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