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The Devastating Legacy of the Hakka-Punti Clan Wars
Author’s note: If you want to watch the video, it is hosted below:
The Hakka Punti wars are a regional affair, but that does not make it any less fierce than any of the other conflicts taking place at the time. When you read about the violence committed then, you get a good feel for why Chinese everywhere were trying to emigrate out to other lands.
I remember reading about it when I was researching the history of the Hakka people. It was seen as one of the four big migrations of the Hakka people that brought them to where they are now. With the Hakka as widespread as they are today, I felt like it was worth a video.
The history of the Hakka has always been fascinating to me, and I enjoyed writing this.
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The Taiping Rebellion was the major Hakka-related conflict of the 19th century, but the Hakka-Punti wars turned out to be equally devastating for the Hakka people. Much of the overseas Chinese living abroad today do so as a consequence of these clan wars.
In this video, I want to talk about this largely forgotten series of conflicts. It was a tragic and terrible time for everyone living then.
(I want to apologize in advance for the images here. Needless to say, they did not have time back then to take selfies.)
It was not an organized war like the US Civil War. I would best describe it as a series of disorganized, chaotic conflicts between decentralized clans. Think something more like the Syrian Civil War.
The cause of the war
During the early years of the Qing’s conquest of the Ming Dynasty in the 17th century, a number of Ming supporters fled to the island of Taiwan. They sought to regather their strength and re-take the mainland.
The Shunzhi emperor, fearing that the coastal people of what is now the Guangdong province might aid these rebels, ordered what is now called the Great Clearance.
Chinese were ordered to destroy their property and move their property some 25-31 km inland. The punishment for not doing so was death.
It would take nearly fifty years but the rebels on Taiwan island were eventually pacified. However, the strip of land on Guangdong’s coast remained underpopulated - very few of the former population returned. Considering the circumstances, it is understandable.
The Guangdong governor offered the remaining land and silver to extremely poor people from overpopulated areas. Free land and silver? Sign me up.
The Hakka arrive
The most significant group to take up on this offer were the Hakka, a Han sub-ethnic group. Hakka means “guest” or “stranger”. They are principally from the North and have migrated across China for many years.
If the above explanation of who the Hakka does not satisfy you, you can watch my explainer video and get your 15 minutes of Hakka content.
The Hakka leapt at the chance to settle Guangdong. But as it turns out, much of the most fertile land was already occupied. These locals spoke different dialects but they were the descendants of the earlier settlers of Guangdong. They were referred to as the “Punti”, which literally means “people of the earth”.
Since the fertile lands were already spoken for, the Hakka were left inferior or mountainous land for cultivation. Many of them never had any land at all and had to serve as debt slaves on Punti-owned farms.
Sometimes, these debts were so large that generations of Hakka would be tied to a single farm.
Over time though, like hundreds of years, the Hakka began to gain some sort of grip on their new homeland.
Families and individuals would settle amongst the Punti. The Punti would rent the Hakka their land for living in exchange for working it.
But then the Hakka started banding together to prevent exploitation from Punti landowners. Soon enough, they were creating ethnic enclaves of their own kind across the Guangdong province. Practicing their culture. Speaking their unique Chinese Hakka dialect.
The Punti landowners, at first perfectly happy to exploit random Hakka refugees, suddenly got very alarmed. Landowner rights in the Qing Dynasty era were nowhere near as stable or permanent as in the West. The Punti knew what might happen if the large numbers of Hakka started to put down roots for good. The Hakka might just decide to take things by force.
For their part, Punti peasants, regular folk who did not own land, saw the Hakka as labor competitors. The Hakka were taking their potential job opportunities. They did not take kindly to the Hakka presence from the get go.
The two groups began to align against each other and tensions were started to bubble - especially as the proportion of Hakka people began to approach 30% of the overall population in certain counties. But for a hundred or so years, the power of the Qing government kept order in the province.
The Taiping Rebellion
The Taiping Rebellion would be the spark that set off the firestorm. Hong Xuiquan was a millenarian rebel leader who believed he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ.
Hong raised a titanic army in the neighboring Guangxi Province and attempted to overthrow and remake the entirety of Chinese society.
The Taiping Rebellion weakened the Qing government’s control over Guangdong. Government troops can no longer keep the peace. It incited other rebellions and conflicts across China, including the Red Turban Rebellion - started by members of the Ming loyalist Heaven and Earth secret society.
The Red Turban Rebellion sparked conflict throughout Guangdong. The local Qing government, unable to keep the peace with their own troops, asked the Hakka in August 1854 to start an irregular army to battle the "bandits" - at the time mostly made up of Punti.
After some initial success suppressing the Red Turban army bandits, a Hakka named Ma Conglong proposed to the Guangdong governor Yeh Mingchen that he put together an army of Hakkas from six counties to suppress the bandits for good. Yeh gave Ma Conglong his permission to do so.
Ma's army would raid and enter several Punti villages in Guangdong. But Ma could not control his army and they degraded to looting and torching.
The Punti landowners saw this Hakka army as a naked attempt to seize and destroy their property. They immediately formed militias, built forts, and hired mercenary armies to get revenge for their burnt villages.
The spiral of violence continued. The violence inflicted upon the Hakka by the reprisal attacks by the Punti caused previously uninvolved Hakka to stop working the land and paying rent to their Punti landowners. Those landowners in turn gathered the Punti peasants to exact revenge and seize Hakka land.
Hakka who saw their villages burned would retreat to the mountains and forests of Guangdong. They joined up with other Hakka armies and, without a source of food, soon resorted to sacking and looting nearby cities - which in turn continued the cycle of violence.
The Qing government at first made some attempts to mediate peace between the clans but after the Second Opium War began in 1857 they withdrew. As long as the clan wars did not challenge Qing supremacy, they chose for now to concentrate their forces on fighting the intruding European foreigners and the Taiping rebels.
The end of the wars
The Hakka-Punti clan wars would finally end with the Qing applying all the ferocity and bloody ruthlessness they were known for.
In 1863, a large group of some 200,000 homeless bandits lived on what is now Baiyun mountain. Hungry and desperate, they descended on the nearby city of Guanghai, sacked it, and took the city's Qing governors hostage. Guanghai at this time housed a critical military fortress called Guanghai Walled City.
Now the Qing government had very real reasons to pay attention to the clan wars. They sent an army to retake Guanghai, which they did after five months of siege.
This began a series of brutal military campaigns to end Hakka and Punti fighting. It was a hard problem to solve. The Hakka and Punti would wait for the Qing army to leave the area and then immediately resume hostilities.
The Qing eventually resorted to a policy of mass relocation. The majority of the Hakka were forcibly moved to designated Hakka-only districts in various provinces. These Hakka had lost so much from the fighting that they emigrated abroad. Very few Hakka remain where the Hakka-Punti clan wars took place today.
The Punti got to keep their land. But the devastation of the wars would also leave them vastly poorer. They had nothing left to live for and so thousands emigrated to Singapore, the US, or Australia.
Thousands of people perished across Guangdong - an estimated 500,000 to 1 million over the span of two decades.
Organized life in Guangdong ceased to exist. Famine and disease were rampant and took just as many people as the violence. Thousands fled the scene, evacuating to Hong Kong, Macau, Hainan, anywhere really.
And those were the people who wanted to leave. Many did not. Tens of thousands of Hakka were captured and sold into slavery in South America, Southeast Asia or Cuba.
The consequences of the clan wars were felt even overseas. By now, thousands of Chinese men were working in the United States and Australia, making money on the gold fields or the railroads. The money they sent back home armed the combatants.
Hostility remained between the two even in their new homes, for decades to come. It exists in some small form even today - though the modern government continues to stress familial bonds of all Chinese, including the Hakka.
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