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Hakka

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The outcasts who built China

The Hakka people -- the 'Jews of Asia', or perhaps its 'dandelions' -- have had an influence out of all proportion to their numbers

Jonathan Manthorpe

Vancouver Sun, July 10, 2004

There is a handful of men who can be justly called the architects of modern Greater China. With very different political purposes and philosophical viewpoints they have fashioned today's principal independent Chinese societies: Mainland China, Singapore and Taiwan.

Deng Xiaoping, China's paramount leader until his death in 1997, decided in the mid-1970s that the country's isolation and Marxist-Leninist centrally controlled command economy were dead ends. He launched China into the global marketplace, a revolutionary move that will see the country develop the world's second- largest economy within the next half dozen years and has set it on the route to super-power status.

Lee Kuan Yew created the extraordinarily successful trading city-state of Singapore on a small collection of islands and with few more resources than the skills and hard work of its two million people. In semi-retirement Lee remains the guiding hand behind Singapore and has become the guru of "Asian values." the doctrine that North Atlantic political and social mores are not always applicable east of Suez.

Lee Teng-hui has overseen the transition of the independent island of Taiwan from military dictatorship to full democracy, demonstrating that some civic values are universal. In 1996 he became Taiwan's first freely elected president and the island's first Taiwanese leader.

Since his retirement from frontline politics in 2000 Lee Teng-hui has cast aside the diplomacy of power and revealed himself as a passionate advocate of international recognition of the island's independence.

These men could not be more dissimilar in their styles and objectives, yet they have one thing in common. They are all sons of an often despised and persecuted Chinese minority group, the Hakka.

There are about 90 million people among China's population of 1.3 billion who identify themselves as Hakka and perhaps another 50 million living elsewhere in the world.

The Hakka may well be the most widely dispersed culturally distinct group. Hakka live all over Europe and Asia, on the islands of the Caribbean, in several parts of Latin America, up and down the coast of East Africa and, of course, in North America. There are believed to be about 35,000 Hakka among Canadians of Chinese origin.

But where the Hakka came from and how they have managed to remain a distinct and often culturally close-knit group remains a matter of heated debate. What is undeniable, though, is that the Hakka have influenced modern China and its diasporas out of all proportion to their numbers.

The Hakka have sometimes been called "the Jews of Asia." There is a compelling argument that persecution, ghettoization and forced migrations have bred in the Hakka qualities of resolution, resourcefulness and adaptability that also mark European Jewry.

Hakka historian Lee Siu-leung prefers a different comparison.

"I think a more appropriate paraphrase may be the dandelion. It's a little flower, tough enough to survive the harshest environment, travels to all corners of the world, plants its roots in the poorest soils and blooms with yellow flowers. It has a lot of useful culinary and medicinal applications yet few people know about them. There are many varieties, tall and short, large and small. They adapt to the surrounding, but still remain recognizable as dandelions."

That picture fits with a self-deprecating description Hakka sometimes apply to themselves. "We live in the cracks in society," they often say.

As far as anyone has been able to discover, the Hakka are not racially distinct from other Chinese. They seem to be just as much a part of the central race, the Han, as any other Chinese.

However, there are claims

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