The Teochew Store Blog / language
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?
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.
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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.
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#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.
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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!