OPINION: We love Hakka? Maybe It's Time to Let It Go

OPINION: We love Hakka? Maybe It's Time to Let It Go
Credit: AP Photo/Wally Santana
What you need to know

The maintenance of Taiwan's Hakka culture depends on more than government support for the language.

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Let’s stop torturing our kids by forcing them to learn minority languages that they will never use. English is hard enough.

Radio listeners can catch International Community Radio Taipei's “We Love Hakka” segment several times per day (full disclosure: I work as a correspondent for ICRT in south Taiwan). The radio show is not everyone’s cup of lei cha, but it follows a similar pattern across Taiwan: promoting and teaching Hakka culture by teaching and promoting the Hakka language.

Not that there is anything wrong with that, but language is only one part of culture.

More disclosure: I’m married to a Hakka woman who actually speaks Hakka. She is the only one among her siblings who can have a passable conversation with elderly folk in her hometown in Pingtung County. My two daughters are therefore half-Hakka, making me a member of the tribe through marriage.

I don’t speak a word of Hakka and neither will either of my kids. If they learn Mandarin and English fluently, I’ll consider that a win. Less than 20 percent of Taiwan is Hakka; except of course in an election year when seemingly every politician running for office suddenly discovers that they too are Hakka! What are the chances?!

You might have noticed Hakka was made an “official” language of Taiwan in late December 2017, with new rules demanding civil servants in Hakka areas learn the language and that in any place where over 50 percent of residents are Hakka, Hakka is to be the lingua franca.

I was in a “majority Hakka” town not long ago, the Kaohsiung District of Meinong where some 80-90 percent of residents are Hakka. Guess how much Hakka I heard? None. Locals, some indigenous Taiwanese, some “Fujianese,” some more recent arrivals from China and Southeast Asian nations, all communicated in what many call “Taiwanese.” Why? It’s the lingua franca of the area!

Taiwan has two dialects of Hakka, one used primarily in the Miaoli area of western Taiwan, and one found mostly in the southern Kaohsiung / Pingtung region. The language has at least five tones.

The Hakka Affairs Council’s 2017 budget was NT$2.81 billion (US$100 million) — yes, with a “B.” Its mission is to preserve and protect Hakka culture in Taiwan. The council spends that cash on a myriad of concerts, TV shows, events, a massive center in Pingtung called the Liudui Hakka Cultural Park and other endeavors, but a nice chuck goes to teaching and promoting the Hakka language.

Add as many zeros to the end of that figure as you like and it won’t change a thing: Hakka speakers are a minority and will remain so.

So why do much of the government’s Hakka cultural preservation efforts focus on language?

Taiwan’s Hakka have a fascinating culture, and the best way to preserve that culture is by making sure the next generation knows about it – in whatever language they speak.

Stop trying to teach me the Hakka name of a garment for unmarried females and tell me the story behind the garment — that’s preserving culture.

History is stories. Stories have long helped humans pass on culture. So stop trying to teach me the Hakka name of a garment for unmarried females and tell me the story behind the garment — that’s preserving culture.

Several of my close Hakka friends had never even heard the story of Zhu Yi-gui (朱一貴), a Taiwanese duck farmer who in 1721 led an uprising against the Qing forces in Taiwan and proclaimed himself King. The “Duck King” was defeated by a Liudui Hakka militia near Pingtung and was hauled off to Peking and beheaded.

That story is Taiwanese Hakka culture.

Hakka people have been in Taiwan for some 300 years and were among the first immigrants from China to arrive here. Hakka culture on Taiwan has undergone so many changes over the centuries that it can be called unique without hyperbole. I want my daughters to learn the stories, the history, and the customs of their ancestors … but I couldn’t care less what language they’d prefer to learn about it in.

Let’s stop torturing our kids by forcing them to learn minority languages that they will never use. English is hard enough. Hakka isn’t going to “die” as a language, but rather it will continue to be what it’s always been: one of the many minority languages spoken in Taiwan. If your grandma is Hakka and that’s what she speaks, there’s a chance — like my wife — you might pick up a working knowledge, but for most others, learning Hakka is simply not a good investment of time, even for the ethnically Hakka.

Culture and language are not always intertwined. The U.S., Canada, Australia, the UK and other nations speak English, but no one would argue Australian culture is identical to U.S. culture. Oh and by the way, guess what America’s official language is? It doesn’t have one.

So how about promoting Taiwan’s Hakka culture in English? That’s how you promote something: by finding the easiest way to disseminate information to the largest audience.

When they are old enough, my children are going to hear the story of the Hakka who defeated the “duck king” and learn about the Hakka Robin Hood figure Lin Shao-mao (林少貓) — a tragic hero of the anti-Japanese resistance who kept fighting until finally being persuaded to surrender his Hakka “Alamo” fort in what is today Kaohsiung’s Xiaogang District in 1899, only to be massacred along with all his people by a huge Japanese army in 1902 –but they are going to hear these stories in either English or Chinese.

Come to think of it, probably via a comic book.

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