Hakka Revivalism: A Story of Language Conservation in the 21st Century

By Tiger Huang

Last month in December 2017, Taiwan (Republic of China) became the first government to recognize Hakka as an official national language after the state’s Legislative Yuan amended the Hakka Basic Act. The Act would make Hakka compulsory in education, civil examinations and official public usage in administrative areas with a majority Hakka population [1].

Hakka is one of the seven major dialect groups of Chinese. Its speakers are concentrated in the southeastern provinces of Guangdong, Fujian, and Jiangxi, and there is a large diaspora population around the world, particularly in Southeast Asia, the Pacific, and the Americas. Despite having around 75 million Hakka people worldwide and strong political leadership in China and around the world in recent history [2], the Hakka dialect has faced an alarming decline in the number of speakers throughout the last century as Mandarin and other local languages become preferable for younger generations. Taiwan’s new legislation reflects the forefront of efforts to protect the Hakka dialect in the Sinophone world, and should serve as a model for the conservation of other minority languages.

Origins and History of the Hakka

The Hakka are a Han Chinese group that moved from the Yellow River region in central China to southern China in a series of migrations throughout the last 2,000 or so years. The term Hakka (客家) literally means “guest families” in Chinese, and was first used by the existing locals inhabitants of southern China as a label to address these new migrants. As latecomers, the Hakka were subject to various degrees of discrimination and hostility, and were forced to move throughout the more infertile and mountainous areas of southern China.

From the Qing Dynasty onwards (1644 – 1911), and particularly after the Taiping Rebellion and Hakka-Punti Wars that ravaged southern China in the mid-nineteenth century, many Hakka began a mass exodus abroad to escape conflict and poverty in their homeland. Today the Hakka are still concentrated in the southeastern China, but they can be found all over the world. It is estimated that around half of the entire Hakka population is living outside mainland China [3].

Hakka Leadership in China, Southeast Asia and Abroad

During the last two centuries, Hakka people have played a disproportionately large role in the political leadership of China, Southeast Asia and elsewhere around the world.

Despite only comprising of around 3.5% of China’s population [4], Hakka people have played a critical role in instigating political change and reform within the country during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Key political figures of Hakka ancestry include Hong Xiuquan, leader of the Taiping Rebellion, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Chinese Republic, and Deng Xiaoping, mastermind of China’s economic reform, just to name a few. In Taiwan, presidents Lee Teng-hui, Ma Ying-jeou, and Tsai Ing-wen all claim Hakka ancestry.  

In Southeast Asia, Hakka people also played a strong role in political leadership. In 1777, Hakka mining leader Luo Fangbo established the Lanfang Republic in modern-day western Borneo, which some scholars cite as one of world’s first early-modern republics [5]. In more recent history, Lee Kuan Yew and son Lee Hsien Long of Singapore are perhaps the most well-known leaders of Hakka ancestry. Other recent political leaders in Southeast Asia with partial Hakka ancestry include Ne Win of Myanmar, Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand, and Corazon Aquino of the Philippines [6] [7].

In South America, Hakka leaders have also played a disproportionately large role in local politics despite the much smaller diaspora in the continent. Guyana’s first president, Arthur Chung, was a Hakka and the first ethnic Chinese head-of-state of a non-Asian country [8]. In Suriname, Hendrick Chin A Sen, who claimed half Hakka ancestry, also briefly served as Prime Minister and President from 1980-82.

Decline of the Hakka Dialect  

Ironically, despite the immense political successes of the Hakka in China and around the world, the Hakka dialect and its closely-linked cultural identity has increasingly come under threat and decline through the twentieth century. As a ‘guest people’, the Hakka do not have territorial homeland or a ‘Hakka-land’ in China in a way that Cantonese speakers have Guangdong (Canton) or Hunanese have Hunan. Elsewhere around the world, there are also few regions where Hakka-speakers form a majority of the population. These factors have contributed to Hakka being gradually replaced by more far-reaching languages such as Mandarin and English, as well as by the dominant languages or dialects of specific regions such as Cantonese or local southeast Asian languages.

In mainland China, where more than half of Hakka speakers reside, the promotion of Mandarin over regional dialects as a national language has gradually diminished the teachings and usage of the Hakka dialect, particularly in the younger generation. Given that there is no Hakka ‘territory’, more dominant regional dialects such as Cantonese and Hokkien have also been replacing Hakka in areas in which the latter is a minority.

Taiwan and Singapore have also undergone similar phases of Mandarin promotion at the expense of Hakka and other regional dialects during the latter half of the twentieth century. Like in China, both these governments have actively discouraged Hakka and other regional dialects in schooling and media through stringent measures. Government statistics note that only in 2010 only 11.6% of Hakka children under 13 in Taiwan are able to speak the dialect. [9]

In Hong Kong, Hakka used to be the predominant language in many rural areas prior to the mid-twentieth century. However, the promotion of Cantonese by British authorities as well as the mass influx of Cantonese refugees and migrants in post-war Hong Kong greatly overwhelmed and diluted the use of Hakka in the territory. While Hakka was spoken by around 15% of Hong Kong’s population in 1911, in 2006 only a little over 1% of the population speak the dialect today. [10]

In other parts of Southeast Asia with significant Chinese minorities, Hakka has also been declining due to a number of factors. The presence of partially-Hakka leadership did not prevent the rise of anti-Chinese sentiments in many new Southeast Asian countries, which forced many Hakka to abandon or disguise their heritage and language. In times and places with less conflict, Hakka has also been gradually replaced by Mandarin, which has served as a lingua franca for overseas Chinese of different dialect groups.

In contrast to the successful Hakka political leadership, the Hakka dialect faced sharp decline within and outside the Sinophone world due to a combination of government policy, shifting demographics and historical factors.

Hakka Revival

As the future of Hakka looked increasingly bleak by the turn of the millennium, policymakers in the Sinophone world have paid much more attention to preserving the dialect. Taiwan (Republic of China), with a Hakka population of 11%, has led some of the most recent and impactful initiatives to preserve the Hakka dialect.

In 2001, the Taiwanese government established the Hakka Affairs Council as a cabinet-level organization to preserve Hakka language and culture. Other recent Taiwanese revival initiatives include the establishment of the Kaohsiung Hakka Museum in 1998, and the launch of Hakka TV, the world’s first and only Hakka-language television program, in 2003. The designation of Hakka as a national language last year was a huge step forward from these previous initiatives, and indeed affirms the government’s dedication to preserving the Hakka dialect.

Elsewhere, Hakka language and culture have also seen a revival through civil and policy initiatives. Singapore has eased its restrictions on dialect usage in media, while a large number of community centers and cultural organizations are beginning to provide dialect classes, including Hakka [11]. In China, 46 traditional Hakka housing structures in Fujian province called tulou (土楼), or ‘earthened buildings’, were listed by the UNESCO as World Heritage Sites in 2008. In 2017, Hong Kong hosted the World Hakka Conference and approved a restoration project to rebuild an abandoned Hakka village for tourism and cultural revival [12]. A number of national-level Hakka museums have also sprung up around the world, including the China Hakka Museum in 2008 and Indonesia Hakka Museum in 2014 [13].

Departing Thoughts

Taiwan has set an example for other governments around the world to protect their minority and indigenous languages. While its effects may take some time to see, the amended Hakka Basic Act reflects an unprecedented effort within the Sinophone world to preserve its minority dialects. For the Hakka, a ‘guest people’ without a homeland, preserving its language remains the most vital aspect of continuing the group’s culture, which has played such an indispensable role in shaping China and Southeast Asia in recent history.

Tiger Huang is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studies International Relations and Finance with a minor in Chinese. He is the Blogger for South Pacific Affairs and the Deputy Editor of the SIR Online Journal. He is currently learning to speak Hakka from his grandparents.



[1] Cheng, Hung-ta. “Hakka made an official language.” Taipei Times, 30 Dec. 2017, www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2017/12/30/2003684894.

[2] Guest People : Hakka Identity in China and Abroad, edited by Constable Nicole, and Nicole Constable, University of Washington Press, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, \

[3] Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (2012), Zhōngguó yǔyán dìtú jí (dì 2 bǎn): Hànyǔ fāngyán juǎn 中国语言地图集(第2版):汉语方言卷 [Language Atlas of China (2nd edition): Chinese dialect volume], Beijing: The Commercial Press.

[4] 395, Yen, Ching-Hwang. The Chinese in Southeast Asia and Beyond : Socioeconomic and Political Dimensions, World Scientific Publishing Co Pte Ltd, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://proxy.library.upenn.edu:2457/lib/upenn-ebooks/detail.action?docID=1193517.

[5] 4, Guest People : Hakka Identity in China and Abroad, edited by Constable Nicole, and Nicole Constable, University of Washington Press, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/upenn-ebooks/detail.action?docID=3444589.

[6] Gian, Patrick Liew Siow. “Learning from Hakka culture.” The Straits Times, 11 Feb. 2016, www.straitstimes.com/forum/letters-on-the-web/learning-from-hakka-culture.

[7] Mair, Victor. “Language Log.” Language Log » Hakka: "Guest families", languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=21627.

[8] “Obituary - Arthur Chung.” Stabroek News, 28 June 2008, www.stabroeknews.com/2008/features/06/29/obituary-arthur-chung/.

[9] Hakka Affairs Council. “Amazing Hakka.” www.hakka.gov.tw/Content/Content?NodeID=232&PageID=29726&LanguageType=ENG.

[10] http://linguisticminorities.hk/community/hakka/

[11] Johnson, Ian. “In Singapore, Chinese Dialects Revive After Decades of Restrictions.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 Aug. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/08/26/world/asia/singapore-language-hokkien-mandarin.html.

[12] Yeung, Raymond. “Hakka dwellings get new lease of life as holiday homes.” South China Morning Post, 12 Aug. 2017, www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/education-community/article/2106367/empty-houses-400-year-old-hakka-village-could-get.

 [13] Ren, Zhongxi. “Museum reveals the mysteries of Hakka culture.” China.Org.Cn, 17 Apr. 2009, www.china.org.cn/culture/2009-04/17/content_17625919.htm.

Image Source: http://www.ytlz.gov.cn/ytlz/lzyw/201510/t20151021_361771.htm