traditional Hakka hairstyle

Like other Chinese, Hakka have traditionally lived in communities organized along kinship lines with ties to a common native place. Alliances based on shared dialect or ethnic identity are also important. Other groups sometimes view the Hakka as “clannish," but they see themselves as being unified and cooperative. Today, as in the past, village leaders, usually elder males, in rural communities often resolve conflicts on the local level. Social pressure, strict traditional rules of obedience, and filial piety also help to minimize conflict. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994 |~|]

The Hakka trace descent patrilineally to a common ancestor in the male line. Extended patrilineal kin groups combine to create lineages. These kinship groups do not necessarily have live near each other but they often do, living in one settlement, sharing some common property and gathering periodically for ceremonial occasions. According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ At least nominally, the lineage, including the wives and daughters, is under the authority of the eldest male in age and generation. Whenever possible, Hakka lineages traditionally set up ancestral halls. These buildings are usually not as ornate as those of the Cantonese, and their ancestral tablets only make reference to the name of the founding ancestor. Hakka rules for inclusion of forebears in ancestor worship are broader and more egalitarian than those of the Cantonese, and they often include men and women, rich and poor. |~|

Hakka kinship terms follow the general Han Chinese pattern. They typically have a very large number of kinship terms for the paternal side and less differentiation on the maternal side. Hakka commonly use such kinship terms as “father's younger brother" or “elder sister" to refer to fictive kin. Hakka kinship terms reflect the assimilation of a woman into her husband's family. Unlike Yue women in parts of Guangdong, who have separate terms of address for their husbands' parents, Hakka women use the same terms as their husbands to address his parents and other relatives.

Hakka Life and Customs

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. The Hakka have traditionally depended on spirit healers, Chinese doctors, and traditional herbal remedies for medical care.

Hakka greatly value family and friends but have a reputation for being reserved when they meet strangers or acquaintances. Etiquette is important, physical contact is minimal and body language can be hard to read. The standard greeting “Have you eaten yet?" often serves the same purpose as saying “hello." People who come in contact bit are not close greet each other by using the person's title (Mr., Miss, Teacher, or Dr.) and surname. During formal visits small gifts of fruit, candy, or a local delicacy are given, The host in turn offers tea and fruit or possibly an alcoholic drinks, cigarettes or betel nut. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 ++]

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. 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 fought with other local people over water and farming land.

In decades past opium was not a big of a problem among the Hakka as it was among other Chinese groups. Alcoholism has always been recognized as a more serious problem. Probabbly the biggest social ill among the Hakka is excessive gambling.

Hakka Marriage, Dating and Weddings

Hakka in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo

Like other Chinese, Hakka practice surname exogamy (marrying outside a clan or community). Marriage traditionally was arranged, between people from different villages with different surnames and residence was with the husband’s family. Many Hakka say that polygynous marriages were rare among the Hakka, but until the 1990s such marriages could still be found among poor Hakka villagers in the New Territories of Hong Kong.[Source: Nicole Constable, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994 |~|]

Hakka have generally married when they were in their twenties. Grooms have typically been two to ten years older than brides. Hakka marriage ceremonies imply the transfer of women from their family to their husband’s and the incorporation of women into their husband's household and lineage had precedence over establishing of bonds between two families. Wives are included in ancestral worship of their husband's lineage.

Hakka wedding ceremonies are often elaborate affair with a big feast to which relatives and friends are invited. Large wedding may have 300 to 500 guests. In southern China, young Hakka are allowed to date before marriage and the migration of millions of youth for work and school has meant that many Hakka marry outside Hakka from far away places or mary non-Hakka. [Source: C. Le Blanc,“Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 ++]

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Western-style dating was unknown in traditional Hakka society. Parents arranged meetings between boys and girls with the intent of finding suitable mates. Courtship was managed by parents to such an extent that the children seldom met more than a handful of times before marrying. The meetings were arranged as formal visits rather than as dates. As Chinese society changed during the last half of the 20th century, this practice has declined greatly. Young people may now date as members of a school group. This practice allows them to mix freely and gives them opportunities to identify special people. In the cities, seeing a movie, strolling in a park, or buying a small treat are popular places to go on a date. ++

Hakka Families

Nuclear families with parents and children are the norm in urban areas, but parents often live with one son. In the past the ideal domestic unit was an extended patrilineal kin group comprised of several generations and traditionally this would have included a husband and wife, their unmarried daughters, and their married sons with their wives and children. [Sources: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009]

C. Le Blanc wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,”Rural family structure can be very complex, with parents sharing a compound with their married sons' families and unmarried children. Family life emphasizes cooperation within a hierarchy based on age and sex. Although fathers make major decisions outside the home, the relationship between the parents is more democratic in the family. Before marriage all major decisions affecting children are made by the parents. Sons are obliged to care for their parents in old age; parents usually live in the home of a married son. ++

Family size often depends on where the Hakka live. On the mainland, up until recently, parents were restricted to one, maybe two, children. Hakka outside China may have larger families, especially in rural areas. However, countries have modernized the demand for farm labor has decreased, and so too have family sizes. A preference for male children has long existed. In terms of inheritance, a man's estate was traditionally divided equally among his sons. The Hakka place great emphasis on their children’s education and bodily cleanliness but otherwise their child rearing practices are not significantly different from those of other Chinese. Hakka do not mark the teenage years with any special coming-of-age ceremonies.

Mothers who have just given birth are confined to their beds for 30 days and are not allowed to wash their hair. Hakka believe that a woman's joints are prone to damage after childbirth. Newborns are tightly swaddled and are placed on their backs to sleep. The birth of a male infant may be announced to the ancestors as evidence that the family line will continue. ++

Hakka Women

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.

Hakka women do the lion share of the work to keep a family running but still occupy a much lower position than men. Males inherit the family name and have special obligations to the family's ancestors. Girls, has traditionally been thought, were lost to the family upon marriage. Daughters obtain some property when they marry, but have been excluded form a significant share of the parents' estate.

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Culture: As reflected in Hakka songs and sayings, Hakka girls are taught that they should learn “the appropriate skills expected of the wife of an important official, as well as know how to cook, clean, and work hard." Respect for parents, elders, and obligations to the family is a commonly held value. [Source: Nicole Constable,“Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994 ]

Many young women from rural areas have flocked to big cities in search of jobs. Especially in mainland Chinese they have ended up in low paying jobs in factories or in the service industry. The meager wages they earn are sent back their families in their home villages or saved to provide money for theirs or their family entrepreneurial ambitions.

Hakka Villages and Houses

Nicole Constable wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: ““As later arrivals in most of the Chinese areas where they settled, the Hakka were generally forced into the higher elevations to the hilly, less productive, and less desirable land. Such was the case in Guangdong, Guangxi, and the New Territories of Hong Kong, where the Yue had already settled the more fertile river valleys, and also in Taiwan where the Min speakers owned the better land. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in regions of Guangdong, Hakka residence patterns differed from those of the Yue. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994 |~|]

20111126-wiki c tulou Earth_building_interior.jpg
tuluo interior
As opposed to the Yue, who were more likely to live in more densely populated towns or in large, single-surname villages surrounded by fields, smaller numbers of Hakka were sparsely dispersed among the hills on land that they often rented from Yue landlords.In other regions Hakka and Yue occupied separate villages in the same areas; Hakka villages were more likely to be multisurnamed. Although the Hakka maintain the reputation of living in poor, marginal, rural areas, Hakka today also reside in urban, cosmopolitan regions. |~|

A traditional Hakka farmhouse had three connected wings forming a U shape. A courtyard in the middle was used for outside tasks such as threshing and pounding grain. The central wing had a large room in the middle, used for socializing, eating, and household chores. The wings on the sides contained bedrooms, the kitchens, granaries,, storage areas, toilets, and animal pens. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 ++]

Hakka Food

White rice is the staple of the Hakka diet. Traditionally, in places it was difficult to grow paddy rice, sweet potatoes were an important food The Hakka enjoy noodles made from rice, wheat, and green mung beans. They generally have no food taboos or diet restrictions. In general, Hakka eat a lot of vegetables and moderate to small amounts of meat. Fish was often the main source of protein. Some Hakka do not consume beef because they believe it is wrong to eats animals that work for people in the fields, providing them with food. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 ++]

For breakfast rice is consumed as a thin gruel, often accompanied by pickled or fresh vegetables. Rice is steamed for lunch and supper, It is served with main dishes such steamed, braised and stir-fried vegetables, meats, and fish. Hakka food is more plain and less spicy than other regional Chinese cuisines,. Soy sauce, salt, rice vinegar, ginger, and sugar are the main flavorings. A variety preserved and pickled foods are used in cooking and also eaten straight. A hot soup is often served instead of drink. Like other Chinese, the Hakka do not drink tea with their meals. They drink it afterwards or at other times.++

Popular Hakka dishes include 1) Stuffed Tofu (Yong Tau Foo), 2) Salt Baked Chicken, 3) Pork Belly with Preserved Mustard Greens, 4) Hakka Noodles, 5) Beef Ball Soup, 6) Ground Tea (Lei Cha), 7) Yam Abacus, 8) Poon Choi, 9) Stuffed Bitter Gourd and 4) Pork Stomach Stewed Chicken. [Source: Travel China Guide]

Hakka Culture

abacus seeds

It has been said that since the main body of the Hakkas is made up of Han people originally that from Yellow River valley, who moved to southern China, Hakka culture differs from the culture of typical Han Chinese. The ancestors of the Hakkas absorbed many things from the ancient cultures of the north and from Yue (Cantonese culture) in the south, resulting in a distinct Hakka culture, which differs from the cultures of the Han Chinese of the Central Plains and from the aboriginal people in the south. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science Museums of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences ~]

Hakka are famous for folk songs called “mountain songs" (shan ge) that were once commonly sung by women, sometimes in a flirtatious antiphonal style with men, as they worked in the fields or collected firewood in the hills. These songs are often love songs, but they also touch on topics such as hard work, poverty, and personal hardships.

Some Chinese say that Hakka-inhabited areas are the "hometown of the folk song." The Hakka themselves say: "a-hundred-kilogram burden on the shoulder will become lighter as long as people sing a song when climbing the hills," "everybody have something to worry about, but they will be happy once they start to sing the folk songs." One famous Hakka folk song goes: "the songs fill the river, where the fishermen are fishing; the songs spread all over the slopes, where the herdsman is herding his cows; the songs flow in the mountains as the woodman is walking on the mountain roads.”

Opera performances were often scheduled to coincide with the summer harvest and drew large crowds. These tocal productions of famous historical stories were presented by itinerant opera troupes. Today, Playing mahjong is a favorite pass time. Some people grow rare orchids and practice calligraphy. The architecture of Hakkas residential buildings vary a lot: the square storied buildings of southern Jiangxi, the round storied buildings of western Fujian, and the encircled house of the Meizhou all have exceptional features that make them stand out not only in China but globally as well (See Tulou). [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 ]

In mainland China, Chinese movies and television programs are popular among Hakka but few are presented in the Hakka dialect. Notable Hakka musicians and performers outside of the mainland perform almost exclusively in the language or dialect of their home country or region, usually Mandarin or Cantonese. ++

Hakka Economy and Agriculture

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The Hakka have long enjoyed a reputation as extremely skilled and hardworking farmers who can render the least desirable land productive. In the course of their history, the Hakka often farmed wasteland rejected by others or worked as tenants. Much of the agricultural labor was performed by women, who, unlike other Chinese, did not have their feet bound. Female agricultural labor, marketing, and cutting of wood from the hillsides for fuel were especially necessary tasks in villages where Hakka men sought work overseas as railway builders, plantation hands, and miners.[Source: Nicole Constable, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994 |~|]

Hakka tombs and fields in Hukengcun

Today, Hakka are still known for their reputation for hard physical labor as well as their entrepreneurial acumen and involvement in commercial enterprises as well as their achievement in political, academic, and professional occupations, but they are not known for their. As latecomers in many of the regions where they settled, the Hakka were often tenants of the Yue or Min or owned only top-soil rights to land while the Yue or Min owned bottom-soil rights. Before the Communist Revolution, Hakka were more likely to be tenants than landlords and therefore many poor and landless Hakka peasants benefited from land reform in the early 1950s. |~|

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,”Several examples of occupational specialization exist. In 19th-century Hong Kong many Hakka specialized in stone cutting. People who migrated to Calcutta, India, in the first years of the 20th century became leather tanners. In the present, most Hakka who live in Taiwan work in manufacturing, business, and government. On the mainland, most Hakka are raised in agricultural communities, but a large number of Hakka youth have migrated to urban areas, particularly in Guangdong and Fujian province, to work in manufacturing plants and in low-wage service jobs. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 ++]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Chinese government

Text Sources: 1) “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company; 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org |

Last updated October 2022

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