Journal of World History 11.1 (2000) 142-145
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Migration and Ethnicity in Chinese History: Hakkas, Pengmin, and Their Neighbors
Migration and Ethnicity in Chinese History: Hakkas, Pengmin, and Their Neighbors. By Leong Sow-Theng. Edited by Tim Wright. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997. Pp. xix + 234. $45 (cloth).
Ethnic identity is forged not just by psychology, but by material forces. China's powerfully unified ethnic identity is famous: Han Chinese descendants of the people of the Yellow River Plain, unified by the Emperor Qin Shi over two thousand years ago. Leong Sow-Theng's beautifully detailed posthumous volume Migration and Ethnicity in Chinese History examines how migration shaped the identity of the Hakka people. His perspective reveals strongly contested and divergent local ethnic identities, languages, and cultures, each modeled in contact and conflict with other local peoples. The Hakkas belong to China's ethnic Han Chinese majority, 94% of the population. (The fifty-six officially recognized national minorities, including ethnic Koreans, Tibetans, Mongols, and Miao, are 6%.) The Hakkas, just 3% of China's population, are the smallest of the seven major Han Chinese subgroups, each with its own local culture and dialect, as different as English [End Page 142] from German. Most northerners belong to the native Mandarin-speaking 70%. The other groups are the Cantonese, the Wu speakers (from around Shanghai), the Min (from Fujian and Taiwan), the Xiang (Hunan), and the Gan (Jiangxi Province). The Hakkas, the only subgroup without their own province, live among the mountaintops of Guangdong, Fujian, Taiwan, Jiangxi, and Sichuan. Yet Hakkas gained so much political power that they include disproportionate numbers of the scholarly, military, and political elites, as well as Deng Xiaoping. In 1984 Hakkas formed 50% of China's most powerful political entity, the Standing Committee of the Politburo.
Until very recently China's ideology of national unity, and horror of civil war, prevented public discussion of the ethnic Han subgroups. Hakkas had long been poor and stigmatized, late migrants to south China. Over the last three centuries millions died in wars between the Hakkas and their Cantonese and Fujianese neighbors. Leong's carefully honed analysis examines migration and contact in the construction of Hakka identity. The Hakkas' own creation legend lauds them as an ancient people, upholders of pure northern Chinese language and tradition. Hakkas, the legend goes, are descendants of Shandong and Henan natives who patriotically migrated south during the Mongol invasions 600 years ago. Hakkas pride themselves on scholarship, thrift, and hard work, and on their independent women who rejected foot-binding and worked in the fields alongside men. They also pride themselves on patriotism, counting as their own China's first president, Sun Yat-sen (though this is disputed), as well as Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui and Singapore strongman Lee Kwan Yew.
Yet non-Hakkas, especially Cantonese and Fujian Min, have long denigrated the Hakkas as hillbilly "shack-people" (the pengmin of Leong's title). The very word Hakka is a Cantonese slur meaning "guest people"--that is, people who are supposed to go home. Poorer than southerners, later migrants forced to settle the worst mountain land, the Hakkas are stereotyped as stingy, clannish, disruptive outsiders, who work their women like animals, rather than sequestering them at home, according to the now defunct mainstream ideal. All southern Chinese have intermarried extensively with indigenous people. But the most contentious charge holds that the Hakkas are "not even Han Chinese," but rather a non-Han minority, the She, an ethnic Miao subgroup. Hakkas objected to particularly "barbarous" or "aborigine" labels well into the twentieth century.
Leong, himself of Hakka ancestry, elucidates how the Hakkas gradually distinguished themselves from other "shack-people," forging a self-consciously separate language and identity only in the past 300 years. Public pride emerges only in the twentieth century. Leong [End Page 143] calmly demonstrates how the factual record disputes crucial features of the Hakka creation myth. Far from being ancient northern scholars and nobility, patriotic preservers of pure northern speech, the record shows...