Greater China is ethnically diverse. Although more than nine tenths of the population is considered Han Chinese, there are at least fifty minority groups. The best known outside China are the Tibetan people, the Mongolians, and the Muslim Hui (a Turkic people also known Uyghurs). There are also Hmong and Miao populations, related to similar ethnic groups in Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. Less well known are the Hakka people, who total around 80 million, a tenth of whom live beyond the borders of the People's Republic of China (PRC). Despite a degree of assimilation, many Hakka continue to speak their own language and follow a distinctive set of customs. Like Jews in the USA and United Kingdom, over the past 100 years they've had an influence way beyond their numbers.
Rather like Jews, Hakka have a reputation in East Asia for working exceptionally hard and taking education very seriously. This is likely why they are very well represented in the upper echelons of Chinese societies. They are also said to be frugal, and to keep their homes and communities tidier than other Han Chinese. Because they never practiced foot binding, Hakka women played a greater role in public society than their Han Chinese counterparts.
The origins of this ethnic group aren't clear, but it's thought they moved from central and north China towards the south and southeast in four migrations (each of which lasted for decades) between the 4th century AD and the 1600s. The reasons for these migrations aren't known for sure, but probably included civil war, invasions (by, among others, the Manchurians who went on to establish the Qing Dynasty) and a loss of social status following a change of ruler. Since the 17th century, China's Hakka population has been concentrated in what are now the provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi, Sichuan (where Deng Xiaoping was born) and Fujian.Credit: Creative Commons
A small number of Hakka roundhouses still exist on the Chinese mainland. These circular compounds (pictured here) typically cover 10,000 to 40,000 square meters. Often there's just one entrance and an outer wall at least a meter thick. Some have four floors. For defensive reasons, originally only narrow slits (through which residents could fire at attackers) faced the outside world; some roundhouses have been modified in recent decades to provide better ventilation and natural light.
Over the past 300 years, a great many Hakka have migrated beyond the Chinese mainland. In the early 18th century they began arriving in Taiwan, where they form at least a seventh of the island's population of 23 million. They're a majority in several districts within Taiwan, including Zhongli City in the north and much of Pingtung County in the south.
Hakka politicians have achieved considerable success since Taiwan became a democracy in the late 1980s. Because Hakka are seen as a crucial bloc of swing voters, politicians always make a point of showing up at Hakka cultural events, and have been quick to provide funding for a Hakka-language TV station and Hakka-language programs in schools. Despite these efforts, fewer and fewer young Taiwanese Hakka speak their ancestral language well; the majority are far more fluent in Mandarin. Lee Teng-hui, a former president of Taiwan, is unusual in that he is of Hakka descent but speaks Taiwanese better than Mandarin or Hakka.Credit: StefanC
One cultural difference between Hakka on the Chinese mainland and those in Taiwan is the latter’s reverence for those they call the Yimin - the spirits of men who died defending Hakka communities during the lawless 18th and 19th centuries. Yimin (which means "righteous folk") have evolved into general deities whose help and protection is sought whenever Hakka people face difficulty or danger. The island has more than 40 Yimin temples of various sizes. The traditional costume of Hakka women in Taiwan is a kind of a blue tunic (pictured above). They're still tailored the same way, but most are bought by souvenir-hunters.
In Hong Kong, Hakka are regarded as indigenous, and many of the special administrative region's farmers are of that ethnicity. But as in Taiwan, their language and customs are losing ground to the majority culture. More than one million Hakka live in Indonesia, accounting for over a third of the country's Chinese minority. In both Singapore and Malaysia, Hakka citizens are substantial fractions of the countries' Chinese populations.
Beyond Asia, significant Hakka populations can be found in Brazil (where they dominate the mushroom-farming sector), Mauritius (Hakka account for most of the island's 100,000 Chinese) and India (a disproportionate number of dentists are of Hakka descent).
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