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Pioneers of Modern China
Understanding the Inscrutable Chinese
by Lee Khoon Choy (Former Ambassador of Singapore)

Chapter 1: Fujian Rén & Lin Ze Xu: The Fuzhou Hero Who Destroyed Opium

The Language and Culture of Fujian Rén

Fujian Huà: A misnomer

I had always used the word "Fujian Huà" (also called Hokkien) to mean a dialect spoken by all Fujian Rén. And I have often heard a Fujian Rén in Singapore asking someone, "Can you speak Fujian Huà?" (which means: "Can you speak the Fujian language?"). I discovered that there is no such thing as Fujian Huà, for Fujian do not have a provincial language called Fujian Huà. What the people in Singapore called Fujian Huà is actually Minnan Huà, a dialect spoken in several Fujian counties.

During my visit to Wuyi Shan, I spoke Minnan Huà (a major dialect of Fujian Rén) to my guide but he could not understand me. I then realized that the inhabitants of Wuyi Shan do not speak Minnan Huà. I went to Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian, and discovered that most Fuzhou Rén there also do not speak Minnan Huà; they only speak Fuzhou Huà or Mandarin. Similarly, Putian Rén do not speak Minnan Huà but only Putian Huà and Mandarin. It dawned on me that there was no such thing as Fujian Huà or a collective Fujian language. Fujian Rén do not have a common language. Mountains and rivers separate the natives of Fujian and different dialects are spoken even within a few miles.

Fujian Rén speak seven different major dialects, of which Minnan Huà is the major dialect spoken in southern Fujian in Quanzhou-controlled counties such as Hui'an, Jinjiang, Nan'an, Tong'an, Yongchun, and Anxi; and Zhangzhou-administered Xiamen, Zhao'an, and Jimei (or Chipbee). The word Min refers to the root dialect and nan means south. Of the six other dialects:

  • Fuzhou Huà is spoken by people living in Fuzhou in the east coast of Fujian and the counties under its administration such as Fuqing;

  • The Henghua dialect is spoken by the people in Putian of southeastern Fujian and counties under its administration;

  • The Hakka dialect is spoken by the people in Yongding in southwest Fujian;

  • Longyan Huà is spoken by people living in Longyan;

  • Minbei Huà is spoken by residents living in Wuyi Shan in the north of Fujian; and

  • Mindong Huà is spoken by those who live in the northeastern part of the province, whose capital is Ningde.

None of the dialect groups understand one another's dialects; for instance, Minnan Huà is not understood in Fuzhou or Putian, nor would Minnan Rén understand Fujian Rén speaking Fuzhou Huà, Henghua, or the Minbei and Mindong dialects. Neither could Longyan or Yongding Rén understand Minnan Huà The only way they can communicate with one anther is through Mandarin, the of.cial language of China.

There are also some differences in the cultural characteristics within each dialect group. Basically, those who live along coastal lines such as Quanzhou and Jinjiang are more adventurous and open-minded, and those who live inland are more conservative. Fuzhou and Henghua Rén are regarded as the elite in Fujian as there have been good scholars from their areas, and they are more reserved.

In the neighboring province of Guangdong, groups who speak Fujian dialects are mainly concentrated in the province's central and western regions.

The minnan dialect group and its regions

The Minnan dialect and the areas where it is spoken in Fujian include the autonomous region of Xiamen; counties administered from Quanzhou and Zhangzhou such as Tong'an, Nan'an, Hui'an, Jinjiang, and Yongchun; and controlled towns such as Zhao'an. This region is situated in the plains below the Jinjiang River.

Fujian Rén of this region have developed an oceanic culture, being near the sea. They are adventurous and brave in their pursuit of wealth. Since the Tang dynasty, the Fujian Rén of this region have developed an enterprising spirit especially in Quanzhou, which grew into one of the world's biggest ports of the time. This endeavoring spirit of the Minnan people reached its height during the Ming dynasty and early Qing dynasty with a large number of Fujian Rén sailing abroad to trade. Their influence extended to Japan and Korea in the Far East, the Philippines, Siam, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Malaya in Southeast Asia. This spirit was however curtailed during the Qing dynasty when the Manchu rulers prohibited all Chinese from leaving mainland shores because they were afraid that they might assist the resistance movement started by Koxinga (another name for Zheng Cheng Gong), a Fujian hero who had fought .ercely against the Manchu rulers. Despite the restrictions, many Zhangzhou and Quanzhou Rén migrated to the Philippines, and Quanzhou Rén also travelled to three of the Straits Settlements of Malaya under British control.

Most Minnan emigrants of Fujian had come from the south of Fujian. They are more adventurous and brave, having experienced the impact of foreigners and ocean culture. Nearly 90 percent of Filipino-Chinese today are descendants of emigrants from Quanzhou and Zhangzhou and the majority of Singapore-Chinese are descendants of Minnan Fujian Rén. It is estimated that there are over 20 million Minnan Rén from South Fujian residing in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Southeast Asia.

Minnan Fujian Rén are not good ideological thinkers but they donate money generously in promoting education and other useful causes. They are strict in controlling their offsprings’ upbringing and behavior. They would not allow their children to be tooWesternized, to behave in un-Chinese ways, nor to become assimilated by the pre-bumiputras of Indonesia or Malaya [the descendants of Chinese immigrants who have become Baba and Nyonya or pernakans (locally born Chinese) who behaved like the natives, eating with their hands, wearing sarong (a piece of cloth wrapped around the waist) and who have been assimilated, gradually loosing their Chineseness].

Migrant cultural assimilations in language and music

Minnan Fujian Rén are proud of their dialect, which they believe had once been the official court language used by the mandarins of the Tang imperial courts. Many court officials who migrated to Fujian had brought with them their official court language, which has developed into the Minnan dialect. Buddhism had flourished during the Tang dynasty and the dialect was used to translate Buddhist scripts that were written in the Sanskrit language from India.

The Tang dynasty officals also brought with them the Tang Nankuan music, which developed into the classic Fujian Nankuan music of today, which incidentally also resembles Japanese imperial court music. Whenever I attended a Japanese Imperial Palace function, Gagaku (the Japanese word for Nankuan music) always fascinated me. This music could have travelled from Xi'an when the Japanese had brought Chinese Buddhism to Japan, just as many Tang officials who had migrated to Fujian had brought Tang music to Fujian.

There is also a great similarity between many words in the Japanese language and the Minnan Fujian dialect. These words are pronounced almost exactly the same: sekkai (world) in Japanese is sehkai in Minnan Fujian Huà; shizen (natural) is zijian; jinsei (mankind) is jinshui; denwa (telephone) is tianhua; and densen (electric wire) is tianxian, and the Minnan Fujian word kaisiow (introduce) is shõkai in Japanese. At first I thought it was due to the migration of Fujian Rén to Japan but after some research, I discovered that during the Tang dynasty, the Japanese had learnt these Minnan Fujian words through the introduction of Buddhism from China and Japan had copied almost everything culturally -- from Buddhism to Confucianism -- from Tang dynasty China.

Gu Hong Ming: An Unusual Chinese Scholar Who Translated Confucius' Four Books into English

Tong'an, a county in Fujian, has also produced some scholars, one of whom was Gu Hong Ming (1856-1928) who was born in Penang, an island off northern Malaysia. His father was a migrant from Tong'an. His father wanted him to become a merchant and sent him to London for further studies. He later got his honorary degree from a German university in Berlin and then went to Edinburgh to finish his doctorate. After his studies, he toured Europe extensively, visiting France, Italy and Austria, and became well versed in the various European languages such as English, German, French, Italian as well as Latin and Greek. He was interested in European culture and took pains to study it.

After ten years of wandering, Gu returned to China during the reign of Guang Xu in 1881. On the way there, he passed through India and came to know a Chinese scholar named Mah Qian Chong, who introduced him to Chinese culture. Under Mah's influence, Gu went back to his father's hometown of Tong'an and isolated himself to study, like a traditional Chinese boy, the Chinese classics of Confucius, Mencius and other fundamental Chinese classical authors.

At 28, Gu had mastered both Chinese and European cultures and was appointed to work in the secretariat of Zhang Zhi Dong, the Governor of Guangdong and Guangxi. He helped to translate all the files written in English and other European languages, and with secretarial work. One day, Governor Zhang employed a few German experts to train Chinese soldiers. The Germans were asked to kowtow to the governor according to Chinese rules and to wear Qing helmets. The Germans refused to do so. Gu was the only one who could speak German and explained to them the signi.cance of kowtowing and wearing the Qing helmet. After Gu's explanation, the Germans agreed to follow the Chinese custom.

After the OpiumWar, Zhang Zhi Dong was appointed Governor of Hunan and Guangdong in 1889 and Gu was one of the six high-ranking officals he brought with him. Gu became one of his con.dants. These six were referred to as "Liu Junzi" (Six Gentlemen). In 1891 when Tsarist Russia sent ten high officals to China to tour Hebei, Gu spoke to them in .uent Russian, which took the Russians by surprise. In 1894 when China was in need of .nances, Governor Zhang Zhi Dong sent Gu to negotiate for a loan from banks in Germany and he succeeded in concluding a huge loan for the development of naval construction.

In 1900 when the eight Western powers invaded Beijing and during the negotiations between Qing dynasty's Foreign Minister Li Hong Zhang and European representatives, Gu played an important role. Gu wrote a book entitled Respecting the Royalty. Ci Xi, the Empress Dowager of the Qing dynasty, had supported the Boxer Rebellion and had urged the Boxers to get rid of the Westerners. When the soldiers of the eight Western nations invaded Beijing, she escaped to the interior of China. In this book, Gu wanted to explain that Empress Dowager harbored no ill feelings for Westerners and that she had been misunderstood.

Gu was against Kang You Wei's reforms and warned of its dangers. He made friends with the Russian author Tolstoy and explained his views about the reform to him. Tolstoy agreed with Gu that Kang's reform was foolish and would not succeed. But in 1902 when Gu saw how Governor Zhang Zhi Dong lavishly celebrated Ci Xi's 60th birthday, inviting foreign diplomats to attend the function, he composed a song showing his displeasure. He began to become disappointed with the Ci Xi administration.

By 1911 when the Xinhai Revolution erupted, Gu was already an old conservative. He was sad and put on a false pigtail, got into a rickshaw and toured Beijing. The revolutionaries tried to convince him to join the movement but he refused. In 1913, he went to Japan trying to get support from the Japanese but failed. In 1917, he was one of the 13 stalwarts who tried to revert the tide to conservatism but again failed.

The educationist Cai Yuan Pei later invited Gu to be a professor in charge of the English department at Beijing University but he could not get along with the other professors. In 1924, he was invited by the Imperial University of Japan to teach for three years. In 1927, he returned to China and resumed his old job as a professor at Beijing University.

Gu died in 1928 at the age of 71. He left behind many books including an English translation of Confucius' Shi Shu (Four Books).

Liu Bu Chan: The Patriotic Qing Dynasty Admiral

Fujian has also produced a patriotic admiral called Liu Bu Chan who has become well known in history as the brave hero from Fuzhou. He refused to surrender to the Japanese.

Liu was born in 1852 in a well-to-do family of mandarins in the village of Houguan, in Fuzhou. In the mid-1860s, China was pushing ahead with training naval personnel and established naval schools in Fuzhou. Liu joined the school and graduated with .ying colors. In 1875, he was sent to Europe to further his studies inWestern naval technology. When he returned to China in 1879, he made proposals to improve China's naval establishment. The Foreign Minister Li Hong Zhang discovered his talent and sent him to Germany to purchase battleships. On his return, he was put in charge of the naval .eet and became an admiral.

In those days, though China had its own naval school, it had to depend on European instructors. One of these Western instructors was ambitious and longed for promotion. When the Commander In Chief Ding Ru Chang received orders to go to Hong Kong, he asked Liu Bu Chan to take over his position. This European by the name of Willy was furious. He resigned, returned to England, and wrote a book ridiculing Liu Bu Chan as a coward and his inef.ciencies.

When Empress Dowager had used public funds to build her marble ship in the Summer Palace, Liu Bu Chan protested strongly but to no avail. Japan was then becoming ambitious and China had to prepare itself. In 1894, Japan invaded China and the Sino-Japanese War erupted. Liu Bu Chan's naval ship sank a ship called Kishimura, resulting in the death of 11 Japanese naval of.cers. The Commander In Chief Ding was injured and Liu took over. Under his leadership, the Chinese navy won several battles against the Japanese. Liu Bu Chan proposed that each year, China would need at least two battleships. But Li Hong Zhang was a nervous leader and afraid of antagonizing the Japanese and Liu was handicapped by his indecisive and cowardly behavior. Then on an early morning in May 1895, the Japanese torpedoed the battleship of Admiral Liu Bu Chan that was anchored in Weihaiwei of northern Shandong. The ship had landed on the shores and could not move. The sailors of the ship had wanted to surrender but Liu refused. He blew the ship up and committed suicide. He was only 42 years old.

Lin Jue Min: The Martyr of the Huanghuagang Uprising from Fuzhou

Another Fujian Rén, Lin Jue Min (1887-1911), was one of the 72 heroes who had sacrificed his life during the Huanghuagang Uprising in Guangdong. Together with the 71 others, his name appears on the Huanghuagang (Heroes of the Yellow Flowers) Mausoleum in Guangdong to commemorate these martyrs who had died in the uprising on April 27, 1911 in Guangdong. The 72 include many from Fujian.

Lin was a Fuzhou Rén, born in a prominent family of a Fuzhou scholar. Since childhood, he was influenced by Western thought and technology and was against feudalism. In 1907, he went to Japan to further his studies at Keio University. In Tokyo, he joined the Tongmenghui started by Dr. Sun Yat Sen. Lin was not only good at Chinese literature but could also speak Japanese, English and German, and had translated many books about Kang You Wei into German and English.

On his return to Fujian, Lin gathered many patriots and participated in the revolution initiated by Dr. Sun Yat Sen. In the revolt, he was arrested and sentenced to death.

Yan Fu: The Anti-Monarchy Writer from Fuzhou

In modern history, the name of Yan Fu does not ring a bell. In terms of political contribution towards social revolution, he cannot be compared with revolutionary figures like Dr. Sun Yat Sen, Hong Xiu Quan or Kang You Wei. But in terms of ideology and thoughts, Yan Fu has done a lot through his writing to revolutionize the minds of the Chinese. Even Mao Ze Dong had high regard for Yan Fu, the thinker. He was the one who had introduced modern Western thoughts to China.

Yan Fu (1854-1921) was born in Fuzhou into a family of doctors. His father died when he was young. When Hunan Governor Zuo Zong Tang opened a naval school in Fuzhou, Yan joined the school and graduated with .ying colors at the age of 15. He had learned Western science in the English language and studied geometry, mathematics, physics, electronics, geology and navigation. In 1877, he was sent to England to study navigation. He was the first Chinese to study in England and was very impressed by British democracy and Western science. In 1879 when he returned to Fuzhou, he was appointed a lecturer in the naval school. In 1895, he started writing in a Tianjin newspaper supporting Kang You Wei's reform movements. He also concentrated on translating eight volumes of books on Western science and introduced Western technology to the Chinese people. He analyzed the reasons for China's backwardness and blamed the monarchy for delaying China's progress. Yan Fu studied in the same University as the Japanese Prime Minister Ito Hirobumi (1841-1909) and they returned to their respective countries almost at the same time. Ito recommended the knowledge of the Western world to his country and they accepted and implemented them and Japan made progress and caught up with the Western world. In the case of Yan Fu, the Qing authorities did not make good use of his knowledge, only appointed him as a lecturer and made him frustrated. He spent the rest of his life and energy on translating useful books from English to Chinese, enlightening the Chinese of Western knowledge and wisdom. China could have made similar progress as Japan if the Qing rulers had taken heed of the recommendations of Yan Fu.

Although another prominent Chinese translator Lin Shu had translated a great deal of Western books into Chinese, he could neither read nor write English or any Western language. In the case of Yan Fu, he was an expert in English and was also a thinker. Yan's eight famous translations were: Evolution And Ethics by T.H. Huxley, An Inquiry Into The Nature And Causes Of The Wealth Of Nations by Adam Smith, A System Of Logic and On Liberty by J.S. Mill, L'Esprit des Lois (The Spirit Of Laws) by Montesquieu, The Study Of Sociology by Herbert Spencer, A Short History Of Politics by Edward Jenks, and Primer Of Logic by W.S. Jevons. His translations have influenced many leading Chinese revolutionaries and intelligentsia and led them to push for reforms. Yan has done a miracle to Chinese cultural history. For this, he has contributed a great deal to China's development.


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