CONTACT US Wed Nov. 13, 2013

CASS 中国社会科学网(中文) Français

.  >  FOCUS  >  CULTURE

Yue-Gan Ancient Road: A journey into Hakka history

Author  :  LI YONGJIE     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2019-05-13

Heyuan and Meizhou are two famous Hakka cities located in northeastern Guangdong Province. Heyuan is known as an “ancient Hakka town” while Meizhou is honored as the “capital of the Hakka people in the world.” Both cities are at the borderline of Guangdong and Jiangxi provinces, and they have been pivotal cities for trade and traffic since ancient times. In the past, a traffic network was formed around Tuocheng town of Longchuan County together with the Yue-Gan Ancient Road (Yue and Gan are the abbreviations of Guangdong and Jiangxi provinces, respectively) that crossed this area. A large number of relics of the ancient road remain in Heyuan and Meizhou areas. These roads have witnessed the industrious life of the Hakka migrants over the past thousands of years. These relics bears witness to the flourishing of Hakka culture.

The history of the Hakka people is one of migration. As results of wars and other factors, ancient Chinese from Central China migrated to areas such as Fujian and Guangdong provinces after overcoming many hardships and dangers. In order to distinguish them from the indigenous people, these immigrants were called “guesthome” (Hakka) people because they maintained their unique characteristics during the process of cultural fusion and development.

The Dong River has served as a channel for the ancient Chinese from Central China to move southward. Zhao Tuo (c. 240–137 BCE) was a general sent by the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221–207 BCE) to help conquer the Baiyue (various indigenous non-Chinese people who inhabited southern China and gradually assimilated into Chinese culture during the Han Dynasty) area in the south. He later became the ruler of Nanyue Kingdom. Ever since Zhao Tuo built Longchuan County, for over 2,200 years, the upper and middle reaches of the Dong River have been one of the major channels connecting Central China and the Lingnan area (covering the southern provinces including Guangdong, Guangxi and Hainan). Although many ancient roads in these areas have died off as a result of the development of modern transportation, a large number of bridges, passes, roadside pavilions and Hakka round houses, together with remains of the ancient roads, form a beautiful cultural scene among the mountain areas of Heyuan City.

Wang Yuanlin, a professor of history from Guangzhou University and a specialist on studies of ancient roads in Lingnan, said that when Qin Shi Huang (259–210 BCE), the founder of the Qin Dynasty, started to set up administrative institutions such as jun (an administrative division roughly equal to a province in contemporary China) and xian (roughly equal to a county), Longchuan County in Heyuan City was the first Hakka county established in present-day eastern Guangdong Province. The Heyuan area became an important location for garrisons sent by the central government and migrants from Central China. It was also a frontier for disseminating the culture of Central China. Because of this, people from Central China gradually settled down in the Lingnan area and lived together with the local Yue people. This is how the earliest Hakka migrants came to the Lingnan area.

Han people gradually fused with local residents and the Hakka group gradually expanded and dispersed. Hakka people from different families formed different architectural styles, customs and dialects. Some ancient buildings preserved in Lianping County of Heyuan City show characteristics found in traditional northern architecture. These buildings were also adapted to the local customs, natural environment and climates. Wang said that these buildings usually show notable defensive characteristics, as the Hakka people tried to protect themselves against hostile locals.

Road for salt, food

In 2017, another ancient road toward Jiangxi Province was discovered in Heyuan City of Guangdong Province. This north-to-south road ran through several towns in the three counties of Heyuan City. It contained several main routes and branches. The survey indicates that this ancient road was about 263 kilometers long. This Yue-Gan Ancient Road, according to authorities from local departments of cultural relics, was an unofficial trade road.

According to historical records, the Hakka areas in eastern Guangdong Province had abundant salt and insufficient food, while Jiangxi Province had abundant food and insufficient salt. However, mountains standing between Jiangxi and Guangdong blocked water transportation, so trade between these two provinces was mostly carried out with the use of mountain roads. As a result, an army of laborers who toted salt with carrying poles emerged in Hakka areas. Some of them did this work as a career while some only did this work when they were not busy with agricultural production. Toting salt to Jiangxi Province became the largest part-time job for many Hakka people. Trading salt and food fostered the ancient salt road between Guangdong and Jiangxi. Thousands of laborers once walked on this road transporting salt with their shoulders. It is easy to imagine the prosperity of this road.

Female laborers

Surprisingly, most of the laborers who transported salt and food with their shoulders on this ancient road were Hakka women. Zhou Li, a research fellow from the Institute for Cultural Industries at Shenzhen University, said that the Hakka society featured a phenomenon where men lived a leisurely life while women lived a hardworking life. This phenomenon resulted in the industriousness and perseverance of Hakka women. On the one hand, the Hakka region laid heavy emphasis on education. Male members of a family usually pursued an intellectual or an academic life, and seldom conducted physical labor. On the other hand, Meizhou was a well-known hometown for overseas Chinese. Men usually went to work for a living in Southeast Asia, and women, the old and children were left at home. In order to make a living, Hakka women chose to transport salt with their shoulders.

However, the job of transporting salt was not a job that everybody could do. To fulfill such a job, one has to be physically and mentally strong. It was relatively more challenging for women. Zhou suggested that, first of all, those who transported salt with their shoulders through the mountain roads should be brave and tough. Bandits were active in bordering areas among Jiangxi, Fujian and Guangdong provinces. The laborers had to be prepared. On top of that, every laborer needed to carry at least 50 kilograms of salt, which was a big challenge.

According to historical records, an army of female laborers shouldering goods were still active in Mei County during the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression. As a result of the Japanese blockade, for a certain period of time, salt supplies in Guangdong and Jiangxi provinces and other provinces in southwest China relied on the coastal areas of Fujian Province. Most of the salt was transported by Hakka women in the bordering areas of Guangdong and Jiangxi provinces. They were actually some of the unsung heroes of the time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Editor: Yu Hui

>> View All

Li Xueqin’s scholarly journey through ancient history

An expert on history, archaeology, philology and palaeography, the encyclopedic scholar, filled with interest, persis...

>> View All