Tanka (simplified Chinese: 疍家; traditional Chinese: 蜑家; pinyin: Dànjiā; Cantonese Yale: Daahngā) or boat people are an ethnic subgroup in Southern China[1] who have traditionally lived on junks in coastal parts of Guangdong, Guangxi, Fujian, Hainan, and Zhejiang, as well as Hong Kong, and Macau. 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 the Chinese and British. Tanka origins can be traced back to the native ethnic minorities of southern China 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 (Đàn) and are classified as a subgroup of the Ngái ethnicity.


The term Tanka is now considered derogatory and no longer in common use.[2] These boat dwellers are now referred to in China as “on-water people” (Chinese: 水上人; pinyin: shuǐshàng rén; Cantonese Yale: Séuiseuhngyàn),[3] or “people of the southern sea” (Chinese: 南海人; Cantonese Yale: Nàamhóiyàn).[4][5][6][7][8][9][10][11] No standardised English translation of this term exists. “Boat People” is a commonly used translation, although it may be confused with the similar term that applies to Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong. The term “Boat Dwellers” was proposed by Dr. Lee Ho Yin of The University of Hong Kong in 1999, and it has been adopted by the Hong Kong Museum of History for its permanent exhibition.[12]

Both the Tanka and the Cantonese speak the Cantonese language.[13][14] However, Tanka living in Fujian speak Min Chinese.

“Boat people” was a general category for both the Tanka and the Hoklo, who also made their living on boats. They spoke different dialects, and the Hoklo originated from Fujian. The Hoklo used the term Hoklo to refer to themselves, while the name Tanka was used only by Cantonese to describe the Tanka.

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 and Hoklo lived on boats and were both classified as boat people.[15]

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.[16]

British reports on Hong Kong described the Tanka and Hoklo living in Hong Kong “since time unknown”.[17][18] The encyclopaedia Americana described Hoklo and Tanka as living in Hong Kong “since prehistoric times”.[19][20][21]
Mythical origins

Some Chinese myths claim that animals were the ancestors of the Barbarians, including the Tanka people.[22][23] 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.[24]
Baiyue connection and origins in Southern China
Main article: Baiyue

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).[25] 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 Pai Yue peoples, and that they may have been ancestors of the Malay race.[26] The Tanka inherited their lifestyle and culture from the original Yue peoples who inhabited Hong Kong during the Neolithic era.[27] 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.[28]

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 ancient Chinese used the term “Yue” to refer to all southern barbarians.)[29][30] The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition, states that the ancestors of the Tanka were native people.[31][32]

The Tanka’s ancestors had been pushed to the southern coast by Chinese peasants who took over their land.[33][34]

During the British colonial era in Hong Kong, the Tanka were considered a separate ethnic group from the Punti, Hakka, and Hoklo.[35] Punti is another name for Cantonese, 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.[36]
Yao connections
Main article: Yao people

Chinese scholars and gazettes described the Tanka as a “Yao” tribe, with some other sources noting that “Tan” people lived at Lantau, and other sources saying “Yao” people lived there. As a result, they refused to obey the salt monopoly of the Song dynasty Chinese government. The county gazetteer of Sun on in 1729 described the Tanka as “Yao barbarians”, and the Tanka were viewed as animals.[37]

Wolfram Eberhard suggested that the Yueh are related to the Tanka, that the Chinese admixture in the Tanka is due to the Tanka prostitutes serving Chinese, and that the Tanka replaced their own culture with Chinese culture, including the Chinese language.[38]

In modern times, the Tanka claim to be ordinary Chinese who happen to fish for a living, and the local dialect is used as their language.[39]

Some southern Chinese historic views of the Tanka were that they were a separate aboriginal ethnic group, “not Han Chinese at all”.[40] Chinese Imperial records also claim that the Tanka were descendants of aboriginals.[41] Tanka were also accused of being “sea gypsies”.[10]

The Tanka were regarded as Yueh and not Chinese, they were divided into three classifications, “the fish-Tan, the oyster-Tan, and the wood-Tan” the 1100s, based on what they did for a living.[42][43]

The three groups of Punti, Hakka, and Hoklo, all of whom spoke different Chinese dialects, despised and fought each other during the late Qing dynasty. However, they were all united in their overwhelming hatred for the Tanka, since the aboriginals of Southern China were the ancestors of the Tanka.[44] The Cantonese Punti had displaced the Tanka aboriginals, after they began conquering southern China.[45]

The Chinese poet Su Dongpo wrote a poem in which mentioned the Tanka.[46]

The Nankai University of Tianjin published the Nankai social and economic quarterly, Volume 9 in 1936, and it referred to the Tanka as aboriginal descendants before Chinese assimilation.[47] The scholar Jacques Gernet also wrote that the Tanka were aboriginals, who were known for being pirates, which hindered Qing dynasty attempts to assert control in Guangdong.[48]
Scholarly opinions on Baiyue connection

The most widely held theory is that the Tanka are the descendants of the native Yue inhabitants of Guangdong before the Han Cantonese moved in.[49] The theory stated that originally the Yueh peoples inhabited the region, when the Chinese conquest began, the Chinese either absorbed or expelled the Yue to southern regions. The Tanka, according to this theory, are descended from Yue who preserved their separate culture.[50]

A minority of scholars who challenged this theory deny that the Tanka are descended from natives, instead claiming they are basically the same as other Han Cantonese who dwell on land, claiming that neither the land dwelling Han Cantonese nor the water dwelling Tanka have more aboriginal blood than the other, with the Tanka boat people being as Chinese and as Han as ordinary Cantonese.[51]

Eugene Newton Anderson claimed that there was no evidence for any of the conjectures put forward by scholars on the Tanka’s origins, citing Chen, who stated that “to what tribe or race they once belonged or were once akin to is still unknown”.[52]

Some researchers say the origin of the Tanka is multifaceted, with a portion of them having native Yueh ancestors and others originating from other sources.[53]
Chinese colonisation and Sinicization

The Song dynasty engaged in extensive colonisation of the region with Chinese people.[54]

Due to the extensive sinicisation of the Tanka, they now identify as Chinese, despite their non-Chinese ancestry from the natives of Southern China.[55]

The Cantonese exploited the Tanka, using their own customs against them to acquire fish to sell from the Tanka.[56]
Ming Dynasty
Macau and Portuguese rule
Main articles: Macau, History of Macau, and Macanese people
Traditional Tanka people clothes in a Hong Kong museum.

The Portuguese, who were granted Macau during the Ming dynasty, often married Tanka women since Han Chinese women would not have relations with them. Some of the Tanka’s descendants became Macanese people.

Some Tanka children were enslaved by Portuguese raiders.[57]

The Chinese poet Wu Li wrote a poem, which included a line about the Portuguese in Macau being supplied with fish by the Tanka.[58][59][60][61]

When the Portuguese arrived at Macau, women from Goa (part of Portuguese India), Siam, Indochina, and Malaya became their wives, rarely were they Chinese women.[62] The Tanka women were among the only people in China willing to mix and marry with the Portuguese, with other Chinese women refusing to do so.[63]

The majority of marriages between Portuguese and natives was between Portuguese men and women of Tanka origin, who were considered the lowest class of people in China and had relations with Portuguese settlers and sailors, or low class Chinese women.[64] Western men like the Portuguese were refused by high class Chinese women, who did not marry foreigners.[65]

Literature in Macau was written about love affairs and marriage between the Tanka women and Portuguese men, like “A-Chan, A Tancareira”, by Henrique de Senna Fernandes.[66][67][68][69]
Qing dynasty

Tanka. Tankia (tan’ka, tan’kyä), n. [Chinese, literally, ‘the Tan family or tribe’; < Tan, an aboriginal tribe who formerly occupied the region lying to the south and west of the Meiing (mountains) in southern China, + kia (pronounced ka in Canton), family, people.] The boat population of Canton in southern China, the descendants of an aboriginal tribe named Tan, who were driven by the advance of Chinese civilisation to live in boats upon the river, and who have for centuries been forbidden to live on the land. "Since 1730 they have been permitted to settle in villages in the immediate neighbourhood of the river, but are still excluded from competition for official honours, and are forbidden by custom from intermarrying with the rest of the people. (Q&es, Glossary of Reference.)[70] The Tankas originally included many refugees to the sea and were considered a non-Chinese aboriginal ethnic group, classified by the Qing government as "mean".[71][72] The Yongzheng Emperor freed them and several other "mean" groups from this status in a series of edicts from 1723 to 1731.[73] They mostly worked as fishermen and tended to gather at some bays. Some built markets or villages on the shore, while others continued to live on their junks or boats. They claimed to be Han Chinese.[74] The Qing edict said "Cantonese people regard the Dan households as being of the mean class (beijian zhi) and do not allow them to settle on shore. The Dan households, for their part, dare not struggle with the common people", this edict was issued in 1729.[75] As Hong Kong developed, some of the fishing grounds in Hong Kong became badly polluted or were reclaimed, and so became land. Those Tankas who only own small boats and cannot fish far out to sea are forced to stay inshore in bays, gathering together like floating villages.[76] Lifestyle and culture Always there is plenty to see, as the Tanka. the people who live in the boats, are full of life. They are an aboriginal tribe, speaking an altogether different language from the Chinese. On the land they are like fish out of water. They are said never to intermarry with landlubbers, but somehow or other their tongue has crept into many villages in the Chiklung section. The Chinese say the Tanka speech sounds like that of the Americans. It seems to have no tones. A hardy race, the Tanka are untouched by the epidemics that visit our coast, perhaps because they live so much off land. Each family has a boat, its own little kingdom, and, there being plenty of fish, all look better fed than most of our land neighbours. Christianity is, with a few rare exceptions, unknown to them. The only window of our Chiklung house gives the missioner a full view of the village life of some of the boat tribe. The window at present is just the absence of the south wall of the little loft to the shop. Wooden bars can be inserted in holes against robbers.[77] Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America in 1921 Before leaving the market, by special invitation we had a swim from off one of the sampans (a term used around Canton: here "baby boat" is the name). The water was almost hot and the current surprisingly swift. Nevertheless the Tanka men and boys go in several times a day, and wash jacket and trousers, undressing and dressing in the water. They seem to let the clothes dry on them. Women and girls also jump in daily.[78] Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America in 1921 Masonry was unknown by the water dwelling Tanka.[79] Canton (Guangzhou) The Tanka also formed a class of prostitutes in Canton, operating the boats in Canton's Pearl River which functioned as brothels, they did not practice foot binding and their dialect was unique. They were forbidden to marry Chinese or live on land. Their ancestors were the natives of Southern China before the Chinese expelled them to their current home on the water.[80]