Does all Chinese dialect group have the same representation in politics historically? The question first appeared to me when I read Li Guangyao’s 李光耀(Lee Kuan Yew) autobiography, The Singapore Story and From Third World to First: The Singapore Story. He mentioned that Hakka is disproportionately represented in politics in Singapore and other Chinese communities. At the writing of the book, the political leader of mainland China is Deng Xiaoping 鄧小平, who is a Hakka, so is Li Denghui 李登辉 from Taiwan, Martin Lee 李柱銘 from Hong Kong and of course Lee Kuan Yew himself is a Hakka.
So is this just a coincidence? Hakka as a dialect group probably numbered around 80 million which makes them one of the larger Chinese group. However, they are spread sparsely all over China and the world, and is a minority even among other Chinese in the areas they live. And what about the Hunanese? Mao Ze Dong, Liu Shao Qi, Peng Dehuai 彭德懷 are of course famous modern Hunanese. When I looked into Chinese history for the last two hundred years or so, and if you actually looked into the jiguan 籍贯(the place of one’s ancestors’ birth or origin) of the prominent figures who shaped Chinese history during these period the Hunanese and Hakka are indeed overly represented relative to their numbers.
Of course, I am not saying that other group contributed less but the frequency of the Hunanese and Hakka coming into top leadership role simply warrant a closer look. Of course, when doing a study of Chinese history for the past couple hundred years, it is simply difficult to leave out the Man Chinese which is even more disproportionately represented but this hold true only during the Qing dynasty where they represent the noble ruling class, so I will leave them out.
Most historians agree that the Qing dynasty pretty much lost its ability to rule effectively after the Taiping rebellion. That event signalled the decline of the dynasty as irreversible since the military of the central government were soundly defeated and if not because of action by local militia the dynasty would have fallen. The Banner military 八旗子弟, including the Mongolian cavalry proved unable to defeat the rebellion. The bulk of central Qing military, the Green Camp 綠營 which consists mainly of Han Chinese also proved to have lost its fighting ability. Basically, the fate of the dynasty hang in the balance and the emperor issued edict allowing local governors to raise local militia. Despite this, the militia have little or no funding from the central government because the lion share of the defence budget was given to the Eight Banner and the Green Camp. On top of that the central government is also having fiscal difficulties. The legacy is that these new militias owed their loyalty to their local commander and home province, and less to the central government.
It is not an understatement to say that the Taiping Rebellion was started by the Hakka. The top three heavenly kings of the Heavenly Kingdom are Hong Xiuquan 洪秀全, Feng Yunshan 馮雲山 and Yang Xiuqing 楊秀清. Shi Dakai 石達開, Li Xiucheng 李秀成, Chen Yucheng 陳玉成are the most important military leaders. They are all Hakka. Sun Zhongsan (Sun Yat San), a Hakka is most inspired by this failed rebellion. I won’t go into too much detail of the rebellion as it would take a book to do so. However, I would simply say that the most effective militia groups are the ones raised by the Hunanese, namely Zeng Guofan 曾國藩, Zuo Zongtang 左宗棠, Hu Linyu 胡林翼. Again I am not stating that other groups are less significant in contributing to both the Qing or the Tianguo side, but simply want to point out that despite their smaller numbers the Hunanese and Hakka excerted the most influence. And if you were to ask who Mao Zedong admired the most, his answer would be Zeng Guofan.
The Taiping Rebellion was eventually put down but only after fifteen years and loss of perhaps more than twenty million lives (making it the most bloody conflict prior to WWI). To make matter worse, most battles were fought in South Western China which devastated the most important economic region. The Qing was totally exhausted after putting down the rebellion but did not reform. The ineffective Eight Banner and Green Camp still took in the biggest share of the defence expenditure, they were to be defeated time and again by foreign armies . The practice of giving donation for government position 捐官(started during Qianlong time to make up revenue short fall) became even more rampant because of even more revenue shortfall. The primary reason the rebellion started was never addressed and simply swept under the carpet. The rebellion broke out because corrupt local officials tried to fleece locals by adding taxes on their own. Unlike traditional officials or mandarin who got their position through examination or connection, these officials who paid for their position have an even bigger incentive to get their money back through corruption. To be fair, the Qing dynasty is actually one of the more benign in Chinese history. Taxes have always been very low, and in time of flood or famine, taxes were usually waived for the region. Unfortunately, those corrupted officials would still add in taxes of their own despite a waiver from the central government. And when there is flood or famine and people are dying of hunger, an enforced collection of tax would simply spark a riot. If it affect a large area the riots would turn into a rebellion.
The Qing dynasty was also a victim of its own success, from 1700 to 1840s, the population of China increase three fold to around 350 million while farm land remained pretty much the same. There is simply too much surplus labour around to encourage any industrialization, and standard of living is poor for those landless farmers. Another feature of Chinese dynasty is that the scholar, mandarin class do not have to pay taxes. Even a lowly entry level scholar xiucai 秀才 do not have to pay taxes. In the later stage of the Qing dynasty the merchant class would all have their children enrolled in school and become scholar by deed or donation. Hence the minority owning the majority of the land and wealth do not have to pay taxes. The same apply to the Eight Banner who not only did not have to pay taxes but received monthly stipends.
After the rebellion was put down, the politics of Qing dynasty entered another phase. The all powerful central government has lost most of its authority, prestige not just among the regular citizens but also from the provincial government which now have an even better independent military. Although after the rebellion, the local militia were severely cut back and most generals gone into retirement the seed was sowed for the next phase of Chinese politics, namely the era of the warlords in the 1920-1940s. The central government was unable to go through an effective reform like the one in Meiji Japan and simply bid its time until another rebellion happened, this time by the so-called new army.
The first Opium war actually happened before the Taiping Rebellion, however, the subsequent second and third Opium war and other defeats by foreign powers was to further damage the remaining prestige of the Qing government. More and more Chinese intellectual found the court to be weak and corrupted so they started calling for a reform, a few were tried but all failed. Some more radical elements realized that the Qing was decayed beyond repair and want to found a republic. This is where Sun Zhongsan came into prominence. I think almost everybody who are familiar with Chinese politics would know the exploits of Sun. However, another figure who was equally as important but almost unknown outside academic circle. He is Huang Xing 黃興, a Hunanese who pretty much do most of the ground work and was the main military leader in the republican movement.
As we all know, after the fall of the Qing, China’s central government collapsed and China broke down into regions controlled by different factions. Contrary to most belief, the KMT and CCP started off working together and share pretty much the same ideal of reforming China into a new republic. The Chinese Military Academy was founded by fund and instructors from the Soviet Union (at that time all other foreign powers wanted a weak and disunited China). The KMT and CCP worked hand in hand in trying to raise a new central government and new military to reunite China again. Unfortunately, the selfish Jiang Jieshi launched a purge of the communist in April 12th 1927. This locked both sides into a conflict that would continue on and off until the present day.
The period after 1911 also saw more Hunanese and Hakka playing a prominent role in Chinese politics. On the CCP side the famous Hakka are Zhu De 朱德, Ye Ting 葉挺, Ye Jianying 葉劍英, Deng Xiaoping 鄧小平. From 1937 to 1945, the communist side would have two major armies under the Nationalist banner, the 8th Route Army in the North and the New 4th Army in the South, and both were commanded by Hakka! In the KMT sides the Song family are Hakka, so are Liao Zhongkai 廖仲愷, Chen Jitang 陳濟棠, Xue Yue 薛岳, Zhang Fakui 張發奎. Hu Yaobang 胡耀邦is also a Hakka. Well, if we fast forward to present day politics in Taiwan, Xu Xinliang 許信良 (Hsu Hsin-liang), Lu Xiulian 呂秀蓮 (Annette Lu), You Xikun 游錫堃 (Yu Shyi-kun), Su Zenchang 蘇貞昌(Su Tseng-chang) all have Hakka ancestry. When Ma first come to the presidential post, his premier Liu Zhàoxuán 劉兆玄(Liu Chao-shiuan), is a Hunanese and his replacement Wu Dunyi 吳敦義 is a Hakka. And in the coming election next year it would be a Hunanese-Hakka, Ma Yingjiu 馬英九versus another Hakka Cai Yingwen 蔡英文(Tsai Ing-wen). This is despite the fact that Hakka made up less than 10% of the population on the island. Well, it is possible there is a third candidate in that election, it would be a Hunanese Song Chuyu 宋楚瑜!
To be honest, I think with the heightened awareness of politics among all Chinese, the participation of other dialect groups would be more proportioned to their number but all in all I think it is an interesting occurrence in Chinese history. Feel free to add any information or express your view at the comment section. I look forward to a light hearted discussion (the postings last week have all been really serious issues).