Hakka Clan Books by Cheong Yu Jia

Memorials are in many cultures and societies an expression of identity and a physical manifestation of the commemoration of shared history. Johnson tells us that the memory of a society is rooted in both “times past” and “places past” (294). A society, in recalling its history, recalls a geography as well, for it is in having a shared space that people can come together to perform commemorative rituals. Memorials are also used to give voice to minority narratives in local areas where such narratives are drowned out by official narratives – acting as an “intersection between official and vernacular cultures” (294). The Hakka[1] people of China, whose name literally means the “Guest Families”, is a migratory tribe. Persecution from the government, the Mongols, and from locals in each area has resulted in five broad waves of migration.[2] Due to their constant migrations, they have few common public memorials that are linked to physical space – and where they have such memorials, they are often unable to return to them. Yet, their cultural identity is notably strong – Kiang calls them a “powerful and relatively cohesive minority” (7). They did not integrate into local Chinese communities, maintaining their own dialect. Various qualities epitomize the Hakka – amongst which are independence, hard work, loyalty to family, an emphasis on education, and the self-reliance of women (94, 95, 98, 103). How then is their cultural identity and history passed on without the use of permanent public memorials?

The Chinese people often kept genealogy records in the form of clan books. For the Hakka people, these records were particularly extensive. Clan books were copied by a male member of the amily when he left home and started a new “branch” of the family in a new location. My own family (surname Zhang) clan book, which I will be examining in this paper, is handwritten by my grandfather in 1935, just before he left China for Southeast Asia.[3] Contained within the clan book are the names of my ancestors, along with short anecdotes of their lives and achievements. Through the 16 generations recorded (the first around 1130AD), a total of three major migrations were made – from Su Province to Chao Province, and then to Jie Yi Lin Tian. The records of each new location are prefaced by comments by one of the first few settlers in the new area. Comparison with other Hakka clan books (Han) shows similar, although not identical, categories of content.

I propose that clan books are for the Hakka a form of commemoration that reinforces the Hakka identity for each generation. The genealogy records provide links to past ancestors as well as present day contemporaries. The records of their migration root their collective history in the various past places of habitation, linking it to the time in history when they were there. Family anecdotes communicate values and preserve the minority narrative of the Hakka, as their history is often narrated in derogatory terms by locals of each area.[4] The process of producing the clan books involves present day descendants in the family history. This allows the reinterpretation of past events and functions as a communal ritual, linking each generation to the next.

It is worth before starting our discussion to note that physical monuments in the form of Hakka Clan Associations and ancestral halls do exist in Singapore. These have come, however, at the tail end of a long history of Hakka immigration, and are set up in a country made up of immigrants. Of the many societies available to help new immigrants in those days, only a few remain – such as the Ying Fo Fui Kun, whose aims today are “promoting and conserving our Hakka culture” (Leo). This is perhaps due to the fading identity of the Hakka people in Singapore, with the discouragement of the use of dialects in the early years of Singapore’s independence. Activities held here, such as the teaching of Hakka folk songs, are general to the Hakka community. Most of the older Hakka immigrants belonged to other clan associations that are no longer around today – therefore the Ying Fo Fui Kun has no personal connection to most Hakka families in Singapore, unlike the clan books which detail personal and direct family lineage.

Indeed, these personal genealogy records provide two layers of identification – first, to past ancestors, and secondly, to contemporaries who share the same ancestors. Zerubavel, a sociologist, argues that the continuous father-son chain linking us back to our ancestors of old allows us to identify with them, and that sharing the same blood as our ancestors makes these connections “somehow more real” (56-57). There is an awareness clearly expressed by the various authors of the clan book that one of its main purposes is to allow future descendants to know those who have lived in the past. Master Feng Shan, the first generation to settle in Chao Province, writes at age 87: “now that I am old, I wish to pass on my knowledge of our ancestors, so that future descendants may know about them.” Master Shao Ji also tells us that “A family’s clan book is akin to a country’s history books.” The clan books allow descendants to know who their ancestors were and so to identify with them as belonging to the same clan. Zerubavel further raises examples of various “kinship systems” (63) that are made up of those who claim to be descended from the same ancestor. Having shared ancestors provides the basis that holds a particular community together. Master Shao Ji, who writes the preface for the Jie Yi Lin Tian descendants, describes the genealogy records: “Just as the thousand branches and ten thousand leaves on a tree goes back to the same roots, the nine rivers and hundred creeks all pass through the Dragon Gates”, so those from the same family find their roots in the same history.[5] There is awareness here, then, of the fact that the family will split into many branches, but he points them all back to the same ancestors, citing this as a connection for future family members. Similarly, national monuments allow a country to remember past national heroes –in the process producing a space for citizens to meet contemporaries who share a similar history to themselves. The possession of clan books does not ensure a physical meeting of descendants – for the Hakkas, the connection to their contemporaries lies less in possessing the physical clan books than in possessing the knowledge of a common ancestor – knowledge derived from the clan book records. Clan books provide a tangible record of the links of an individual to past ancestors, and this then provides a connection to their contemporaries with whom they share the same surname and “blood” in their veins.

The genealogy records roots the Hakka history in concrete places, through specific time periods. Zerubavel tells us that our abstract memories tend to be rooted in “some tangible reality” (40). The examples of Israel and Mecca are raised – Jewish and Muslim descendants return to these respective holy lands on pilgrimages again and again, to the very same places where their ancestors once lived. The seeming permanence of these sites allows them to visualize themselves walking where their ancestors once walked. This is a powerful link between future descendants and past ancestors, an appeal to a common identity rooted in place (42). Although the Hakka do not have a “homeland” they yearn to return to, the genealogy records are by no means abstract, instead providing concrete details of geography in various passages. A record of the home in Su Province names the various mountains surrounding the homestead and the rivers that flow through the city. The places of burial of various ancestors are also detailed – graves seem to litter the various mountains in China through which the family has travelled. We see that although the Hakka do not desire to return to these past places, they are very much aware of the geography of their past. The very recognition that their ancestors lived in various different places further cements their identity as a migratory tribe. When a dynasty or a particular date is mentioned, a memory is evoked – not only of the people who lived in that time period, but also of the place in which they stayed. Enough details are provided for future descendants to imagine the places in which their ancestors lived and toiled. Although there is no physical location for the Hakka people to return to, their history is not abstract but rooted in very concrete places – which future descendants are able to imagine through the descriptions provided by past ancestors, although they do not know the places themselves.

As monuments at times commemorate heroes whose character and life values should be emulated, anecdotes contained within the clan books communicate collective values of the Hakka. Tan tells us that cultural identity is found not only in collective memory, that is, a shared past, but also in collective goals, that is, a belief in a shared future based on present reality. These goals, he argues, are influenced by and also aim to preserve broad collective values. Although there might be variations in the exact moral codes of different Hakka individuals, there are common threads. These values that are prized by the community as a whole can be found in various narratives of the struggles faced by specific individuals. A poem is found commemorating a Madam Wang Jie Zi, who with the untimely death of her husband when he was 28 years of age, just after the family had migrated to Jie Yi Lin Tian, was left widowed with a young son of four. She is described as a “diligent, virtuous woman”, who despite challenging circumstances managed to keep her son in good health. When a friend presents her with her two options – remarriage, or remaining as a young widow – she unflinchingly chooses “to remain a widow, even if it means [she has] to beg for food”. They are helped by a few benefactors and eventually, through much hard work, they manage to prosper in the new land. This unusually detailed record of a woman’s life and character in the typically male- centric clan book depicts Madam Wang’s loyalty to her deceased husband, and perhaps showcases the unusual independence Hakka women enjoy in the male-dominated Chinese culture. This and various other snippets portray the willingness of the Hakka people to suffer and work hard, and their filial piety and loyalty to their family. These various anecdotes of individuals’ struggles point out to future descendants the ancestors whose character should be emulated – serving much the same role as monuments, in preserving the values honoured by most of the Hakka people.

Where official narratives are overpowering, minority narratives tend to find expression in local means of commemoration such as roadside shrines to unsung heroes. These at times allow a society to preserve the idea of having the moral high ground despite the persecution of outsiders. Similarly, family anecdotes preserve minority narratives of the Hakka, making clear the difference between Hakka and non-Hakka, and also hinting at the righteousness of the Hakka tribe. Family history of oppression – recurring themes of poverty, robbery, ill treatment, untimely deaths, and graves marking where the family has travelled – portrays a clear “them” versus “us” – the local Cantons and the family. It is interesting that there are often short paragraphs describing the hardships faced by the extended family – those who were not the direct ancestors of the family – as if to note that the struggles are not unique to the direct family but prevalent in the extended Hakka community. One of the great grand uncles, Master Feng Chi, was cornered by both sea pirates and mountain bandits, but, as “Heaven has eyes”, he manages to escape. This record invokes the idea of justice delivered from Heaven, portraying the Hakka as being on the “right” side despite the persecution from outsiders. The difference between “them” and “us” contributes to building the identity of the Hakka being a noble people. In considering other similar migratory tribes, we see that this difference is crucial to preserving cultural identity. Stewart’s evaluation of the European Roma’s means of remembering the Holocaust shows that for the Gypsies, as a culture without public memorials, commemorative practices, or narratives of the past, identity is preserved by a constant awareness of non-Gypsies as “threats and danger” (575). The Jews pride themselves as being the chosen people of God, and are very aware of their difference from Gentiles, throughout their long history of persecution. Not only is there an awareness of “them” versus “us”, for both Gypsies and Jews, there is also an idea of the superiority of “us”. Similarly, on the first page of the clan book is found the generation poem of the Zhang family, which lists various famous people who have the surname Zhang – who possess character traits that are to be emulated.[6] The poem, shared by various Hakka Zhang families, mentions the likes of Zhang Fei and Zhang Jiu Ling. Although there are no records of the direct link between these famous individuals and the family, sharing the same surname entitles the family to claim a relation with them – whose fame and position in China’s history evidences the nobility of the family. Migration becomes the norm, as the family’s history is one of constant persecution. This preserves a mind-set of the clear difference between the superior “us” and “them” – both in terms of the righteousness of “our” character and the nobility of “our” blood – which then discourages future descendants from settling or integrating into the local community.

The production of clan books, just as the production of memorials, places future descendants in an active role of retelling the stories of the past – the writing of the clan books or making of memorials is as much a part of the process of remembering the past as reading the books or visiting the memorials are. Jones argues that objects, when used to help a culture remember, serve two purposes. Firstly, such objects store memory, causing those who look at the object to recall a particular incident in the past. Secondly, the production of such objects “shapes the form of remembrance”. The act of production, then, is a dynamic process (176). My grandfather describes the accuracy and depth of detail present in the clan book, writing that “it is just as though I hear their very voices and see their very persons.” Clan books are copied by male members in preparation of his splitting off to start a new life at a different location, most likely never to return, and in any case to be separated from family members for a substantial amount of time. A passage speaking of the difficulties a particular ancestor faced in starting a farming venture at a brand new location, must have been sobering to the individual preparing to leave home, as he copies the thoughts of these past ancestors who have made similar journeys and experienced such hardships. Merely reading the clan records would give descendants a surface understanding of the past, but the act of re-writing the words of past ancestors in similar circumstances allows future descendants to identify with the past on a deeper level, and no doubt shape their own depiction of the hardships that they face. Collective memories of hardship and migration are not only passed on but lived again, as new generations produce the clan books in circumstances similar to the old.

As monuments are reinterpreted through time by each succeeding generation, so are clan books written and rewritten. Jones tells us that under some circumstances, written texts preserved by a culture are not treated as “absolute and inviolate records of historical events”, but perform a stimulating role, allowing future members of the culture to come up with their own narratives of the past based on the text (164). It is clear that each generation selects the stories that are to be told of their own generation. Furthermore, allowing successive generations, as it were, to “edit” the past by adding commentaries and choosing which stories to copy, shows that family narratives in the form of clan books are expected to be editable – and not kept as sacred books to be copied word for word. Future generations are expected to comment on past history. Master Shao Ji, in particular, does much to organize the clan books in a clearer form. This is not to say that the writings of past ancestors are taken lightly. The reverence and respect for past ancestors is evident – Master Shao Ji says that he “does not dare to lightly change, on his own accord, the word of his ancestors.” Yet he wishes to commemorate the accomplishments of past ancestors somehow, and therefore – “I’ve chosen those who have contributed much to the nation and have great characters and written a poem to remember the past.” With such instances of creativity allowed, the writing of such clan books can be seen as a communal ritual shared across generations rather than the rote copying of sacred scripture or reproduction of authoritative history textbooks.

We have seen then the role of clan books, with the lack of physical space and monuments, in Hakka commemoration and the preservation of identity. Genealogy records act, as monuments, to provide connections to past ancestors. Through these connections, connections to other present day contemporaries are made. Places are important in cultural identity due to our ability to imagine past ancestors living in the same places that we see. Although past places of habitation are not seen by Hakka descendants, detailed records that link names to places and time allows descendants to imagine the physical locations that their ancestors inhabited. Anecdotes of past ancestors, as with memorials of past heroes, highlight the character traits that caused these individuals to be remembered, and so inculcates broad collective values to the next generation. Local monuments allow minority narratives to be preserved in cases where official or popular narratives are silent, and similarly, anecdotes highlight the differences between the Hakka and the non-Hakkas – in both the moral righteousness and noble bloodline of the Hakka. This drives Hakka migration and discourages integration with locals. The process of producing clan books evokes as much memory as the reading of them do, as the pioneers who write these books before branching out into new territory live out the same stories as their ancestors did. As with memorials, these histories are interpreted and reinterpreted with time, and are not meant to be taken as authoritative texts, instead being recognized as narratives meant to be edited and commented upon.

In our largely globalized world where people are constantly migrating, the culture of the migratory Hakka might be examined in a new light. How does one maintain a rootedness in one’s cultural history without physically inhabiting the same spaces that one’s ancestors did? What are some new means of commemoration that are beginning to spring up when physical spaces are no longer seen as permanent and unchanging? Is there still value in constructing public physical memorials? In the light of these developments, the Hakka tradition of passing on both their stories of the past as well as their cultural identity may be worth further examination.

Works Cited

Han, Ying. My Mother’s Over 100 Years Old Genealogy ZhuPu (18 Generations). 22 January, 2013. 15 November, 2013. <http://myhakkaroots.blogspot.sg/2013/01/my-mothers-over-100-years- old-genealogy.html>.

Johnson, Nuala C. “Mapping Monuments: the Shaping of Public Space and Cultural Identities.” Visual Communication 1.3 (2002): 293-298.

Jones, Andrew. Memory and Material Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Kiang, Clyde. The Hakka Odyssey and their Taiwan Homeland. Elgin, PA: Allegheny Press, 1992.

Leo, Sim Nah. President’s Message. 2013. 15 November, 2013. <http://www.yingfofuikun.org.sg/AboutUs/PresidentsMessage/tabid/199/language/en- US/Default.aspx>.

Stewart, Michael. “Remembering Without Commemoration: The Mnemonics and Politics of Holocaust Memories among European Roma.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 1.3 (2004): 561-582.

Tan, Yuan Heng, 谭元亨. 客家新探 (New Explorations in the Hakka Culture). 广州 (Canton): 华南理 工大学出版社 (South China University of Technology Publisher), 2006.

Zerubavel, Eviatar. Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.



[2] 249-209BC, 307-419BC, 907-1280AD, 1281-1644AD, Post 18th century (Kiang 42, 57, 60, 63, 66)

[3] The book is written in Chinese script, but meant to be read in the Hakka dialect. The translation here is my own. Many thanks go to my father, whose understanding of Chinese history and the dialect far surpasses mine, and whose help I have enlisted in these translations.

[4] In fact, “Hakka” was a derogatory name given by locals to the “strangers” in the thirteenth century (Kiang 61).

[5] A waterfall along the Yellow River in Hunan – a Chinese folk story claims that any fish which can jump up the waterfall turns into a dragon.

[6] The generation poem is often found in various Asian cultures. Names are made up of three characters, the first being the family name, the second a generation name, and the third a given name. The successive generation name of each generation is drawn from successive characters in the poem.

Process Notes

My family clan books, handwritten by a grandfather I never knew, were always a rather mystical object to me, although I had never read them for myself. About the time I was preparing for my paper 3, my dad and aunt began digitalizing the clan books, adding their own notes where my grandfather’s writing was difficult to read and supplementary information about people and places mentioned. I began toying with the idea of making it the subject of my paper, although not writing about a traditional monument in a module referred to commonly as “monuments” was slightly daunting. But my personal interest in my family’s past pushed me to put work into establishing an argument. I went to the library and picked out some books I felt could be useful: books about the Hakka people, other wandering people groups and their forms of commemoration, as well as papers about non-physical forms of memorials and the common traits they had. From these I came up with a few possible threads that linked my family clan books to commemoration, which I felt I could develop.

Revisions I made post-comments (from both my peers and Prof. Conroe) for my first draft were to shape my ideas more clearly: to link my motive and thesis and focus the many threads I found into clear arguments. One thing I felt was particularly difficult was that I found so many ideas I could potentially chase down: similarities with other people groups, other forms of commemoration the Hakka used, specific physical Hakka memorials present in Singapore; that it was difficult to choose the main arguments I wanted to delve into, while making sure they were still linked to the content we had covered in the module. A misgiving I had both then and now was the lack of other clan books to support my claims: I managed to find descriptions of one other family clan book online, and included that in my paper, but I believe that a more convincing case might have been presented if I had managed to procure more such clan books.

Upon re-reading my paper, I feel that there were assumptions that I made regarding the experience of individuals reading the clan books that were purely guess-work, and may thus have been projections of my own based on what I was looking for: a form of commemoration. I also wonder if other Chinese groups may have used the clan books in a similar way as the Hakka did: if I had been applying my arguments specifically to the Hakka people group and their historical and societal situations simply because I had a convenient label I could use to analyse my family clan books.

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