Why Hakkas Excel in Political and Military Leaderships?

In the past 25 years my wife and I had made repeated trips to China and one of the most memorable was our latest trip to the Hakka heartland of Yongding, Changting, Ninghua, Dabu and Meixian in Fujian and Guangdong provinces, which enabled us to gain an indelible insight into the fascinatingly unique Hakka culture and way of life.

One of the highlights was the viewing of the creme de la creme of the centuries-old Hakka “tulous” (earth buildings) in Yongding county, comprising mainly fortress-like round and square buildings of reinforced mud, sandstone and timber, which stand out as a rare jewel in Chinese folk architecture and much acclaimed worldwide by architects and heritage enthusiasts. Numerous clusters of these gigantic tulous are scattered in various parts of West Fujian and have become prominent landmarks in this mountainous region. The larger edifices, with as many as 300 hundred rooms, have the dimension of a football field and can accommodate up to 800 residents of the same clan. They date from 13th to early 20th centuries. Many have withstood periodic earthquakes and some are still inhabited by the original owners’ descendants.

Of the several “toulous” of different eras that we had visited, Jiqing Lou, built in 1419, truly bowled us over with its elegant architectural style, respectable vintage and near perfect state of preservation after almost 600 years of human habitation without a break! It is a quintessential early Ming structure, with its exquisitely carved wood and masonry works still in place and they have mellowed with time. Four-storey high, it has 206 residential units which had housed about 800 people in its heyday. Its common corridors can be partitioned for privacy. An unusual feature is its 72 sturdy and beautifully-grained wood staircases which connect all the floors.

When some of these “tulous” were first sighted by the US spy planes during the Cold War period, they were mistakenly believed by the CIA to be China’s secret nuclear reactors! The American fear was allayed only after they were invited to inspect them, following the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in the 1970s.

When the Hakka forebears first moved into these southern provinces from their original homeland in North China more than 1000 years ago, other Han Chinese also originally from that region were already long entrenched there. Resented as intruders and discriminated by the earlier settlers, these latecomers had, perforce, to retreat into the inhospitable regions in order to avoid further clashes and large scale bloodshed with the other Chinese dialect groups.

They therefore opted for communal living in massive “tulous” both for cohesive and defensive reasons, and sharing out whatever meagre produce that the hostile land would yield. Such adversity required of them courage, ingenuity and physical prowess to adapt to their new surroundings or perish.

The Hakkas’ instincts for self-preservation and their ability to overcome extreme privations, coupled with their industry and thrift, enabled them to turn adversity into advantage, carving their place as an integral part of their new homelands. These traditional values have become symbols of the people and are commonly referred to and admired by others as the Hakka Spirit.

Hakka women are worthy of special accolade. Renowned for their sturdiness and female virtues, they had to shoulder much of the heavy and tedious farm work in addition to household chores, thus enabling their men folks to seek fortunes or fame elsewhere in China or in countries overseas.

We visited the imposing Hakka Ancestral Hall at Ninghua’s Shibi village in Fujian, the mecca of Hakkas everywhere. From Ninghua their ancestors later spread out to other parts of Fujian, Guangdong and even more distant greener pastures. We were palpably moved by the ancient records of their sufferings and tremendous achievements despite seemingly insurmountable odds, tracing their first mass migrations from the north due to wars and famines which predated Mao Zedong’s famous Long March by more than 1600 years.

Among their illustrious descendants were numerous outstanding statesmen, scholars, generals, artists, writers, musicians and entrepreneurs, who read like the who’s who of China and countries with sizable Chinese populations. They include such household names like Zhang Jiulin, Wen Tienxiang, Hong Xiuquan, Sun Yat Sen, Deng Xiaoping, Zhu De, Ye Jianying, Liu Shaoqi, Hu Yaobang, Guo Moyue, Luo Xianglin, Lin Fungmien, Han Suyin and Aw Boon Haw, to name just a select few.

Apart from our Mr Lee Kuan Yew and a former Taiwanese president, Singapore’s Premier Lee Hsien Loong and Thailand’s ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Sinawatra are also of Hakka descent. So too are several PAP Old Guard ministers and some later ones including Richard Hu, as well as former Chief Justice Yong Pung How, Supreme Court judges and Permanent Secretaries. Among these formidable Singaporeans were the late Hon Sui Sen and Howe Yoon Chong, who were among Singapore’s most successful civil servants and who later became Cabinet ministers and served with distinctions.

How do we account for so many prominent Hakka political and military leaders? Is there something in its culture and character traits that account for these flairs, or are the names above just a collective coincidence? My own view, admittedly somewhat speculative, centers on the dialect group’s history as a diaspora people escaping persecutions from non-Chinese and other Chinese dialect groups. This creates among its members a keener awareness of how the larger political processes can affect individual lives. Long after the initial migrations, the arduous journeys from political persecution have survived in the collective folk consciousness. Living away from large population centres in barricaded mountain “fortresses” also allows for a degree of independence from governmental authority not afforded those from the fertile plains.

Another result of living in remote mountainous regions with meagre land is the necessary cultivation of an ethic of hard work, and an ability to overcome extreme hardships which the less stout-hearted would easily have succumbed and perished. Such a culture and environment provide an excellent political training ground for dynamic men of strong convictions and indomitable courage, with a gift for rallying whole communities to fight for their just dues and able to withstand prolonged periods of adversity in the wilderness. Living at the periphery of major population centres nurtures in these sturdy Hakkas a keen sense of survival and a proud tradition of independent political thought and action. Would it be too far fetched to conclude that such a tradition percolates even beyond the traditional Hakka homelands, to the new homes of their adopted countries?

Hakka Singaporeans have ceased long ago to be “guests” here. Together with other Singaporeans, they have become co-owners of the Republic and contributing most significantly to the continuing prosperity of this country.

Lam Pin Foo

18 thoughts on “Why Hakkas Excel in Political and Military Leaderships?

  1. I have already noted several of your comments below. Your determination to learn the Hakka Dialect is most admirable.
    I have another Hakka article published in Friends of Museum Passage magazine in July/August 2013 and you can purchase a copy of it with other cultural articles. You can also access it on its website http://www.fom.sg.

  2. I have joined the Yong Ting Association at Neil Road , also named the Eng Teng Association. They do not have classes to teach you the Yong Ting Hakka dialect but I have been learning from the older generation. Yong Ting Hakka does not sound the same as other Hakka dialects. It is more difficult to understand or learn how to speak it. It sounds like Mandarin. My surname is actually Huang and I was told my ancestors were from Shantong and I belong to the 22nd generation in Yong Ting.. The Hakkas are the descendants of the third wife of Huang Ti ,the first emperor of China. The son by the surname Luo was given a province to govern because of his credits. The province is named the Huang province. He took over the name Huang as his surname. My grand father migrated to Indonesia ‘s Bagang Api Api from Yong Ting. His name is Huang Fei. The association is kind enough to be hunting my ancestors. I feel a person needs to know his roots and culture. Mrs Toh Kah Beng ( Ang Peck Hoon)

  3. Wow. . . I decided to check this out after I met a fellow Hakka. I am a Khek myself, and I am just grateful for all those who have commented, and for Pin Foo whose knowledge of so many topics continue to draw admiration from me and other readers. Wow!

  4. Thanks for your interesting comments. I am fascinated by your illustrious family history.

    If your ancestral home is Jiqinglou in Yongding, Fujian, My wife and I had visited it some five years ago. We were most impressed with its grand 600-year old structure, still in very good condition, its history and its ingenious architecture. Have a good roots-finding trip there.

  5. I am Hakka. My parents and grandparents were refugees during the communist uprising. They are all deceased now and we were told when we were children that several of our paternal forefathers were imperial scholars and were married to emperor’s daughters. The first one was a Quan (in Hakka)and was in charge of several provinces/cities. We are related to Marshal Yeh. My grand uncle however was in the Nationalist Army and was imprisoned in Manchuria for many decade and only released when he was dying from prostate cancer. My younger grand uncle, my dad and the Colonel’s son were all in the Nationalist Army and one of my dad’s batchmate from the military school went on to become a prominent person in Taiwan. My dad’s name was Yeh Chi Tang. I have visited China but am still waiting to visit our ancestral home. I should have paid more attention when my grandparents used to tell us about our family. That hundreds of people lived in our ancestral home at one time. She also came from a prominent family. Her name was Chong Fong Yeun. She used to tell us that if you give the name of Jinqinglou to any Hakka in China they will know who we are. My youngest brother did visit the ancestral home several years ago and the rest of the siblings plan to do so soon. I think we are the 24 or 27 generation and our generation names were derived from a poem written by the first ancestral scholar.

  6. The spelling of the surname Lim has been commonly used by many overseas Chinese dialect groups hailing from Fujian, Shantou areas of Guangdong, Hainan and Hakkas of Guangdong and Fujian. The Cantonese would normally spell it as Lam or Lum.

    In Singapore and Malaysia, a Lam is more likely to be a Hakka, while a Lum spelling is preferred by Cantonese.

    By the way, I am not an expert on surnames, and my views are based on common knowledge.

  7. If a family which has originated from Guangzhou spells its last name in the US as Lim, is there a higher degree of chance that the family is originally Hakka?

    Does Lam and Lum indicate a greater probability that they are Cantonese and not of Hakka lineage?

    Thank you in advance for your response.

    • My surname is Lam, which is 蓝 in Chinese. Most 蓝s are Hakka, from Dabu County in Guangdong. The Cantonese do pronounce 林 as Lam, so one has to look at the Chinese character to ascertain.

  8. Although the Hakkas form the minority in most countries,yet they hold high posts and in most cases help to boost the economy of the countries. I do not know how far this is true. In the west they are studying whether the genes of the Hakkas make them survivors ot the environment. But today, it cannot be the environment anymore ,yet the Hakkas somehow come up to the top positions.

    Regards and thanks for taking effort to reply.

    Ang Peck Hoon ( Mrs Toh Kah Beng)

    • I phoned the Nanyang Khek Communiy Guild but they told me they have just finished a course and they do not know when the next would be held. I left my phone number for them to contact me.I am grateful for you help.

      Ang Peck Hoon ( Mrs Toh Kah Beng)

  9. I assume you are from Singapore. With Government policy of making Mandarin the common language for Chinese Singaporeans, I doubt there are any local educational centres that offer courses in the Hakka dialect. Your best option may be to advertise in a newspaper to see if any Hakka speaker is willing to teach you for a reasonable fee. Good luck to you.

    Lam Pin Foo

    • Yes I am from Singapore.But are there not any associations offering to teach the language? I understand other dialect groups offer such courses.
      What a shame if we should lose our ancestral dialect.I read from a documentary once that one of the Qing emperor disallowed the Hakkas to sit for the imperial examination as the first posts were most of the time held by them.

      Regards and thanks for replying.
      Ang Peck Hoon (Mrs Toh Kah Beng)

      • You may wish to contact Nanyang Khek Community Guild (Tel 62210605) in Peck Seah St to see if they can help you. No, I am not aware of the Hakka preeminence in the Qing Imperial Examinations. However, it is true that the Hakkas do value education highly and have produced many renowned scholars in China and overseas, including writer Han Suyin who is very well-known to many Singaporeans.

        Lam Pin foo

  10. I am a Hakka. My original town is Yong Ding which I had visited with my siblings. But none of us can speak the language as our mother is Hokien and my father did not speak the language to us.I want very badly to learn to speak Hakka. Could you advise me where such lessons are held?

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