The Hakka, sometimes Hakka Han, are Han Chinese who speak Hakka Chinese and have links to the provincial areas of Guangdong, Jiangxi, Guangxi, Sichuan, Hunan and Fujian in China. Although the vast majority of the Hakka live in Guangdong, they have a separate identity that distinguishes them from the Cantonese people. The Chinese characters for Hakka literally means “guest families”. The Hakka’s ancestors were often said to have arrived from what is today’s central China centuries ago and north China a thousand years ago. The Hakkas are thought to originate from the lands bordering the Yellow River, i.e. the modern northern Chinese provinces of Shanxi, Henan, and Hubei. In a series of migrations, the Hakkas moved, settled in their present locations in south China, and then often migrated overseas to various countries throughout the world. The worldwide population of Hakkas is about 80 million, though the number of Hakka language speakers is fewer. Hakka people have had a significant influence on the course of Chinese and world history: in particular, they have been a source of many revolutionary, government, and military leaders. It is commonly held that the Hakka are a subgroup of the Han Chinese that originated in northern China.
To trace their origins, three accepted theories so far have been brought forth among anthropologists, linguists, and historians: firstly, the Hakka are Han Chinese originating solely from the Central Plain in China containing today’s Shanxi and Henan provinces; secondly, the Hakka are Han Chinese from the Central Plain, with some inflow of those already in the south; or thirdly, the majority of the Hakka are Han Chinese from the south, with portions coming from those in the north. The latter two are the most likely and are together supported by multiple scientific studies. Clyde Kiang stated that the Hakka’s origins may also be linked with the Han’s ancient neighbors, the Dongyi and Xiongnu people.
This is disputed, however, by many scholars and Kiang’s theories are considered controversial. Hakka-Chinese scientist and researcher Dr. Siu-Leung Lee states in the book by Chung Yoon-Ngan The Hakka Chinese: Their Origin, Folk Songs And Nursery Rhymes, which takes on the subject with a more mediatory approach, avoiding polarizing political and racial claims and insinuations, explains that the potential Hakka origins from the northern Han and Xiongnu, and that of the indigenous southern She (畬族) and Yue (越族) tribes, “are all correct, yet none alone explain the origin of the Hakka”; pointing out that the problem with “DNA typing” on limited numbers of people within population pools cannot correctly ascertain who are really the southern Chinese, because many southern Chinese are also from northern Asia; Hakka or non-Hakka. It is known that the earliest major waves of Hakka migration began due to the attacks of the two afore-mentioned tribes during the Jin Dynasty (265–420).
Since the Qin Dynasty (221–207 BC), the ancestors of the Hakka have migrated southwards several times because of social unrest, upheaval and invasions. Subsequent migrations also occurred at the end of the Tang Dynasty in the 10th century and during the end of the Northern Song Dynasty in 1125, the last of which saw a massive flood of refugees fleeing southward when the Jurchens captured the northern Song capital of Bianliang in the Jingkang Incident of the Jin–Song wars.
The precise movements of the Hakka people remain unclear during the 14th century when the Ming Dynasty overthrew the Yuan and subsequently fell to the Manchus who formed the Qing Dynasty in the 17th century. Hakka have suffered persecution and discrimination ever since they started migrating to southern parts of China.
During the reign of the Kangxi Emperor (1654–1722) in the Qing Dynasty, the coastal regions were evacuated by imperial edict for almost a decade, due to the dangers posed by the remnants of the Ming court who had fled to the island of Taiwan. When the threat was eliminated, the Kangxi Emperor issued an edict to re-populate the coastal regions. To aid the move, each family was given monetary incentives to begin their new lives; newcomers were registered as “Guest Households”.
The existing Cantonese speaking inhabitants (Punti or 本地, indigenous or “original land”) of these areas were protective of their own more fertile lands, and the newcomers were pushed to the outer fringes of fertile plains, despite having migrated legitimately, or they settled in more mountainous regions to eke out a living.
Conflict between the two groups grew and it is thought that “Hakka” became a term of derision used by the Punti aimed at the newcomers. Eventually, the tension between the two groups (the Hakkas had by then been settled for several hundred years and could not be regarded as migrants in any sense) would lead to a series of 19th-century skirmishes in the Pearl River Delta known as the Punti–Hakka Clan Wars (土客械鬥). The problem was not that the two groups spoke a different tongue.
In fact, the “locals” comprised different peoples speaking several mutually unintelligible tongues, as was typical of the Chinese countryside all over southern China, but they would regard each other as “locals” or Puntis, but exclude the Hakka from such designation. The term “Punti” is not synonymous with “Cantonese”, as a Cantonese in any other part of China, Beijing for example, would not be able to call himself a “Punti”, as the Punti of that area would be the Beijing or Hebei people.
Over time, the newcomers adopted the term “Hakka” to refer to themselves, not least due to the migratory tendencies inherent in their own culture. However, because the term also covers Hakka language-speakers, (in the same way that Punti covered several people speaking different tongues) and because the Han Chinese registered as Guest Families who migrated may not have been Hakka language-speakers, and because of intermarriages among Hakka and Punti members (which showed that relation between the two were very good at times), identification as Hakka was largely a matter of self-selection.
Through studies of both Cantonese and Hakka genealogies, some Hakka and Punti people with the same surnames claim the same ancestors, although their descendants strongly identify with one group to the exclusion of the other. The Hakka ancestors are but one of many groups that migrated to other parts of southern China, retaining cultural similarities yet picking up linguistic features of the areas where they settled.
Outside of Guangdong, Hakka people live in the southern Chinese provinces, including south-western Fujian, southern Jiangxi, southern Hunan, Guangxi, southern Guizhou, south-eastern Sichuan, and on Hainan and Taiwan islands, where there are television news-broadcasts in the Hakka language. The Hakka dialects across these regions differ phonologically, but Meixian (Meizhou) Hakka is considered to be the prestige dialect by linguists. Although different in some social customs and culture (e.g. linguistic differences) from the surrounding population, they belong to the Han Chinese majority.
Historical sources shown in census statistics relate only to the general population, irrespective of particular districts, provinces, or regions. These census counts were made during imperial times. They did not distinguish what language the population spoke. Therefore they do not directly document Hakka migrations. The study by Luo Xianglin, K’o-chia Yen-chiu Tao-Liu / An Introduction to the Study of the Hakkas (Hsin-Ning & Singapore, 1933) used genealogical sources of family clans from various southern counties. According to the 2009 studies published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, Hakka genes are slightly tilted towards northern Han people compared with other southern Han people.
Nevertheless, the study has also shown a strong common genetic relationship between all Han Chinese with only a small difference of 0.32%. Lingnan Hakka place names indicate a long history of the Hakka being culturally Han Chinese. Due to their agrarian lifestyle, Hakka have a unique architecture based on defense and communal living, and a hearty savory cuisine based on an equal balance between texturised meat and vegetables, and fresh vegetables.
When Hakka expanded into areas with pre-existing populations, there was often little agricultural land left for them to farm. As a result, many Hakka men turned towards careers in the military or in public service. Consequently, the Hakka culturally emphasized education. Hakka people built several types of Tulou and fortified villages in the southwestern Fujian and adjacent areas of Jiangxi and Guangdong. A representative sample of Fujian Tulou (consisting of 10 buildings or building groups) in Fujian were inscribed in 2008 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Historically, Hakka women did not bind their feet when the practice was commonplace in China. The Hakka community is also a source for a variety of martial arts. Those systems in general are referred to as Hakka Kuen (Hakka Fist); Southern Praying Mantis, Bak Mei and Dragon Kung Fu are examples of styles practiced by Hakka.