Why Hokkien ISN’T “Tang Dynasty Language” (1)

Ah! My first post in this blog. I have been posting a lot on Facebook prior to the creation of this blog, and since I am too lazy to think of new content don’t really know where to begin, here’s a post that I have written last year. It refutes the exaggerated and erroneous claims of a particular text about the “antiquity of Hokkien” which has been spreading somewhat like wildfire on the Internet.

I have broken it down, section by section, and debunking some serious mistakes that the text has made. Don’t misunderstand me, I think it’s really heartwarming that so many fellow Hokkiens are so passionate and proud of their own culture and language as well. However, this is no excuse to blatantly misattribute facts in order to raise the awareness of Hokkien.

(By the way, the text can be found here in full, but the chunks I quote below can pretty much be pieced up to form the entire text as well. :p)

Let the fun begin!


If you’re a Hokkien, did you know that Hokkien is the Ancient Imperial Language of China – 2,000 years ago? If you’re a Hokkien: take note! You’ll be surprised. You have heard it. You, your parents, or grandparents may still be speaking this ancient, archaic language! Yes, it’s Hokkien (Fujian/Minnan Hua 福建话/闽南话)!”

Dang! We’re only at the title and there’s already a serious mathematical error: Tang Dynasty, two thousand years ago!? A simple search on Google will tell us that the Tang Dynasty lasted from 618CE to 907CE, which, even if you count from the first year, is just 1397 years ago (as of 2015). Even if one were to round the number off to one significant digit, it would still yield 1000 years, not 2000. Someone hasn’t been listening in Mathematics class, eh?

Secondly, languages evolve; to claim that Hokkien is the “sole surviving Chinese language from the Tang Dynasty” is about as inaccurate as it probably can. Historically, Middle Chinese would have been spoken during the Tang Dynasty, and many Chinese topolects today descends from Middle Chinese, like Cantonese or Hakka. But neither of the two can claim to be the exact language spoken in the Tang or Song Dynasties.

Yes, they might have retained some characteristics from Middle Chinese, vocabulary-wise and pronunciation-wise, but fundamentally Cantonese and Hakka have already evolved in the past centuries to become different languages. Similarly, languages like Italian and French cannot claim to be the sole surviving “language” from the Roman times – both are simply descendants of the Romans’ language, Latin.

Imagine if speakers of the Romance languages argued that they were each speaking the “sole surviving form of Latin”!

Just to clarify beforehand, whenever I refer to the “Chinese language”, I am referring to the Han language (漢語) – that is, inclusive of various topolects like Mandarin or Hokkien. Some argue that the Chinese language is more of a language family really, and that the ‘topolects’ are by right individual languages, but that’s a story for another day.

Note: “topolect”, from the Greek words topo (land) and lect (language), is a more accurate translation of the Chinese term “方言”. “方言” is commonly translated as “dialect”, which is strange because Cantonese and Mandarin, for example, would considered “dialects” of the same language, and yet are hardly mutually intelligible at all.

“Hokkien is:

1) The surviving language of the Tang Dynasty (唐朝, 618 – 907AD), China’s Golden Age of Culture. Note: The Hokkien we hear today may have “evolved” from its original form 2,000 years ago, but it still retains the main elements of the Tang Dynasty Language.”

Wait what? The author actually gave the years for the Tang Dynasty, and yet proceeds to claim again that it is already “two thousand years ago”. Seriously, does nobody notice this?

To clarify, we must first understand that Hokkien has two sets of pronunciations – the vernacular (白讀) and the literary (文讀) pronunciations. For instance, for the word “學” (to learn), the vernacular reading “o̍h” is used, but in certain compound words, like “学生” (student), the literary reading “hak” is used, as in “ha̍k-seng” in the example.

The literary pronunciations did, indeed, have it roots from Middle Chinese. During the Tang, Song, and Yuan Dynasties, the port of Quanzhou (泉州; Tsuân-tsiu) was a prosperous port, and the arts flourished in this cultural melting pot. Thus, the “court language”, or Middle Chinese as spoken in the capital, was adapted into Hokkien and used to read classical texts – thus “literary” – and is still used daily in some compound words or occasionally on their own.

The vernacular pronunciations, however, originated much earlier, in the Jin Dynasty (晉朝). Around 310CE, years of political unrest led to the nomadic tribes of the North seizing the chance and attacking China (五胡亂華). Some of the Han people fled south, and a few batches settled in what is now southern Fujian, in Quanzhou. With them, they brought along their language, which now form the base of Hokkien, the vernacular pronunciations, used in everyday language.

Most modern Chinese topolects have labiodental fricatives, like /f/ (as in “fish”). This is a change that had occurred only around 600CE (Early Middle Chinese). Therefore, Hokkien, having branched off earlier, doesn’t have /f/ in its phonology: in Mandarin, “芳” is pronounced “fāng”; in Hokkien, “phang”.

“2) Hokkiens are the surviving descendants of the Tang Dynasty — When the Tang Dynasty collapsed, the people of the Tang Dynasty fled South and sought refuge in the Hokkien (Fujian 福建省) province. Hence, Hokkien called themselves Tng-lang (唐人比喻为唐朝子孙) Tang Ren or People of the Tang Dynasty) instead of Hua Lang (华人 Hua Ren).”

It is true that the Hokkiens refer to the Han people as “唐儂” (Tn̂g-lâng). However, there were two major waves of migration from the North, first during the Jin Dynasty (晉朝), and second during the Tang Dynasty (唐朝). At the same time, Hokkiens also have Baiyue blood, the Baiyue being the original inhabitants of the southern part of China before the Han people came.

The Zhuang people (壯族) are said to be the descendants of the Baiyue.

“3) Hokkien has 8 tones instead of Mandarin’s 4. Linguists claim that ancient languages tend to have more complex tones.”

Please name me one linguist who has ever claimed that “ancient languages tend to have more complex tones”.

The truth is quite the opposite, in fact: it has been hypothesised that the Chinese language did not have tones until around the Jin Dynasty (晉朝) – this can be seen in other Sino-Tibetan languages related to the Chinese language, such as Classical Tibetan, which has no tones. Besides, many languages which we deem “ancient” do not even have complex tone systems – or any tones at all, for that matter. The Egyptian language, for instance, did not have tones, and neither did Sanskrit.

Also, Hokkien did have all eight tones originally, but today only seven distinguishable tones remain, with the seventh tone either merging with the sixth (southern) or the third (northern).

“4) Hokkien retains the ancient Chinese pronunciation of “k-sounding” endings (for instance, 学生 hak seng (student), 大学 tua ok (university), 读册 thak chek (read a book/study) — the “k” sounding ending is not found in Mandarin.”

This claim is not completely false, albeit misleadingly phrased and contains a few mistakes. The “k-ending” is written as /k̚/ in IPA. In Hokkien, there are four such endings: “-k” (/k̚/), “-p” (p̚), “-t” (k̚), and “-h” (a glottal stop; ie /ʔ/). These are what we call “checked tones”, or “入聲” in Chinese, referring to “a voiceless stop that has no audible release”. In other words, “-p” would be something like how Singaporeans would pronounce the “p” in “tap” or “stop” – the “p” is not pronounced, but the lips are shaped in the position.

The three examples used are “學生”, “大學”, and “讀冊”; in Tai-lo: “ha̍k-sing”, “tuā-o̍h”, and “tha̍k-tsheh”. As you can see, the words “學” (the vernacular reading, as in the second example) and “册” are not “-k” ending words, but “-h” ending words. The author has, unfortunately, confused the “-k” and “-h” endings, similar to how some young speakers of Hokkien might mispronounce “食” (to eat) as “tsia̍k” instead of “tsia̍h”.

At the same time, it is true that Mandarin no longer has “checked tones” (入聲) – views vary, but it is generally believed that they disappeared completely by the time the Qing Dynasty (清朝) was established (ie stop blaming the Manchus for everything!). If you are interested, do Google for “入聲脫落” (the disappearance of checked tones).

This is only half of the original essay; it’s quite long, so I have broken it into two parts. I will post the second half in the future, and if you liked or did not like this post, please do leave your replies. ^_^

Why Hokkien ISN’T “Tang Dynasty Language” (1)

13 thoughts on “Why Hokkien ISN’T “Tang Dynasty Language” (1)

  1. Chiang Cheng Kooi says:

    What the writer is trying to said is Hokien is a language that exist about 2000 years ago. He or she did not said that Tang Dynasty was 2000 years ago


  2. Eug says:

    You are saying hokkien is ONE of a few dialect spoken during the Tang Dynasty but not ‘Tang Dynasty language’
    Like the King of Siam likes to say “it’s a puzzlement”
    In your humble opinion which one is the ‘Tang Dynasty language’


  3. Jinghong says:


    In 677 (during the reign of Emperor Gaozong), Chen Zheng (陳政), together with his son Chen Yuanguang (陳元光), led a military expedition to pacify the rebellion in Fujian. They settled in Zhangzhou and brought the Middle Chinese phonology of northern China during the 7th century into Zhangzhou; In 885, (during the reign of Emperor Xizong of Tang), the two brothers Wang Chao (王潮) and Wang Shenzhi (王審知), led a military expedition force to pacify the Huang Chao rebellion. They brought the Middle Chinese phonology commonly spoken in Northern China into Zhangzhou. These two waves of migrations from the north generally brought the language of northern Middle Chinese into the Fujian region. This then gradually evolved into the Zhangzhou dialect.



  4. Kevin says:

    The 4 tones vs 8 tones thing is quite interesting. You’ve pointed out it’s not a matter of which language is older but you could add that it’s a matter of which evolutionary path they’ve taken. Classical Chinese, which has lots of tones, uses mainly single characters for words e.g. 狮 (lion). Mandarin evolved to have fewer tones, but to differentiate between words it then evolved to have 2 characters for many words e.g. 狮子 (lion). Dialects that have kept the many tones still have more single character words than mandarin e.g. Cantonese.

    Also, is it only the hokkiens who call themselves tang people? I thought only southeast asian Chinese call themselves hua people.


  5. Siu Chin says:

    Thank you for your clarification of exaggerated claims. While we can all take pride in the language we speak (I am Asian-American who speaks Cantonese), we should all seek the truth. It is also widely circulated that Hokkien, Cantonese and Vietnamese are all evolved from the Middle Chinese of the Tang Dynasty. If that is the case, one should be able to study all three languages, find their common core, and deduce their common original Tang tongue. This seems to be a common linguistic practice. Can this be done here and has it been done?


  6. Well done! You saved me some time as I was about to write a debunking for a friend. Thanks!

    I’m curious on the merging of tones, I call the missing tone the 6th tone and have always believed it to have merged into the second tone, but I haven’t heard your explanation. Is there anything you could share on that, i’d love to know more.


    David Harris


  7. Francis Y says:

    hello, the teenage of hokkian and hakka mixed blood. I think you know how to do research like a professional researcher, before writing this. I dont see any factual information to back your ” research”.

    work harder, please


  8. anonym says:

    No sources, no valid claim, but still a good read. BaiYue and Zhuang people were inhabitants of South West of China, Yunnan. On the other hand, Fujian locates on Southeast. As you know, Tang already existed before the Tang Dynasty (618CE), so nothing wrong to say the language is ancient and 2000 yo, since Tang State already existed since Zhou Dynasty.

    There are so many similar words in Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Hokkien, that must be the influences of Tang Dynasty. In Indonesian, the same thing also happens in many borrowed words from Chinese is derived from Hokkien, not the other dialect like Hakka or Canton. Like the word nenek (Grandma) is from 奶奶(nai nai) in Hokkien nene. This must be evolved from a very long time ago. Tang Dynasty has relation with Srivijaya an ancient kingdom in Indonesia. There is a tribe called Betawi (in Jakarta) has so many daily speaking words has similiarity with Hokkien, not the other dialects (hakka, canton, etc). So, why Hokkien?? Hokkien descendants here call themselves Teng lang. There is some old song say, “Akong, Ama Teng Sua lai”, the Teng Sua must be refer to Tang Dynasty, and not the Tang Shan prefecture in Hebei.


  9. Hi, I’m Leonard Luar and I absolutely insist on clarifying that I in fact, did not, at any time wrote the article on Hokkien as above. I am a Biologist by education and have no background whatsoever in Linguistic; nor have I ever professed to be a linguist, amateur or otherwise. This article was wrongly attributed to me and my thanks in advance and apologies as well for any inconvenience caused.

    Liked by 1 person

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