Teochew through the eyes of its visitors: The Scholar-Officials of Song

A thousand years ago our ancestors in Teochew lived together with giants. Giants that weighed four tons, neared three metres in height, had two floppy ears, a trunk and a mammoth appetite.

An entry in the History of Song (宋史), dated 1171, reported that farmers in the Teochew prefecture had to set up pit traps in their fields after hundreds of wild elephants ate their crops. The cause of the conflict was quite imaginably the expansion of human settlements and agricultural activities into the animals’ habitats and stomping grounds. However, the elephants did not withdraw into the forests as a result. Instead, they organised themselves into herds and waited on the roads to ambush any passing cart or horse, which they encircled until the humans collected grain to feed them. To live with nature rather than conquer it was a wisdom our forefathers understood well.

Image 1: Stone carvings of elephants outside a temple at Pengziu (蓬州), a historical settlement in Swatow. Was this based on memories of elephants once living in Teochew, or is it an image of impressions imported from Southeast Asia?

In the very same year the prefect of Teochew, an official named Zeng Wang (曾汪), came out with an idea to bridge the region’s main river, Hangkang (韓江, in Mandarin: Hanjiang), by building 86 boats and using them to connect its two banks with a diamond-shaped stone island erected in midway. It took him only three months to construct this bridge that not only allowed people to walk across the river, but ships to continue travelling up and down. However, the boats could not withstand the forces of heavy rain. The next prefect, Chang Yi (常禕) rebuilt the bridge three years later by adding 13 more boats and a pier on the west bank to stem the river’s flows. He christened this structure Yanghan Pavilion (仰韓閣, literally “Admiring Han Pavilion”) to memorialise his illustrious predecessor Han Yu (韓愈).

These were the first appearances of the iconic Siang-ze Kie (湘子橋, or Xiangzi Bridge in Mandarin), which is since then set in its famous configuration of “zab boih sou zung ji si ziu" (十八艘船二四洲, 18 boats and 24 piers).

The Song dynasty disastrously lost the northern half of its territories, including its heartland in the Central Plains, in 1127 when it was caught unprepared by an invasion of the Jurchen-Jin dynasty. As a result, it shifted its capital to Lin'an (present-day Hangzhou) and re-oriented itself towards the exploitation of the underdeveloped southern China and its links on the so-called Maritime Silk Road. By all accounts, this change brought unprecedented growth and changes to the Teochew prefecture whose imprints remain visible even today.

Situated between Southern Song's two primary ports, Guangzhou and Quanzhou, Teochew became a wealthy centre of industry and trade. Ironically, this meant that it ceased to serve as a place of banishment for out-of-favour imperial court ministers and was never again governed by "celebrity" officials such as Han Yu and Chen Yaozuo (陳堯佐). This mattered little in the end as the new prefects were often no less capable.

Like Chen Yaozou, Chang Yi came from Sichuan and he left Teochew a better when he departed even if few people now recognise his name. A year after the reconstruction of Siang-ze Kie, Chang Yi completed a book on the geography and people of Teochew titled Chaoyang Tujing (潮陽圖經)—literally “Maps and Treatise of Teo-yor”, which is both a historical county of Teochew and the prefecture’s name for a brief time during the Tang dynasty. Seeking to ensure the accuracy of his information, Chang Yi invited a local Jinshi (imperial scholar) from Gek-yor (揭陽, or Jieyang) county, Heng Diong Gia (王中行) to edit the work. The book is listed in the History of Song as Chaozhou Ji (潮州記, “Records of Teochew”) with Heng Diong Gia as the author, suggesting that his contribution, in the end, was more than what was expected. 

The compilation of tujing was first institutionalised during the Tang dynasty as a means for the imperial court to build a library of local maps of its prefectures, supplemented by knowledge of their geographical features, human settlement patterns and native produces. However, Chaoyang Tujing is the earliest known work of this genre produced in Teochew and it inspired several Song scholar-officials after Chang Yi to write a series of similar titles. These included Chaozhou Tujing (潮州圖經 by Zhao Shiji [趙師岌] in 1202, and revised by Ye Guan [葉觀] in 1235), Xintujing (新圖經, “The New Maps and Treatise” by Sun Shujin [孫叔謹] in 1227), as well as Sanyang Zhi (三陽志, “Gazette of the Three ‘Yang’”, possibly written in 1266 or 1267) and Sanyang Tuzhi (三陽圖誌, “Maps and Gazette of the Three ‘Yang’”, also known as  Xu-Sanyang zhi (續三陽志, “Continuation of Sanyang Zhi”).

Unfortunately, none of these books has survived, although portions of Sanyang Zhi and Sanyang Tuzhi, which were recompiled during the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), were quoted and preserved in the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) Yongle Dadian (永樂大典, or Yongle Encyclopedia), leaving us with invaluable hand-first descriptions of what the Teochew prefecture was like in a transformative period from the 12th to the 14th centuries.

The three “Yang” in the titles of the two books refer to Hai-yor (海陽, or Haiyang), Teo-yor and Gek-yor, which were the Teochew prefecture’s three subordinate counties during Song. The counties each commanded one of the Teochew’s three major river basins—Hai-yor over Hangkang, Teo-yor over Liengkang (練江, or Lianjiang) and Gek-yor over Iongkang (榕江, or Rongjiang). The categorisation of the books as zhi (志), or gazette, reflected an expansion of their contents to cover a whole range of topics useful and interesting from the perspective of the governing class. The subjects from the extracts of Sanyang Zhi in Yongle Dadian include prefaces of previous related works (歷代序文), boundaries (至到), customs and beliefs (風俗形勝), city, training grounds, military camps (城池、教場、營寨), bridges (橋道), sacrificial altars (壇場), household registrations (戶口), local produces and tribute products (土產、土貢), public offices (公署), schools, examination halls, ancestral halls and academies (學校、貢院、祠廟、書院), places of historical interest (古蹟), essays and engravings (文章、碑刻). Those in Sanyang Tuzhi are prefaces [of previous works] (序文), infrastructures (建置志), land tax (田賦), literature and art (藝文) and journals (雜誌).

 Image 2: Map of the historical Teochew prefecture, its nine former counties during the Qing dynasty and three principal rivers. Hai-yor during Song encompassed Haiyang, Raoping, Chenghai, Dapu and the northern half of Fengshun; Teo-yor consisted of Chaoyang, Puning and Huilai; and Gek-yor was formed by Jieyang and the southern half of Fengshun.

Despite these signs of progress, it is perceptibly clear that the compilers of Sanyang Zhi and Sanyang Tuzhi—we do not know their names, but they were almost certainly scholar-officials posted from outsidewere uncomfortable with the manners and customs of Teochew's inhabitants that did not fit their expectations of “civilised" Chinese.

For example, it was observed in Sanyang Zhi’s segment on customs and beliefs that the residents of two places located 5 to 7 li (Chinese miles) east of the Teochew prefectural city, called Beh Ce Yao (白瓷窯, “White Porcelain Kiln”) and Zui Lam (水南, “Southern Waters”), persisted in speaking in an accent labelled as Bug Lao (不老, literally “Not Old”), which reportedly was once spoken at the marketplaces of the city but had not been heard since some 60 to 70 years (i.e. circa 1200). This led to a lamentation that even though Han Yu managed to spread the Chinese literary culture to the people in Teochew during his term as prefect  (in the year 819), he was unable to get them to speak the “proper accent” (正音).

It is asserted by some modern commentators that the Bug Lao speakers were the She (畲) people, a minority ethnic group of a few thousand who inhabit the nearby Phoenix Mountain Range. However, there is no evidence that the She people ever lived in the Teochew prefectural city, much less featured in its public life.

Instead, this indication of a language shift among the Teochew people centuries ago is validated by noticeable differences in accent between Teochew spoken in the Hangkang river basin and the variations spoken along its two sister rivers. Until the mid-20th century, rivers were the primary means of transport and communication within Teochew.

In today’s context, “proper accent”, or zia-im in Teochew refers to a pronunciation standard by which all Teochew opera performers must rigidly abide regardless of their place of origin and homegrown accent. It is based on the literary readings of lyrics and its sounds are in harmony with the speech of the residents in the historic Teochew prefectural city. This is to say, what is now the centre of Teochew city (潮州市 Chaozhou) was the focal point of efforts by imperial officials to align the speech of our forefathers with the sounds of the Central Plains. 

The so-called prefectural city speech (hu-sia-ue 府城話) is light-sounding. It is most strongly contrasted with the “heavy” Teo-yor speech, which significantly, was concluded after 20 years of research by the writer of a Teochew dictionary (國語潮音大字典), Teo Hui-Zeg (張惠澤), to embody the oldest sounds of the Teochew language.

The Sanyang Zhi gave a second piece of evidence of how the culture and behaviour of the people in Teochew were changed by encouragement and coercion in a report of how they ceased to wear the clothing and accessories of the “Man” (蠻, the northern Chinese’s exonym for the peoples of the south) after a prefect in the Jiading period (1208-1224) named Ceng E (曾噩) ordered a prohibition on an old custom of women to wear a tall hair bun in the prefectural city that differed from the fashion in the Central Plains.

The incompatibility between the “primitive” customs and way of life of the people in Teochew and the values of the Chinese civilisation likewise troubled the compiler of Sanyang Tuzhi. Despairing at what he viewed as a hopeless situation, he complained of how the local women wore loose clothing and green headwear and walked freely on the streets. It distressed him just as much that sons lived apart from their fathers, men and women intermingled at the dining tables, and marriages were arranged without matchmakers. 

 Image 3: Book cover of a 1982 republication of Sanyang Zhi and Sanyang Tuzhi by a Teochew historian Tan Hiang Beh (陳香白).

It is plain to see from the writings in Sanyang Zhi and Sanyang Tuzhi (whose compilers must have also referred to earlier works) that the population of Teochew during late Song and Yuan were indigenous and not colonists. This is consistent with the earlier observations of officials from Tang and early Song.  It also repudiates a supposition espoused by the late sinologist Jao Tsung-I (饒宗頤) in the Kuomintang government-sponsored 1949 Chaozhou Gazetteer (潮州志) that the majority of Teochew’s population are descended from outside refugees escaping the Mongol conquest of Song China in the 13th century,  

A key premise of the mass migration theory is that the Teochew prefecture was thinly populated and undeveloped before the flood of settlers from the north turned its fortunes. The historical population figures of Teochew summarised in Sanyang Zhi prove this is false. When the Teochew prefecture was created (as Yi'an Commandery [義安郡] in 413), it reportedly had a population of merely 1,190 households and 5,520 persons. The numbers grew at increasing rates to 2,606 households during the short-lived Sui dynasty (581-618); 4,420 households and 26,745 persons in circa 742 and 10,324 households and 51,674 persons circa 800 during Tang. The pace of growth continued to accelerate at the start of Song with a census figure reporting 30,000 households in 967 and another revealing 74,682 households in the Yuanfeng period (1078-1085), which was seven times the population size from two centuries earlier. At the time of the compilation of Sanyang Zhi (1266 or 1267), the land-owning and landless tax-paying households in the three counties totalled 116,743 households and 147,570 persons.

Population censuses in imperial China were usually taken to count the number of tax-payers and men available for corvée labour and military service. Thus the above figures do not reflect the total number of people living in Teochew. Nevertheless, their indication of an upward population trend syncs with many indications that there was a prevalence of peace and stability, as well as increases in food production, economic output, and overall quality of life.  

As for Sanyang Tuzhi, it reported that due to the upheavals and social disorders leading to the Yuan dynasty’s destruction of Song, the Teochew prefecture lost tens of thousands of people from fighting, plundering, banditry and migration. A census carried out in 1290 found a total of 70,070 households, of which 68,773 were Southerners (南人) and 154 households were Northerners (北人) and households belonging to the local government were 3,358 households. This tells us in the most explicit terms that the Song-Yuan war caused the population of Teochew to decrease, rather than surge, and its number of immigrants from the north was minuscule.

The elephant in the room is that there was never a mass migration of settlers from the Central Plains or any other part of China. If there was, the compilers of Sanyang Zhi and Sanyang Tuzhi, who were outsiders themselves, would have cheered about it.


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