Indigo Rising

Thirty Years of Hakka Activism

2018 / September

Esther Tseng /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Jonathan Barnard

December 28, 1988 was the date of the “Return Our Mother Tongue” march, which called for ­­Hakka education, ­­Hakka television and radio shows, and the lifting of restrictions on broadcasts in “dialect.” It was the first event that brought widespread attention to ­­Hakka activism.

In the 30 years since, ­­Hakka activists have largely succeeded in their struggle, achieving the three main demands of that era’s ­­Hakka demonstrations: ­Hakka has been designated a “national language,” the government funds ­Hakka television and radio broadcasts, and images of ­Hakka life have become widely accepted as part of Taiwan’s richly diverse cultural and ethnic fabric.



Do you know how ­Hakka traditional residences, folk songs, indigo-dyed tunics and flowery prints, as well as the 12 major ­Hakka festivals and holidays, became representative of Taiwan’s folk culture? The ­Hakka messages on buses and metros, the ­Hakka shows on radio and television, and the ­Hakka classes in schools—examples from everyday life that are fruits of ­Hakka activism and the ­Hakka cultural revival—were prohibited at the time of the repeal of martial law in Taiwan more than 30 years ago. Back then there wasn’t equality under the law. Instead, the political structure was an instrument of oppression.

­Hakka invisibility

In 1683 the Qing emperor ­Kangxi announced a decree banning people in Guang­dong Province from crossing the sea to Taiwan. Although the decree was aimed at stopping ­Hakka migration, destitute Hak­kas without any means of livelihood on the Chinese mainland continued to make the crossing in secret. In the middle years of Emperor Qian­long’s reign (1735-1796), in response to fighting in Taiwan between Hok­kien and ­Hakka speakers, and between settlers who traced their roots to Zhang­zhou and those who traced them to Quan­zhou, the Qing adopted a “divide and conquer” strategy. A variety of policies turned the minority ­Hakka into a disadvantaged group, with a status so low they were nearly invisible.

On July 15, 1987 the end of martial law was announced in Taiwan. The move spurred much social activism, including a push from Hak­kas to regain a sense of ethnic identity and to step out of the shadows of Taiwan society with a new sense of ­Hakka consciousness.

HAM at the enlightened forefront

The first wave of the ­Hakka movement came with the founding of ­Hakka Affairs Monthly.

In June of 1987 Chiu Rong-jeo, who had just joined the faculty at National Taiwan University, got together for discussions with ­Liang Jing-feng and ­Zhong Chun-lan at the Yuan­nong teahouse on Tai­pei’s Ren’ai traffic circle (the teahouse had just been opened by Su Chih-fen, former chief executive of the Yun­lin County Government). After two or three such talks, they decided to found a magazine that would give a voice to the concerns of Taiwan’s ­Hakka.

Chung Chun-lan, the only woman among the magazine’s founders, was then editor­-in-chief of the China Times. She recalls, “I hoped that the ­Hakka movement championed by us at ­Hakka Affairs Monthly wouldn’t simply focus on Hak­kas but would instead display a multicultural social perspective.”

­Hakka Affairs Monthly in its October 1987 founding issue published an editorial in which it clearly affirmed the importance of “establishing new value for the ­Hakka people” and of “turning over a new leaf.” Furthermore, the headline on its cover read: “Opening a new chapter in the history of the ­Hakka people.” Chiu Rong-jeo, who served as publisher for a time, says that the founding of HAM was the spark that ignited ­Hakka activism.

“Return our mother tongue”

Meanwhile, in an unprecedented move, 30-some ­Hakka social organizations banded together to form the ­Hakka Rights Promotion Union, which announced ­Hakka movement objectives. Wanting long-suffering Hak­kas to raise their voices, the group decided to organize the “Return Our Mother Tongue” march.

They designed the march around ROC founding father Sun Yat-sen as its honorary leader. A bust of Sun was carried at the very front of the march, suggesting that he was leading his ­Hakka children to the government in protest. Before the march started, they took oaths at Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. Fu Wen-­zheng, then a member of the Taiwan Provincial Assembly, was director of the march, and in ­Hakka he read a speech titled “In Honor of Sun Yat-Sen’s Memory”: “We, those generations of Hak­kas following Sun Yat-sen, bow and pray to his spirit in heaven that he may bless the Hak­kas with solidarity and good fellowship. May the ­Hakka language be passed down forever! May the ­Hakka people’s backbones remain strong as we strive to achieve great things!”

On the first float of the parade flew the black flag of the yi­min (“righteous martyrs”—the ­Hakka volunteer militia that fought against an insurrection in the late 18th century), who were adopted as a symbol of the protest. Nearly 10,000 people joined the march. From Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, they marched to the Legislative Yuan, shouting their demands in ­Hakka, Hok­kien and Mandarin: “Return our mother tongue! Hak­kas have a right to exist and a right to our own language and media.”

In Chiu Rong-jeo’s view, the 1988 march arose from a sense of crisis that ­Hakka culture needed saving and that the dignity and position of Hak­kas was worth fighting for. It was the first demonstration that spotlighted the Hak­kas.

One passionate youth who tied a strip of white fabric around his forehead with the words “Return our mother tongue” written on it was Lin ­Kuang-hwa, who would go on to become chairman of the Taiwan Provincial Government. Now white-haired, Lin points out that ethnicity is typically based around language. We ask that all languages used in Taiwan be regarded as “Taiwanese” and that all of them get respect. 

The fruits of ­Hakka activism

There is an apt ­Hakka proverb: “When the boat gets to the head of the beach, the way will become clear. But when the boat gets to the middle of the river, it will be too late to mend its holes.” The attorney Chen Shih-shan believes that the three demands of the 1988 march—bilingual education, the establishment of ­Hakka shows on radio and television, and revisions to Article 20 of the Radio and Television Act to ease restrictions on “dialect programming”—have since been realized one after another. Restrictions on the use of the ­Hakka language have turned into protections for its use.

The main achievement of ­Hakka activism has been in achieving legal protections for ­Hakka rights, as ­Hakka issues have become a concern of the government. Established in 2001, the Executive Yuan’s ­Hakka Affairs Council was the first ROC government agency focused on ­Hakka affairs. In Chiu Rong-jeo’s view the ­Hakka movement in Taiwan has entered a second phase, shifting from active popular struggle toward pro-­Hakka policies by the government.

Championing the right of Hak­kas to be heard, in 2003 the first ­Hakka serial drama was broadcast on Taiwan Public Television Service (PTS) in the 8 p.m. primetime slot. In the same year a “Best Vocalist, ­Hakka” category was added to the Golden Melody Awards; the cable station ­Hakka TV was launched shortly thereafter. In 2017, the government provided a nationwide channel (FM 105.9) for ­Hakka Radio. These are examples of how the ­Hakka people’s fight to be heard and for their culture to be disseminated has triumphed.

The ­Hakka Basic Act took effect on Jan­uary 27, 2010. It promotes the establishment of key development districts that focus on ­Hakka culture, a “­Hakka affairs” elective category to become a component of high-school entrance exams, ­Hakka-language competence certification, and the designation of the ­Hakka language as a part of basic education in ­Hakka communities.

So that the nation’s guarantee of ­Hakka rights will keep up with the times, on January 1 of this year ROC president Tsai Ing-wen promulgated revisions to the ­Hakka Basic Act that require the government to establish a “­Hakka Public Broadcasting Foundation.” Whereas ­Hakka and Hok­kien used to be called “dialects,” the revised act expressly stipulates that ­Hakka, Hok­kien and Formosan Aboriginal languages are all designated “national languages”—reflecting the government’s multicultural language policy.

The glorious history of ­Hakka culture

Chang Wei-an, dean of the College of ­Hakka Studies at National ­Chiao Tung University, points out that the ­Hakka movement brought the Hak­kas from being “illegal immigrants” to being true citizens of Taiwan. Traditionally people have thought of Hok­kien when they hear the term “Taiwanese,” giving the impression that ­Hakka isn’t a language of Taiwan. Now we can say that Hak­kas are Taiwanese, and that ­Hakka is a national language. A salient achievement of the democratization of Taiwan’s society is the willingness to respect Hak­ka culture. The government has also been making efforts to assist in the preservation of ­Hakka culture overseas.

Yet there are still concerns regarding the future of ­Hakka culture. ­Chang Wei-an has observed that the use of ­Hakka in ­Hakka communities around the world is in decline. For example, only 4.9% of families in Taiwan where both parents are Hak­kas speak ­Hakka at home with their children. In one school-sponsored ­Hakka speech competition, the winnng student wasn’t in the habit of speaking ­Hakka at home. Government campaigns on their own cannot spur a great ­Hakka revival. All they can do is slow down ­Hakka’s cultural decline.

“Worry not that the road is too long,” advises a ­Hakka proverb. “Fear only that one’s will is too short.” The ­Hakka movement is a work in progress. Hak­kas “would rather sell their ancestors’ fields than forget their ancestors’ language.” By continuing to work hard at passing down and preserving ­Hakka culture, ­Hakka activists aim to bring rewards to generation after generation to come.

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