This was written in response to this comment on a piece at Language Hat:
So does “guest family” come from a Mandarin-imposed meaning on the word Hakka or do the Hakka people consider themselves guest families?
Short answer: It’s an imposed (but not “Mandarin-imposed”) meaning. The original meaning is not clear, at least to us.
What we know is this. The Hakka are related to a “non-Han” tribe called the Shē (畲) by modern officials, or Sanhak by themselves. They’re also neighbors to a “Han” super-tribe called the Hoklo in the English literature. The “Hokkiens” and the “Teochews” are the major branches of the Hoklo super-tribe.
The modern Sanhak live in scattered pockets, mostly in places where no Hakka live. Yet, nearly all Sanhak speak Hakka as a first language. The few who don’t, speak a Hmong-Mien language known in English as “She”. They speak Hakka as a 2nd or 3rd language.
The name “Sanhak” alternates with “Sanha”, probably dialectically. This is part of a trend in Hmong-Mien — and some dialects of Hakka, and Hoklo to some extent — for -k endings to “fall off”.
“San” is always written using the kanji 山 (MOUNTAIN). Hakka folk music is known as “san” music, wherever You find it. Coincidence?
The Hoklo tend to only have awareness of themselves as “Hoklo” in places where there’s Hakkas, such as in Taiwan. In Taiwan, they call themselves “Holo” while the Hakka word for them is “Hoklo”. The Hoklos of the Hoiliuk area (on the coast between Swatow and Hong Kong) call themselves “Haklau”.
There’s a word that shows up in the Chinese literature mostly as 半山客. In Hakka, it’d be “pan-Sanhak”. “Pan” means HALF. The Sanhak use this term to refer to the Hakka, pretty much calling them “half Sanhak”. The Hakka of Moiyen (梅縣) and around there, though, use this term to refer to the Hakka that live near the Hoklo-Hakka line. And the Hoklo use this term to refer to that same group of Hakka. In this application, the phrase breaks down as “Hakka halfway up the mountain”. That about sums up where the Hoklo-Hakka line runs.
To thicken the plot, “pan-Sanhak” is sometimes written as 半山學, with a possible (but not firmly attested by me) pronunciation “pan-Sanhok”. That last kanji is the kanji typically used to write the first syllable in “Hoklo”.
The word “Hakka” doesn’t seem to show up till the late 19th century. Hakka began migrating to Taiwan in the 17th or early 18th century, yet the idea that they belonged to a tribe called the Hakka was apparently imported in the 20th. What seems to have happened is that the kanji 客 (GUEST) was attached to the ethnonym “Hak” b/c the phonology fits. The rest is history.
As for “Hoklo / Haklau”, there’s also at least a half dozen theories out there on the etymology of that. None of the well-known ones make much sense. Looking at the history of the region, it seems safe to say that Hakka, Sanhak, and Hoklo grew up together — sisters from different fathers, so to speak.