By Jessie Pang

The linguistic diversity of China is fading rapidly in recent years.

According to the Globe and Mail, 88 Chinese languages or dialects are endangered.

Cantonese, one of the widely spoken languages of Guangdong province, Hong Kong and Macau, does not escape from this trend.

However, unlike many other endangered Chinese languages or dialects, from “Protecting Cantonese Movement” in Guangzhou to “Opposing Putonghua as a Medium of Instruction (PMI)” in Hong Kong, the regional lingua franca Cantonese receives the most viral discussion and debate across the Pearl River Delta (PRD) on safeguarding its language status and the use of it.

There are many reasons behind such importance and growing concern.

1. Government policies endanger the existence of Cantonese

To start with, the active promotion of Putonghua by Hong Kong and the Central Government in recent years harms the continued existence of Cantonese.

Although “committed to promoting trilingualism” across English, Cantonese and Putonghua is the official stance of the Hong Kong government, the Education Bureau once claimed “Cantonese is not an official language” in 2014  and states that PMI “is a long-term and developmental target” in a report to the Legislative Council’s education panel in 2015.

Despite the contradictive stance of the government, it’s no doubt that Hong Kong has long been adopting a pro-Putonghua education policy.

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“Scheme to Support Schools in Using Putonghua to Teach the Chinese Language Subject” was launched as a pilot scheme for all schools to adopt PMI since 2008.

As a result, about 71 percent of local primary and 31 percent of secondary schools are now adopting PMI together with Putonghua as a separate language subject.

The situation Cantonese speakers are facing in the Guangdong province is even worse.

A proposal on increasing the use of Putonghua in local television programs was once put forward by the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Guangzhou Committee in 2010.

Despite the strong opposition that suggestion has faced, another manuscript, the Guangdong National Language Regulations was enacted by the local government in 2012 to ensure Putonghua is the only workplace language throughout the province.

This was done as part of a national push to standardize communication and enhance state unity and stability according to the Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development. 

A scene in downtown Hong Kong. Photo Credit: Anton/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)
A scene in downtown Hong Kong. Photo Credit: Anton/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

Lacking of the Cantonese context, children in both Hong Kong and Guangdong province are now found using Putonghua naturally in their daily life and some have started having difficulties in understanding Cantonese.

Seeing the possibility of losing their mother tongue, citizens thus become more aware of the preservation of Cantonese.

2. Cantonese is the foundation of local culture

The loss of Cantonese could also mean a loss of local culture.

Cantonese has verbally blended different languages together and as a result becomes a carrier of local culture and eyewitness of the societal development.

During the British colonial period, many common terms in Cantonese, such as dik-si (taxi) and si-do-be-lei (strawberry) were translated from English directly.

In recent years, as the contact of different cultures increases, Japanese terms have also been used in Cantonese directly, such as kawayi (cute) and fong tai (Japanese buffet).

Furthermore, many popular and distinctive local cultural products are made in Cantonese.

For instance, Cantonese opera is one of the three Chinese opera genres on the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity Representative List. 

Also, Cantopop has had a significant influence in the Asia-Pacific Rim since the 1970s. The “god of song” Sam Hui and the “four heavenly kings” Andy Lau, Jacky Cheung, Leon Lai and Aaron Kwok are still very popular in both mainland China and overseas.

What’s more, almost all popular Hong Kong classic movies made in the 1980s were produced in Cantonese and the Cantonese-speaking actors are still famous superstars.

Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan are two popular examples of the Canto Kung Fu movie icons.

These explain the significant role played by Cantonese in the local culture and the growing importance of preserving Cantonese.

3. Cantonese is a traditional intangible heritage with international prestige

In addition, Cantonese is a precious traditional intangible heritage with a long held international prestige.

It has a richer traditional heritage. It it had been spoken by the ancient Chinese since the Tang Dynasty while Putonghua is a language introduced by the northern nomadic invaders during the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties.

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Hence, it has inherited the pronunciation, lexis, meaning and beauty of Chinese classical language. For instance, Cantonese has 9 tones while Putonghua only has 4 tones. Also, ancient Chinese literature can only be fully understood and read in Cantonese.

Moreover, such importance has gained a growing international recognition and concern.

Apart from its legal language status acknowledged by UNESCO, universities have long been offering credit-bearing and non-credit-bearing Cantonese courses which have received strong support from the public.

Photo Credit: Toomore Chiang/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)
Photo Credit: Toomore Chiang/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

One significant example is the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. That institution received a large amount of thank you emails after it announced to offer credit-bearing Cantonese courses.

Therefore, people often regard Cantonese as the last resort of protecting traditional Chinese culture and languages and proud to be its defenders.

4. Cantonese is the symbol of local identity and the yardstick of distinctiveness

With such unique importance and status of Cantonese, the language has become the symbol of identity and the indication of the local political and socio-economical difference with the rest of China, especially in Hong Kong.

Lacking of confidence in the central government and fearing Hong Kong may lose its status as an international city and its competitive edge, many Hong Kong people have committed to preserve and enhance the distinctiveness of Hong Kong from China since the handover in 1997.

According to the ethno-linguistic identity model and the communication accommodation theory, when people strongly identify with their ethnic group, they tend to communicate in their ethnic language to symbolically distinguish themselves from others.

In this way, people with a strong Hongkonger identification incline to resist learning Putonghua and focus more on preserving Cantonese (Tong, 1999. International Journal of Intercultural Relations,23(2), 281-296.)

Such inclination is further intensified as the entitled ways of life and valued linguistic practices changed rapidly by the mass migration from northern China.

Guangdong province has attracted lots of migrants from the northern part of China with all walks of life ever since the economic reforms and the open up policy.

Yet, most of them failed to adapt the local culture and even demanded the city to change for them.

Hence, Guangdong citizens feel that they are the root cause of all problems, such as the recent acceleration in the strong competition in the job market, exploiting the social welfare benefit which the locals do not have and causing the rise of crime rate and more.

Hong Kong has shared a similar situation but the reaction in Hong Kong is much stronger owing to intense Hong Kong-China conflict in recent years and the three concrete promises: “once country, two systems”, “high degree of autonomy and “remained unchanged for 50 years” made by the central government before the handover.

Mao even said “language is the most significant part of life style. According to the above stipulation, therefore, the status of Cantonese can at least remain unchanged for 50 years”.

For instance, Hong Kong Airlines fight attendants launched a “No Putonghua” protest in response to a mainland passengers’ sit-in.

Also, jeering at the Chinese national anthem has gradually become a habit of Hong Kong football fans to express their anti-China feeling.

With a fear that they may lose their identities and cities, the potential of losing Cantonese has become a warning alarm in many people’s mind.

Thus, Cantonese has become a way of struggle against the domination of the outsiders for the locals with strong ethnic consciousness.

To conclude, protecting Cantonese in PRD has become more important since the 1990s mainly because Hong Kong and central government fail to understand Cantonese is not just a regional lingual franca and suppress its existence rapidly.

On the contrary, the genuine public uphold Cantonese as a precious intangible heritage with international prestige, the foundation of local culture, the symbol of local identity and hence defend the linguistic status and use of Cantonese fiercely.

Although many countries try to achieve solidarity through linguistic conformity, there are also prosperous multiethnic and multilingual countries that achieve the same goal by preserving the linguistic diversity.

If policy makers really hope to achieve a harmonious society, they should recognize the complex multicultural and multi-linguistic reality of China, respect the linguistic right of individuals and preserve Cantonese and other dialects or languages at their upmost through revising the current national policy.

RISE NEWS is a grassroots journalism news organization that is working to change the way young people become informed and engaged in the world. You can write for us.

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Photo Credit: green_intruder/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

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