Taiwanese Hakkas have always had to fend off more powerful rivals—whether Hoklo or Formosan.
This is a brief history of Hakka warriors who brought unity to their people and who—to this day—are revered in over 60 Taiwanese shrines as Hakka martyrs (義民).
In four brief sections—Colonization, Warring States, Militias and Martyrs (a folktale)—we explore the story of Taiwan’s Hakka people as they begin to gain a niche in the race to carve out a place of their own on the island.
In 1683, Taiwan’s Kingdom of Formosa fell to the Manchu-Chinese Qing Empire. For the first time in history, the island became a part of a Chinese state.
Taiwan’s subjugation by the Qing dynasty ushered in an age of rapid Chinese colonization of the island. Under previous Dutch and Formosan regimes, Chinese (Hoklo and Hakka) immigrants had already settled in Taiwan and mixed with indigenous Formosan populations, but it was in this era of Qing rule that Taiwan’s Han cultures became firmly established.
While indigenous nations continued to dominate Taiwan’s highlands, the western plains became home to the Sinitic-speaking peoples of Taiwan.
While two branches of the Hoklo people dominated the fertile lowlands, the vastly outnumbered Hakkas became frontiersmen settling in the hills between Hoklo and Formosan lands.
18th-through-19th-century Taiwan was plagued by crippling regionalism, factional violence and civil disorder as secret societies—with strong ties to various locales, ethnic identities or guilds—thrived.
Beijing’s emperor had little real influence over Taiwan. In the absence of a central authority, the Taiwanese sought protection by forming fraternities split along ethnic, trade and regional lines.
Brawls and territorial disputes frequently broke out whenever disagreements arose. These confrontations quickly escalated as each side called on respective clans or factions for support. This was Taiwan’s bloody Warring States Era.
On rare occasions, some degree of unity did emerge among Taiwan’s competing factions. These, however, virtually always took the form of large-scale revolts against the Qing Empire.
To stem the tide of rebellion and anarchy, Beijing began recruiting some Taiwanese men as militias to enforce Qing rule and order. These Taiwanese militiamen, known in Mandarin as Yìmín, were recruited from all ethnic groups (Hoklo, Hakka and indigenous Formosan), but they took on a special significance among Taiwan’s Hakka people.
The new Qing policy was a godsend to the frequently marginalized Hakka folk. Able-bodied Hakka men from across the Taiwanese frontiers began enlisting at government offices and army barracks.
Imperial recognition and support became just the backing this sidelined people needed to finally gain a foothold on the island.
Throughout the 18th century, numerous Hoklo and indigenous uprisings against the Qing Empire forced Beijing to mobilize Hakka militias. These Hakka warriors defended the Empire’s tenuous grip over the island, preserved some sense of security and were increasingly seen by civilians as defenders of their island home.
As Hakka militiamen fell suppressing Taiwan’s numerous bloody rebellions or perished preserving the integrity of Hakka territories on the island, their remains were interred in collective tombs.
As martyrdom in Taiwanese Hakka tradition is often equated with deification, upon death, these warrior spirits entered the Taiwanese Hakka pantheon and are worshipped and prayed to by the common folk. These sites of reverence eventually became the many martyrs’ shrines in Taiwan.
It was no secret that the Hakkas didn’t fight for Imperial interests in Taiwan. They fought for themselves and the Empire needed men on the ground. This partnership was an alliance of convenience for both parties.
To the Hakkas, these martyrs’ shrines were not places of Imperial remembrance. These were sites where a united sense of ethnic and cultural identity, as well as pride and self-confidence, emerged for Taiwanese Hakkas. Here, Hakkas worshipped and commemorated the youths who died giving a disenfranchised and disadvantaged people a chance to survive in Taiwan’s competitive colonial environment.
The survival of the Taiwanese Hakka community as the island’s second-largest ethnolinguistic group, despite constant pressure from the more numerous Hoklo people and the more established indigenous nations, is proof that those sacrifices were not made in vain.
Martyrs: A Folktale
What truly sets Taiwanese Hakkas apart from Hakkas in other parts of the world is the prevalence of their worship of martyrs. This Taiwanese Hakka tradition is centred in one specific temple complex in northwestern Taiwan—the Martyr Shrine of Xinpu (Fangliao Yimin Temple) in Hsinchu County. This particular shrine has an interesting origin story. To wrap up this post on Taiwan’s Hakka martyrs, that folktale is presented below.
In the mid-1780s, Taiwan was gripped by the chaos of a major revolt. The leader of the uprising was a Taiwanese Hoklo man named Lín Shuǎngwén (Taiwanese: Lîm Sóng-Bûn) and the whole event is remembered as the Lín Shuǎngwén Rebellion.
In 1787, forces loyal to Lín invaded Hakka strongholds in northwestern Taiwan (today’s Hsinchu region). Heavy casualties were sustained and many Hakka militia bodies were left to decay in the fields after the fighting.
According to legend, wishing to give the fallen a proper burial, kind-hearted locals hired cart-drivers to gather and transport the bodies to a burial site. The drivers gathered the decaying corpses onto their ox carts and headed toward the mountains.
As night approached, however, the oxen became stubborn. The beasts obstinately refused to head deeper into the mountains and stopped halfway near the village of Xinpu. The cart-drivers took the occurrence as a sign and decided to bury the bodies where the oxen stopped. As the hour was late, the drivers decided to retire for the night. They left the bodies and resolved to continue their labour the following day.
The next day, when the drivers returned to the site where the bodies were left, they were greeted by a fantastic scene. Swarms of ants were in the process of constructing a tomb for the fallen Hakka warriors. Word quickly got out and, when the tomb was completed, local Hakka villagers constructed a temple at the site and began making pilgrimages to offer their respect to the martyrs buried there.
The site became one of the chief Hakka martyrs’ shrines in Taiwan and, today, the Martyr Shrine of Xinpu is the mother temple to many offshoots and branches across the island.
Trail of Tears followed the difficulties Hakka immigrants initially faced upon arriving in Taiwan.
This post explored how, since the days of the Hakkas’ first settlement in Taiwan, they have gained a distinct identity, self-confidence and have begun carving out a place of their own in Taiwan. Many challenges, however, still lay ahead that greatly threatens the Hakkas’ cultural identity.
In modern times, a Taiwanese Hakka revival is underway. Through a popular festival—the Tung Blossom Festival explored in the next post—these resilient and often marginalized people experience a major cultural renaissance on the island.