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ETHNONYMS: Haknyin, K'e-chia, Kejia, Keren, Lairen, Ngai, Xinren


Identification. "Hakka" is the Yue (Cantonese) pronunciation of the term that translates literally as "guests" or "stranger families" or, less literally, as "settlers" or "newcomers." The name "Hakka" (in Mandarin, "Kejia") is likely to have originated from the descriptive term used before the seventeenth century in population registers to distinguish recent immigrants from earlier Yue inhabitants. During the nineteenth century, in certain contexts, the term "Hakka" carried negative implications, but by the early twentieth century, following a period of ethnic mobilization, "Hakka" became more widely accepted as an ethnic label.

Location. Hakka are widely scattered throughout the southeastern provinces of the People's Republic of China (PRC), but most are concentrated in northeastern Guangdong, east of the North River, in the mountainous, less fertile region of Meizhou Prefecture. Meizhou, which includes the seven predominantly Hakka counties that surround Meixian (located at approximately 24° N and 116° E), is considered the Hakka "heartland" and is claimed by many Hakka as their native place. Sizable Hakka populations are also found in southwestern Fujian, southern Jiangxi, eastern Guangxi, Hainan Island, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and, in lesser numbers, in regions of Sichuan and Hunan. By the twentieth century Hakka could be found on virtually every continent, from South and Southeast Asia and the Pacific to Europe, North and South America, Africa, and the Caribbean.

Demography. Estimated at over 38 million in the People's Republic of China in 1990, the Hakka population accounts for approximately 3.7 percent of the total Chinese population. In 1992, the International Hakka Association placed the total Hakka population worldwide at approximately 75 million.

Linguistic Affiliation. Today many Hakka throughout the world no longer speak Hakka, but traditionally the Hakka language was the single most important cultural feature that served to distinguish Hakka from other Chinese. The version of Hakka dialect spoken in Meixian is considered the standard form and can be transcribed into standard Chinese characters as well as other Chinese vernaculars. While many Hakka claim that the Hakka language is more like Mandarin than Cantonese is, linguists classify Hakka as Southern Chinese along with Yue and Min (Hokkien) languages, signifying that these dialects developed from a variety of Chinese spoken in southern China between the first and third centuries a.d. Hakka, once classified by linguists as part of the Gan-Kejia Subgroup, is now considered a separate category.

History and Cultural Relations

The Hakka have had a long history of conflict and competition with other Chinese groups over scarce land and resources. In Fujian and Taiwan they suffered from hostile relations with Min, and in Guangdong they fought with Yue speakers. Hakka-Yue conflicts were particularly violent throughout the middle of the nineteenth century, in the aftermath of the Taiping Rebellion, and during the Hakka-Bendi Wars (1854-1867). At that time, negative stereotypes and descriptions of the Hakka began to appear in both Chinese and foreign texts. The worst insult, which was recounted by Yue to foreign missionaries, was the implication that the Hakka, with their strange language and unfamiliar dress and customs, were not in fact Chinese but were more closely related to other "barbarian" or "tribal" people. Such accusations infuriated the Hakka, who proudly sought to defend their identity and set the record straight. Since then, studies of Hakka history, based largely on genealogical evidence and other historical records, as well as linguistic evidence, support and substantiate Hakka claims to northern Chinese origins. In the People's Republic of China the Hakka are officially included in the category of Han Chinese.

Today most Hakka and non-Hakka scholars agree that the ancestors of those who later became known as "Hakka" were Chinese who came from southern Shanxi, Henan, and Anhui in north-central China. From the "cradle of Chinese civilization," these proto-Hakka gradually moved southward in five successive waves of migration. Historians do not agree, however, on the exact time and sequence of the earliest migrations. Most historians place the first migration during the fourth century at the fall of the Western Jin dynasty, when Hakka ancestors reached as far south as Hubei, south Henan, and central Jiangxi. The next period is less debated. By the late ninth and early tenth centuries, with the disorder created during the late Tang dynasty, the ancestors of the present-day Hakka moved farther south into Jiangxi, Fujian, and Guangdong. The third wave, which stretched from the beginning of the twelfth century to the middle of the seventeenth, was caused by the exodus of the Southern Song dynasty and their supporters in a southward flight from the Mongol invasion. This dislodged people from Jiangxi and southwestern Fujian and forced them further into the northern and eastern quarters of Guangdong. By the end of the Yuan dynasty (a.d. 1368), northern and eastern Guangdong were exclusively Hakka. The fourth wave, which lasted from the mid-seventeenth century to the mid-nineteenth century, began with the Manchu conquest, and during the Qing dynasty, migration expanded into the central and coastal areas of Guangdong, Sichuan, Guangxi, Hunan, Taiwan, and southern Guizhou. By the time of the fifth wave, beginning at the middle of the nineteenth century, conflicts between the Hakka and the Yue increased. Triggered by population pressure, the Hakka-Bendi (Yue) Wars, and the large Hakka involvement in the Taiping Rebellion, the fifth wave of migration sent Hakka emigrants to seek better lives farther afieldto the southern part of Guangdong, to Hainan Island, and overseas to Southeast Asia (especially Malaya and Borneo). The establishment of the People's Republic of China and China's announcement of the intent to reclaim Hong Kong in 1997 have created what might be called the sixth wave of migration, which has continued the flow of Hakka overseas, especially to the United States, Australia, and Canada.


As later arrivals in most of the Chinese areas where they settled, the Hakka were generally forced into the higher elevations to the hilly, less productive, and less desirable land. Such was the case in Guangdong, Guangxi, and the New Territories of Hong Kong, where the Yue had already settled the more fertile river valleys, and also in Taiwan where the Min speakers owned the better land. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in regions of Guangdong, Hakka residence patterns differed from those of the Yue. As opposed to the Yue, who were more likely to live in more densely populated towns or in large, single-surname villages surrounded by fields, smaller numbers of Hakka were sparsely dispersed among the hills on land that they often rented from Yue landlords. In other regions Hakka and Yue occupied separate villages in the same areas; Hakka villages were more likely to be multisurnamed. As a result of their often hostile relations with other groups, Hakka architectural style often differed from that of their Chinese and non-Chinese neighbors. In southwestern Fujian and in northern Guangdong, Hakka built circular or rectangular, multistoried, fortresslike dwellings, designed for defensive purposes. These Hakka "roundhouses" were built three or four stories high, with walls nearly a meter thick, made of adobe or tamped earth fortified with lime. The structures vary in size; the largest, resembling a walled village, measures over 50 meters in diameter. Although the Hakka maintain the reputation of living in poor, marginal, rural areas, Hakka today also reside in urban, cosmopolitan regions.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Hakka have long enjoyed a reputation as extremely skilled and hardworking agriculturalists who can render the least desirable land productive. In the course of their history, the Hakka often farmed wasteland rejected by others or worked as tenants. Where the land permitted, they grew rice and vegetables. In poorer areas sweet potatoes were their staple. Much of the agricultural labor was performed by women, who, unlike other Chinese, did not have their feet bound. Female agricultural labor, marketing, and cutting of wood from the hillsides for fuel were especially necessary tasks in villages where Hakka men sought work overseas. As early as the Southern Song dynasty, Hakka men sought their fortunes by joining the military. The Taiping army, the Nationalist forces of Sun Yatsen, and the Communist army during the Long March were all comprised of large numbers of Hakka soldiers. Overseas, Hakka worked as railway builders, plantation hands, and miners. Today, Hakka are still known for their reputation for hard physical labor, and the women who are commonly seen working at construction sites in Hong Kong are often Hakka.

Industrial Arts. During the nineteenth century, Hakka peasants often had to supplement their agricultural work with other occupations. They were also silver miners, charcoal makers, itinerant weavers, dockworkers, barbers, blacksmiths, and stonecutters.

Trade. The Hakka are best known for their agricultural, martial, and scholarly skills and for their achievement in political, academic, and professional occupations, but they are not known for their involvement in commercial enterprises. However, a number of successful entrepreneurs are Hakka or are of Hakka ancestry. For example, T. V. Soong, founder of the Bank of China, and Aw Boon Aw, who made his fortune selling Tiger Balm, were both Hakka. In Calcutta today, the Hakka minority are successful entrepreneurs in the leather and tanning industry.

Division of Labor. The Hakka do not follow the traditional Chinese strict sexual division of labor. Women have long had a reputation for participating in hard physical laborin fact, they perform many traditionally male occupations such as farming and construction. Because of the Hakka women's reputation for diligence and industriousness, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries poor non-Hakka valued Hakka women as wives.

Land Tenure. As latecomers in many of the regions where they settled, the Hakka were often tenants of the Yue or Min or owned only top-soil rights to land while the Yue or Min owned bottom-soil rights. Before the Communist Revolution, Hakka were more likely to be tenants than landlords and therefore many poor and landless Hakka peasants benefited from land reform in the early 1950s.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Hakka trace descent patrilineally, and extended patrilineal kin groups combine to create lineages. The lineage commonly consists of a group of males who trace descent from one common ancestor, who live together in one settlement, and who own some common property. At least nominally, the lineage, including the wives and daughters, is under the authority of the eldest male in age and generation. Whenever possible, Hakka lineages traditionally set up ancestral halls. These buildings are usually not as ornate as those of the Cantonese, and their ancestral tablets only make reference to the name of the founding ancestor. Hakka rules for inclusion of forebears in ancestor worship are broader and more egalitarian than those of the Cantonese, and they often include men and women, rich and poor.

Kinship Terminology. Hakka kinship terms follow the general Han Chinese pattern, which may be referred to as "bifurcate collateral" or as "both classificatory and descriptive" (Feng 1948, 129). They typically have a very large number of kinship terms for the paternal side and less differentiation on the maternal side. Many kinship terms distinguish affinal and consanguineal kin and indicate age in relation to Ego or Ego's parents. They also commonly use such kinship terms as "father's younger brother" or "elder sister" to refer to fictive kin. Hakka kinship terms reflect the assimilation of a woman into her husband's family. Unlike Yue women in parts of Guangdong, who have separate terms of address for their husbands' parents, Hakka women use the same terms as their husbands to address his parents and other relatives.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Like other Chinese, Hakka practice surname exogamy. Marriage traditionally was arranged, often village exogamous, and also patrilocal. Hakka marriage ceremonies suggest the transfer of women from one family to another and the incorporation of women into their husband's household and lineage rather than the establishment of bonds between two families. Wives are included in ancestral worship of their husband's lineage. Many Hakka claim that polygynous marriages were rare among the Hakka, yet until recently polygynous marriages were found among poor Hakka villagers in the New Territories of Hong Kong.

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit was ideally an extended patrilineal kin group comprised of several generations. Traditionally this group would have included a husband and wife, their unmarried daughters, and their married sons with their wives and children.

Inheritance. A man's estate was traditionally divided equally among his sons. Daughters might inherit some movable property at marriage, but did not share significantly in the parents' estate.

Socialization. As reflected in Hakka songs and sayings, Hakka girls are taught that they should learn "the appropriate skills expected of the wife of an important official, as well as know how to cook, clean, and work hard." The Hakka also instruct their children in the value of education and bodily cleanliness. There is little evidence that Hakka patterns of child rearing and socialization are significantly different from those of other Chinese. Respect for parents, elders, and obligations to the family is a commonly held value.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Like other Chinese, the Hakka have organized communities along kinship lines and ties to a common native place. Alliances based on shared dialect or ethnic identity are also important. Other groups sometimes view the Hakka as being exclusive or "clannish," but they view themselves as being unified and cooperative. Two international Hakka organizations, the Tsung Tsin (Congzheng) Association and the United Hakka Association (Kexi Datonghui), were organized by Hakka intellectuals and elite in the early 1920s in order to promote Hakka ethnic solidarity and foster a public understanding of Hakka culture. In 1921, over 1,000 delegates representing Hakka associations worldwide attended a conference in Canton to protest the Shanghai publication of The Geography of the World, which described the Hakka as non-Chinese. Today these international Hakka voluntary organizations have branches reaching from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore to the United States, Canada, and beyond.

Political Organization. Although Hakka political organization is not easily distinguished from that of the larger society in which they are situated, the Hakka have long played an important role in Chinese politics, despite their economic disadvantages. During the Qing dynasty, the Hakka fared well in the imperial examinations and ascended into the imperial bureaucracy. Today they are disproportionately well represented in the government of the People's Republic of China (PRC). While they comprise close to 4 percent of the population of the PRC, they represent a far greater proportion of government leaders. Among the most well-known Hakka political figures are Deng Xiaoping; Zhu De, the military commander during the Long March; Marshal Ye Jiangying, leader of the Peoples Liberation Army; and former Communist Party Secretary Hu Yaobang. Outside of the PRC, Hakka leaders include Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui; Singapore's President Lee Kwan Yew; Burma's Prime Minister Ne Win; and the governor-general of Trinidad and Tobago, Sir Solomon Hochoy. Some sources also assert that Dr. Sun Yatsen was Hakka.

Social Control. Like other Chinese, Hakka have been subject to the larger forces of the Chinese government bureaucracy and state control; on the local level, senior males had the most formal authority before 1949. Social pressure, strict traditional rules of obedience, and filial piety also help to minimize conflict.

Conflict. Today, as in the past, village leaders in rural communities often resolve conflicts on the local level. During the nineteenth century, conflicts often grew into longterm violent feuds. Longer-lasting feuds between Hakka villages, between Hakka lineages, or between the Hakka and the Yue were often over land or property, theft, marriage agreements, or other personal conflicts. The theft of a water buffalo and a broken marriage agreement between a Yue man and a Hakka woman were contributing events that helped escalate Hakka-Yue conflicts into large-scale armed conflicts during the 1850s. Conflicts between Hakka Christian converts and non-Christian Chinese were also common during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Hakka do not have their own distinct religion, but like most other Chinese, traditionally practiced a blend of Daoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and "folk" religion, subject to regional variation. The Hakka traditionally believed that ancestral spirits could influence the lives of the living and thus required special care, offerings, and worship. They erected homes, located graves, and built ancestral halls according to the principles of feng shui (geomancy). In many communities, Hakka beliefs and practices closely resemble those of the Yue; however, in other cases, anthropologists have also observed important differences. For example, during the nineteenth century the Hakka did not worship as many of the higher-level state-sanctioned gods or Buddhist deities, placed more weight on Daoist beliefs and ancestor worship, and were more likely to practice spirit possession than other Chinese in Guangdong. Some missionaries characterize the Hakka as having more "monotheistic tendencies" than other Chinese; these tendencies may have contributed to the fact that relatively larger numbers of the Hakka converted to Christianity during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than did other Han Chinese. In some parts of Hong Kong, the Hakka have fewer shrines and ancestral altars in their homes than the Cantonese.

Religious Practitioners. The same religious practitionersBuddhist and Daoist priests, spirit mediums, feng shui experts, and various types of fortune-tellerswere observed among the Hakka during the nineteenth century as among the Yue. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Hakka Christian missionaries became particularly active in parts of Guangdong and Hong Kong.

Ceremonies. The Hakka have traditionally observed the most common Chinese life-cycle rituals and calendrical festivals, including the Lunar New Year, the Lantern Festival, Qing Ming, the Mid-Autumn Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival, Chong Yang, and Winter Solstice. The Hakka generally do not celebrate Yu Lan, the festival to appease "hungry ghosts," which is popular among other Chinese.

Arts. The Hakka are known for their folk songs, especially the genre of mountain songs that were once commonly sung by women, sometimes in a flirtatious dialogue with men, as they worked in the fields or collected fuel along the hillsides. These songs are often love songs, but they also touch on topics such as hard work, poverty, and personal hardships. Although their clothes were traditionally plain, most Hakka women used to weave intricately patterned bands or ribbons, which they commonly wore to secure black rectangular headcloths or the flat, circular, fringed Hakka hats. These are still worn by some older Hakka women in Hong Kong and some regions of Guangdong.

Medicine. The Hakka traditionally depended on spirit healers, Chinese doctors, and traditional herbal remedies.

Death and Afterlife. Christian- or Buddhist-derived ideas of hell exist among the Hakka, as do ideas concerning the influence of the spirits of the dead and their occasional return to earth. One nineteenth-century Protestant missionary observed that the Hakka were not very familiar with the Buddhist karmic concept of one's life influencing rebirth or the Buddhist idea of hell with its tortures and purgatory. Instead, he asserted that the Hakka ascribed to the Daoist idea that "the righteous ascend to the stars and the wicked are destroyed" (Eitel 1867, 162-163).


Char Tin Yuk (1929). The Hakka ChineseTheir Origin and Folk Songs, Reprint. 1969. San Francisco: Jade Mountain Press.

Cohen, Myron L. (1968). "The Hakka or 'Guest People': Dialect as a Sociocultural Variable in Southeastern China." Ethnohistory 15(3):237-252. [Also in Constable, forthcoming.]

Constable, Nicole, ed. (forthcoming, 1994). Guest People: Studies of Hakka Chinese Identity. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Eitel, E. J. (1867). "Ethnographical Sketches of the Hakka." Notes and Queries on China and Japan 1(12) : 161-163.

Feng, H. C. (1948). The Chinese Kinship System. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Leong, S. T. (1985). "The Hakka Chinese of Lingnan: Ethnicity and Social Change in Modern Times." In Ideal and Reality: Social and Political Change in Modern China, 1860-1949, edited by David Pong and Edmund S. K. Fung, 287-327. New York: University Press of America.

Moser, Leo J. (1985). "The Controversial Hakka: 'Guests' from the North." In The Chinese Mosaic: The Peoples and Provinces of China, by Leo J. Moser, 235-255. Boulder, Colo., and London: Westview Press.


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