The Tankas or boat people are a sinicised ethnic group in Southern China who have traditionally lived on junks in coastal parts of Guangdong, Guangxi, Fujian, Hainan, Shanghai, Zhejiang and along the Yangtze river, as well as Hong Kong, and Macau.
The boat people are referred to with other different names outside of Guangdong (not called Tanka). Though many now live onshore, some from the older generations still live on their boats and pursue their traditional livelihood of fishing.
Historically, the Tankas were considered to be outcasts. Since they were boat people who lived by the sea, they were sometimes referred to as “sea gypsies” by both Chinese and British. Tanka origins can be traced back to the native ethnic minorities of southern China known historically as the Baiyue who may have taken refuge on the sea and gradually assimilated into Han culture. However, Tanka have preserved many of their native traditions that are not found in Han Chinese culture.
A small number of Tankas also live in parts of Vietnam. There they are called Dan and are classified as a subgroup of the Ngái ethnicity
According to official Liu Zongyuan (773–819) of the Tang Dynasty, there were Tanka people settled in the boats of nowadays Guangdong province and Guangxi Zhang autonomous region.
“Tank” is a Cantonese term for boat or junk and “ka” means family or peoples. The term Tanka is now considered derogatory and no longer in common use. These boat dwellers are now referred to in China as “on-water people” or “people of the southern sea”.
“Boat People” is a commonly used translation, although it may be confused with the similar term for Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong.
Both the Tanka and the Cantonese speak Cantonese. However, Tanka living in Fujian speak Min Chinese.
“Boat people” was a general term for the Tanka. The name Tanka was used only by Cantonese to describe the Tanka of the Pearl River Delta.
The Tanka boat people of the Yangtze region were called the Nine surnames fishermen households, while Tanka families living on land were called the Mean households.
There were two distinct categories of people based on their way of life, and they were further divided into different groups. The Hakka and Cantonese lived on land; the Tanka lived on boats and were both classified as boat people.
The differences between the sea dwelling Tanka and land dwellers were not based merely on their way of life. Cantonese and Hakka who lived on land fished sometimes for a living, but these land fishermen never mixed or married with the Tanka fishermen. Tanka were barred from Cantonese and Hakka celebrations.
British reports on Hong Kong described the Tanka including Hoklo-speaking Tanka boat people living in Hong Kong “since time unknown”. The encyclopaedia Americana alleged that Tanka lived in Hong Kong “since prehistoric times”.
The Tanka people are found throughout the coasts and rivers of the following region.
Some Chinese myths claim that animals were the ancestors of the Barbarians, including the Tanka people. Some ancient Chinese sources claimed that water snakes were the ancestors of the Tanka, saying that they could last for three days in the water, without breathing air.
The Tanka are considered by some scholars to be related to other minority peoples of southern China, such as the Yao and Li people (Miao). The Amoy University anthropologist Ling Hui-hsiang wrote on his theory of the Fujian Tanka being descendants of the Bai Yue. He claimed that Guangdong and Fujian Tanka are definitely descended from the old Bai Yue peoples, and that they may have been ancestors of the Malay race. The Tanka inherited their lifestyle and culture from the original Yue peoples who inhabited Hong Kong during the Neolithic era. After the First Emperor of China conquered Hong Kong, groups from northern and central China moved into the general area of Guangdong, including Hong Kong.
One theory proposes that the ancient Yue inhabitants of southern China are the ancestors of the modern Tanka boat people. The majority of western academics subscribe to this theory, and use Chinese historical sources. The Tanka’s ancestors had been pushed to the southern coast by Chinese peasants who took over their land.
During the British colonial era in Hong Kong, the Tanka were considered a separate ethnic group from the Punti, Hakka, and Hoklo. Punti is another name for Cantonese (it means “local”), who came from mainly Guangdong districts. The Hakka and Hoklo are not considered as Puntis.
The Tanka have been compared to the She people by some historians, practising Han Chinese culture, while being an ethnic minority descended from natives of Southern China.