Any Teochew of age twoscore and above will remember a time when our fathers or grandfathers called themselves Dengnang 唐人 (“Tang people”), and spoke fondly of coming from Dengsua唐山 (the “Tang Mountains”), as China was known before the current term Tiongkok 中國became standard. This use of these references to the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD) is not limited to the Teochew people and is shared by overseas Chinese of origin from the provinces of Guangdong and Fujian (including the Cantonese, Hokkien, Hainanese and Hakka). The Chinese language is uniformly identified as Dengnang-ue 唐人話 (“Tang people language”), its written charactersDengnang-ji 唐人字 (“Tang people words”), and the Chinatowns in the West are “Tang people street” (唐人街). This phenomenon is undoubtedly linked to the glory of the Tang civilization, as even the Japanese till the 17th century saw China as “Tang territory” (唐土) and its inhabitants also as Tang people.
The old Teochews had a particularly penchant to speak of “land” as “mountain” (or “hill”, as the Teochew term sua does not differentiate the two). When a group of Teochews crossed over from Singapore to open new gambier and pepper plantations on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula in the 1840s, the new town they helped to found, Johor Bahru, was termed as Singsua 新山, the “New Mountain”, though the surrounding terrain is flat. This is dumbfounding as Teochews are seafarers by traditional, and a survey of the geography of the Teochew homeland and the rest of the southern Chinese coast quickly reveals that the concentration of human activity on river estuaries and along the shore. Even though more than two-thirds of Guangdong and Fujian are occupied by the Nanling and Wuyi mountain ranges respectively, these interior highlands are sparsely populated. They are overwhelmingly tall – the highest point in Teochew is the 1497-metres Honghuang-sua 鳳凰山 (Phoenix Mountain) summit, but have barren soil. So why did our forefathers associate in their vocabulary “land” with “mountains”, and where exactly is Dengsua?
A Google map check reveals a city in China called Tangshan (唐山), but its location in the Northeast is closer to Mongolia and North Korea than the South China Sea. The unlikelihood that it was the Dengsua our ancestors had in mind is certain from its past as a nondescript village until it was given its name by a Tang era emperor mourning the death of a beloved concubine in a nearby mountain. Moreover, it seems that the term Dengsua is familiar with Chinese from Guangdong and Fujian, and so the answer must lie closer to home.
Until the Meiling pass was cut through mountains in northern Guangdong in 716, China’s coastal region in the south was practically inaccessible from its political centre in the Central Plain except by sea. The Teochew area was extremely remote and could only be reached by land from Fujian’s Tingzhou and Hakka territory in Meizhou via the Hangkang’s 韓江 (Han River) upstream tributaries, or from other parts of Guangdong through a pass within the Noihue-sua 蓮花山 (Lotus Flower Mountain) range in Pholeng (Puning) county. These journeys lasting weeks were arduous and dangerous. As such, a posting to the Teochew prefecture was abhorred by Tang period imperial officials. The horror of such a fate was highlighted when Han Yu was given the death sentence for criticising a Tang emperor’s Buddhist beliefs, but banished instead to Teochew after his colleagues pleaded for his life.
The angst suffered by the elderly Confucian scholar was tersely expressed in a poem he wrote on his way to Teochew, in which he urged in the final line his nephew to be prepared to collect his bones “from the side of the miasmic river” (full poem shown below). Even worse than disgrace and isolation, Han Yu’s mind was weighed down by the infamous reputation of the prefecture’s chief waterway, which before being named after himself, was known as the “Crocodile River” (鳄江). The fear factor was linked not just to the frequency of attacks on humans by the reptilian beasts, but also deadly diseases like malaria that arose from swamp conditions of the environment.
Palynological studies (the scientific study of spores and pollen, both living and fossilized) reveal that the Hangkang river delta was completely submerged from circa 4000 to 2500 BCE when sea levels over 2.5 metres higher than present. The shoreline, about 30 kilometres further in from today’s limits, gradually retreated after 2000 BCE to leave behind lagoons, semi-enclosed estuaries and marshes. Supporting geomorphological data (geomorphology: the scientific study of the origin and evolution of topographic and bathymetric features created by physical or chemical processes at or near Earth's surface) show that 23.62% of the delta area was formed between 50 BCE and 550, and another 29.72% more recently between 950 and 1250.
(The Neolithic of Southeast China: Cultural Transformation and Regional by Jiao Tianlong andCharacteristics of the Han River Delta in Geomorphological Development by Zong Yongqiang are recommended readings by those interested in learning more on this topic.)
What these basically tell us is that most of the lowlands occupied by the cities, towns and villages in Teochew were until less than a thousand years ago covered under water and mud. This is confirmed by historical evidences that related to the Teochew prefectural city (Chaozhou), now a distance of 30 kilometres from the shore, as a thriving seaport from the time of its founding in circa 413 to the Sui dynasty (581 to 618). By plotting on a map (see below) showing the Hangkang delta in its various stages of advancement, the local spots of human settlements known to exist before or during the Song dynasty, two interesting trends can be noticed. Firstly almost all those locations dated before or during Tang are lined on the edge of pre-existing dry land; and secondly those that sprung up thereafter in Song sit close to the present course of Hangkang, and the other two major rivers Iongkang 榕江 and Liengkang 練江.
One of many noble acts attributed to Han Yu during his eight-month stint as governor was the eradication of the crocodile malice, supposedly through a ritual offering of a pig and a goat to the giant reptiles and an impassioned order for them to remove themselves to the sea in seven days. This is of course fantasy, but the crocodiles did completely disappear after the destruction of their habitats by extensive engineering works carried out initially to mitigate flood incursions and later to reclaim the wetlands for rice cultivation. The first dikes were apparently built on Liengkang and this facilitated the relocation of the seat of Teo-yor county to the appropriately-named Singheng 新興 (“New Prosperity”) town in 793. Against the background of an agricultural revolution in Song to increase food production, at least 18 major dike construction and repair projects supervised by prefectural officials were undertaken in Teochew from the 10th to 13th centuries (see: Study of Chaozhou Jincheng Rice by Huang, Gui)
These developments on the Han River delta were not unique. From the writings of various mid-imperial China sources, it is known that the other major river basins in Guangdong and Fujian were similarly plagued by the maladies of man-eating reptiles and epidemics arising from the natural environment during Tang, but they disappeared with extensive reclamation of swamps and coastal flats for agriculture in Song. As is Teochew, the two other pre-Tang port cities in the coastal south, Guangzhou and Fuzhou, are now situated fairly upriver, away from the sea.
Centuries ago when Teochew got its name the “Tidal Prefecture” (潮州), little space separated the tides of the South China Sea and the foot of the high grounds where our ancient forefathers had their dwellings. At an age when the Chinese civilisation and culture in Teochew were at their pinnacle, they learned to master the natural environment and gained great strength as a people. Though this prosperity was followed by many ebbs and flows of fortunes, one thing the passage of time did not take way: the home of our people is found in Tang mountains.