It was 1854, in the fourth year of Xianfeng, when the Red Turban Rebellion was beginning to sizzle out. Out of the ashes of this conflict rose another, the bloody Hakka-Punti Armed Conflicts (more commonly known as the Punti-Hakka Clan Wars). It is a war that has been erased from our collective memory. Only those who study the Qing Dynasty and those with a particular interest in the Hakka past seem to remember this tragic series of events. It appears the conflicts have become yet another victim of collective historical amnesia. Do not be fooled into thinking its obscurity is any indication of its importance. Indeed, it was far from insignificant: one million people lost their lives in these conflicts. To give you an idea of the scale, the American Civil War, sometimes dubbed the bloodiest civil war in history, claimed upwards of 700,000 (by liberal estimates) military deaths and 50,000 civilian deaths.
19th century China was marred by endless misery due to the unremitting onslaught of floods, famines, plagues, revolts, rebellions, imperialist incursions, invasions and colonisations which ultimately, among other reasons, led to the collapse of a dynasty and ended the Imperial institution of China. During the mid 19th century, many rebellions occurred contemporaneously in different areas of the Empire. The most famous Taiping Rebellion ravaged the South-Eastern and Central provinces of Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Anhui and Hubei. The Nian Rebellion ravished northern China in the provinces of Anhui, Jiangsu, Henan and Shandong. The Qian Uprising rampaged through the province of Guizhou. The Panthay Rebellion broke the Yunnan province away from the Qing. The Dungan Revolt raged on in the North-West of the Empire in Gansu, Shaanxi, Ningxia, Qinghai, Mongolia and Xinjiang. It is no wonder that the relatively small, but still catastrophic Red Turban Rebellion and the subsequent Hakka-Punti Armed Conflicts in the Guangdong province paled in comparison in terms of size, scope and impact.
Who are the Hakka and the Punti?
Hakka 客家 (Mandarin: Kejia) generally refers to a subethnicity of the Han whose ancestors were not native to the Southern provinces of China. The name literally means something along the lines of guest family or guest people.
Let us start off by enumerating a number of famous Hakka. They include Deng Xiaoping, Zhu De, Chen Yi, Ye Jianying, Hu Yaobang and Wang Zhen. Anyone familiar with modern Chinese history or politics will recognise these major players in the formation of the modern Chinese state. Aside from them, Singapore’s senior minister Lee Kuan Yew, Taiwan’s recently deceased former president Lee Teng-Hui, the Phillipines former president Corazon Aquino, as well as China’s pater patriae, Sun Yat-sen and his wife Song Qingling, as well as her sister, Song Meiling (Soong Mayling), the eloquent Madame Chiang Kai-Shek were all of Hakka descent (Erbaugh 937-940; Christiansen 1-2). It certainly is an impressive pedigree, but who are they exactly?
Liu Ping and Luo Xianglin argue that the Hakkas have unique cultural characteristics that set them apart from other Chinese. These characteristics are enumerated as follows: entrepreneurship, hardiness and stubbornness. While it is true that the Hakka exhibit these characteristics, they are also to be found commonly among other Chinese, perhaps none more so than the Punti Cantonese. These assumptions underlie a greater issue in Hakka studies. It appears that the need for the Hakka to construct a subethnical identity, distinct from other Han ethnicities, is such that some details about their history and culture have been embellished. While the focus of this article is not to dissect or debunk the Hakka identity, it is expedient for the reader to keep in mind that the distinct Hakka identity was not the leading cause for the conflicts (as much will be made clear in the following sections). On the contrary, the conflicts have contributed to the formation of a stronger Hakka identity.
Hakka of the Qing Dynasty and the subsequent era take great pride in their Chineseness, so much so that there is a slight degree of chauvinism emanating from their side, claiming to be more Chinese than other Chinese. In this definition of Hakka, we can see there is a clear ethnic/racial element to set the Hakka apart from the other Han Chinese.
More recently, several studies on the genetics of Cantonese people from Guangzhou and Hakka people from Meizhou (the purported Hakka heimat) have pointed out that the two populations are remarkably similar genetically. Huang concludes, for example, that the Hakka, Guangzhou and Chaoshan populations all exhibit significant Southern Chinese characteristics. With Hakka and Guangzhou populations sharing the most characteristics (Huang 31). Additionally, a study on mitochondrial DNA on the origins of Hakka suggests that the Meizhou Hakka are actually overwhelmingly genetically related to other Southern Han Chinese rather than the Northern Han Chinese (Wang et al. 129). Indeed, it would appear that the Hakka have not shied away from marrying locals, further confusing the distinction between guest and host.
While the Hakka are generally seen as part of the greater Han ethnicity, they do maintain a distinct language and culture different from the other Han Chinese of their host provinces. This is remarkable, some Hakka bloodlines have lived in their host provinces for as long as two millennia, yet, they are still called guests. In fact, their separate and unique language and culture combined with the low socio-economic and immigrant status othered them (Li G. 118). Their language has been frequently ridiculed in local gazetteers from various counties in Guangdong, reflecting the stigmatised Hakka identity (Li G. 118). Not surprisingly, the Hakka were subject to centuries of systemic discrimination from the Punti.
It is from this oppressive environment that the Hakka developed a strong basis of resistance through the emphasis on ethnic and ancestral pride that counteracts the stigmatised low-status identity of the Hakka. In their own perception, they went from lowly and uncultured labourer immigrants to legitimate successors and descendants of the proud Han people. Thereby claiming to be the true core of Chinese civilisation. Therefore, the classification of guest and native is more so a marker of ancestral origin, shared experience and culture rather than racial or ethnic differences based on phenotype or other biological characteristics.
Nevertheless, for the purpose of this article, the identification with the ancient history of the Hakka from as far back as the Jin Dynasty, while interesting, are not desperately relevant to the discussion of their role in the Hakka-Punti conflicts. While a brief survey will be given on the migratory patterns of the Hakka, the precise nature of their ancestral origins before they moved into the Huichaojia area is beyond the scope of this article.
The Great Migrations of the Hakka
According to early 19th century writers such as Lin Daquan 林达泉, Hakka were people who emigrated South centuries ago in order to eke out a living due to war, famine or other calamities in the Central Plains of China around Luoyang and Hebei (Zhili during the Qing). They were therefore pure descendants of the Han people before the influx of various nomadic tribes from beyond the Great Wall. The Hakka intellectual and founding father of Hakka studies, Luo Xianglin (Lo Hsiang-lin) 罗香林 (1906-1978), while he did not pioneer the idea that the Hakka were a subethnicity of the Han, did first concisely elaborate on the five major migrations of the Hakka.
He Yin emphasises the first three migratory waves and specifies that the earliest phase of Southward migration from the Central Plains of China occured around the year 290 (War of the Eight Princes) to 310 (Disaster of Yongjia) during the Jin Dynasty (265-420). Luo explains that the Xiongnu, Diqiang and Donghu incursions into areas previously inhabited by the Han people, especially during the War of the Eight Princes were a primary motivation for the first major wave of Southward emigration (Luo 40). In a similar vein, during the Disaster of Yongjia, the Xiongnu monarch Liu Yao sacked Luoyang, the capital of Jin China. The anarchy that ensued allowed for the Donghu, Xiongnu and Diqiang people to enter freely into Han settled areas. Many of the Han previously living in the Northern provinces of China proper were forced to migrate Southwards (Luo 41). According to Luo, the streams of migration split into three branches. The first of these went toward the direction of Jingzhou (modern day Hubei) to Hunan, finally ending up in the East of Guangxi. The second of the branches passed through Anhui, Henan, Hubei, Jiangxi and Jiangsu, finally settling on the border of Fujian and Jiangxi. The final branch settled in Jiangsu and the North of Zhejiang and Hubei (Luo 41).
The second migration wave occurred during the final years of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) following Huang Chao’s Rebellion toward the end of the Five Dynasties from 875-960. Huang Chao’s army rampaged through many of the Tang Dynasty’s provinces, pillaging and massacring cities as far South as Guangfu (Guangzhou). He did manage to conquer the Tang capital and proclaim himself Emperor of Qi. This rebellion was wide in scope and caused great upheaval in China. Whereas during Jin Dynasty, people could flee South and find safety, during Huang Chao’s rampage even parts of the South were dangerous. Nevertheless, the South still had relative safety. So, the people moved South through Jiangxi and finally settled in South-West of Fujian and North-East of Guangdong, an area which was unaffected by the war. The Southward migration continued for some time during the tumultuous years of the fall of the Tang Dynasty and the following era of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms. Once the country settled through Zhao Kuangyin’s re-unification of China as the First Song Dynasty Emperor, the migrations slowed.
The third migratory wave occurred during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), when the incursion of several Northern powers, the Liao Khitan, the Jin Jurchens, the Tangut from Xixia and the Mongols drove the people of the Song towards the South (He 1-2). As the Mongols gradually annexed more of China proper, they inevitably reached the boundaries of the provinces of Jiangxi, Fujian and Guangdong. This area was stubborn in its resistance against the Mongol invasion and became a hotly contested battlefield. The devastation of the area caused many Hakka to move further South, into the North-East of Guangdong (Luo 51). This wave began at the end of the Song, all the way throughout the century of Yuan Mongol rule and lasted until the middle of Ming Dynasty. It is perhaps of no surprise that in terms of absolute numbers, the third migration far outweighed the previous two major waves. (Luo 57). This is made apparent in Luo’s research, as it points out that pre-Yuan population censuses of Guangdong settlement speak of a minority of Hakka migrants. After the Yuan, the number of Hakka had grown so much that it overwhelmed the local government’s ability to tell guest and host apart (Luo 58).
The fourth took place during the Ming (1368-1644) and the Qing (1644-1911). The main reasons for this migration wave can be explained by the population explosion of this period. The previously scarcely populated areas which the Jin Dynasty Han people settled were a thing of the past. The people were many and the lands were few. Fate would have it that the infamous genocidal Zhang Xianzhong (1606-1647) had engaged in massive extermination campaigns in Sichuan, nearly depopulating the entire province. The Qing Dynasty mandated Sichuan to be repopulated from the other provinces. The Hakka were one of the groups that came to fill the void.
What needs to be known about the fifth migration is that the overpopulated Huichaojia 惠潮嘉 area; a portmanteau that refers to historical Huizhou, Chaozhou and Jiayingzhou (present day Meizhou), gave incentive for the Hakka to migrate to the Pearl River Delta in the South of Guangdong during the Qing Dynasty (Wei 167-168). It ultimately led to the Hakka-Punti Armed Conflicts which set in motion the fifth great migration of the Hakkas and is the very topic of this current article. As such, I shan’t reveal anything about the effects and the aftermath of that terrible war.
On the other hand you have Punti. Punti is a romanisation of the Cantonese pronunciation of the word bendi 本地. It literally means local/original ground and translates to something like local or native. Punti is not a term useful for determining an ethnicity, because the people it refers to naturally shifts whenever one refers to a different area.
To outsiders, such as the Northern Chinese, the people of Guangdong have always seemed a breed apart. They have been characterised as belligerent, wild and uncultivated, typical prejudiced stereotypes associated with the Nanman 南蠻 (Southern Barbarians). The Cantonese, for obvious reasons, deny these accusations and instead claim to be the true descendants and successors of Chinese and Han culture. They argue, for example, that the pleasant tones and sounds of the Cantonese language are much closer to ancient Chinese than the Northern Chinese tongues are. To prove this, they argue that ancient poems from the Tang dynasty rhyme in Cantonese, but not in Mandarin. Indeed, there is much linguistic evidence to prove that Cantonese (as well as Hakka) is closer to ancient Chinese than Mandarin. In this way, they flip the idea that the Cantonese are the barbarians, instead, they say that it is the Northerners who are Beidi 北狄 (Northern Barbarians), who have been influenced too much by the various Northern nomadic incursions and the more recent Manchu invasion.
It is often seen that people who live on the frontier of a certain culture are constantly confronted with what is and isn’t part of their own culture. For this reason, those living on the frontier are acutely aware of their cultural identity, much more so than those living in the centre would be. After all, in the centre, everything around you is by default part of your own culture. The frontier forces them to draw clear boundaries and distinguish one culture from the other. Their culture is therefore in competition with other cultures. Since the culture is not ubiquitous, nor self-evident that it will propagate itself without the active support of its members, it becomes a priority for its members to preserve the culture. This is part of the reason why we see that diaspora and immigrant communities away from their “homeland” are often more conservative than those back home. For example, Afrikaans has preserved more old Dutch features than Dutch spoken in the Netherlands. (I’ll have to be careful here) Modern Scots is closer to Shakespeare’s English than Received Pronunciation down South. Finally, Cantonese, having been on the peripheries of the Chinese Empire for the longest time, being closely related to the Baiyue people and culture, have compensated for their remoteness by reinforcing their embrace of central Chinese culture.
Liu argues that Cantonese Punti chauvinism was actually one of the causes for the conflicts between the Hakka and the Punti. It is true that the Cantonese have often disparaged the Hakka for speaking a language that sounds like birds chirping (Liu 14). (Ironically, other Chinese say the same about Cantonese, watch this video for evidence). It was also not widely known that the Hakkas were migrants from the Central Plains of China, and therefore, the Cantonese usually characterised the Hakka as wild barbarians who were just short of being Chinese and therefore perhaps of being human, akin to the Miao 苗 and the Baiyue 百越 (12-3 Luo). Wei points out that Liu emphasises the cultural prejudices and differences as main causes for the conflict, but criticises this idea since it seems to subscribe fully to Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations, in which it is proposed that cultures clash simply because they’re different (Wei 167). While the prejudice and cultural differences certainly exacerbated the existing economic conflicts with the Hakka, they cannot be seen as leading causes. To assume as such would be to deny the possibility of peaceful coexistence between different cultures. It would also be ignoring the fact that Punti Cantonese and Hakka are living side by side peacefully now. The mutual prejudices haven’t disappeared, but the economic circumstances that pitted the groups against each other have.
As is evident, both the Hakka and the Punti Cantonese claim to be descendants of the true Chinese and to be the true successors of Huaxia 華夏 (literally: Beautiful Grandeur, it refers to the Chinese civilisation). Doing so, perhaps, for very similar reasons. Naturally, even though the Cantonese are referred to as locals, whether they are genetically more local than the Hakka is still a point of contention. Historically, it appears that much “native” Cantonese blood and culture actually also is from the North. The Cantonese culture is seen as a blend of the native Yue (Baiyue) culture with influx from Han culture from the North (Huang 30). The original Yue tribes who inhabited the area are not seen as the ancestors of the Cantonese Han. Therefore, the matter of who is guest and who is local is merely a point of who got there first.
Because they got there first, the local ties of the Cantonese Punti were much more robust and integrated than the Hakka. The Cantonese Punti people had many familial connections and placed much importance in their clans. These clans were large and had the means to organise into coherent units, fit for feuding against outside competition. Such clan-like thinking and organisation led to the proliferation of various powerful militia warbands drawn from these clans, they proved to be formidable both against Hakka forces and English invasion forces as was demonstrated at Sanyuanli in 1841.
In the Hakka-Punti conflict, Punti refers to the Cantonese people who lived in the areas of Ngyap, present-day Jiangmen City, before the arrival of the Hakka from North-Eastern Guangdong.
In the 17th century, in an effort to solidify Manchu control over Southern China by trying to prevent smuggling, piracy and insurgency, the Empire depopulated a 25 km deep strip of land adjacent to the Southern Chinese coast. Those people that were driven away did not come back to inhabit those lands in 1684 when the Qing court decided to repopulate the coastal areas (Heggheim 18). Instead, most of the people attracted to come live in this new frontier were Hakkas stricken by natural disasters or who were otherwise impoverished. In the Qing dynasty, the Hakka from the Huichaojia areas suffered from overpopulation and therefore lack of arable land (Li G. 117). It was a great motivating factor for emigrating away from North-Eastern Guangdong. This large scale migration led to friction building up between the Hakka and the Punti, largely due to disputes over economic resources in which cultural differences served as oil on fire.
Initially, the Hakka arrived as tenants who worked on the farmlands owned by the Punti. The Punti were generally tough on the new immigrants and viewed the Hakka as a lower class, slave or servant like. At times, the taxes levied from the Hakka farmers were outrageous (Zhao 184). Their treatment of the Hakka people was therefore of an exploitative nature. The Hakka, once they started immigrating into new areas previously inhabited by a majority Punti population, would multiply quickly and invite many relatives over from other areas. To the Punti, these Hakka were like locusts, swarming and taking over Punti town and territories in no time (Antony 541). These circumstances fostered no small degree of badwill between the Hakka and Punti.
During this period, the Hakka were economically, socially and politically disadvantaged. For example, Li Gongzhong points out that the Hakka, due to their immigrant status, were classified as vagabond population. This meant that they were not incorporated in the household registry. In practical terms, the Hakka lacked a legal status, something which was vital in Imperial China to obtain upward social mobility, because only legal status holders were allowed to participate in the Imperial exams. In order to be registered in the household registry, they were required to jump through several stringent hoops, one of which was at least 20 years of local residence. Many Hakka tried to circumvent this law by having ‘anchor babies’ who they tried to register as locals, but their attempts, both the legal and illegal ones, were often thwarted by the Punti. To illustrate the under-representation of Hakka people in the state apparatus, the Zengcheng County’s 增城縣 total of 376 villages, 71 (19%) were Hakka. The entire county had a total of 358 examinees for the Imperial exams, only 7 (2%) of whom were Hakka (Li G. 117). The Punti therefore had many more lower officials and bureaucrats working in the local governments. This resulted in an enhanced ability to seek legal aid and justice from the government because of a more robust network (Li G. 122). Something which the Hakka were unable to do due to their low social mobility.
As the Hakka lacked the local ties and kinship bonds that the Punti did have, they formed into multi-settlement/clan organisations. These organisations served to protect the Hakka and to gain more socio-economic advantages. The systemic oppression of the Hakka could only be counteracted if the Hakka stood up for themselves. Some of these Hakka organisations grew so strong that they simply refused to pay rent or taxes to their Punti landlords. Or, they would apply social or violent pressure on the Punti landlords to sell the lands to the Hakka permanently and at a reduced price. Naturally, the Punti were less than pleased. As conflicts escalated, so too did these organisations form their own militias and build their own strongholds in order to defend themselves and to protect their properties. The Punti in the area soon followed suit, resulting in a high degree of militarisation of the area.
The problems of poverty and overpopulation also resulted in a third problem: banditry. The mountainous areas of Huizhou were already known for its banditry, the impoverished Hakka who lived in these mountains to mine or to eke out a living in other manners were quickly associated with the local banditry. That is not to say the Hakka didn’t become bandits themselves. To the contrary, during times of famine the already impoverished Hakka would form into roving bands that raided and pillaged the plentiful Punti granaries and markets (Antony 543).
In summary, there is a long history of Hakka-Punti struggles within the Guangdong province. The area of Huizhou especially was long known for its inter-group violence already in the 17th century. As is clearly visible, the resentment that arose from either side was a result of the economic relationships between the two groups, which escalated into inter-ethnic violence.
Tiandihui Uprising of 1802
The Hakkas joined the Tiandihui 天地會 (Heaven and Earth Society) in great numbers. Tiandihui were secret societies with a heavy religious element infused through its structure. They would normally draw religious concepts from Daoism, Buddhism and Chinese folk religions. It is unsure when they started appearing, but the Tiandihui spread rapidly through Southern China during the Jiaqing era (1760-1820). The growth of the Tiandihui was directly linked to the growth of what Kim calls the “migrant community” (Kim 5). While Kim does not mention the word Hakka specifically, it seems clear that the majority of migrant population moving into Guangdong during this era were the Hakka. These new migrant Hakka came into contact with the marginalised Hakka who had settled in Guangdong earlier.
That the Tiandihui were so attractive to the largely economically and politically marginalised migrant communities of Hakka is not surprising due to the nature of the Tiandihui. These Tiandihui typically upheld justice and virtue as their primary slogans. In reality, however, justice to one, means injustice to the other. Nevertheless, the organisations consisted of a close-knit band of brothers who invariably had to undergo some kind of bonding ceremony, an example of which is where they would cut their fingers, mix the droplets of blood into wine and then drink it. This ritual would transform unrelated men with different surnames into blood brothers, perhaps in imitation of the immensely popular story of the three sworn brothers, Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei (Murray 38). For young men, looking for a living in an environment largely unwelcoming to them, this was a blessing. The resulting hierarchy is reminiscent of a traditional family hierarchy, with patriarchs, brothers and uncles. As the Tiandihui grew in size and power over the course of the Qing Dynasty, the hierarchy grew to become more complex; to illustrate, additional ranks such as Grand Marshall were added, as is exemplified by the Tiandihui rebel Grand Marshall Lin Shuangwen 林爽文 (1756-1788).
According to the Enping Gazetteer, in the province of Guangdong, the Tiandihui 天地會(a.k.a. Sanhehui 三合會- Triads) would propagate some kind of religious, sectarian text and employ the use of code language. The one spreading the teachings would be called ama 阿媽 (mother), the recruiter would be called jiufu 舅父 (maternal uncle), the literatus or administrator would be called the baizhishan 白紙扇 (white fan), the liaison officer would be called the caoxie 草鞋 (straw sandals), and last but not least, the leader of the fighting force would be called the honggun 紅棍 (red pole).
Each initiate entering into the fold had to undergo a ceremony which they refer to as chushi 出世 (birth). During ceremonies, the ama would wear a red ze 幘 (a Chinese style turban) and white robes, he would prepare a five-coloured flag with the characters biao 彪 (intrepidity), shou 壽 (longevity), he 和 (peace), he 合 (unity) and tong 同 (equality). The flag would be present in five locations, each of the flags would be raised separately according to requirements of the ceremony. A sanchongmen 三重門 threefold gate would be established, each gate made up by two men opposing one another and crossing their sabres to form the shape of the Chinese character ba 八. The initiates would enter, crawling along the ground, naked and with hair worn down and crawl underneath the crossed swords. They would call themselves zai 仔 (son). They would proceed to crouch down and prostrate themselves to the polar star, recite the 36 curses and let blood from their fingers to perform the bonding ritual. Upon this, they would receive the triangle talisman, inside of which would be written cantianhonghua 參天宏化 (reach into the sky and become great). The hair would be fastened with two strings and then coiled into a bun. Of the initiates, the leader, know as the tianpai 天牌 (heavenly card), would coil the bun straight on the forehead. The others, called the dipai 地牌 (earthly card), would coil the buns on the back of the head. The seniors, those who joined the brotherhood earlier were called renpai 人牌 (human card) and would coil their hair on the left ear. Juniors, called hepai 和牌 (peace card) would coil their hair on the right ear. They would then all put on a short jacket, a coloured sash and blue hoses, pointed xi 屣 (a type of sandal) and bared weapons. Following this, the members would ask each other about their backgrounds, names, origins and all other details, all to identify those who had now joined the fold (Liu 71).
Note the symbolism of naming each of the four groups heaven, earth, human and peace. The convergence of the three elements, heaven, earth, and human creates the result of peace – thus giving meaning to the meaning of a Sanhehui (society of three convergences) and tiandihui (heaven and earth society). Also crawling underneath the crossed swords have their symbolic meaning; if the initiates were ever to renege on their vows and oaths, the swords would fall and kill them (Murray 70).
In 1802, a large scale conflict between Hakka led Tiandihui and the Punti militias as well as government troops broke out. The government discovered that the Tiandihui were growing increasingly active in the Northern regions of Guangdong as well as the neighbouring provinces of Fujian. So, they had arrested hundreds of Tiandihui members who were planning to rob Punti villages. Punti organisations also had a hand in apprehending these hundreds of Hakka Tiandihui members.
Elsewhere, a Punti organisation called the Ox Head Society (Cantonese: ngautau wui 牛頭會), decided to aid the government by capturing a Hakka leader of a Tiandihui cell. More cells of the Tiandihui rose up, and began to exact revenge upon villages associated with the Ox Head Society. The fighting escalated, which prompted the government to call in the army, which was aided by the Punti militias in order to exterminate the Hakka Tiandihui rebels. Pockets of resistance continued to simmer until they were all extinguished a year or so later. The aftermath was devastating. Over 240 villages and markets, both Punti and Hakka, had been burnt, looted or razed (Kim 2). By the end of it all, Antony speculates that as many as tens of thousands of lives had been lost in this episode.
News soon reached other cells of the sizeable Tiandihui, of which most of the members were Hakka, and they chose not to go down without a fight. To the government, these Tiandihui were subversive and dangerous, so even being a member of a Tiandihui was a serious crime (Antony 559). So, a prominent leader from a Hakka family, Chen Lanjisi 陳爛屐四, decided to take his chances as an outlaw and moved into his mountain base of operations, from where he launched raids on Punti villages. Eventually, their operations were dissolved.
Red Turban Rebellion
This section draws heavily from Kim Jaeyoon’s research on the Red Turban Rebellion.
The province of Guangdong was in dire straits during the Late Qing Dynasty. As Kim calls it, the province was “chronically disturbed.” The large scale influx of drugs, courtesy of the British Empire, was troubling the overpopulated, impoverished and increasingly lawless Cantonese society (Kim 1). As mentioned before, the ranks of the Tiandihui were originally mainly drawn from the migrant and marginalised Hakka population. Yet, as time passed, the Tiandihui gradually entered Punti society as well. Gradually, the once significant Hakka composition, at least among the leadership, made way for more of the Punti. Luo Baoshan’s research points out that among the 28 major leaders of the Tiandihui in this era, only one was Hakka (Citation to be found in Kim 17).
The Tiandihui became organised crime syndicates which made drug trade, prostitution, human trafficking and piracy its main business (Kim 5). By 1804, Ye Mingchen 葉名琛, the renowned stubborn Governor-General of Guangdong and Guangxi, reported of Tiandihui connections with pirates. By 1836, the Tiandihui had spread all throughout the Pearl River Delta. A memorial substantiates the idea that the Tiandihui had involved themselves in opium smuggling.
In 1854, Tiandihui engaged in open insurrection against the Imperial government. This rebellion is known by many names, the most common one used in the west is the Red Turban Rebellion, but they called themselves Hongbing 洪兵 (great soldiers) and were sometimes known as Hongbing 紅兵(red soldiers). The Red Turbans wore red headbands, which they were named after (Guangdong Hongbing Qiyi 3). Their rebellion occurred contemporaneously with the more famous Hakka led Taiping Rebellion. The two rebellions could be seen as having a mutual enemy, the Manchu Imperial Regime. The Red Turban Rebellion were initially a series of mutually inspired smaller insurrections rather than a united insurrection led by a single leader or organisation from the onset. The rebellion aimed to restore the Ming Dynasty. But, because of the disorganised nature of the rebellion, the motives for each of the cells that joined the rebellion varied greatly. Some joined with grand political motives, others joined purely for economic reasons (Guangdong Hongbing Qiyi 6).
Divided though they were, these societies still wielded considerable manpower. In 1854, 50,000 of these outlaws captured Qingyuan, a city in Northern Guangdong, proclaiming to restore the Ming Dynasty. The capture of Qingyuan sparked the Tiandihui in Conghua to rise up as well. Some of the forces raised were actually also Taiping affiliated. Some leading figures in the Red Turban Rebellion where both members of the Tiandihui and involved with the Taiping. It should be clarified that we cannot speak of an alliance. The Christianity influenced leaders of the Taiping Rebellion regarded the Tiandihui as devil worshippers. Though, it cannot be denied that the two rebellions were closely involved with one another.
At the end of 1854, the leaders of the Tiandihui gathered in a temple in Foshan. The separate groups of the Tiandihui made a sacrifice to the flag of rebellion here. It signified an alliance between the previously scattered and disorganised Tiandihui. With their newfound unity, the Tiandihui laid siege to Guangfu (Guangzhou). The failure to coordinate their assault on the city gave Guangzhou valuable opportunities to organise a defence. Ye Mingchen was able to convince a British warship to deploy on the Pearl River, preventing the planned naval assault of the Red Turbans. Another assault was thwarted by Qing Bannermen and militia organised by the gentry. The assault that did reach Guangzhou could not find a foothold within the city and were subsequently beaten by the Qing Bannermen.
As little headway was made by the Tiandihui, the splintered clusters of rebellion began to spread out and head North into Hunan, where they joined the Taiping Rebellion under a new name: the Flower Standard. Other splinter groups travelled west into Guangxi and established a kingdom there called Dacheng (Guangdong Hongbing Qiyi 8). A third branch moved South along the waters and established a foothold on the Leizhou Peninsula (see map), where they became pirates (Guangdong Hongbing Qiyi 7).
This is when the White Terror began. The government troops (militia organised and funded by Cantonese gentry who wore white headbands and turbans) engaged in a province wide hunt for Red Turban rebels. 70,000 rebels in the area of Guangzhou alone received the cold embrace of death (Liu 77).
End of Part 1
Thus far we have briefly surveyed the Hakka migration history and touched lightly upon Hakka genetics and identity. Evidently, the Hakka and the Punti of this era were intertwined in heavy conflict. We zoomed in somewhat on the Tiandihui, the Tiandihui uprising and the subsequent Red Turban Rebellion, all, in a way, precursors to the Hakka-Punti War. In the next part we shall discuss this war in its minutiae, painting a picture and timeline of the war that — to my dismay — isn’t accessible on the internet and is difficult to come by in print.
The Hakka had a history of constant violence, being driven from their homes by force and facing numerous hardships in a kind of exile from their own homeland once they made their exodus. The threat to their livelihoods, identities and even existence forged a strong need to preserve and protect that what is theirs, forming the basis of a people suited for battle and efficient at wartime organisation and mobilisation. A simple truth can be extracted from their history: hardships strengthen a people. A sense of danger, a sense of unease, a constant looming threat keeps a people vigilant and ready to rise up for their rights.
“When we long for life without difficulties, remind us that oaks grow strong in contrary winds and diamonds are made under pressure.”Peter Marshall
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