began migrating to southern China from the Yellow River basin in the fourth century to escape war and natural disasters.
Linguists say the Hakka language is closer to the ancient Chinese of the Yellow River area, considered the birthplace of Chinese civilization, than any other language spoken today. According to historical records the Hakka people had migrated southwards from the Central Plains of China to escape the turmoil of the Yongjia period (A.D. 304-312) and the wartime ravages of the late Tang dynasty and the Song dynasty. Many of the Hakka settled in Fujian and Guangdong Provinces.
History of the Hakka
The Hakka are believed to have originated from southern Shanxi, central Henan and Anhui provinces in north-central China and migrated from there to southern China in five major waves of migration that began around the A.D. 4th century and ended in the mid 18th century. The Hakka tended to take up residence in the mountains because the lowlands were already occupied.
The history of the Hakka is one migration and conflicts with the people they lived around and competed with for land. Because they had such a hard time establishing a homeland they made up many of the migrants who left China for Southeast Asia, the Americas and Europe.
The leaders of the Taiping rebellion and the early revolutionary Communist Party were Hakkas. They occupied one-quarter of the seats in the first post-revolutionary politburo. Lee Teng-hui, the President of Taiwan, and Lee Kuan Yew, the Singaporean strongman, are Hakka. The British hired many Hakka as civil servants because they considered hardworking and trustworthy.
Hakka Life in China
Most Hakka customs and religious beliefs are similar to those of Han Chinese. Although they have reputation for dressing plainly, Hakka women weave intricately patterned bands or ribbons which often worn to secure head clothes on flat, circular, Hakka hats. Women are also known for their flirtatious, mountain folk songs.
In historical times, the Hakka were regarded as skilled farmers, who were able to coax good harvests from the most marginal land. This grew into a reputation of being hardworking, persistent and never giving up, which enabled them to have success in business and achieve success in a number of different environments.
Hakka women traditionally had more power than other Chinese women and their feet were never bound. They are still regarded as hard workers. Sometimes you can see them working on road crews and doing heavy work. In the old days Cantonese girls who misbehaved were told they would “marry a Hakka,” meaning they would be doomed to a life of drudgery.
Hakkas are regarded as clannish. They have traditionally lived in courtyard houses with such thick walls they resembled mini fortresses. They were often the newcomers in the places they lived and often faught with other local people over water and farming land.
Hakka Festivals in Taiwan
Hakka culture is celebrated each year in Taiwan with 12 festivals organized by the Council for Hakka Affairs. The Hakka are a Han Chinese ethnic group that speak the Hakka language, make up about one-fifth of Taiwan’s population and are renowned for their communal spirit, diligence and frugality. The ancestors of today’s Hakka in Taiwan emigrated from Guangdong, Jiangxi and Fujian provinces in mainland China. Once on the island, many of the immigrants chose hilly, mountainous areas to create a distinctive new Hakka identity seasoned by the influences of local indigenous peoples and other immigrant groups. The following selection of photos highlights eight of the 12 festivals that the Hakka participate in as a means of retaining and honoring their heritage. [Source: Ministry of foreign Affairs, ROC, May 1, 2011 <>]
In the Meinong District of Kaohsiung City, southern Taiwan, Hakka devotees participate in a ceremony that involves asking the gods for rich harvests and wisdom for children, then culminates in pouring ashes of burned prayer papers in the Meinong River. During the Straw Dragon Festival in Sanyi, Miaoli County, northern Taiwan, Hakka residents perform a dragon dance with a dragon made from dried rice stalks and pieces of bamboo garnished with sticks of incense. <>
Children in deer costumes parade in Guoxing Township in Nantou County, central Taiwan. Guoxing has held the Deer Deity Festival each year since 2002 to express appreciation to Shennong, an agricultural deity. In the early days, most Hakka people subsisted on the produce of their fields, and they were therefore devout worshippers of Shennong. Guoxing is home to Taiwan’s biggest preserve for sambar, a type of deer. <>
The Hakka Tung Blossom Festival runs until mid-May in 11 counties and cities scattered across northern, central and southern Taiwan. The festival pairs the natural beauty of the tung blossoms, which bloom in parks, forests and mountains, with an opportunity to appreciate the essence of Hakka culture. A festival called Attacking the City Walls is held alongside the Lantern Festival each year in Liudui, Pingtung County in southern Taiwan. Attacking the City Walls began as a military exercise, but in more recent times has become a celebration highlighting the solidarity shared by the Hakka villagers of Liudui. <>
The Hakka residents of Fuyuan Village in Hualien County, eastern Taiwan, hold a ceremony each year to mark the birthday of the city deity that features performances by percussion troupes from around the island. The Yimin Cultural Festival, held in Xinpu, Hsinchu County, northern Taiwan, honors heroes of old who sacrificed their lives for the sake of the whole community. The Xinpu Yimin Temple, pictured here, is sacred to Taiwan’s Hakka people and attracts thousands of devotees. <>
Hakka Rights in Taiwan
Audrey Wang wrote in the Taiwan Review, “The protestors waved banners and distributed flyers, many of which were emblazoned with a particularly bold and arresting image—that of Sun Yat-sen , 1866–1925), the founding father of the Republic of China, who is believed to have Hakka roots, his mouth covered with a mask and the words “return the Hakka dialect to us.” The rally on December 28, 1988 saw more than 6,000 demonstrators take to the streets in Taipei, the capital city of Taiwan, to call for the restoration of the Hakka dialect in public life. [Source: Audrey Wang, Taiwan Review, March 2013 \=\]
“The protest demanded the government launch Hakka programs on television, teach Hakka in schools and set up Hakka-related research programs and institutes,” says Lo Seo-gim, dean of the College of Hakka Studies at National Central University (NCU) in Taoyuan, northern Taiwan. “The event played a critical role in giving rise to Hakka colleges within universities, which was a response to Hakka people’s call to reclaim their culture.” \=\
“The general lack of attention placed on Hakka culture has been attributed to the group’s minority status compared with the Holo population, which accounts for about 70 percent of Taiwan’s people, and the wave of mainland Chinese immigrants who came to Taiwan with the Kuomintang government in the late 1940s. Continuing his example, Chang explains that most people learn a version of Taiwan’s history that is based on Lien Heng’s, 1878–1936) seminal work The General History of Taiwan. But the book was pretty much written from a Holo person’s point of view, Chang says, with the Hakka population considered an insignificant group. “Therefore, making a historical event, such as the Yiwei War, better known to the public is recognition of Hakka people’s contribution to Taiwan in protecting the country’s sovereignty,” Chang notes. “It also offers fairer treatment and a more impartial historical account for Hakka people.” \=\
University Dedicated to Hakka Studies
Audrey Wang wrote in the Taiwan Review, With government support, NCU founded Taiwan’s first college dedicated to Hakka studies in 2003, followed by similar moves at two other universities in northern Taiwan: National Chiao Tung University (NCTU) in Hsinchu County in 2004 and National United University (NUU) in Miaoli City in 2006. The three regions are known for having large Hakka populations. As of the beginning of this year, there were about a dozen Hakka-related departments and graduate institutes at five universities. [Source: Audrey Wang, Taiwan Review, March 2013 \=\]
“Lo says Hakka studies looks into the essence of the culture, focusing on elements unique to Hakka communities. These include the behavior, habits and customs that developed from life in remote mountainous areas, where most major Hakka communities are located. For example, the isolation of village life gave rise to the practice of ensuring some foods were preserved for long-term use, with drying or fermentation among the popular methods of doing so. The religious practice of worshipping Bo Gong, or the Earth God, is also closely connected with the hardship of living in rugged terrain. \=\
“According to Liu Feng-jiin, the dean of NUU’s College of Hakka Studies, the three Hakka colleges were all set up in close proximity to major Hakka communities so that faculty and students could have plentiful opportunities to observe and interact with the local Hakka population. Liu says each of the three colleges has its own academic focus, however. NCU emphasizes training professionals in the area of public administration, NCTU pays more attention to ethnic studies and development, and NUU stresses the integration of Hakka culture with new communication technologies. \=\
“Lien Jui-chih, an associate professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at NCTU’s College of Hakka Studies, says Hakka colleges teach a lot more than Hakka culture. “We draw together teachers from different disciplines and offer opportunities for them to converse and learn from one another,” she says. Studying in a Hakka college gives students the advantage of being exposed to a wide range of social sciences, such as history, literature and sociology, Lien says, and offers them the opportunity to apply the knowledge they have acquired to practical and current subject matter. “Hakka studies defines a specific realm, where [students] can observe and do research on phenomena actually happening in society,” she points out. Such an approach is able to address Hakka people’s demand for placing more emphasis on their culture, Lien says, while students learn professional skills. So far most graduates from tertiary-level Hakka programs work for academic institutes, schools and government agencies in charge of Hakka-related affairs.\=\
“Chang Wei-an, the dean of NCTU’s College of Hakka Studies, explains that nowadays college education is more about offering general education than training students in a single area of expertise. The interdisciplinary curriculum provided in many Hakka programs in Taiwan corresponds well to that trend, he says. Moreover, Hakka-related courses can help non-Hakka students become familiar with another culture, therefore helping them broaden their horizons and gain the ability to consider other people’s perspectives, he says. Chang says his goal is to help his students obtain as much knowledge as those who major in any other branch of the social sciences so that they can continue pursuing their interests after they graduate. \=\
Audrey Wang wrote in the Taiwan Review, “According to Lo, sporadic research on Hakka issues was conducted in Taiwan long before colleges of Hakka studies were formally established. Researchers in the past focused more on studying the Hakka dialect, however, and the emergence of dedicated colleges expanded Hakka studies to cover a great variety of topics, including literature, religion, traditional industries, history and the marketing of Hakka culture, just to name a few. [Source: Audrey Wang, Taiwan Review, March 2013 \=\]
“Liu says Taiwan’s expertise in Hakka studies boosts interest in related research in the international community. “We spurred interest in this field of study in mainland China and Southeast Asian countries,” he says. “We got an early start in this area. And, with the government’s support and attention, Hakka studies has become a notable discipline in Taiwan.” These days the scope of Hakka studies has gone beyond local issues. Hakka researchers in Taiwan are also active in venturing into overseas Hakka communities to do field studies and conduct research. For example, besides frequent academic exchanges via meetings and conferences with other countries, Liu says he takes groups of students to mainland China almost every year to study Hakka communities there. \=\
“Chang notes that particular overseas communities can offer better research conditions for certain topics. A number of communities in Sabah, Malaysia, for instance, are good for investigating the Hakka dialect as the residents there have spoken only English and Hakka since their forebears emigrated from mainland China during the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864). Unlike in Taiwan, the Hakka dialect in those communities has never been mixed with other, similar languages like Holo, also known as Taiwanese, and Mandarin, making the area’s dialect a great reference for investigating the original Hakka language. \=\
“Increasing academic interest in Hakka culture has also helped Taiwan’s Hakka population reclaim their place in history, Chang says, explaining that for a long time there has been a lack of Hakka perspectives in the country’s historical accounts. For instance, Lien says Hakka communities in Hsinchu and Miaoli fought bravely against the Japanese during the Yiwei War, a conflict that took place during the first year of Japan’s colonial rule of Taiwan (1895–1945), but these reports have been overlooked by society for many years.
Keeping the Hakka Dialect Alive in Taiwan
Audrey Wang wrote in the Taiwan Review, “A survey by the Cabinet-level Hakka Affairs Council (HAC) in 2006 estimated the number of people who speak Hakka would fall by 1.1 percent on average every year. More than half of the faculty members in NCU’s Hakka programs do not speak Hakka, he says. “Language is the foundation of a culture; to make Hakka a strong culture, we have to begin with reviving the Hakka dialect,” Lo says. He points out that although much more academic attention has been given to Hakka issues since the inauguration of the first Hakka college, the country’s population of Hakka speakers is still shrinking. [Source: Audrey Wang, Taiwan Review, March 2013 \=\]
“Starting in 2001, all elementary school students in Taiwan have been required to study either Holo, Hakka or an indigenous language throughout their six years of instruction. Liu, however, believes one hour of study per week is not nearly enough to learn a dialect like Hakka since the language’s pronunciation can be very complicated. \=\
“In recent years, Hakka colleges in Taiwan have begun to encourage students to further their abilities in the Hakka dialect by offering scholarships and imposing Hakka-language proficiency as part of graduation requirements. Students in NCU’s graduate-level Hakka programs have to pass at least the basic-level national Hakka proficiency test before they can get their degree, for example. \=\
Keeping Hakka Culture Alive Through Hakka Studies
Audrey Wang wrote in the Taiwan Review, “Despite some challenges, many agree that the emergence of Hakka educational institutes and other government measures to promote Hakka culture have begun to change the general feeling toward Hakka people and Hakka culture in Taiwan. According to Chang, Hakka people used to be reluctant to identify themselves as such because they are a minority ethnic group and many felt their culture and heritage were marginalized by mainstream society. Wang Wen-chun received her master’s degree from NCU’s Graduate Institute of Hakka Cultural and Social Studies in 2005 and is now a teacher at Taipei Municipal Yongchun Senior High School. She says she has seen more and more young people acknowledge their Hakka roots and express their Hakka identity. Although at one time she had concerns about revealing her ethnicity, Wang says she is now comfortable citing herself as an example if she mentions the Hakka in class. “Some students come to tell me that they are Hakka, too, and some even speak Hakka to me,” she says. [Source: Audrey Wang, Taiwan Review, March 2013 \=\]
“She says learning at NCU gave her a solid foundation in certain topics, such as sociological concepts of ethnicity and public memory, and she also gained a deeper understanding of Hakka culture. According to Wang, stereotypes surrounding Hakka people include those of being stingy and willing to bear unnecessarily harsh conditions, but she is now aware of more positive typical qualities such as being resilient and good at working together. \=\
“Chang says Hakka and non-Hakka people alike are acknowledging the ethnicity’s heritage. “To non-Hakka people, it’s become acceptable to discuss Hakka life as an independent cultural system,” he says. The dean of NCTU’s College of Hakka Affairs says the achievements of Hakka colleges during the past decade are just the beginning of a field that has much room for development in the future. Hakka identity is becoming stronger once again, as Hakka people no longer have to identify themselves as just Taiwanese or Mandarin-speaking Chinese, he says. “Ten years is certainly too short a time for an ethnic group to completely rebuild its self-esteem and identity, but we’re glad to see that the acceptance between [Taiwan’s ethnic groups] has begun to develop.” \=\
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Bureau, Republic of China (Taiwan), Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated June 2015