The Teochew Store Blog / language
In this age of open information, Wikipedia is often the site where people visit to seek knowledge on a new subject or topic of interest. When conducting an online search on the keyword “Teochew”, Wikipedia’s pages on “Teochew people”, “Teochew dialect” and “Chaozhou” appear on top of Google’s results. Although largely informative, the Wikipedia page on “Teochew people” contains a curious introduction to our background, stating:
“Historically, these people were called Helao or Fulao, as they came mostly from Henan and Shanxi via Fujian, with well-maintained language and customs from north-central China.”
For certain readers can testify that Helao/Fulao does not exist in our daily vocabulary. Whether in China or Southeast Asia, Teochew people uniformly identify ourselves as “Teochew”, or more recently in mainland China “Teo-swa”.
Through further research on Wikipedia, one discovers “Fulao” is actually the Mandarin rendition of the Hokkien expression Hoklo 福佬/老 – meaning literally “Fujian men”. “Helao” 河老 on the other hand is linked to “Heluo” 河洛 (pronounced “Ho-lok” in Hokkien and Teochew), an inaccurate transliteration of Hoklo that has surfaced in literate stressing the purported origin of the Hokkien (and Teochew) people from Henan, in particular the Luo River basin. (Incidentally, the river itself is called Luohe 洛河, and not Heluo).
“Hoklo” is today widely used in Taiwan as a category for the section of its Chinese population whose forefathers migrated from Fujian’s coastal areas between the Qing dynasty and the Kuomintang’s retreat to the island in 1949. It is opposed to the Hakkas whose roots are traced to adjacent inland mountains or Chinese immigrants from other provinces. In a very similar way, the tags “Hoklo” and “Hakka” were adopted by late 19th and early 20th century Western Christian missionaries working in the Teochew region to different its inhabitants in the lowland plains from migrant settlers in the highland borders, whose distinctions in language, self-identity and customs were readily recognised In this context “Hoklo” clearly referred to the Teochew people (for more see The Bible and the gun: Christianity in South China, 1860-1900 by Joseph Tse-Hei Lee).
However there is evidence that at an earlier time “Hoklo” did not apply to the Teochew people. In 1843 Baptist preacher I. J. Roberts visited Hong Kong island, shortly after it was ceded to British possession, and made a family visiting tour. In his journal he recorded an encounter in a village with a family, “who speak the Hoklo dialect; which is nearly the same as Tiéchiú, which the assistant speaks” (cited in The Baptist Missionary Magazine, Volume 23).
This passage highlights pertinently that a close resemblance in speech between Teochews and Hokkiens from southern Fujian, which third parties are often unable to tell apart. At the same time, it gives an important clue to the etymology of the “Hoklo” expression.
In common usage, the reference to a person or a collective group of people in the Teochew is “nang” 人, and the Hokkien variation is “lang”. In both sets of vernaculars “lo” 佬 is rarely spoken. In contrast the Cantonese habitually use this word in their conversations, such as “dai-lo” 大佬 (“big brother”) or “gwai-lo” 鬼佬 (“devil-people”, meaning Westerners). As such, it is all likely that Hok-lo was in fact a nomenclature coined by Cantonese-speakers to refer to Hokkien migrants into their territory. As Hong Kong was the primary transit point for Christian preachers entering China in the past, the likelihood those who worked in the Teochew region picked up the “Hoklo” expression from their interactions with the locals or fellow missionaries who spoke Cantonese, and later wrongly applied it to the Teochews.
Besides being consistent with the fact that Teochews never call ourselves Hoklo, this is supported by the observation and writing of James Dyer Ball, an Englishman whose credentials included being chief interpreter in the Hong Kong civil service. In Things Chinese published at the turn of the 20th century, he explained:
"Teo Chews is the term applied generally to them (i.e. the Teochew people) in Singapore, Penang, and the Malay States, while “Hok-lo” is the name by which they are generally known by the Cantonese speakers in China. The former name being derived from the departmental city of Ch'ao Chao Fu (in local dialect—Tiu Chiu Fu or Teo Chew Fu) to which the different districts, from which many of the Hok-lo, came, belong; while Hok-lo means “men from the Hok province i.e. Fukien province”.
Between the Teochews and the Hokkiens, many similarities in language and manners are shared. This is unsurprising since they occupy an adjoined territory in Southeast China. However there was definitely no confusion to the distinction of their collective identities in the 19th century, as attested by major violent clashes between migrants from the two groups in Shanghai in 1850 and in Singapore in 1854 – the latter lasted for more than ten days and resulted in the destruction of 300 houses and 500 deaths. The divide in identity may be traced during the Song dynasty (960-1279) when Teochew prefecture was joined with the Cantonese heartlands to form Guangdong province, whereas Hokkien-speaking Zhangzhou and Quanzhou prefectures were made part of Fujian. If the line of separation is so clear and ancient, how could a view persist amongst the Cantonese that the Teochews were “Fujian men”.
The answer appears to lie in the districts of Haifeng and Lufeng, where a Hokkien-speaking coastal enclave exists right between the realms of the Teochews and the Cantonese. Now administered under Shanwei (or Swabue) city, this area was governed shortly under Swatow from the 1950s to 1980s. However the non-Hakka/Cantonese section of its population vigorously rejects any suggestion that they are Teochew and instead insist in emphasising their descent from migrants out of Zhangzhou about 300 years ago. Their location and background strongly suggest that they are the original Hoklo, the “Fujian men”.
The most famous son of the Hoklos in Guangdong is arguably Chen Jiongming, one-time governor of Guangdong in Sun Yat Sen’s government. An anecdote told that Chen was once asked to play judge and suss out the guilty party of a crime between two suspects, a Teochew and a fellow Hoklo. However Chen was more interested in rescuing his own than the execution of justice. The near identical speech and accent of the two presented him the challenge of telling who was Teochew or Hoklo, since he could not openly display his bias.
Cunningly Chen ordered both men to be beaten and in an instance his answer was derived. Because the patrilineal character of the Teochew society, the man who was Teochew yelled in his moment of anguish “ua-pe-lu” 我父噜 (Oh my father)! At the same time, the Hoklo being brought up under stronger matrilineal influence, shouted out “ua-bhou-ui” 我母喂 (oh my mother)! Things happening exactly as he expected, Chen ordered the beating for the poor Teochew to be continued, while the Hoklo was released on the sly from the backdoor.
Whether this is a true story is unknown, but it tells an important point: Teochews are Teochews, and “Hoklo” means precisely what it states: “Fujian men”.
Poll of the Month: Should all Teochews be called "Teoswa-nang" 潮汕人 as currently in mainland China, instead of "Teochew-nang" 潮州人?
Read more →
But what if we are asked to give the definition of a “Teochew”? It is not every day that we get asked something this difficult, but a kid, your kid, might just be curious enough to do so. Or who is a “pure” Teochew? Don’t sniggle. I have come across several comments on Facebook by “pure-blood” Teochews finding out, with considerable pride, how many are like themselves? Recently I came across another Facebook post by a person who half-jokingly announced himself as a “more real” Teochew than others because he was born in Teochew city itself and not overseas.
In a way, these boasts are not invalid. Although Teochew people have been trading with Southeast Asia since at least the Song dynasty (from the 10th century), and tens of thousands became labourers in different parts of the region after the late 17th century, these emigrants were almost exclusively male, and those who could afford, always returned to their home village to retire. On a survey of Swatow in 1858, Lord Elgin reported of a habit amongst the “Chinamen” seeking work in Singapore (presumably referring to Teochew men) who sometimes brought home with them their Malay wives, leaving them in place of ancestry, and returning to Singapore without them. Accordingly children at that time who were not of “pure-blood” were rare, and even many of them were brought up in Teochew.
Of course things have changed greatly since about a century ago when the advent of steam shipping, civil wars and Japanese invasion led to the migration of Teochew women in significant numbers and many Teochew people setting up families abroad permanently. Due to economic and political factors, the majority of their overseas-born children and grandchildren have never gone back to Teochew and with time, grew up and embraced ways of life different from their forefathers. It was once taboo for a Teochew should marry a non-Teochew, not even another Chinese, inter-racial marriages is now a largely acceptable norm amongst members of the diaspora. Therein lies the question – do you still count as a Teochew even if you are of partial Teochew descent?
By Teochew tradition this is determined solely by your paternal lineage. But of course reality is always more complicated. Some time ago, I came across again on Facebook the spirited defence of a Teochew lady of her “non pure blood” daughters’ heritage. She revealed that she is married to a black man, but while her girls do not look like her, they speak the Teochew language even better than some of their cousins. Rather succinctly, she pointed out that she has always been proud of being Teochew because “our culture has gone through so many dark time (sic) in history, and our strength is based on an open spirit that has allowed us to adapt ourselves wherever we are, and to absorb the qualities of any country we live in.”
It is interesting that this proud mother should stress her daughters’ fluency in our language. I know a girl in Swatow who speaks Teochew daily at home, but told me that her grandfather was actually a Hakka – a language that she has no knowledge of. She sees herself as a Swatow native, and in manners and customs, she is no different from her neighbours or friends. Do such assimilated members of the society count as Teochews as well?
Eminent French sociologist Emile Durkheim noted that kinship through common ancestry (either real or perceived) and marriage does not ensure the cohesion of a community in the long-run. Instead individuals see themselves as one people when they share values, beliefs, customs and a way of life lifestyle fostered. Unlike the modern consumer “culture” that extends its influence through the media and the internet, a traditional culture like the Teochew one thrives on the intimate interaction and primarily oral communication between its members, which creates a collective consciousness. It is this consciousness that is both unique and exclusive, which gives us our enduring identity.
Accordingly, fluency in the Teochew language not only allows us to bond with the elder members of our family, but also serves as a key to unlock knowledge to the treasures of our heritage. Of course, this is not to say that the Teochew identity is exclusive to those who speak the language well, or language competency is the sole measure to the level of our “Teochewness”. Many aspects of our fine culture can be expressed in another language (as we do so on this site) or even in non-verbal forms – such as cooking. But it is also true that we lose a great proportion of ourselves as a community if we forsake our mother tongue. With a diminished proficiency and vocabulary, our ability to pass on what we know to the next generation is compromised.
Being Teochew is a birthright, an exclusive privilege. At the same time, being Teochew is knowing and embracing an appreciation of life shaped by wisdom and experiences accumulated and passed on from generation to generation. The heritage we have cannot be taken for granted. Whether “pure blood” or otherwise, we hold a torch in our hands that we need to pass on to our children to keep the flame burning.
"Like" our Facebook page to stay updated with The Teochew Store.
#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 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 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 be referred now in mainland China as "Teo-swa".
#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 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 namelyHai-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 evidences belonging to a series of archaeological cultures dubbed the "Teochew Prehistoric Trilogy”, including the largest prehistoric kiln site ever found in China, reveal 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 terrain in Teochew 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 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 emphasis on freshness and authentic taste of ingredient, perfect balance of sweetness and saltiness, as well as colour and presentation provide the secrets to achieve 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 finest representation of Chinese culinary.
#10. Harmony in relationship with nature and man sits at heart of the 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 the drinking of kanghu tea 功夫茶. 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 way also all differences in class and opinions.
"Like" our Facebook page to stay updated with The Teochew Store.
Finding a place is usually less of a challenge than locating the people we want to find.
Villages in Teochew are typically inhabited by one, or just a few, surname-clan(s). At the same time, they are of fairly large population size of up to several thousands. In other words, most people in a neighbourhood are related in one way or another by blood or marriage. Thus turning up at the place of your ancestry looking for “fifth uncle of the Tan family” can be a futile exercise if you do not do your homework.
To ensure the success of your root-finding mission, you need to have an idea of your family tree and structure, and gather other details, such as the year your parents/grandparents left overseas, in order to identify the correct kin, or more aptly get yourself recognised. Old family photos or letters are of course most useful. Full Chinese names of your direct relatives are another critical piece of information, as the middle characters by tradition denote the generation of a particular lineage line.
The best spot to begin your enquiries on the ground is the clan ancestral hall (called祠堂 sêu têung in Teochew), which functions as the “memory bank” of the village. In its absence, go to the local marketplace as this is where virtually all families are represented. Because Teochew villages tend to be tight-knit communities, it could well be a matter of minutes before you find yourself drinking tea in the company of your long-lost relatives.
Anecdotes similar to a scene in the 1989 movie Eight Taels of Gold (shot partially in Teochew), where Sammo Hung starring as a Chinese immigrant taxi driver from New York was thoroughly fleeced of his wealth by a whole village of relatives on his homecoming, has caused much anxiety over what to expect when we meet our relatives in Teochew.
If you plan to go back to your village just to take some photographs as souvenir, you might leave feeling emptier inside than before. Seeking to relate is the whole point of roots-finding. While circumstances vary for individual families, it is safe to say that on the whole economic condition in the Teochew region has improved drastically since the 1990s, and possible harassment by “poor cousins” should no longer be a major worry. By custom, Teochew people are extremely hospitable towards their guests, and their obligation towards kin and kith is even more complete. So chances are, you will be made to receive even more than what you have in mind to give.
What should we say, and how should we behave, when meeting dozens of relatives for the first time? These are serious questions for overseas-born Teochews to consider, especially if we are brought up in highly Westernised environments. One misstep may just ruin the first impression we give.
For starters, being able to handle at least simple exchanges in Teochew language helps to break the ice, for few people in Teochew are comfortable with Mandarin in the family setting. Speak English only when you wish to murmur to yourself. Be ready also to share plenty of family stories, but be prepared to listen to even more. Do not be overawed when more than one person tries excitedly to engage in conversation with you at the same time, for this is way people in the villages, especially the elderly, interact in everyday life. Keep smiling.
Stay reminded also, that the Teochew society is not composed of individuals, but lots of people organised within set family structures. Observance of generation status, birth order and gender are inherent in the manner in which people relate to one another. Always show respect to elders and thoughtfulness to the young. Lastly, make sure you are well-versed with the different family addresses before you meet your clan – it will come in handy!