Where do the Teochew people come from? Teochew, or the Yellow River?

Where do the Teochew people come from? The Teochew region in southern China is the obvious answer.

Yet if one is to run a search on the Internet, he or she would find a string of references stating that our ancestors came hundreds of years ago from the Central Plains in the Yellow River reaches, thousands of miles away.

This theory concerning the Teochew people’s migratory origin has several variants. One that is circulating widely online is that our forebears were one of a few branches of Han Chinese, first displaced from northern China when the Jin dynasty lost control of its political heartland to invading "barbarians" in the 4th century. They managed to resettle in Putian district of Fujian province, but were uprooted again when the Mongol armies of Kublai Khan overran the Song dynasty in the 13th century. Eventually, they found sanctuary in the historical Teochew Prefecture, which was supposedly sparsely populated at the time. Due to long exposure and interaction with indigenous ethnic minorities whom they eventually displaced, Teochew people now have our own speech and cultural traits that are distinctive from other groups of Chinese.

Currently, the belief that Teochew people have their origins in the north is widely accepted and propagated in mainland China. However, its formation is fairly recent, and may be traced to the writings of its chief proponent, the late Professor Jao Tsung-I (饒宗頤), in the 1949 Chaozhou Gazetteer (潮州志).

Professor Jao was a sinologist, who gained prominence shortly after the Second World War when the Kuomintang Nationalist government commissioned him to lead a team of 156 scholars to produce the Chaozhou Gazetteer, which was meant to be a 50-volume encyclopaedic work on the Teochew region and its population. Owing to Communist victory in the Chinese civil war, the Chaozhou Gazetteer project was disrupted before its complete publication. However a sizable portion of its manuscripts survived, including a chapter on ethnography Professor Jao himself wrote. With no further studies possible until after China reopened itself in the 1980s, these works from the 1940s formed the basis of understanding the Teochew people and world for an over-extended period of time.

In his research, Professor Jao emphasised that the Teochew region is inhabited by two groups of Chinese - the Teochews on the coastal lowlands and Hakkas in the mountainous inlands. Also called Kejia (客家) or “guest people”, the Hakkas were well-documented to have migrated into Teochew and neighbouring areas of Guangdong and Fujian provinces only during the late imperial China period. Notwithstanding this, Professor Jao argued that there is actually little difference between the Teochew and Hakka people, because the Teochews are also not indigenous to the land. Calling attention to the term Hoklo (福老, literally meaning “Fujian men”), which had been used in the late 19th and early 20th century as an alternative label for the Teochews, he argued that it shows the Teochew too were immigrants, and their immediate place of origin was in Fujian.  

Going further, Professor Jao asserted that Hoklo is in fact a corruption in Hokkien (the southern Fujian native vernacular) of the Mandarin expression “Helao” (河老). This, he believed, points to the true identity of the Teochew people as descendents of Han Chinese from Henan province in the Central Plains.

As for the chronology of the Teochew ancestors’ movement from the north to the south, Professor Jao proposed that the first Han Chinese to settle in the Teochew region were soldiers sent by the first emperor of China Qin Shihuang to conquer the Guangdong region in 214 BCE. However, Han Chinese colonisation of Teochew only meaningfully began in early Tang dynasty after Chen Yuanguang (陳元光), a general from Henan, formed a settlement in adjacent Zhangzhou in Fujian in 669 to support the suppression of rebellious Man-Liao (蠻僚) aborigines. Finally, the Teochew ancestors took dominant control of the land after thousands followed the flight of the Song imperial court here to escape pursuing Mongols in 1278. 

Although Professor Jao cited various extracts from prefectural and district gazetteers and lineage genealogies as the basis of his findings, his research conformed fully with the central belief of Chinese nationalists since the early 20th century that all Chinese belong to a single civilisation, whose cradle is in the Yellow River. The credibility of this dogma was given a boost by the discovery of the 750,000 years old Peking Man in the late 1920s and his premature identification by some European anthropologists as the common ancestor of all Chinese people.

More immediately, Professor Jao’s assertion about the Teochew people’s background, mirrors uncannily the efforts of a Hakka scholar Lo Hsiang-lin (羅香林), who authored a book in 1933 that sought to demonstrate through a study of clan genealogies, how the Hakkas historically had a homeland in the Central Plains, but were displaced to the far south following a succession of five migratory waves compelled by great upheavals between the Jin dynasty’s retreat and the chaos of the Taiping rebellion.

Lo Hsiang-lin’s purpose was to disprove strong assertions made by hostile Cantonese intellectuals that the Hakkas are an ethnic minority that do not belong to the Han Chinese race, and he succeeded to a large extend in galvanising interests in the notion of Chinese “purity”, particularly among his fellow Hakkas. Most probably a deep impression was also left in Professor Jao, whose ancestry was Hakka, despite his fame as a Teochew culture researcher.

Almost 70 years since the Chaozhou Gazetteer, several beliefs and assumptions that existed when Professor Jao wrote have been thrown in doubt by new scientific knowledge. For instance, the archaeological discoveries of the prehistoric Liangzhu Culture at the Yangtze River mouth and the Sanxingdui Culture in Sichuan, together show that the Chinese civilisation had more than a single place of origin. DNA studies, on the other hand, have enabled scientists to ascertain that modern humans, including all Chinese, share common ancestors from Africa, perhaps 200,000 to 300,000 years ago, making a link to the Peking Man impossible.

Meanwhile other assertions Professor Jao made, have been found to be problematic. “Hoklo”, the term that he centred his research on, was a label used by Western missionaries in late 19th and early 20th century to distinguish the Teochews from the Hakkas. However, its original usage was probably strictly directed to the Hokkiens, rather than to the Teochews as well, and we Teochews have never adopted it for ourselves. Moreover, in both Teochew and Hokkien speech, “Helao” (河老) is pronounced as “Ho-lao”, and not “Hoklo”.  

More pertinently, it is not well-known that any memory about an epic exodus either from the Central Plain to Fujian, or from Fujian to Teochew, exists in any form of traditional Teochew expressions, such as oral story-telling, wood carvings, Teochew opera, etc.

As we learn on daily basis in this social media age that not all information seen online is true, the same requirements for critical appraisal must apply for traditional sources of knowledge, including television, newspapers and books.

Therefore the key question still stands: are Teochews the first people in our own land, or did our ancestors really migrate here from the Central Plains?

In the course of the next weeks and months, we at The Teochew Store will seek to explore with you the Origins of the Teochew people. We will search for clues and evidences in the following areas:

  • Archaeology;
  • DNA Studies;
  • Language; and
  • Historical documentations

So as they say, watch this space.


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