During the Chinese Middle Ages, a unique ethnic group emerged—the Hakka. Unlike other ethnic groups in China, they are not named after a geographical region; however, Hakka culture covers over half of China, especially in the south. Over a thousand years ago, the Hakka migrated from the Central Plain and the region south of the Yangtze River to Jiangxi, Fujian, and Guangdong provinces; since that time, this area has been referred to as the cradle of the Hakka. Later, like several leaves spreading from a single branch, they would migrate again, this time crossing the water to Taiwan in the east; and, in the west, moving into Guangxi and Sichuan provinces. Eventually, the Hakka would have a presence throughout the world.
Hakka studies is a comprehensive discipline that studies the history and formation of the Hakka people, and their language, culture, art, architecture, clothing, and ethnic awareness. Hakka studies involves many disciplines, including history, sociology, ethnology, anthropology, linguistics, folklore, architecture, aesthetics, social psychology, cultural studies, and overseas Chinese historiography.
Hakka culture is unique among all the cultures in China. Attention is usually directed towards its colorful mountain songs, the magnificent weilou (enclosed earthen buildings), the motherly devotion of Hakka women, and the educational wonders that occur in Hakka enclaves throughout the world.
Since antiquity, the Hakka have carried on a fine tradition of attaching importance to culture and education. Numerous outstanding figures have left a vast and intangible “historical asset” for the Hakka, China, and even the world. This cultural panache can be seen as early as the scholar-general Wen Tianxiang (1236–1282) and the poet Yang Wanli (1127–1206); it continued in modern times in figures such as the poet and calligrapher Song Xiang (1756–1826), the poet and diplomat Huang Zunxian (1848–1905), and the poet and educator Qiu Fengjia (1864–1912). All of them were exceptional. In contemporary history, the scholar and writer Guo Moruo (1892–1978), the first symbolist poet in China, Li Jinfa (1900–1976), and the writer Zhong Jingwen (1903–2002) have each enjoyed the highest reputation in their respective fields. From Huang Shen (1687–1772), one of the “Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou,” to the artist Lin Fengmian (1900–1991), they have been not only the pioneers and reformers of Chinese painting, but they have also lead the artistic trends of their times. Hakkas are renowned throughout history in almost every field.
Hakka opera and drama also have their distinctive features. Among the operatic styles, there are the Han-style operas performed in Guangdong and western Fujian, and the tea-picking opera, huazhao opera, and mountain-song opera of eastern Guangdong and southern Jiangxi.
In the mountainous villages where some Hakkas live, dragon folklore is still quite popular. There are a number of dragon-related activities such the festive fire dragon performance; other performances include the garland (or flower-hoop) dragon, the bamboo-pole dragon, the wooden bench dragon, the burning joss-stick dragon, and the straw dragon. All of these performances indicate that the Hakka view themselves as descendants of the dragon. The qilin (unicorn) dance in remote Hakka enclaves is clearly a rebuke of the lion dance which came to China from abroad. Dragon folklore emphasizes elements of both Chinese nationality and Han identity.
There is a saying that “The Hakkas build cities.” This could easily refer to Luo Fangbo (1738–1795), Zhang Li (b. 1833), and Ye Yalai (1837–1885), who resided in the Malay Peninsula and Indonesia, and were the first ones to develop Borneo, Penang, and Kuala Lumpur. The head of the Cantonese merchant guild was also a Hakka—Zhang Bishi (a.k.a. Cheong Fatt Tze, or Tjong Tjen Hsoen, 1841–1916); he was the founder of the Changyu Winemaking Company. In early days, most Hakka merchants were scholar-merchants; they were also known as the red-hat merchants (meaning that they were business people who also held official positions). Such practices were inseparable from their cultural heritage, and Zhang Bishi was no exception. He pioneered many of the “firsts” in modern China’s economic history. For example, he was the first to own three ocean-going shipping companies, the first to invest in the Guangzhou-Sanshui Railway, and in the Guangzhou-Wuhan Railway. He led Chinese national industry and commerce.
Hakka culture is once again heading toward prosperity and development, thanks to globalization. The variety of Hakka cultural products that are available, such as literature, film, television, drama, and art, also indicates that Hakka culture is enjoying unprecedented prosperity.