Teochew through the eyes of its visitors: Han Yu, the genius who discovered one of life's greatest joys

Have you ever wondered how did our forefathers live 100 years ago, 200 years ago, or even 1,000 years ago?

Our ancestors were a lot of things. Merchants, traders, seafarers, fishermen, agriculturalists, tea connoisseurs, culinary experts, artisans, builders, artists, musicians, poets, etc. But somehow there was not a historian among them. They spent their lives and energies in pursuit of happiness in many ways that today endow us with a rich cultural heritage and identity. Yet, it did not occur to them to document themselves or the world they lived in.

Fortunately, the Teochew region had over the centuries its fair share of visitors, of whom a few were both keen observers and skilled writers. They left behind various records through which we can now catch glimpses of pasts that would otherwise be lost forever.

The first of these foreigners were Chinese imperial officials sent from other provinces to serve as prefects of the historical Teochew prefecture (also known as Chaozhou), or magistrates of its counties. Many were talented scholars, but none was at the level of brilliance of Han Yu (韓愈), a minister of the Tang dynasty (618-907) court, as well as poet and philosopher, who has been compared to Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe.

A portait Han Yu (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


During the Tang era, a total of 12 high-ranked ministers, including four former prime ministers, were dispatched from the capital Chang’an (now Xian) to govern Teochew. However, this was not because Teochew was an important place. On the contrary, it was in the empire’s most remote corner. It was the place where out-of-grace servants of the court were exiled.

This was the fate that Han Yu suffered in the year 819 after the ardent Confucianist penned a memorial that criticised Emperor Xianzong for his indulgences in Buddhism. The infuriated Emperor had wanted to execute Han Yu, but on the account of the pleas of many other ministers, relented to demote him to become the prefect of Teochew, far away from the throne. But while Han Yu literally managed to keep his head, there was no sense of relief as he foresaw in the poem composed on his journey, Demotion and Arrival at Lan Pass: For My Nephew Xiang (左遷至藍關示姪孫湘), his bones being collected from “the side of the miasmic river”. Teochew was early medieval China’s Siberia.

Han Yu’s travel to the south lasted more than two months. It broke both the health and spirit of the 50-year-old. Immediately upon his arrival in Teochew, he wrote the prose, “Memorial by the Teochew Governor to Thank the Sovereign” (潮州刺史謝上表), to express to the Emperor his deep remorse for his “arrogance and stupidity” and his complete submission as he lavished praise on how the magnificence of the latter had brought order and peace even among the Manyi (蠻夷)—the exonym used by the northern Chinese in the Central Plains for the peoples of the south.

In a barely concealed appeal to the Emperor’s pity, Han Yu also highlighted the isolation of Teochew on the eastern end of Guangfu (广府), a territory that is now China’s Guangdong and Guangxi provinces). Even though It was separated from Guangzhou, the most important city in the coastal south, only by a distance of 2000 li (Chinese miles), travelling to and fro took a full month at least. Moreover, while there was a port in Teochew, the waters around it were foul and the currents and rapids were powerful. To make things worse, there were unpredictable typhoons, crocodiles and other dangers.

Because Teochew sat on the southern edge bordering the sea, toxic mists and miasma rose in its air in both day and night, or so Han Yu alleged. Claiming that the distress had caused his teeth to fall and his hair to turn white, he pleaded desperately to be taken away from “the most remote and dangerous” land, where the Manyi dwelled together with monsters of the mountains.

Map showing the prefectures in the southern dominions of the Sui dynasty, which preceded Tang. Teochew is at the centre of the red circle drawn to hightlight its remoteness. (Original map credit: liucheng1972)

The monsters of course referred to the creatures of the wild, such as tigers and elephants that roamed the forests of Teochew till as late as the Song dynasty (960–1279). However, the greatest menace was posed by crocodiles that lived by the rivers, which the people depended upon not only for water but also food and transport.

A spate of crocodile attacks on livestock and men brought about an episode that Han Yu captured in his essay, The Sacrifice to the Crocodile (祭鱷魚文). It narrated how Han Yu on a certain day ordered a military officer to throw a lamb and a pig to feed a crocodile in a “foul river”, which was probably Hangkang (韓江, or Han River), the principal river of Teochew that the locals later named after him. Thereafter, Han Yu, bizarrely, proclaimed to the beast:

When the kings of ancient times came into possession of the lands beneath heaven, they set fire to burn the trees and grass of the mountains and marshes, and used ropes and nets to capture and blades to exterminate the reptiles, snakes and beasts that harm people and drove them away beyond the four seas. The latter kings lacked their virtues and were unable to extend their rule to distant parts. A large expanse was given up to the Man, Yi, Chu and Yue (蠻夷楚越, i.e. the peoples beyond the Central Plains). This includes Chaozhou, which lies between the Ling mountains and the sea, 10,000 li away from the capital. Here crocodiles have also formed their nests.

However, today the Son of Heaven who is on the throne of Tang is enlightened, glorious, benevolent, and courageous. Apart from the four seas, all of heaven and earth in the four directions are under his authority and rule. Chaozhou, a place where Yu the Great [a king in Chinese legends] left his footprints and a part of the ancient realm of Yangzhou, is now administered by a prefect and magistrates of the Emperor and it contributes tributes and taxes for his sacrifices to Heaven and Earth, the ancestors of the imperial house and the pantheon of gods. The crocodile cannot co-exist on this land with the prefect!

Acting under the Emperor’s command, the prefect protects this land and governs its people. The crocodile has not been satisfied in dwelling in the creeks and ponds and has preyed on livestock, bear, swine, deer and roebuck to fatten himself and to breed. This defies the prefect and challenges his leadership. The prefect may be feeble, but he will not bow and yield in cowardice to the crocodile and bring shame to his people and office by pretending there is peace. Moreover, the prefect serves here under the authority of the Emperor. Thus he is obliged to reason with the crocodile.

O, crocodile, if you are able to comprehend, listen to me, the prefect. To the south of Chaozhou is a great sea. All types of creatures, from the giant whales and rocs to the smallest crabs and lobsters, live and feed there. If you are to set off in the morning, you will reach there by evening. Now I will negotiate with you. I shall give you three days to move south to the sea with your hideous companions and remove your presence from the Emperor’s appointed official. If you cannot do this in three days, take five. If you cannot do it in five days, take seven. If seven days is still not enough, it means you have no intention to move and refuse to obey the prefect. Otherwise, it must be that you are dull and can neither hear, nor understand my words.
Whoever despises the representative of the Son of Heaven, refuses to obey to leave or hide, and continues to foolishly and stubbornly harm the people, will be killed. The prefect will select the most skilful and talented from the officials and the people, and arm them with strong bows and poisoned arrows, to fight you, the crocodiles. They will cease only when you are wiped out. Do not regret!


This, of course, was nothing but a show that Han Yu had staged to firstly show the restless locals that he was doing something to protect their lives and properties, and secondly to publicly exhibit his loyalty and devotion to the Tang Emperor.

The Teochew region was brought under imperial Chinese rule in the middle of the Han dynasty (202BCE–220). However, apart from a record in the Book of Sui (隋书) about the launch of a naval expedition from here in 606 to conquer the island of Liuqiu (流求, that is Taiwan), using soldiers recruited from the southern kingdoms and Kunluns (a dark-skinned race from Southeast Asia or perhaps India) who understood the native language,  which reveals that Teochew was already a fairly large settlement in the early 7th century, with ship-building capabilities and contact with people beyond the Chinese mainland—the Chinese imperial annals contained little about the land itself and its people.

Han Yu’s writings, on the other hand, tell us that much of Teochew’s natural environment was still “untamed” during his time. This suggests that its population, outside the city, was sparse. Furthermore, the northern Chinese saw its natives as distinct from themselves. But while Manyi is often translated in English as “barbarian”, it is evident from Han Yu’s descriptions that they were not of savage or violent character. Instead, they leaned towards being submissive and peaceable, perhaps even hapless, and gullible.  

Han Yu never intended to be in Teochew and he did everything within his means to get out of Teochew. Lucky for him, his ordeal ended after just seven months when he was transferred to govern another prefecture nearer to his home. It is notable, however, that Han Yu’s writings did not indicate any disdain for the people in Teochew, even if he saw them as members of another tribe or race.

Indeed, Han Yu is remembered in Teochew until today for many things that he did for the people here. Apart from his dramatic stunt to expel the crocodiles—whose threat was not actually terminated until the Song dynasty—Han Yu is credited for initiating reforms to improve water irrigation for farming, liberating slaves, and setting up schools to promote education.

The Han Wen Gong Temple (韓文公祠), built in honour of Han Yu on a hill opposite the Teochew prefectural city during the Song dynasty in 1189. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

In fact, Han Yu appeared to enjoy his time in Teochew. His poem, “Farewell to Young Zhao” (别赵子), reveal a close friendship that he forged with a local protégé named Zhao De (趙德). Another, “Helpful Verses for Yuan Shiba Introducing Food in the South” (初南食貽元十八協律), tells us that Han Yu not only did not die in Teochew, as he feared, but he also discovered one of life's greatest joys. The Teochew taste for fine seafood, that has not changed for more than a thousand years:

鱟實如惠文    骨眼相負行
The horseshoe crab is shaped like a crown, with eyes that it carries on its back as it walks
蠔相黏為山    百十各自生
Oysters stick together in heaps like mountains, but though they are many, each strives for its own survival.
蒲魚尾如蛇    口眼不相營
The stingray has a tail that is like a snake, and a mouth and eyes that never meet.
蛤即是蝦蟆    同實浪異名
The frog is the toad. They are the same but are known by different names.
章舉馬甲柱    鬥以怪自呈
The octopus and the scallop, their appearances are as strange as they can be
其餘數十種    莫不可嘆驚
There are dozens more creatures like these, that are truly amazing
我來禦魑魅    自宜味南烹
Since I was sent here to govern the spirits and devils, it is only right for me to enjoy these southern delicacies I
調以咸與酸    芼以椒與橙
Add some saltiness or sourness, use pepper or orange in the vegetable soup
腥臊始發越    咀吞面汗騂
To overcome the fishy and foul smells [of seafood], then chew, swallow and the face will turn sweaty and red
惟蛇舊所識    實憚口眼獰
The snake was the only one that I recognised, although its ferocious mouth and eyes frighten me
開籠聽其去    鬱屈尚不平
I opened the cage to let it go, but it looked back with aggrieved with injustice
卖尔非我罪    不屠岂非情
It is not my fault that you were sold, have I not shown kindness by not killing you
不祈靈珠報    幸無嫌怨並
I do not desire your snake pearl, but wish only that you do not hate or resent me
聊歌以記之    又以告同行
This is my poem to record this marvellous feast, and to tell it to my companions


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