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Hunanese vs Hakka

October 22nd, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

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).

  1. zack
    October 22nd, 2011 at 18:45 | #1

    nice analysis, Ray
    btw just wanted to know more about how none of the Western countries save Communist Russia wanting to help Sun Yat Sen’s new democracy since they wanted to retain control over their spheres of influence and colonial possessions.

    i’ll bet it’s not something the British or American or French democracies are keen to address eh; they had the chance to help the young Chinese democracy but they didn’t.

  2. raffiaflower
    October 22nd, 2011 at 23:09 | #2

    Excellent piece, though name recognition would be greatly assisted if you had added Chinese characters as well, to identify the historic players. Ditto a basic but important point that the Chinese characters for Hakka (客家)literally describes them as “guest people”. It is possibly the tag of impermanence that gives Hakka people the traits of grit and hardiness that they are famously associated with. By extension, the same `immigrant instinct’ of endurance has enabled the Chinese diaspora to survive and thrive wherever the boats have led it to.

  3. JJ
    October 23rd, 2011 at 06:40 | #3

    This is fascinating! I wonder if it’s something that’s cultural or more environmental? Sort of like how there have been more US presidents from Ohio and Virginia than any other state.


    You bring up a very interesting point. If I recall, a lot of the people who helped Sun Yat Sen were also overseas Chinese. In a way, the early immigrants were a self-selecting group that shared common traits.

  4. silentvoice
    October 23rd, 2011 at 07:52 | #4

    zack :
    nice analysis, Ray
    btw just wanted to know more about how none of the Western countries save Communist Russia wanting to help Sun Yat Sen’s new democracy since they wanted to retain control over their spheres of influence and colonial possessions.

    Didn’t Russia only “help” China (negotiate with Japan) in exchange for rights to build a railway through Manchuria, as a first step to claim lands in Manchuria?

    zack :
    i’ll bet it’s not something the British or American or French democracies are keen to address eh; they had the chance to help the young Chinese democracy but they didn’t.

    Oh there’s much more to that. Instead of helping, there’s some backstabbing. See:

    If the British and the Americans did not give Chinese lands to Japan at that point, there wouldn’t have been the May Fourth Movement, and a generation of Chinese probably wouldn’t embrace Karl Marx out of disillusionment with “the West”.

  5. October 23rd, 2011 at 11:56 | #5

    This is a very interesting read! thanks for sharing!

  6. October 23rd, 2011 at 13:15 | #6


    At that time the Soviet Union was totally cut off from the rest of the world. It is in their interest to build up an ROC which is friendly to them. They also need a stronger ROC military to help balance against an expansionist Imperial Japan in the Far East.

    The US is isolationist at this time, the British along with the French are the largest colonial empires of the world. As they also have colonies/leased territories or trade concession in China, it is not in their interest to have a strong China.

  7. October 23rd, 2011 at 13:20 | #7

    Not all Chinese diasporas group share the same experience. If you split hair again, you will noticed that Chinese immigrant from the 1800s to early 1900s onward are predominantly from Fujian, Guangdong with a small number from Guangxi, Hainan, Yunan etc. Immigrants from land locked region or the north are almost non-existence.

    The Minanese, and Cantonese speaking group are predominantly merchant while Hakka are more into professional trade like tailor, cobbler, teacher etc. The other sub group such as those from Fuzhou, Fujian and Taishan, Guangdong also have their own specific characteristics. The reason is that the later immigrants will join their predecessors from their hometown in the new land. That’s why you will noticed that in a certain areas, Cantonese are predominantly spoken while in others, Miananese or its variation Chaozhou, Hainanese, Fuzhou dialect, Taishan dialect etc all have their domains. All those dialect are mutually unintelligent to each other.

    Anyway, in the beginning those different dialect group would form different clan association and fight each other in the new land. For example, in Malaysia, the Miananese would fight the Cantonese for mining rights with both sides backed by respective local Malay rulers. Interestingly enough the ones to rise to political prominence in Malaysia are again Hakka, the two most important Chinese Kapitans are Yap Ah Loy 葉亞來 founder of Kuala Lumpur and Cheong Fatt Tze 張弼士, the Chinese Consul in Malaya.

  8. October 23rd, 2011 at 13:26 | #8

    JJ :
    This is fascinating! I wonder if it’s something that’s cultural or more environmental? Sort of like how there have been more US presidents from Ohio and Virginia than any other state.

    I don’t think it is a coincidence, for example 4 of the first 5 US presidents are from Virginia. It is due to Virginia being among the earliest and largest English settlement. By mid 1700 it is also the most important colony and has the biggest economy. As such Virginian are over represented in early US politics. Not sure about those from Ohio.

  9. October 23rd, 2011 at 15:54 | #9

    I have updated the article with the Chinese characters for the names.

    I also want to add that when the Qing dynasty lost Taiwan to Japan in 1895, Hakka also played a prominent role. At that time a Republic of Formosa was briefly declared mainly due to the effort a patriot named Qiu Fengjia 丘逢甲, and the original Qing governor Tang Ching-sung 唐景崧 was selected as its first president. However, the Japanese army invaded and the situation become dire and he fled. He was replaced by Liu Yongfu 劉永福, who was initially selected as commander of the new Taiwanese military commander. Both Qiu and Liu are Hakka. Feng Chia University in Taichung is named in honor of Qiu. Liu was also featured in the movie “Once Upon a Time in China I” in the opening scene. Unfortunately, both of them fled to the mainland after Japanese victory seemed certain.

    Anyway, Jackie Chan’s played Huang Xing in his 100th movie, 1911.

  10. xian
    October 24th, 2011 at 02:18 | #10

    The Hakka are like the Jews in the Chinese speaking world. Formerly persecuted, good with money, few in number, but very influential. The question is… why?

  11. October 24th, 2011 at 07:38 | #11

    There is a big difference though, the Jewish are considered outsiders by the host community. The Hakka are still considered Chinese albeit a guest as someone has pointed out the meaning of the description. On top of that the Hakka are prominent in politics unlike the Jewish which are predomiannatly businessmen, professional, tradesman and have little political clout. Of course after WWII, they become very active in politics.

  12. Nihc
    November 3rd, 2011 at 04:31 | #12

    I am not Hakka myself, but I believe its a combination of immigrant culture, self reliance and siege mentality that explain their success in business and politics.

    The Hakka group migrated South into Guangdong and Fujian due to wars. They were new arrivals to the land which was already occupied, and they had to live in hilly areas without access to good land. It also put them into conflict with the previous inhabitants, in addition they had effectively no access to any justice system living in remote hilly area, which put them at risk with brigands and the like. They are famous for the Tulou, a fort like communal living structure which allow them to be able to defend themselves against threats. (They were also involved in these series of clan wars with the Cantonese during the Qing dynasty). Coming from a very tough background make them tough psychologically, and would have pushed them into performing niche roles with keen awareness of power and politics. They would also naturally have to be bilingual and multicultural to survive.

    They are proud of being able to 吃苦, or being able to take a beating in the English idiom. Before modern day Chinese venture into Africa and the like. The Hakka are the ones who are most willing to seek out new lands for new opportunities. Remote places like Mauritius are populated by Hakka Chinese.

    As befit their survivalist culture, their cuisine are salty from using preserved food (pickled).

    They are often dislike by other groups of Chinese, possibly due to their pushy confrontational nature or historical animosity. (I certainly have met quite a few argumentative and combative Hakka.) Infact, my Taiwanese friend with presumably Hokkien background mentioned that her father forbid her to marry a Hakka. There’s also a bit of a victim mentality about them, one Hakka I met claim that the the Hakka doesn’t have their own ‘province’ while Fujianese and Cantonese do..

  13. Nihc
    November 3rd, 2011 at 04:53 | #13

    “Cheong Fatt Tze”

    I have actually been to the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in Penang, Malaysia, one of his many houses in SEA. That guy was pretty much the richest Chinese at the time. His meteoric rise from a simple cowherd and water carrier is incredible.


  14. November 3rd, 2011 at 08:10 | #14

    I have been there too. I agree that environment make the people who they are.

  15. wwww1234
    November 3rd, 2011 at 15:01 | #15

    from what I was told, Hakka migrated from the central plateau in different waves when wars broke out over many dynasties. Being late comers and guests, occupying hilly and less desirable areas, they were economically disadvantaged. Being from the central plateau and possessing the means to endure long treks, they were originally already more cultural than the “southern barbarians”.
    Hakkas were known to do well in schools and imperial exams, as living in hardship provided the perpetual motivation. So, as individuals many did well esp in politics(exams then government officials), but as a group they remained poor(location). The number of Hakka in chinese universities far outweigh their demographic representation to this date.

  16. Joe
    November 4th, 2011 at 13:14 | #16

    Other Hakka politicians include:

    In Taiwan Ma Ing Jiu (PM of Taiwan) and Chai Eng Wen (Opposition Leader of Taiwan) and Chen Sui Bian (past PM of Taiwan)

    In Thailand Abhisit Vejjajiva (past PM of Thailand), Yingluck Shinawatra (PM of Thailand) and her brother Thaksin Shinawatra (previous PM of Thailand).

    These are all famous Hakka people!

  17. Joe
    November 4th, 2011 at 13:24 | #17

    I forgot to include the Father of Modern China Dr Sun Yet Sen who was a Hakka!

  18. JJ
    November 4th, 2011 at 23:15 | #18

    I wonder if other dialect/regional groups also hold up to how they’re classified. For example, are the Shanghainese really that great business people?

    This also makes me wonder if in the future, the idea of ABCs will be a specific group? I know they already use the blanket 華僑 term, but specifically, it seems like ABCs have a certain type of impact or influence in the media and business in general.

    Or maybe it’s just confirmation bias, haha 🙂 Of course technically I’m MIT (Made in Taiwan!)

  19. raventhorn
    November 7th, 2011 at 06:00 | #19

    when you come down to the nuts and bolts of it, classifying “people” is a silly exercise. (If you really want, you can classify yourself as your own people, since really, everyone is different).

    *On JJ’s idea about classifying ABCs, it is entirely possible that they will become a distinct group of influence in the near future.

    But we Chinese had previous histories with “mixed Chinese” groups who influenced Chinese history before.

    The process is some thing like (1) an outside group forms with some Chinese culture mixed in, (2) the group evolves into its own unique identity, slightly different from its parent cultural groups, (3) the group influence either China or the other parent cultural group.

  20. November 7th, 2011 at 06:53 | #20

    Chen Sui Bian was mistakenly quoted as being Hakka but he is actually Minanese, that’s why he has hard core supporters in Taiwan which is 7/10 Minanese.

  21. November 7th, 2011 at 07:10 | #21

    Actually the geography play an important role. Most overseas Chinese before 1980s come from the coastal province of Guangdong, Fujian, Hainan etc.

    People who are exposed to big cities culture have better business acutemen, farmers in Guizhou would have a harder time picking up the culture. Most overseas Chinese in SE Asia are urbanized, hence easier integration into market economy while easily half of locals are in farming or fishing in the rural areas.

    You can actually see the same effect in China itself. Others have mentioned why the Hakka are politically conscious. In Hunan, the area is landlocked and relatively poor. The only sure way of getting ahead is by studying to become a scholar or soldier hence Hunan/Hubei areas have always produced significant political leaders. There is a saying 惟楚有材,于斯为盛

    A famous statesman of the Yuan dynasty was named 耶律楚材

  22. JJ
    November 7th, 2011 at 08:15 | #22


    Ha, that’s really interesting and it does make sense!

    And thanks for the 成語 🙂 I’ve been trying to learn more every day.

  23. wwww1234
    November 8th, 2011 at 23:44 | #23

    “Hunanese” seems like a geographical grouping and one may get insight from works like “guns, germs and steel”.

    but Hakka is more a tribal/cultural grouping as it is widespread geographically, and may need anthropologic and cultural interpretation. perhaps ray can come up with some more interesting ideas.

  24. November 9th, 2011 at 09:07 | #24

    It has a lot to do with geography, and particularly a special moment of history. I am generalizing things here but each group would have their particular advantage in time.

    If you go back in time, there’s the Qin, Tang, Yuan, Jin, Liao. Their founders come from a particular area where they are ready to take over. For example even, the founders of the Ming come from a certain geographic area. Do you know that in the 1st civil examination held by Ming (Zhu Yuan Zhang) was almost hit by a riot because all those “up on the board” are from a same area (the south east). The government has to make clarification saying that the 1st list is only for the south east region. They later published a list for those from all region of China to placate scholars from other region. A sort of affirmative action.

    It is obvious from this example that at Ming time, the south east region is the most developed and culturally advanced region of China. So I won’t be surprised that future big business/academia in China is dominated by those from the greater Shanghai region. If you looked at the founders of the CCP, most of them are from these areas too (they are more open to new concept). However, like I have written, the Hunanese and the Hakka produced the most hard core politician. The more traditional KMT in contrast was founded by 2 Hunanese and 1 Hakka.

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