Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What is Hakka?

Hakka is the largest cultural and ethnic group in Taiwan, comprising about 15 to 20 percent of the total population, and as you can see... it's pretty awesome!
Largely descending to the island as immigrants from central China, most of the early inhabitants fled to the mountains to avoid political persecution. Believe me, I grew up with Patrick Swayze and C. Thomas Howell in RED DAWN... and that's where I would go too.
Many people in Taiwan are a mixed Hakka and Hoklo heritage and speak a variant of Taiwanese Hakka, which differs from Chinese completely in pronunciation. Yet when I ask my students about Hakka, they offer no connection to it or pose much of an interest. Most cannot speak it, so when I ask about understanding their grandparents, sadly, they admit they really struggle with it. Hmmm.... I'm sensing another of Hartenstein's great lesson plans!
Hakka beliefs are closely related to the formation of early societies where early villages were protected by a “Lord of the Earth” which including a Bodhisattva, Kings of the Three Mountains, Mat-Zu, the Fisherman’s God, and a couple other old Emperors thrown in to round out the mix.
Deities are a common belief though, especially Mat-Zu, many of my students carry wooden talismans of him around their neck or little "shrinky-dink" sized portraits of him in their enormous pencil cases. (Asian Pencil Cases Rock!)
Hakka temples are pretty cool, ornate and decorative and filled with fun little statues to scare the crap out of you. This particular temple in Taichung City along WenXin Road, is a pretty gaudy example of the over the top exploitation of current Hakka culture in Taiwan. I think the electronic reader board out in front says it all.
To my surprise, Chinese culture barely scratches the surface in Taiwan. The people here have little connection to the mainland and appear shocked when anyone refers to them as “The Republic of China.” Still, there are pieces of art that circulate. You have to look hard to find them, like this wonderful portrait hanging in the temple staircase.
Worshippers enter the building through an open courtyard and front fa├žade, lighting incense and saying incantations. Some purchase prayer lanterns to hang from the ceiling where, for the right price, monks will say vespers for your current problem. It could be a son about to take an entrance exam or a young woman deciding if she should go on a date with a young man or not. I hope it works...
Finally, no Taiwan Hakka temple would be complete without a burning offering pyre where patrons ignite offerings to their ancestors once a month, lighting yellow pieces of “Ghost Money” ablaze and releasing them in these ornate fire places. Anything for the ancestors, I guess. Anyway, I am trying to explore more Hakka and traditional Taiwanese language this year as we prepare for our this year's Shakespeare adaptation, Julius Caesar, which will focus on oral story telling during times of revolution. Believe me readers, I'll keep you posted.

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