Talking with Guests

Stepping away from the usual Putonghua insight, this month introduces you to the Hakka language and people. Find out about this branch of the han ethnic group and how they have kept their traditions alive.

I’m currently taking a break from my Mandarin studies, so I thought you might enjoy one, too. This month we’re going for a little linguistic detour. Let’s explore another Chinese language that you might or might not have heard of, Hakka. An estimated 80 million Hakka people are living in China (most of them in our home province, Guangdong), and millions of Hakka immigrants are scattered around the world. They seem to be overrepresented among the Chinese diaspora.

There’s a Hakka saying, “You yang guang de di fang jiu you hua ren, you hua ren de di fang jiu you ke jia ren (有阳光的地方就有华人, 有华人的地方就有客家人),” which translates to “Wherever there is sunshine, there are Chinese; wherever there are Chinese, there are Hakka.” Reading about the Hakka recently, I’ve come to realize that this saying is not much of an exaggeration.

Who are the Hakka, and what makes them unique and interesting? The name Hakka (客家) (pronounced ke jia in Mandarin), literally means “guest families/homes.” The term is a clear indication that these ethnically Han people are not indigenous to southern China, where most of them now live. They came to Guangdong, Fujian and the neighboring provinces after a series of migration waves from the central plains around the Yellow River, but it seems a bit unfair to still treat them as guests, considering that some of their ancestors settled here in the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.).
The astonishing part is they managed to preserve their linguistic and cultural identity over dozens of generations, despite being scattered in so many isolated regions. It seems pertinent that this tribe of wanderers has been dubbed the “Jews of China.” Just like the Jews, the Hakka have often been persecuted throughout the ages and they’ve also developed a remarkable fortitude and resilience in order to survive and thrive in any environment. There are numerous examples of prominent overseas Hakkas, excelling in politics and business.


As an amateur linguist, I’m curious about the language that this prodigious tribe shares. Is it similar to their ancestors’ northern Chinese, therefore similar to Mandarin? Or is it like the southern Chinese languages, e.g. Cantonese, that have been hosting the Hakka people for such a long time? Well, Hakka seems to share a few important words with Cantonese, like “yes” or “no”, yet, as far as I can gather, the two languages are mutually unintelligible. The distance from Mandarin is even greater. Maybe the language was similar to the ancient tongue of the northern plains, but modern Mandarin doesn’t bear much of a resemblance to that language either.

“Wherever there is sunshine, there are Chinese; wherever there are Chinese, there are Hakka.”

So, a whole new Sinitic language then, complete with a plethora of dialects and curious sounds and grammatical features to delve into! Are you up for it? I’ve heard that whenever two Hakka people bump into each other abroad, they’d recognize their common ancestry and refer to each other as “zi jia ren” (自家人), “a person from my own family.” I wonder how they would deal with a stranger who happens to speak their language.
Well, even if you are not about to embark on a new project and start studying Hakka immediately, I urge you to examine some of the other features of their intriguing culture. Why not visit the famous tulou buildings, with typical Hakka architectural style? You don’t even have to go all the way to Fujian or Meizhou for that, there’s a small Hakka Village very close in Zhangmutou.

For those of you who’d rather explore a culture with their palate, there are plenty of good Hakka restaurants around. I promise you won’t be disappointed if you order the popular yong tau foo dish, the soft tofu filled with spicy meat is simply delicious. Bon appetite, or, as they say in Hakka, “mang-mang sik (慢慢吃)!”