A Brief Historical Overview of the Hakka

The Hakka originated from Han Chinese people, and are characterized throughout history as  both conservative and creative. Although some Hakka customs and ideas have disappeared or been discarded over the ages, they are still kept alive by overseas Hakka.

People often say, “Where there is seawater, there are overseas Chinese. Where there are overseas Chinese, there are Hakka people.” This is a testimony to the large numbers of overseas Hakka. The emergence of the Hakka heritage owes much to the Hakka’s ability to migrate. In fact, there would be no Hakka without migration. Early Hakka were forced to leave their hometowns to flee war or poverty, and risked their lives to move overseas. However, life overseas was not a bed of roses; the Hakka survived wars, disasters, oppression, and exploitation, as well as especially cruel persecution from colonialists. In the end, Hakka ancestors settled overseas due to their hard-working, frugal, and courageous nature.

Although they left central China, the Hakka did not lose the culture of central China, which is the source of the Hakka culture and identity. The farther they move from central China, the stronger their identity and connection with central China, resulting in a particularly strong sense of patriotism for their old and far-off homeland. Especially noteworthy is the fact that, though Hakka people are associated with migration, they are not passers-by. Wherever the Hakka go, they settle down, blend in with the local community, build homes and businesses, and take roots. As a result, Hakka ancestors contributed immeasurably to promoting economic and cultural exchange.

Taiwan’s Hakka came from China’s Fujian, Guangdong, and Jiangxi provinces, particularly from Chaozhou, Huizhou, and Meizhou of Guangdong province. Many also migrated from Wuping and Yongding of Fujian province. The Hakka can be found island-wide, sticking together in close-knit and family-oriented communities. Their living habits and simple lifestyle have remained largely unchanged, most characterized by the enclaves in Liu Dui District of Kaohsiung and Pingtung. In addition, Meinong District of Kaohusing is noted for its preservation of Hakka customs and period pieces.

Although there are large Hakka populations in Taoyuan, Hsinchu, Miaoli, Hualian, and Taitung, the communities are separated by geography. Several hundred years’ after the Hakka migration to Taiwan, the Hakka still adhere to the old wisdom passed down from ancestors and stick to their language, customs, and traditions. A common Hakka saying exemplifying the Hakka’s deep attachment to their roots goes, “We would rather sell ancestors’ land than forget the language passed down by ancestors.”

One Hakka saying reads: “Frugality lasts a thousand years, spending leads to poverty.” This reflects the fact that the Hakka have had to work hard in order to make a living due to lack of resources. It was hard to survive without being frugal, and even the rich were not wasteful. Under such circumstances, Hakka women played a very important role as producers and managers of family finances and housework. Hakka women exemplified virtues including diligence, courage, and frugality. Although women of southern Fujian bound their feet with cloth up until the early 20th century, Hakka women didn’t bind their feet because they had to work in the rice paddy. Hakka women became producers in the home economy and contributed to the social economy.

The Hakka worship their ancestors in spring and autumn. The spring worship takes place from January to March of the lunar calendar when the tombs of ancestors are swept. The autumn worship takes place at the ancestral shrine in August. Sacrificial offerings comprise mainly pork, fish, chicken, and fruits. In some cases, there are pork, fish, chicken, duck, and eggs. Tomb sweeping or ancestor worship are solemn ceremonies. The ceremony is accompanied by Bayin music to create a solemn atmosphere. During tomb sweeping, the Hakka place a large piece of grass paper with a small piece of red paper sprinkled with chicken blood on top of the head of the tomb. In addition, they place twelve pieces of small grass paper on the back of the tomb, also named Twelve Pieces of Paper of Respect, which represent the twelve months of the year. In the event of a thirteenth month on the lunar calendar, thirteen pieces of paper are placed. This paper can be seen everywhere in Hakka villages following tomb sweeping. Although many Hakka now move for work, they always manage to find their way home for tomb sweeping and ancestor worship.