Is Time Up For Cantonese?

Published for TALK Magazine in October 2010

gl-7_ntzpyi-freddie-marriageOn the afternoon of July 25th, a group of self-organized citizens descended upon the Jiangnanxi metro station in matching t-shirts and placards with phrases like ‘speak Cantonese or go home’ written on them. This was in response to a TV network decision to broadcast its content strictly in Mandarin, as opposed to in Mandarin and Cantonese. In a country that largely presents itself as having a unified voice and a language of the people, these people chose to speak up and voice their support for Guangzhou’s native mother tongue. But why do Cantonese-speaking citizens feel alienated enough to organize demonstrations over what, at face value, appears to be a trifling matter, and are their fears justified?

2600BC – 1912

To understand where the issue arises from, it’s relevant to take a step back and re-visit Chinese history. It’s widely acknowledged that China’s Han ethnicity originated from the fertile plains of the Yellow River – Han being the predominant ethnicity in China today. From there, the Hans – using the influence of several dynasties – spread northward and southward, also populating areas to the northeast traditionally inhabited by Mongol and Man ethnicities. The Han dynasties weren’t to maintain their grip on China forever, and it took one major invasion by the Mongol’s and a later one by the Manchu’s to establish a firm foreign influence on the official Han language system; a system that didn’t really exist in spoken tongue until the Republicans under the tutorship of Sun Yat-sen (a man synonymous with Guangzhou, ironically enough) decided to instill Mandarin as China’s new official tongue; a language officially spoken during the Manchu Qing dynasty. This didn’t really change much early on though, and local dialects continued to occupy a large place Chinese society. Of course China’s journey into modernity has changed the way the country speaks, but still today, from Sichuan to Shanghai, many locals speak in a flourish of strange and exotic dialects that are all but unrecognizable to an outsider’s ear. And all of China’s dialects are influenced by culture and circumstance, which makes Cantonese, one of China’s most remote ‘dialects’ seemingly all the more relevant.

OCTOBER ISSUE (dragged)An August New York Times article by reputed linguist Guy Deutscher touched on the idea that when we learn our mother tongue, ‘we do after all acquire certain habits of thought that shape our experience in significant and often surprising ways.’ This theory can be applied quite liberally to Cantonese speakers within China, allowing them an amount of leeway in arguing for their linguistic anonymity. Deutcher argues that the habits of one’s mind as shaped through their mother tongue ‘may also have a marked impact on (their) beliefs, values and ideologies.’ Much in the same way that it’s hard to correlate Cantonese culture and influence with that of a group of people thousands of kilometers away, in say Manchuria. The author goes on to explain that while we as humans share an intrinsic understanding of basic concepts like time and space, specific factors within a society may shape how language is formed, thus differentiating Chinese tongues not just on a linguistic level, but on a cultural one as well. And this, many supporters of preserving Cantonese in Mainland China say, is what is at stake for Southern China – not just a mode of communication, but a lifestyle. Deutsher closes by saying that ‘we may not know as yet how to measure these consequences directly or how to assess their contribution to cultural or political misunderstandings. But as a first step toward understanding one another, we can do better than pretending we all think the same.’


Seven years after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the central government mandated that all municipal government business be conducted in Mandarin. This also included the nation’s education system, requiring all students to study their major subjects in the ‘people’s tongue.’ For China, this has been an important method to ensure that people are able to communicate effectively with one another within the country. But some residents of Guangzhou argue that additional regulations have made it difficult for young students to express themselves outside of lecture time. In the early 90’s many school boards started enforcing a Mandarin-only rule on school premises. Students who today, do not comply are issued negative behavior reports that can create additional stresses in a system wrought with them. In extreme cases, this has led to a decrease in the amount of Cantonese used at home. But a controversial resolution issued by the Oakland school board in California might yet prove that using a minority mother tongue in class could further a student’s understanding of the system’s official language. In 1996 the Oakland School Board recognized the legitimacy of ‘Ebonics’ an English dialect derived from the African American Vernacular. Critics shunned the idea of using a dialect within the official school curriculum, chief voice among them African American civil right activist Rev. Jesse Jackson. His tone quickly changed however when reports suggested that students were having an easier time adapting to America’s professional environment. Since then, educators have argued as to the merits of such a system. The Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) agrees that ‘research and experience have shown that children learn best if teachers respect the home language and use it as a bridge in teaching the language of the school and wider society.’

Is Cantonese a language or a dialect? Professor of Chinese Literature at Hong Kong Baptist University Chow Kwok Ching offers two processes of thought to the debate. ‘Linguistically and academically speaking, Cantonese is a language,’ he explains. ‘It exhibits all the characteristics that a language has – an arbitrary sound system constructed for communication; and all dialects are languages in this sense. But when we talk about dialects, the focus is more on the kinetic relationship between two or more languages derived from a common origin. Two languages comprehensible to each other is the major criterion for dialectal relationship. That is, if two languages of the same origin have derived so differently that their users can no longer communicate with each other, these two languages would cease to be dialects to each other. In this sense, Cantonese and Putonghua are not dialects to each other, albeit their common origin.’ Professor Chow then shifts gears and talks of Cantonese’s de facto relationship with Mandarin. ‘Politically speaking, language and dialect often refer to the different statuses in a nation/society. In this sense, ‘language’ refers to an official language used in formal circumstance. It often has a higher status and commands more respect. ‘Dialect,’ and this is where some interpret Cantonese to stand, refers to an unofficial language that is confined to informal occasions. In this sense, Putonghua is a language and Cantonese is a dialect.’

1980 – 2009

Much can be said for the need for locals to differentiate Cantonese from Mandarin, but little is known about the central government’s efforts to maintain a Cantonese media presence in the region as well. In the 1980’s the state broadcasting bureau approved an ordinance allowing Guangzhou TV to air broadcasts in Cantonese with standard Chinese subtitles. The broadcasts proved a success, allowing Hong Kong and Macau the opportunity to connect with Mainland China. They proved so successful with locals though, that when Guangzhou TV’s financial news channel decided to make the switch over to Mandarin in 2009, advertising revenue dropped so dramatically, that less than a year later, the channel was broadcasting in Cantonese once more.

July 2010

And so it came to be that feelings were hurt, and angry voices expressed at Jiangnanxi. Estimates of attendance ranged in the thousands, which means this is no small matter for many of Guangzhou’s citizens who are widely known for their political apathy. Something has struck a nerve here, and a resolution is not apparent. One side argues that for China to achieve its many goals in the years ahead, it must adapt a unilingual system of speech. Others argue that what makes China great is not unilingualism, but a diversity of languages and cultures rivaled nowhere else on earth. In any sense, many have demonstrated that they see the future of Cantonese hanging in the balance as the country comes to grip with trying to define itself in a new age of Chinese global ascendancy.