The Teochew Store Blog / geography

10 Things You Must Know As A Teochew

#1. The homeland of the Teochew people sits on the Southeast coast of China, near-equidistant between Hong Kong and Taiwan, although through large-scale emigration from the early 19th to mid-20th century close to half of all Teochews now live in more than 40 countries and territories overseas. If Teochew is a country, it would through its land area of about 10,000 sq km be the 169th largest in the world (after Lebanon), and through its population of approximately 25 million (inclusive of all Teochews worldwide) the 50th biggest (ahead of Australia).


#2. Historically Teochew existed as a prefecture in imperial China that was created in 413 CE.  Originally called Ngee Ann ("Righteous Peace") Commandery 義安郡, it was first given the nameTeochew 潮州 (literally the "Tidal Prefecture") in 592 CE. Teochew prefecture became defunct after China became a republic. Its centre of administration was shifted in the latter half of the 20th century from the Teochew prefectural city (listed by its Mandarin name “Chaozhou” on maps) to its port of Swatow 汕頭 (Shantou), causing Teochew to now be referred in mainland China as "Teo-swa" (潮汕).


#3. The traditional Teochew society’s basic social unit is the extended family defined by paternal lineage, and not the nuclear family or individual. The head of a household is the grandfather, and accordingly, first cousins are considered siblings and addressed as brothers and sisters. Care and protection of members, as well as the perpetuation of lineage, are held firmly as its core purposes. In order to fulfil these, husband and wife in many families in Teochew adhere strictly even in the present era complementary gender roles, whereby the responsibility of the man is all external engagements, while the woman has complete charge of domestic affairs.


 #4. Besides the family clan, the Teochew personal identity is rooted in one’s place of ancestry. This refers to the village, and also the county, where the family clan resides. Teochew prefecture had eight counties during the late Qing period. Accordingly, overseas Teochew organisations usually name themselves as the "association of eight counties" (poih ip 八邑), which are namely Hai-yor 海陽 (renamed Teo-an 潮安 in 1914), Gek-yor 揭陽, Teo-yor 潮陽, Jaopeng 饒平, Pholeng 普寧, Huilai 惠来, Thenghai 澄海 and Hongsun 豐順.  


#5. The Teochew region has been inhabited by humans since about 8,000 years ago, a period that dates far longer than China’s supposed 5,000 years of history. This is shown by archaeological artefacts comprising stone tools and a pottery shard discovered on the offshore island of Namoa 南澳. A coherent collection of evidence belonging to a series of archaeological cultures dubbed the "Teochew Prehistoric Trilogy”, including the largest prehistoric kiln site ever found in China, reveals the occurrence of indigenous progression from the Neolithic Stone Age to Early Bronze Age between 4,000 and 3,000 years ago.


#6. All the cities, towns and large villages in Teochew are located by the coast, or along the region’s four major rivers, namely Hang-kang 韓江, Iong-kang 榕江, Liēng-kang 練江 and Ng-kang-ho 黃岡河, or their tributaries. This is because more than two-thirds of Teochew’s terrain are occupied by undulating mountains and hills and until the previous century water was the main mode of local transport. Communications between Teochew and other parts of China and foreign lands were also conducted primarily by sea. 


#7. The Teochew saying “whatever language you speak depends on which river water you drink” aptly depicts the classification of spoken Teochew into several dialect clusters corresponding to the region’s different river catchment areas. However, the Teochew vernacular is in essence a single language that is closely related to the native speech of adjacent southern Fujian, known commonly as Hokkien or Taiwanese, or formally as Minnan. The Teochew-Hokkien family of vernaculars is exclusive and not mutually intelligible with other forms of spoken Chinese. It is also observed by linguists to possess ancient elements that pre-date the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). Apart from the vernacular form spoken in daily life, the Teochew language has a classical literary form traced to the 7th to 13th century Tang and Song dynasty era. This can be heard in Teochew opera performances. About half of all Chinese written characters can be read differently in Teochew in two or more ways (colloquial and literary). This phenomenon is called dual reading.


#8. The golden age of Teochew was in the Song dynasty when it was one of the wealthiest areas in China. An agricultural revolution drove a rapid population expansion, while the export of fine porcelain on the Maritime Silk Road transformed its prefectural city into a leading centre of commerce. Even in the early part of this prosperous period, Teochew was lavished with comparison as the home of Confucius and Mencius by the sea (海濱鄒魯), and many aspects of Teochew fine culture, including architecture, wood carving, porcelain craft, embroidery and music, were inspired.


#9. Nothing delights a group of Teochews more than sitting around a table to share a few dishes of Teochew cooking. Seafood and green vegetables are always served, while an emphasis on freshness and authentic taste of ingredients, the perfect balance of sweetness and saltiness, as well as colour and presentation provide the secrets to achieving the Teochew taste. The touch of the Teochew people to regale the gastronomic senses was already memorialised as early as the Tang dynasty in a poem composed by the eminent poet Han Yu, and till today Teochew food is widely recognised as one of the finest representations of Chinese culinary.


#10. Harmony in the relationship between nature and man sits at the heart of Teochew understanding of well-being. In all things, beauty is seen in simple exquisiteness, and not grandeur or opulence.  In daily life, this is best exemplified in the Teochew custom of drinking kanghu tea 工夫茶. In a plain ceremony, the host prepares and serves the elixir of life in miniature teacups over several rounds, invigorating not only the body and mind of his guests but washing away also all differences in class and opinions. 


"Like" our Facebook page to stay updated with The Teochew Store.

Read more →

Roots-Finding: Locating Your Ancestral Village in Teochew (Part 1)

The Teochew identity has come alive in the social media age. With revived interest in the language and culture many overseas Teochews have embarked on “roots-finding” trips to Swatow. A growing number, young and old, are even considering the further step visit the village of their ancestral origin. But for some this is a challenging mission.  

The vast majority of Teochews living abroad, if not all, are immigrants who left their homes before the 1960s, or their descendents. Because of long separation, many have lost contact with family members and relatives in Teochew and with the passing of the older generations, names and addresses can no longer be recalled. But even if the lines of inquiry with the elder folks are broken, there is still hope. 

A peculiar character of the early Teochew emigrants is that they perceived themselves as sojourners, and always harboured hopes of returning home to the place where they or their fathers came from. For this reason their gravestones are almost always engraved with the names of their county and village of origin. Thus for those keen to find out where your Teochew roots lie exactly, paying a visit to the grave(s) of deceased relatives can yield invaluable information.  

Notwithstanding great changes in China in the previous century, overseas Teochews maintain the convention of referring to local places in our ancestral homeland as they were during the late Qing dynasty period. Teochew was then governed as a now-defunct prefecture, which was sub-divided into eight counties, namely: 1. Hai-yor 海陽 2. Jaopeng 饒平 3. Thenghai 澄海  4. Teo-yor 潮陽 5. Gek-yor 揭陽 6.Pholeng 普寧 7.Huilai 惠来 and 8.Hongsun 豐順.  These are often reflected on the gravestones in the following shortened form:  1.海邑 2. 饒邑 3.澄邑 4.潮邑 5.揭邑  6.普邑 7.惠邑 and 8.豐邑. (The word Ip 邑 refers to “county”.) 

Hai-yor was renamed Teo-an 潮安 in 1914 and it encompasses also the Teochew prefectural city, now called Chaozhou. Although many overseas Teochews recall that their forefathers left overseas from Swatow, it is rare for a person to trace his/her ancestral origin to Swatow itself.  This is because even though Swatow was the most important port and centre of commerce in Teochew in the early 1900s, it was merely a settlement of less than 5,000 inhabitants under Thenghai county before it became a Treaty Port after the Second Opium War in 1860. 

The old Teochew prefecture area is currently administered under the three prefectural-level cities Teochew (Chaozhou), Swatow (Shantou) and Gek-yor (Jieyang), each further divided into multiple municipal districts and counties-towns-villages. The table below shows the historical Teochew sub-divisions (names in Teochew transliteration and traditional Chinese) and their modern equivalent(s) (names in hanyu pinyin and simplified Chinese):

  1. Hai-yor 海陽 / Teo-an 潮安 -  Chaozhou Chao'an District  潮州市潮安区

  2. Jaopeng 饒平 -  Chaozhou Raoping County 潮州市饶平县

  3. Thenghai 澄海 - Shantou Chenghai District 汕头市澄海区; Shantou Longhu District 汕头市龙湖区

  4. Teo-yor 潮陽 - Shantou Haojiang District 汕头市濠江区; Shantou Chaoyang District 汕头市潮阳区; Shantou Chaonan District 汕头市潮南区

  5. Gek-yor 揭陽 - Jieyang Rongcheng District 揭阳市榕城区; Jieyang Jiedong District 揭阳市揭东区; Jieyang Jiexi County 揭阳市揭西县

  6. Pholeng 普寧 - Jieyang Puning City  揭阳市普宁市

  7. Huilai 揭阳市惠来 - Jieyang Huilai County揭阳市惠来县

  8. Hongsun 豐順 - Meizhou Fengshun County 梅州市丰顺县

  9. Teochew Prefectural City 潮州府城 -  Chaozhou Xiangqiao District 潮州市湘桥区

  10. Swatow 汕頭 (part of Thenghai before 1921) -  Shantou Jinping District 汕头市金平区 

  11. Namoa island南澳 (included into Teochew prefecture after 1914) - Shantou Nan'ao County 汕头市南澳县

Contrary to the perception of some, local communities in Teochew are highly resilient and the majority of them remain intact despite recent decades of rapid economic and social transformations.   

Once you have the name of your ancestral village from the gravestone(s) or other sources, you can try to locate them on Baidu Map. Be mindful that the inscriptions on the gravestones are usually in traditional Chinese characters and you need to convert them to simplified Chinese. Also the Teochew term for village hie 鄉 is now replaced by the modern standard Chinese character ceng 村. If you are looking for a place in Hai-yor/Teo-an that is not indicated by village 鄉, but by the word hang 巷, it is very like to be a street within the old prefectural city. For your online searches, replace 巷 with the current equivalent goi 街.


Read also:

"Like" our Facebook page to stay updated with The Teochew Store.
Read more →