Hakka rural folks; note that the women have unbound feet, so they could move freely to do farming and military chores. Hakka women were well-versed in firearms and made up the assault units of the Taiping Army

Hakka Kingdom of Heaven on earth

Deng Xiaoping – the late and dead paramount leader of China – was a Sichuanese Hakka. Lee Teng Hui, past president of Taiwan, and Lee Kuan Yew, founder of modern Singapore and its first prime minister, were Hakkas, too.

Who are the Hakkas? By definition, Hak-ka means guest people, the wandering tribe in China, without a true home. Since the days of the Song (pronounced soong) Dynasty a thousand years back, they have migrated to almost every province in the empire (about 910,000 people according to a 2001 report), and have formed a substantial minority in Taiwan, Hong Kong and South-east Asia. My father said Hakka communities were found even in Mauritius.

My father was one such migrant. He grew up in the Hakka heartland of Meisian (Mo-yan) county in southern Guangdong province and left home for British Malaya and the Dutch East Indies just before the Japanese invasion of China in the early 1930s.

According to historian Jonathan Spence, in his book, God’s Chinese Son (1996), the Hakkas traced their origins in the central plains to the south of the Yellow River near Kaifeng. Their speech is strange to most other Chinese, but is seen by themselves as a pure form of the old Chinese tongue. In fact, Chinese linguistic scholars have used Hakka words and diction to figure out how folks spoke in the Tang and Song Dynasty days – which was certainly not Mandarin, the current national language.

By the 19th Century, most Hakkas were either farmers or miners. An important difference between Hakkas and their neighbours was that Hakka women did not bind their feet to make the feet small and attractive. Hakka women walked freely and worked in the fields with their men.

According to my dad and my uncles who came from China in the early 1900s, the admirable quality of Hakka women was their martial aptitude – while the men ploughed the land, the women would stand guard with rifles and spears to discourage predatory neighbours, such as the Cantonese, from raiding their farms.

Taiping Revolution

In the mid-19th Century, Hakka peasants under their leader Hong Xiuquan started the Taiping (Grand Peace) Revolution to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. In the Taiping army, women commando units were common and women regularly led heroic assaults that sometimes turned impending defeats into victory.

Hong was the Hakka figure with the greatest impact on modern history. He adopted Christianity after reading some missionary tracts, and proclaimed himself the younger brother of Jesus. He had a millennial vision,

My hand grasps the killing power
in Heaven and on earth;
To behead the evil ones, spare the just
and ease the people's sorrow.

Although the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom and its New Jerusalem in Nanking city were eventually crushed by Manchu troops (with the aid of Western firepower), its proto-communalistic ideals continued to inspire 20th Century revolutionaries such as the early Kuomintang leaders and the Communists led by Mao Zedong.

Mao, who had studied closely the Taipings military doctrines and techniques, their order of battle, and their mass experiments in establishing a new and disciplined cultural and spiritual order, was able, in the course of two decades (1930s-1949), to overcome his foes and successfully establish the People's Republic.

[A reader sent an e-mail to me saying both Mao and the Republic's founder Dr Sun Yat-sen were also Hakkas, but I havent checked it out yet.]

Today, the memory of the Revolution of the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace 太平天囯 continued to be commemorated by the Beijing government.

I grew up in an extended Hakka family in Singapores Chinatown, surrounded by more than a dozen closely-related families of uncles, aunts and cousins. In childhood I spoke and communicated only in the Moy-yen dialect of Hakka (the language itself has many dialects), but as I grew up and studied in English language schools, I used Hakka less and less frequently. Today, I could hardly sustain a conversation in my father tongue without stuttering.

But I dont think Ive lost the facility or fluency. In my dreams when I see dead relatives and loved ones, I converse with them in my childhood speech, not in English or, Heaven save me, Mandarin.

Hakka diction is grating to outsiders because of the predominance of the ng consonant as in ngai (I, my), Hak-ngin (Hakka folks) and ngee (you).

– Francis Chin, December 30, 2001

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Painting of Hakka family life in the village