Teochew, Not Hokkienese – and Why You Should Care

Teochew girls in traditional garb.

Teochew girls in traditional garb.

-by Ernie Diaz

The farther one travels
The less one knows
The less one really knows

The Beatles, The Inner Light


George Harrison was right, but not in the way you’re probably thinking. If you live in the West, at any comfortable remove from the bright lights and big city, you have someone in your neighborhood who knows there’s little difference between China and Japan, besides one of ‘em bombed Pearl Harbor.

Then there are the folks who make the effort and do the Beijing-Shanghai-Hong Kong tour. They know that a whole lot of Chinese people speak Cantonese, not Mandarin, among other interesting tidbits.

Thus do we reveal that the Teochew dialect of Guangdong’s Chaoshan is not a Hokkien dialect, although both stem from the same Min Nan linguistic branch. Although Han to the bone, Chaoshan folk have been globe-trotting like Hakka for centuries. To know a little more about them is to know that you can’t know China, or even all the neighbors on your block. All you can do is keep your eyes and ears open, and keep your precious assumptions in check.

Are You Guys, Like, Really Chinese?

Leader of Teochew clan

Teochew clan leader George Quek

They’re Han, Chaozhou people, but not if you ask them. Not Zhong guo ren, but Tang ren are the Teochew. Not people of the Middle Kingdom but of the coast, they’ll tell you, and their home is the mountain on the sea. The “People of the Tang Dynasty” appellation intrigues, for it was the much later 12th century Jin invasion of Northern China that pushed today’s Hokkien and Teochew south to Fujian and Guangdong. Tellingly, the Hokkien and Teochew dialects are quite similar, not only to each other but to Korean, itself a vassal state of the Tang Empire. Even more tellingly, a Teochew will forgive you for calling him Han, but will start wetting the kitchen cleaver if you call him Hokkien.

Their homelands are right next to each other, the latter in Fujian, the former in northeast Guangdong, is why. Less dangerous to call a Scot an Englishman, practically. Ah, but those are well-known nations, you say. How many Teochew can there be? About ten million in the Chaoshan area today, and at least that many overseas, since you asked. Meanwhile, the population of Scotland holds strong at a little over five million.

That massive migrant Teochew population provides an air duct through which to sneak back to our theme of knowing less and less the farther you travel. For only by truly stepping into their alien identity, and paradoxically assimilating around the globe, did the Teochew transcend as a subgroup.

Two People, Both Alike in Enmity

what shantou should look like

The Shantou cityscape (blue sky sold separately).

Chaoshan today ramifies into the cities of Shantou and Chaozhou. An original treaty port, along with Shenzhen, Xiamen, and Zhuhai, Shantou never took off like its sisters. Probably all the brain drain. While hand-to-mouth encapsulates the dragon’s share of Chinese history, the rocky coast of Guangdong provided scantily enough to make hand-to-mouth look positively luxurious. Beset by typhoons, pirates, plagues, floods, and famines at a rate resembling the rest of China’s history on fast forward, anyone with brains and brass in Chaoshan long ago left an offering for Mazu and took ship: across the strait to Taiwan, and then down to Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, still later to all points west.

But so did the Hokkien. The Teochew distinguished themselves among the sultry, sun-drenched natives with astonishing industry, cohesiveness, and concomitant coolie rags to riches. But so did the Hokkien. At last, with both firmly ensconced at the nexii of commercial power around Southeast Asia, the two managed to differentiate themselves, with open hatred and violence towards each other. The worst episode occurred in 1854, starting with a squabble between a Teochew rice merchant and Hokkien buyer, but quickly escalating into The Five Catties of Rice Riots, which left over 500 dead.

So as they stirred in ever larger dollops of local culture into their identities, a consequence of both necessity and time, the Teochew remained distinct, and increasingly influential in their adopted lands. Today, Shantou is best known for smuggling porn and drugs into China. Meanwhile, pending Red Shirt revolution, the Thai cabinet can conduct affairs almost entirely in Teochew. Heck, half of 19th century Thai king Thaksin’s blood was borne overseas from Shantou. Speaking of kings, Asian Illuminatus Li Ka-shing himself is Teochew.

No, WE’RE the Jews of China

Li Kashing's a Teochew

“Presenting the world’s richest Teochew, yoh majesty – Sir Li Ka-$HING!”

On and on, as one combs through the better business directories and stock listing registrars of Southeast Asia, Teochews appear far out of proportion to their demographic numbers, so that Hokkien and Hakka alike have a rival for the well-worn moniker “Jews of China”. All refer to their overseas peregrinations as a “diaspora”, by the way, with surprisingly little backlash from either AIPAC or ADL.

But come on, what really makes the Teochew so special, so different, so not only non-Chinese but of necessity non-Hokkien? They have a special tea-drinking ceremony…no, that won’t do. Their version of Chinese opera…nix. Their food – yes, their food! No one does rice porridge like the Teochew, and as for braised duck…ah, drat it all. They still have their unique tongue, but growing less fluent by the generation. The farther one travels…and no one knows less, or wants to know less, than children. 

This article originally appeared in


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