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
- 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
- Longyan Huà is spoken by people living in Longyan;
- Minbei Huà is spoken by residents living in Wuyi Shan in the north of
- 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
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
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
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
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
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.