Ethnic origin of Seiyap


This article illustrates the true origin of Seiyap (四邑) aka Siyi people. Seiyap people live in a region along coastal Guangdong.

Map of linguistic regions in Guangdong

There are quite a lot of misconceptions regarding their origin which will be clarified in this article. They have a different origin than the Cantonese (Guangfu), Hokkien and Hakka people.

First batch

Nan-Xiong (aka Nam-Hung in Cantonese) (南雄) is situated in northern Guangdong bordering Jiangxi province. The people living there were Southern Gan speakers who migrated from Jiangxi province sometime during Song dynasty (960-1271 AD).

In 1272 AD (Southern Song dynasty), there was a large influx of ninety seven families who escaped from Zhu Ji (珠璣) lane in Nanxiong to Seiyap region.
The reason was that the Song emperor decreed all the villagers to be killed because an evil official lied to the Song emperor that the villagers plotted a rebellion. This is related to a complex history regarding the Song emperor's concubine Hu Fei (胡妃) who escaped to this village earlier.

Statue of Hu Fei

Second batch

After the Mongols attacked Kaifeng in Henan which was the original capital of Northern Song dynasty, the Song court fled to Hangzhou (杭州) in Zhejiang province and ruled central and southern China from this new capital for more than 100 years (1127-1276 AD). This period was called Southern Song (南宋) dynasty.

The Mongols attacked Hangzhou in early 1276 AD but some royal members of the Song dynasty still remained in Fuzhou city in Fujian province.

When the Mongols conquered Fujian in late 1276 AD, around 200,000 Southern Song army personnel accompanied the last two Song dynasty emperors to Guangdong province.

They finally reached Yashan 崖山 (south of Xinhui county) in 1278 AD by sailing along the coastal cities. The Song court decided to set up a training camp there.
Migration route in orange color

The Mongol army caught up with them and attacked them in 1279 AD. During the final naval battle of Yamen (崖門海戰), huge casualties were inflicted on the Song army.
Battle of Yamen

The loyal minister Lu XiuFu (陸秀夫) decided to jump into the sea together with the last Song dynasty emperor to protect the royal family's honor.
Statue of Minister Lu Xiufu who drowned with the little Song emperor

The Song royal family's distant relatives formed some villages called Zhao villages (趙家村) in Xinhui (新會) county which is near the battle site. Zhao was the surname of the Song dynasty emperors.

Seiyap language

The Zhao descendants together with the influx of the villagers of Nanxiong represent the largest wave to this particular region and became the Seiyap people today.

The dialects spoken in both batches contain linguistic elements mainly from the late Middle Chinese spoken during the Song dynasty in northern China.

Comparison of numbers 1 to 10

Since this region was sparsely populated during the Southern Song dynasty, these Han Chinese immigrants didn't need to abandon their original Chinese dialect and adopt the more established Goulou and Guangfu languages like in other regions of Guangdong. 

The Seiyap language (
四邑片) developed and spread in the four counties of Taishan (台山), Kaiping (開平), Enping (恩平) and Xinhui (新會). Taishanese dialect is the prestige dialect of Seiyap language.

Immigration to North America

Seiyap people were the first Han Chinese to immigrate to Chinatowns across North America from mid 19th to late 20th century especially during the California Gold Rush where they work mainly in the gold mines. San Francisco was nicknamed gold mountain (金山) by American Chinese as a result of this.

Taishanese dialect became the first lingua franca in Chinatowns across North America before being replaced by Cantonese in the late 20th century.

Chinese celebration in New York city's Chinatown

Classification of Seiyap language

In the current Chinese languages classification, Seiyap is classified as a Yue Chinese language. However, Seiyap language is not mutually intelligible to any of the more established Yue Chinese languages.

The similarities between Seiyap and Guangfu are due to both languages being descendants of Middle Chinese which shared many common vocabulary.

Differences with other Yue Chinese languages
  • There's no long and short vowel distinction characteristic of Yue Chinese languages eg. Saam 三 and Sam 心 in Cantonese.
  • There doesn't seem to be any Tai-Kadai words that are typically found in Yue Chinese languages. 

  • It is interesting to note that regions where the Song army were stationed in Fujian, Guangdong and Guangxi during the Song dynasty has ɬ initial consonant where other Chinese languages have s initial consonant.

Similarities with Southern Gan languages

The Seiyap language has many similarities with Southern Gan (贛) languages because central Jiangxi received many Southern Song dynasty immigrants from northern China.
  • Taishanese has a lot of shared Southern Gan cognate words. 
Southern Gan
head hair
頭毛 hau mo
頭毛 hau mo
頭髮 thau faat
to eat rice
喫飯 hek fan
喫飯 hek fan
食飯 sik faan
肚餓 thou ngo
to take a bath
沖涼 chung leong
  • Taishanese women call their husband's mother as 'On Yan' (安人) which is the respectful form used in Song dynasty's government officials family.
  • Taishanese initial consonant shift (from 'th' to 'h') is also a Southern Gan language unique linguistic feature.  

The vastly different language characteristics of Seiyap showed that Seiyap language didn't descend from either Guangfu or Goulou Yue languages. Thus, Seiyap isn't a dialect of Cantonese as commonly thought.

In light of its different origin to the Yue Chinese languages, more research needs to be done to determine whether Seiyap language is actually a Southern Gan descendant language rather than a Yue Chinese language since it doesn't have the typical Tai language characteristic of Yue languages.

Unfortunately, some Chinese languages do get categorised haphazardly in the past and a few remain so today.


Seiyap people are Han Chinese who came from northern China to Guangdong province mostly during the Southern Song dynasty. They came much later than the Nanyue Chinese and the Cantonese.

They are not immigrants from Fujian which was only a temporary sanctuary for the little Song emperors to protect them from the invading Mongols.

Neither are they Hakka immigrants, who migrated mainly to Meizhou region in Guangdong via a different route during the Southern Song dynasty. The similarities of some Seiyap words with some Hakka cognates is due to the fact that Hakka is also another descendant of proto-Southern Gan language.

Related links

Origin of Han Chinese

Origin of Gan language


  • A guide to Taishan dialect.  Author: Hashimoto, Anne Yue
  • From the Mongols to the Ming dynasty, pgs.17-19. Author: Hing Ming Hung
  • Diversity in Sinitic Languages. Author: Hilary M. Chappell.
Last updated: 19 March 2019
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  1. Wow! This is great. Reading this article, brought a bit of tears to my eyes. Many years ago, my father told me that our ancestors came from Nam Hung which he did not know where that was. He learned this Nam Hung as a child growing up in Kaiping (Hoiping) and it did not register with him where Nam Hung is located. Now, in this article, you wrote "NanXiong" which is the mandarin prounciation of "Nam Hung". When that sinked in my mind, it literally brought a couple of tears to my eyes. It was like I finally was beginning to begin to understand our family history. Thank you, Mr. Wong for your research and posting. If you need someone to do some research in this area, I am willing to volunteer my time. Thank you. Allen Ng

    1. To do more research, you need to travel to central region of Jiangxi province and compare southern Gan words with Seiyap words. There don't seem to be any people who know southern Gan language outside China as far as I know.

    2. thank you Mr. Wong for your suggestion. Visiting Jiangxi province might be a bit of a stretch for me, because my command of Mandarin is very elementary. But it is good to know that Seiyap words have comparison with southern Gan words. I may want to travel there later when convenient. Did you personally traveled to Jiangxi and NanXiong? Like I mentioned previously, NanXiong (Nam Hung) has a particularly deep interest for me as that is the only clue I got from my father about 30 years ago before he passed away.

      How did you get involved in learning about the SeiYap language and people? Are you of Taishanese descent? I am of Kaiping (neighbor to Taishan) descent, but I only know so little about this area, that I almost thirst for knowledge. Thank you for your suggestions and guidance.

  2. Mr. Wong,

    Like my oldest brother, Allen Ng, I also want to thank you for the research you've accomplished about the Seiyep people. It does stir an interest in me to work with him and you as possible to further this endeavor to discover more of our roots. I look forward to future efforts by all!

    Brian Ng

    1. Both of you are welcome! As mentioned in the article, there's no point going to Nam-Hung because the original Seiyap people are no longer there. That region is now populated by Hakka speaking people who migrated there after the collapse of Southern Song dynasty.


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