The Teochew Store Blog

Speaking of Reason, Reasonableness and Romance of the Teochew people

Ask other Chinese of the reputation of the Teochew people and you will probably get descriptions like hard-nosed businessmen, diligent and thrifty workers, and in the case of Hong Kongers, perhaps even unruly members of clannish gangs. These stereotypes were no doubt true to an extent relevant to our forefathers’ struggle for survival in a difficult stretch of time in history. Yet behind these impressions of being calculating pragmatists, Teochews hold above the authority of reason in the regulation of manners and behaviour.

In any situation of negotiation or conflict, all parties are always urged toda-dau-li  呾道理, to speak “the immutable law of reason”. As Lin Yutang (in My Country and My People) explains, the correctness of this reason is not based just on logical reasoning, but also reasonableness in touch with the human nature. Being reasonable allows situations to be handled with flexibility, understanding and realism. Being reasonable means matters of business are discussed over sessions of tea, and not thrashed out over endless revisions of lengthy proposals and contracts.

In the belief of Teochew people, knowledge of this eternal reason is assumed to be possessed in any civilised person. It is a universal authority higher even than written law. Laws after all were historically prescribed by emperors in faraway imperial capitals. As a 1868 British publication observed, people from Teochew were “noted for their independent and turbulent spirit” and “rank among those who are sparing in their allegiance to the court of Peking, and seldom yield up the quota of revenue justly due to the emperor”. It is thus this invisible hand of reason that keeps order in the whole Teochew society even when centres of political power rise and fall.

One of the lasting memories almost every visitor takes away from Swatow is the disordered state of its traffic. Especially during peak hours, the main road junctions are choked with taxis, public buses, motorcycles, three-wheelers, bicycles and modern sedans that seem out-of-place in the tired-looking city. However amidst the apparently mad jostles for the right of way that the traffic lights and road lanes barely have power to restrain, we see also the magic of reason at work. Like dancers on a stage, motorists and pedestrians move ahead and step sideways in prefect synchrony to allow the movement of everyone without accident or gridlock. Spend enough time in the city and you will appreciate the beauty of spontaneous order.


A society shaped by the reasonableness of its common souls, rather than reasoning from the top, supports the pursuit of happiness for all. True there is no Eiffel Tower and roadside restaurants for dating couples are rare in Swatow, but Teochews are a hopelessly romantic people. This is seen in the love of our older folks for storylines centred on love in the Teochew operas, over plots with patriotic themes that are preferred in northern China. Especially popular are local folktales where the main characters’ true love overcome the rigidities of the ideal Confucian society that stand between them and forever happiness.

Amongst the many Teochew opera plays, none is as well-loved as the tale of Sou Lak-nio  蘇六娘 – the sixth lady of the Sou family – that the troupes also never tire of performing. Set in the Ming dynasty, this equivalent of Romeo and Juliet out of Gek-yor 揭陽 (Jieyang) tells of a love between the young daughter of an esquire and her cousin that was threatened by her father’s agreement to marry her to a scholar from a well-to-do family. Despite his love for his only daughter, Sou Lak-nio’s father refused to heed her protests as the arrangement was made by a senior member of the Sou clan. To allow a girl final say against her family elders’ wishes was considered outrageous and shameful for a respectable family. This forced Sou Lak Nio to attempt to take her own life by jumping into a river on the eve of her wedding. However unlike the Shakespearean version, this story ends on a happy note. Sou Lak-nio’s faithful servant girl Tho-hue桃花 finds her in time and with the aid of an old friendly boatman helped her elope with her cousin. Freedom triumphs in the end over “proper” society with the approving applause of the crowd. 


*Read Helga Werle's excellent act by act narration of the Sou Lak-nio plot in English here (opens PDF file).

Or watch the all-time favourite 1957 movie version of  Sou Lak-nio below:

Part 1

Part 2


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Becoming Gaginang

The online Teochew community has been abuzzed in recent weeks with the jingle “Teochew nang 潮州人, Gaginang 家己人, hey-o, hey-o” sung to the tune of Jambalaya. Simple as the lyrics may be, the ear-catcher produced by the Singapore Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan has tugged the heartstrings in many of us.

Gaginang, meaning “(my/our) own people”, is an expression all too familiar for Teochews all over the world. No matter who we are or where we come from, once spoken, it melts away every barrier standing between us and a fellow Teochew.  Besides being the name of a popular website dedicated to the promotion Teochew culture, it is said that Gaginang was in the past the “codeword” that gets you out of trouble if you were ever so unfortunate to be caught in one of the fights of the notorious Teochew triad in Hong Kong.

While we may now have a laugh, the Gaginang identity was formed as result of much pain and hardship, revealed in the full maxim “Teochew-nang, Gaginang, pah-si bho-siang-gang 潮州人, 家己人, 拍死無相干". Literally it means “Teochew people, own people, beat (each other) to death and (it) does not matter”. Although this can be interpreted as “we are together as a people, no matter what happens”, there is still plenty to ponder as to why the idea of beating up one another, to death, even crossed the minds of our forefathers?

Surprising as it sounds, the notion of Gaginang is actually fairly recent. Traditionally the Teochew society was divided in tight-knit clans completely protective of its own members, but distrustful of everyone else. Marriages were seldom arranged with families beyond the next adjacent village. This created an explosive environment during the Qing dynasty when imperial oppression and corruption reduced Teochew prefecture to extreme poverty and lawlessness, and turned the clans and alliances of clans against one another.  The eye witness account of John Scarth who visited Teochew in 1856 reveals an era of widespread fighting and kidnapping that forced the building of walls sixteen to twenty feet high for defence against neighbouring villages not of a quarter of mile in distant. Some four decades later, John Thomson was even told of a gruesome tale of a prisoner in the clan feud having his heart cut out, boiled and eaten. 

The Teochews who ventured to Southeast Asia in search of livelihood on the other hand, could afford no such “luxury”. Away in foreign land and separated from their family network, they could only seek companionship and support from fellow Teochew emigrants, who were the only ones who spoke the same language and understood their needs. In places where even the other groups of Chinese were hostile, unity was the sole key to survival. This common experience of diaspora had a healing effect on the fractious tribe, and by the turn of the 20th century the Teochews overseas had learned to see beyond parochial clan interests.

The Teochew prefecture was struck by a series of natural disasters in the early 1900s, including the Swatow Typhoon that took away more than 100,000 lives in 1922. Overcoming their differences from the past, thousands of Teochews abroad from all districts and social classes pulled together their resources to provide aid and relief to victims in the homeland. In areas where local government officials were incapacitated or simply incompetent, directors of the Teochew association in Shanghai stepped in to provide much needed leadership. The recovery of Swatow was swift. When nations across the globe were embroiled in depression in the 1930s, the city’s port was the path of growth to become the third largest in China, after only Shanghai and Guangzhou. This was the moment in history when the world discovered the strength of the Gaginang spirit – a spirit based on sacrificial giving and caring of all Teochews as one big family, a spirit we will do well to carry on with.



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10 Things You Must Know As A Teochew

#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. 


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Roots-Finding: Locating Your Ancestral Village in Teochew (Part 2)

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!


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Roots-Finding: Locating Your Ancestral Village in Teochew (Part 1)

The Teochew identity has come alive in the social media age. With revived interest in the language and culture many overseas Teochews have embarked on “roots-finding” trips to Swatow. A growing number, young and old, are even considering the further step visit the village of their ancestral origin. But for some this is a challenging mission.  

The vast majority of Teochews living abroad, if not all, are immigrants who left their homes before the 1960s, or their descendents. Because of long separation, many have lost contact with family members and relatives in Teochew and with the passing of the older generations, names and addresses can no longer be recalled. But even if the lines of inquiry with the elder folks are broken, there is still hope. 

A peculiar character of the early Teochew emigrants is that they perceived themselves as sojourners, and always harboured hopes of returning home to the place where they or their fathers came from. For this reason their gravestones are almost always engraved with the names of their county and village of origin. Thus for those keen to find out where your Teochew roots lie exactly, paying a visit to the grave(s) of deceased relatives can yield invaluable information.  

Notwithstanding great changes in China in the previous century, overseas Teochews maintain the convention of referring to local places in our ancestral homeland as they were during the late Qing dynasty period. Teochew was then governed as a now-defunct prefecture, which was sub-divided into eight counties, namely: 1. Hai-yor 海陽 2. Jaopeng 饒平 3. Thenghai 澄海  4. Teo-yor 潮陽 5. Gek-yor 揭陽 6.Pholeng 普寧 7.Huilai 惠来 and 8.Hongsun 豐順.  These are often reflected on the gravestones in the following shortened form:  1.海邑 2. 饒邑 3.澄邑 4.潮邑 5.揭邑  6.普邑 7.惠邑 and 8.豐邑. (The word Ip 邑 refers to “county”.) 

Hai-yor was renamed Teo-an 潮安 in 1914 and it encompasses also the Teochew prefectural city, now called Chaozhou. Although many overseas Teochews recall that their forefathers left overseas from Swatow, it is rare for a person to trace his/her ancestral origin to Swatow itself.  This is because even though Swatow was the most important port and centre of commerce in Teochew in the early 1900s, it was merely a settlement of less than 5,000 inhabitants under Thenghai county before it became a Treaty Port after the Second Opium War in 1860. 

The old Teochew prefecture area is currently administered under the three prefectural-level cities Teochew (Chaozhou), Swatow (Shantou) and Gek-yor (Jieyang), each further divided into multiple municipal districts and counties-towns-villages. The table below shows the historical Teochew sub-divisions (names in Teochew transliteration and traditional Chinese) and their modern equivalent(s) (names in hanyu pinyin and simplified Chinese):

  1. Hai-yor 海陽 / Teo-an 潮安 -  Chaozhou Chao'an District  潮州市潮安区

  2. Jaopeng 饒平 -  Chaozhou Raoping County 潮州市饶平县

  3. Thenghai 澄海 - Shantou Chenghai District 汕头市澄海区; Shantou Longhu District 汕头市龙湖区

  4. Teo-yor 潮陽 - Shantou Haojiang District 汕头市濠江区; Shantou Chaoyang District 汕头市潮阳区; Shantou Chaonan District 汕头市潮南区

  5. Gek-yor 揭陽 - Jieyang Rongcheng District 揭阳市榕城区; Jieyang Jiedong District 揭阳市揭东区; Jieyang Jiexi County 揭阳市揭西县

  6. Pholeng 普寧 - Jieyang Puning City  揭阳市普宁市

  7. Huilai 揭阳市惠来 - Jieyang Huilai County揭阳市惠来县

  8. Hongsun 豐順 - Meizhou Fengshun County 梅州市丰顺县

  9. Teochew Prefectural City 潮州府城 -  Chaozhou Xiangqiao District 潮州市湘桥区

  10. Swatow 汕頭 (part of Thenghai before 1921) -  Shantou Jinping District 汕头市金平区 

  11. Namoa island南澳 (included into Teochew prefecture after 1914) - Shantou Nan'ao County 汕头市南澳县

Contrary to the perception of some, local communities in Teochew are highly resilient and the majority of them remain intact despite recent decades of rapid economic and social transformations.   

Once you have the name of your ancestral village from the gravestone(s) or other sources, you can try to locate them on Baidu Map. Be mindful that the inscriptions on the gravestones are usually in traditional Chinese characters and you need to convert them to simplified Chinese. Also the Teochew term for village hie 鄉 is now replaced by the modern standard Chinese character ceng 村. If you are looking for a place in Hai-yor/Teo-an that is not indicated by village 鄉, but by the word hang 巷, it is very like to be a street within the old prefectural city. For your online searches, replace 巷 with the current equivalent goi 街.


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