The Story of the Hakkas (and a startling discovery)

by Lee M Lock

Who are the Hakkas?

The story of the Hakkas begins from the story of the evolution of the people of ancient China somewhere in north-west China about 5000 years ago.

At that time, nomadic tribes from the steppeland of north-west China (probably today's Sinkiang Province) swept down the lowlands of Gansu, Shaanxi and Sanxi and proclaimed themselves masters of those territories. Thus the first emperor of ancient China, known as Yen-ti, of nomadic origin, held sway over the conquered peoples of these lands.

After Emperor Yen-ti, the next powerful emperor of ancient China was known as Huang-ti or the Yellow Emperor, also of nomadic origin. Emperor Huang-ti further consolidated the land and made China so powerful that to this day the Chinese still revere him as the foremost founding father of the Chinese people - so they call themselves sons of the Yellow Emperor.

In those misty years, history or written record as we know it today, did not exist; nevertheless, these ancient tales were the accepted legends and oral traditions of ancient China.

Between the Yellow Emperor and the next great emperor to be singled out for mention is a gap of some 3000 years. To be sure, there were numerous other emperors of varying degrees of note who did their part in shaping, consolidating and extending the Chinese Kingdom down the Yellow River Basin towards Shantung Province, north-east towards Beijing (Hebei), south-east towards the coastal states (Shanghai and beyond), and south and south-west towards the interior parts of inland China. The process of planting one Chinese culture and race was on-going throughout this period.

However, the one great unifier, the greatest of them all, and one worthily remembered for extending and completing the sinicisation (not to mention the completion of the Great Wall of China as we see it today) is none other than Emperor Chin Shi Huang-ti who ruled around BC 200. Emperor Chin Shi Huang-ti consolidated and expanded China territorially to such an extent that ancient China became known throughout the world as the land of the Han - the word Han being the Han Dynasty which came after him, and ruled over China for the next three to four hundred years. The people of China became so well known to the rest of the world that Han remains to this day as another word for Chinese. China expanded right to the southern extremity of Canton, facilitated by the flow of the Yellow River, the Yangtse River and other river systems within the boundaries of China.

Old China even then was a great mass of land and people under one unified rule. The seat of power used to rest in the Imperial City of Chang-An (now Xian) in Shaanxi and many rulers of China established themselves and ruled over the rest of China from this city for thousands of years. However, Henan Province (which means the Province south of the Yellow River and is immediately below Gansu, Shaanxi and Sanxi), being relatively flat, came to assume more importance than the northern provinces, politically and strategically. Indeed, more and more the Chinese populace at large later drew strength and its history from this Province. China later even became known as the Middle Plain, or the Middle Kingdom, with the Imperial City shifting down to Loyang (in Henan) or Kaifeng farther east. Henan became so pivotal in the later history of China that it soon supplanted the Northern Provinces as the cradle of Chinese civilisation.

[At this stage, one may pause to take note that the Hakkas are descended from the people whose roots were Gansu, Shaanxi and Sanxi, but whose forebears were also rooted in Henan, the so called hub or cradle of Chinese civilisation - see continuing story]

To continue with the ancient history of China: After the Han Period, China went into an uncertain phase of warring states. The struggle for power weakened China so that once more China was invaded by fearsome nomadic minority tribes called the Hsiung-nu, who then became the new rulers of China. These new rulers so terrorised the subjects of the deposed Emperor that many, particularly the nobility, the rich and well heeled, made their escape in history's then greatest mass exodus down the course of the great Yellow River to the south and south-east of China. Such refugees were the fore-runners and fore-fathers of today's Hakkas, the displaced people from the north.

[The word "Hakka" literally means "guest people" and was coined during the Song Period (around AD 1100) to distinguish between "local" inhabitants and migrant "northerners". Afterall, all "Han" Chinese were and are culturally the same, whether of northern or southern stock, and it would be politically improper to regard one or the other as non-native.]

There were altogether five massive migrations of these 'northern' people to the south in the troubled history of China over the BC and AD millennium. According to generally accepted Hakka history, the five migrations of its people are as follows:

1st.: the first is not really a migration as such, but took place around 200 BC when Emperor Chin Shi Huang-ti despatched 500,000 soldiers and officers to guard the western Kwangtung Province in the south to keep the border safe from enemy incursions. The descendants of these troops constitute the first group of Hakkas that still live around this region.

2nd.: this was really the first big mass exodus around AD 400 during Eastern Chin Period following the overthrow of the Han Dynasty as explained earlier. The Hakkas fled mainly to neighbouring provinces bordering Henan, that is, Anwei, Chiangsi and Chekiang.

3rd.: mass exodus around AD 900 following the overthrow and end of the glorious Tang Period. Internal strife led many to run away to safer havens in the west of Fuchien and north-east of Kwangtung.

4th.: mass exodus around AD 1200 following the overthrow and end of the Song Period and the rise of the Yuan Period (Mongolian rule). The Song royal household, the nobility, and all manner of men from as far as Shantung to the entire Henan Basin fled to the south. The Hakkas rallied to support the Song dynasty but its attempt failed and many valiant Hakkas under general Wen Tien Siang perished.

5th. : dispersal of the Hakkas throughout Kwangtung and North-western Fuchien around AD 1600 following vain attempts to stem the Manchu encroachment. Other dispersals to Sichuan and Taiwan around AD 1700 during the Manchu Rule were for economic reasons: in search of a better life from the harsher environment in the hinterland of Kwantung and Fuchien.

The Hakka Language

Basically, there are two versions on how the Hakka language came to be:

a) Traditional version

This theorises that the Hakka language is the ancient tongue of the Han and/or Tang Period, modified somewhat by the local speech of the inhabitants amongst whom they now live. On this theory, the mass exodus results in the retention of mother tongue speech, largely, due to the sheer superiority in numbers that simply defied to be absorbed by or lost in the local tongue of the tribes or inhabitants they came to live as "guest people". Of course there would be some 'local' influences in speech, customs and culture but largely, the "purity" of Hakka-ness is retained.

b) New theory by one Mr Fung Hsueh Cha (1994)

According to Mr H.C. Fung in his new book "New Findings on the Origin of the Hakkas" (1994) the Hakkas are not the pure Han as explained in (a) above; rather they evolved through something like a 50-50 inter-marriage with the local "Yeh" or southern people. On this theory, therefore, the Hakka language is a mixture of part "Yeh" and part "Han" language from the north.

This writer is more inclined to theory (a) rather than theory (b) above.


The eyebrows hypothesis

This writer made a brief visit to China in May 1996 in search of his roots, together with 150 other fellow Hakka travellers. The organisers distributed a souvenir booklet which includes the photographs of participating travellers. In Sek-Pik-Chun, north east of Fuchien, where Hakka historians now refer to it as the southern ancestral home of migrant Hakkas, the writer also bought a voluminous book entitled "The Hakkas" (author: Ku Chin) which has many photographs of famous Hakkas (e.g. Sun Yat Sen, Chu Tek, etc.) in it.

Type A eyebrows

A chance observation of the faces of the Hakkas in these photographs as well as the Hakka people in Sek-Pik-Chun led to a startling discovery, which the writer wishes to put down as "the eyebrows hypothesis". First, the findings:-

The majority of his Hakka fellow travellers have

a) thick, some very thick; and

b) straight, some very straight


The same type of eyebrows are found on the faces of Sun Yat Sen, Chu Tek and many other famous Hakkas mentioned in the book.

Those having thick and straight eyebrows may be referred to as Type A eyebrows.


Type A eyebrows

Type A eyebrows may be further classified into two distinct sub-groups for the Chinese:

Type A1 (Caucasian)

Eyebrows that resemble more closely to Caucasian eyebrows, that is, the two eyebrows tend to meet in the middle above the nose ( see, for example Sun Yat Sen's eyebrows). Caucasian type of eyebrows roughly constitutes 10-20% of total observed.

Type A2 (Han)

Eyebrows that are more typically Han, that is, they are of medium thickness, are shorter and more stubby and are further apart from one another. Han type eyebrows constitutes about 80% of those observed.

One rule of thumb made to distinguish between the two: in Type A2 you probably need two or three fingers to fill up the space separating the eyebrows; in Type A1 probably one finger will do.

Type B eyebrows

Eyebrows that are not thick and straight, that is, they are arched or bent, may be referred to as Type B eyebrows.

Type B eyebrows


Type AB eyebrows

Where there is a mixed parentage of type A and type B, type AB emerges as follows:-

Type AB eyebrows

(NOTE: While the resulting eyebrows may turn out to be AB as above, it is also possible that, out of the siblings of "mixed" marriage, one may exhibit type A, another type B and yet a third type AB. However, two type A will invariably produce type A, and two type B will produce type B.)


The hypothesis

What inferences can we make of these observations?

It is the writer's hypothesis that:-

- the thick and straight eyebrows (Type A1) denote "northern" stock as opposed to "southern" stock, whose eyebrows are arched or bent (Type B);

- the northern stock eyebrows are found in people who live in the geographical latitude of roughly 30o- 45o all over the "old" world, namely, North India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, the entire Middle East, Greece, Southern Italy, Spain, and of course China also. A look at the eyebrows of people who live in this latitude will confirm the correctness of this observation - the majority tend to have thick and straight eyebrows, both for men and for women.

For the Chinese, Type A1 suggests remote Caucasian intermingling, i.e. more nomadic blood and Type A2 more Central Plain Han blood which afterall constitutes the bulk of the Han Chinese that were scattered in provinces above and below the great Yellow River.

The next question is, why are "northern" stock eyebrows thick and straight as opposed to arched or bent eyebrows for "southern" stock? Two possible answers are suggested:

(a) The latitude between 30o and 45o is drier and hotter (more desert-like condition?) and has less rainfall than the south. Bent or arched eyebrows (Type B) are more suited to wet and rainy conditions.

(b) Alternatively, it may be due to different eating habits; the inland people (Type A) living between 30o and 45o latitude eat less fish, for example, compared to coastal people of the south. This could explain why southern coastal Chinese, e.g. the Fuchienese, the Teochews, the Cantonese and even the Shanghainese or the Japanese tend to have arched or bent eyebrows.

This writer has used the eyebrow "test" on a number of his friends and acquaintances who are Chinese, without first knowing beforehand the dialect group they belong to. To his surprise, the test has turned out to be quite reliable - he has correctly guessed who is "northern" or "southern" just by looking at the eyebrows!

Where a test fails to confirm the hypothesis e.g. a Hakka having bent or arched eyebrows, or a Cantonese having thick and straight eyebrows, one must not forget Mr Fung's book referred to above, where it has been suggested that even a supposedly "pure" Hakka may turn out to be part "Yeh" and part Han; likewise a "pure" Cantonese may have mixed Han blood, and therefore thick and straight eyebrows!

Now this is not a case of "Head I win" and "Tail you lose"; truly a lot of us do not have accurate ancestral records and some exceptions to the hypothesis may surface. Subject to that limitation, it is the writer's hypothesis that he has stumbled on an important discovery - that the eyebrows are a fairly good guide in determining whether one is of "northern" or "southern" stock.

So, when you next meet your friend, and are puzzled over his or her ancestry, why not say "Raise your eyebrows, please!"

Writer: Lee M Lock. email: maxli@pc.jaring.my February 1997.

Writer's note: The above story of the Hakkas does not pretend to be precise history; the writer is merely a recent student of Hakka history. Its purpose however, is to stimulate the interest of readers, particularly Hakkas, to translate from Chinese into English, and to do further research on the full story of the Hakkas, a subject about which much that is interesting, entertaining, surprising and stimulating, both for the serious and not so serious readers, awaits to be discovered and written. Not only a vast field remains untapped, indeed a resource vastly suitable for future story telling in words and on films, beckons those with the initiative and the talents to exploit it fully. It is hoped that many will be stimulated to take up this challenge.

Chinese Hakka Story Index

1. In search of origin
2. The story of the Hakkas (and a startling discovery)
3. Letter to J
4. Thoughts on certain Hakka trades and skills
5. A story about some Chinese words- an interpretation

Lee M Lock(maxli@pc.jaring.my)

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