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The Hakka People, China’s Leadership Caste

The Hakka People, China’s Leadership Caste


Western media articles and academic writings frequently refer to China’s ethnodemographics — most frequently after ethnic conflict in China’s regions such as Tibet or Xinjiang. The most frequently reproduced soundbite is that the Han majority comprise more than 90% of the People’s Republic of China and overwhelmingly dominate the military and political elite.

But the mere paradigm of the Han and the various ethnic minorities does not tell the whole story — the Han is not a homogenous group. One of the more prominent groups that exist within the umbrella of the Han are the Hakka people, who account for approximately 30 million of the 1,200 million Han people in China. There is no universally accepted explanation for their origin, but they are believed to have originated in Northern and Central China and migrated to the coast and to southern China due to social unrest. The name of this group finds its origin in the migration — new arrivals did not want to state their tribe or clan because Chinese law provided that treason committed by one person could be punished by death upon the clan of that person up to nine generations. With no tribal or clan name, the locals derogatorily referred to these people as Hakka (客家), which means “guest families.” (I should note that this is one, very simple explanation — there are multiple theories as to the origins of the Hakka, and this brief is by no means the one universally accepted explanation.)

During these migrations, the Hakka were moving into land that was already inhabited. And because the farmland was already worked by the native inhabitants, many Hakka men could not farm for their livelihood and instead tended to turn towards careers in the military or public service. Consequently, the Hakka culturally emphasized education. Also, unlike the majority of other Han Chinese women, Hakka women did not practice footbinding.

The emphasis on public service and education has resulted in the Hakka constituting an overwhelming disproportionate number of important Chinese political leaders. The Taiping Rebellion, a Christian-inspired rebellion that almost toppled the Qing Dynasty in the 19th century, was led by a failed Qing scholar of Hakka origin, the rebellion originated at a Hakka village, and all the initial followers were Hakka, who formed the core of a disciplined army that included women in their ranks — something that would have been impossible for most other Han ethnics because of footbinding.

Sun Yat Sen, the father of the modern Chinese Republic, was a Hakka who was educated in Hawaii and Japan. And so was Deng Xiao Ping, the reformist leader of the Chinese Communist Party who dominated the People’s Republic of China as chairman from 1978 until the 1990s, despite not holding official senior leadership government positions.

Hakkas are also common leadership figures outside China. Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore is a Hakka, as is his son and successor Lee Hsien Loong. And in Taiwan, both the pro-independence previous president Lee Ying-yuan, and current Beijing-friendly president Ma Ying-Jeou, are Hakka. Even further beyond the sphere of China’s direct cultural sphere, people of Hakka origin have served in the national governments of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, Australia, East Timor, Guyana, and elsewhere.

Impressive accomplishments for a people who constitute a mere fraction of China’s population. And interesting that it’s a factor that’s never mentioned in the Western press, despite the attention paid to other aspects of China’s ethnodemographics.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 – 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George’s War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, “Curzon” is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.

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17 Responses to The Hakka People, China’s Leadership Caste

  1. McKellar says:

    Please correct me, because my memory’s a bit hazy here, but aren’t the Hakka over-represented in Taiwan and in the American (and SE Asia) diaspora because of the their position in Fuji-an province?

    My general impression was now China’s regionalism is divided into four main areas, besides the autonomous regions:

    1) The interior, led from Beijing, and primarily concerned with converting rural peasants into urban workers.
    2) The SE coast, centered on Guangzhou and Hong Kong, and linked with Taiwan and Singapore.
    3) Shanghai, which is less Chinese than international.
    4) The Yellow Sea coast, including the Liaoning and Shandong peninsulas, with increasing connection to South Korea and the Russian far east.

    Though Tibet and Xinjiang get all the media play, I bet the real power struggles within the CCP are between factions from these four regions, and future developments, like a unified Korea, could change the dynamic considerably.

  2. dj says:

    The universality of the “Han” ethnic group I believe was a state policy over centuries to mitigate multiculturalism and consolidate state power over all of China.

    If everyone in China is “Han” then the leadership of China has the right to rule all of them. However, anyone who has traveled East to West or North to South in China can see obvious physical changes in the Chinese people.

    For instance the Cantonese in southern China look much different. They have a different dialect and culture to a degree. There are blank spots in history as to who has ruled the southern Chinese coast. I believe dynasties long ago erased any history of what happened down there and pushed a systematic campaign to make those people “Han” and therefore no different than their other subjects. Thus suppressing any resistance or nationalism.

    Observing PRC policy in Xinjiang you can see this tendency. Despite being a Marxist state they have come to the conclusion that no amount of economic development will make the Uyghurs happy being part of China. So the state’s goal now is to make that population “Han” and therefore it MUST BE ruled by China. Ethnocentric thought has been a source of legitimacy for Chinese leadership for a long time.

  3. Kelvin says:

    My mom’s side is Hakka. Hakka cuisine is a reflection of the fact that they tend to be unable to use the best farmland, so they are more frugal with their food. Preserved vegetables and maximal usage of all parts of livestock animals are defining characteristics. Result: delicious.

    The Tulou round houses in Fujian are probably the most spectacular example of the history of conflict of the Hakka: they’re basically small forts.

    McKellar, my bet is that you can probably separate things even further than that, especially “the interior”: there’s the Northeast, the old heavy industry heart of China that’s being left far behind by the coast; the upper Yangtze region, including Sichuan, Henan, and so on, which is starting to pick up in its industrial capacities, thanks in part to the Three Gorges power supply; and the upper Yellow region, which is literally being swallowed up by the desert.

    As for when did Guangdong became really become “Chinese,” the first real presence began back in the Qin or Han dynasty, but things were pretty iffy until at least the Tang, and probably the Song. The last Song emperor fleeing the Mongols died in the sea off Hong Kong.

    Curzon: I think you got Lee Ying-yuan (DPP former EY member) and Lee Teng-hui (KMT former president, TSU spiritual leader) mixed up: they’re both Hakka. Incidentally, current DPP president Tsai Ing-wen is also Hakka.

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  7. Interesting post, thanks.

  8. s says:

    interesting that you picked that one up.

    1) Lee Tenghui, the former (1st elected) president in ROC/Taiwan is Hakka. during those year, the 3 ethnic chinese communities (prc,roc,sgp) are all ruled by hakkas, it was said.

    2) theories have that, hakka migration to the south comes across many waves. from the 300-500AD barbarian invasion till the mogolian invasion in circa 1200. many resided in the mountains, as you correctly stated, the more valuable lowland was already taken. the most typical example is in taiwan, where fujianian took the lowland (60-65% pop), and hakka (10-15%) took the mountains.

    3) i am not sure about the ‘military tradition’ theory. the fact is, marginalised people who used to be highly educated tend to preserve the tradition for more aggressiveness and aspiration for achievement — an often used analogy is Jew in the west.

    4) education is empahsized in Han china (confuciusm) acrosss all ethnicity/tribes (well now includes manchurian chinnese as well). there is really no distinction for the hakka

    5) at the turn of the 20th century, southern china (and shanghai) has more contact with the west (due to HK and also coolies in the west), hence more revolutionaries. i do not think that is necessary hakka, but more guangdong.

    6) btw, deng xiaoping is from sichuan hakka. the Lee’s originally from fujian hakka. sun yatsen is guangdong.

  9. You are correct, McKellar. Hakkas constituted about 1/4 of the pre-1949 population of Taiwan, more or less. They are concentrated in the areas where there were early arrivals of settlers, such as southern Pingtung county, as well as in the north around the hi-tech town of Hsinchu. For a rabidly pro-Hakka view of Taiwan and China’s history, consult Clyde Kiang’s _The Hakka Odyssey and their Taiwan Homeland_.

    Friction between the Hakkas and the Hoklos, the Minnan speakers who constitute the majority of the pre-1949 population in Taiwan, is part of the island’s history, and was harnessed by the KMT in building the ethnic coalition that keeps the party in power. Both parties eagerly court the Hakka vote.

    The poster writes:

    ++++Hakkas are also common leadership figures outside China. Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore is a Hakka, as is his son and successor Lee Hsien Loong. And in Taiwan, both the pro-independence previous president Lee Ying-yuan, and current Beijing-friendly president Ma Ying-Jeou, are Hakka.++++

    This is all garbled up. The previous pro-independence president who was a Hakka is Lee Teng-hui, and he was only half-Hakka (which means that during the early part of his presidency the leaders of China, Singapore, and Taiwan were Hakka, more or less). Although I have lived here in Taiwan for twenty years more or less, never have I heard Ma Ying-jeou, who was born in China in Shenzhen, was a Hakka (though that might explain why his birth stories constantly shift and obscure, with him usually claiming he was born in Hong Kong). What is your evidence that Ma is a Hakka?

    Michael Turton
    The View from Taiwan

    Lee Ying-yuan is a DPP politician, and has never been president.

  10. UNRR says:

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 10/04/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  11. Curzon says:

    Michael, thanks for the comments and corrections. All the information is basically from Wikipedia.

  12. Jupiter says:

    The Ashkenazi Jews of Chinese politics?

  13. s says:

    geez, ma yingjeou was born in hong kong.
    shenzhen was a tiny village, smaller than hong kong was in before 1841 until deng xiaoping came about.

    (yeah, not sure why ma is hakka — his ancetry is from hunan)

  14. lirelou says:

    And let’s not overlook Charlie Soong, who sent his daughters to School in the United States, and saw them rise in Chinese politics.

  15. s says:

    yeah, charlie soong was as influential as sun yet-sen.

    ma ying jeou’s hakka origin is quite remote and at least his family forgot about this at least a few generations ago.

    the wiki page has many claims that i am a little doubful. it even listed chen shui-bian as hakka 🙂
    it also listed Thaksin and Annette Lu as Hakka.

  16. Kelvin says:

    Ma Ying-jeou was born in HK, but that’s a historical oddity based on the fact that his family was fleeing the Commies and the family just happened to have reached there before getting to Taiwan a year later.

    It’s kinda pointless to debate whether Lee Teng-hui is Hakka, since I suspect that if it was up to him, he’d rather be Japanese. 😉

  17. s says:

    the ma y-j birthplace issue illustrates how twisted taiwan’s politic is (i want to say this applies to both blue and green – though this example is one about the green).

    to discredit one’s political enemy (apparently birth at a location which today is under ‘communist’ control would some disqualify ma — they would tend to believe), someone ‘found’ a document filled by one of ma’s daughter (authenticity still unconfirmed) stating ma was born in shenzhen despite ma producing an official document from the hospital (which is still here today) in hong kong.

    such laughable nonsense pop up every other month if you tend to deep-green/deep-blue blogs.


One comment on “The Hakka People, China’s Leadership Caste

  1. MariconPower
    15 January 2016

    Because it’s not that important to put it simply. Hakka should be very proud of themselves for having such disrproportionate Chinese leaders. I mean, my opinion is they are one of the most successful Han sub-group ( maybe the most but this can be controversial ) but than again it’s so important when you look deeper. Maybe in Chinese eyes they are important but not for anyone outside of Chinese eyes.


    ( Please don’t take this as offensive, I’m only speaking from what I feel truely )

    It’s not enough for the west or even in Asia simply because is simply too negligible in their eyes. I mean okay, Hakka had signficant influence on modern Chinese and overseas chinese history, but so what? European Jews despite having such a tiny percentage of population have countless nobel prize winners, controls many industry of the world, controls hollywood and have their own nuclear power nation.
    They are the only one who have real control of the world

    It’s not like Hakka created a world empire like Mongolians who conquered East Europe, Middle east, Caucasus, South Asia, East Asia. I don’t recall Hakka ruling the west before, if they have leaders , rulers of Europe, Middle east, America than yeah Hakka is magnificent.

    Also It’s not like Hakka can change China into a good image nation with high level of intergrity, morals, I mean China is ranked at 167 in terms ( 2nd last after India ). If the are indeed leaders of China than they should also be responsible for the moral degredation of Chinese citizens and responsbile for all the slave lavours.

    You want to know why they don’t recieve enough western attention?

    1) Hakka don’t have nobel prize winners or world boxing / kick boxing Champions.
    2) Hakka don’t have the richest cities in the world but some of the poorest
    3) Hakka don’t have any linguistic reconigtion ( pop music, official status, movies)
    4) Hakka was never like the Mongol empire, Imperial Japan
    5) Hakka influence extends to only Chinese not Asian let alone the world

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to degrade Hakka people but it’s simply not that important. My pride of the Asian race had always been Mongolia and Japanese.

    If you ask me the real Jews of Asia are the Japanese. Since they are the only Asia nation who are G7, and their products, innovations, ideas. And S.Korea a;so is also like great with their samsung and other innovations for the world. In modern history only Japan could stand up to western imperialist ( Also Hakka was ruled by Japanese for 50 years in Taiwan ). ” Made in Japan and Korea” is far more realible than ” made in China ”

    Chinese in the past had a glorious history, China was the world richest nation with one of the world greatest civilization, was a world leader of invention, innovation, technology. But now China today is corrupted, fake product eveywhere, slave labour, lack of morals, intergrity, their citizens behave like degraded humab being. They can’t even trust their own things, all they do is copy. So if Hakka leadership is so great than they would make their nation like Japan, S.Korea.


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