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The Curious History of the Hakka and the Tulou

Tulou, Hakka, FujianThe Curious History of the Hakka and the Tulou

If you are interested in the Hakka and the tulous you may also be interested in my selection of photos from Fujian or the blog I wrote on our trip to Fujian. Please click these links to enter either piece.

Much of the content of this article, on the Hakka and the Tulous, can be regarded as a hypothesis rather than an entirely factual piece. There is far too much contradictory information, of variable quality, to form many concrete conclusions. It has been written with reference to papers that would probably be best read in Chinese, by someone with a better grasp of Chinese history than I, and a couple of days field work. However, it would be interesting to have a series of unbiased people research sections of this work, to draw their own conclusions and to present their agreement or disagreement. I had hoped that the National Geographic/IBM Genographic Project would shed some more conclusive light on the subject of Hakka migration and origins, but as far as I can see it does not. At the end of the article are my private conclusions, made quite subjectively, I hope no one finds offence in them.

You can hover your pointer over the pictures and diagram in this article and it will show a full description and details.

Tulou, Hakka, Fujian

The Hakka

The Hakka are a large Chinese language group and probably a sub-group of the dominant Han. Within China they are dispersed mainly across the boundary area between Jiangxi, Fujian and Guangdong, in Sichuan and in Taiwan. There are probably about 75 million people worldwide who would claim Hakka ancestry, and although the 2007 Atlas of China does not distinguish the Hakka as a separate ethnic group from the Han, there are probably 40 million in China.

The term Hakka is probably relatively recent, arising only during the Qing Dynasty in the last 400 years. In the Hakka language it is pronounced Haagga and in Putonghua as Kejia, but derives from the southern Chinese languages meaning “families who are guests”.

The Hakka are also dispersed widely overseas and were part of the driven migration of Chinese from the mid-C19th. In the United Kingdom probably the majority of Chinese restaurants are run by Hakka, but they are most widely settled in South-East Asia. (Later note: the Hakkasan restaurant chain, originally based in London, is now present in London, Abu Dhabi, Mumbai and Miami. Perversely it is now Middle Eastern owned.)

The Origins of the Hakka

There is confusion about the origins of the Hakka people; this is made more difficult by pseudo-scientists hypothesising along lines which may either justify twentieth century political events or to satisfy individual aspirations as regards their genealogy.

In the simplest terms the Hakka probably migrated from the Huang He (Yellow River) valley during a disputed period between 220 B.C. and 420 A.D. The fact that this has not been more accurately dated is probably very clear evidence the Hakka are genealogically confused by interbreeding with both other minorities and the majority Han. Due to a sequence of migrations it is possible the linguistic and cultural lineage is of prime importance, whereas the bloodline itself may be very confused.

tulou, hakka, fujian, imperial courtThe Hakka language was possibly the spoken language of the Chinese Imperial Court up to and including the Tang dynasty.  From this it can be concluded that the Hakka language was not unique to their culture, but simply a carryover from a time when the Hakka were possibly closer to the centres of power. When the centralised empire collapsed or once the power base shifted north again under the Yuan and Qing Dynasties, the Hakka appear to have been at their most mobile and defensive.

It is possible that the collapse of the Ming Dynasty was the final straw, when Fujian formed the last bastion of Ming resistance. Their possible support for the more southern minded Ming may have resulted in the Manchurian Qing forcing many Hakka into the tight base area of the Wuxi Mountains, which have been notoriously difficult to access.

The later diaspora from the mid Nineteenth century onwards is not of particular relevance to this piece, but it should be noted that the Hakka were heavily involved in a series of rebellions at his time, particularly in the leadership of the Taiping rebellion. This period in China had been preceded by a series of floods, droughts and incredibly cold periods, the result had been famine; those in the most marginal areas would have suffered more than those in more favoured lands, and by this time the Hakka were in marginal farming zones.

Hakka “colonisations” in Taiwan and Sichuan were following respectively political choices and economic incentives.

Both the Hakka and the Han, over the millennia, attempted to distance themselves from the gene pool groups to the north of China, often called the Xiongnu and associated with the Huns. Research into Hakka roots amongst the northerly groups has proved inconclusive and the only conclusions that can be drawn are that both the Han and the Hakka are very mixed in origin and probably contain elements of the northern tribes’ ancestries. The migratory waves out of the central Asian area, over tens of thousands of years, by first hunter/gatherers and then pastoralists, were followed by the continuous southern migrations of agriculturalists, who were replaced on their own farms by the pastoralists, now turned farmers, who pushed them out. The extent of bloodline mixing is uncertain but is sure to have been very high. As the southward waves met the groups who had settled from the south this process would have been further confused.

By the time of the arrival of the Hakka in the Jiangxi, Fujian and Guangdong area, they were a group that were self-identifying rather than genealogically different. The Hakka further diluted their own genealogy by intermarrying with the local people and would often buy unwanted daughters from these people to serve as wives for their own sons. Today it is almost certainly only language and culture that provide any sense of separateness between the Hakka and the Han Chinese.

However, blood typing suggests that the Hakka have more in common with the Japanese and Koreans, than do the Han. This could be explained if it were accepted that the Japanese and Korean people and cultures shared a common ancestry with the Hakka. Certainly many of the people in Fujian look significantly more like the Japanese than many other Chinese. However, from the C13th onwards, Japanese incursions into south-east China could easily have led to the introduction of a Japanese gene pool base, first from the regular piracy and later during the Sino-Japanese Wars.