Of the world’s 6 billion-odd people, nearly a sixth speak Mandarin as a first language.
Government policy from Beijing has long been to promote Mandarin as the nation’s lingua franca. But the popularity of Mandarin is now creating concern among speakers of other Chinese dialects, especially Cantonese, a dialect from southern China that dominates parts of Guangdong province, Hong Kong and Macau.
For decades, Beijing has considered Cantonese just another regional language amongst China’s largely Mandarin-speaking majority (around two-thirds of Chinese use Mandarin as their native tongue).
Though Cantonese and Mandarin share nearly all the same written characters, the pronunciations are vastly different. When spoken, Mandarin can be incomprehensible to a Cantonese speaker, and vice versa. But an estimated 58.8 million Chinese speak Cantonese as their mother tongue – and they carry a disproportionate weight nationally due to the economic success of the southern region of the country in which most of them live.
That meant that sparks flew earlier this month when officials in Guangzhou proposed using Mandarin instead of Cantonese in Guangzhou’s TV news programmes. The proposal, if adopted, will reduce the amount of broadcasting time in Cantonese.
Any attempt to enforce a uniform language on linguistically-diverse countries tend to provoke strong reactions. And the proposal for Guangzhou TV news was no different, riling the Cantonese-speaking population in the city, says Shenzhen Daily.
To protect their dialect, protestors assembled in the city, shouting “Support Cantonese” and “Shut up, Ji Kekuang”. Ji was the official in Guangzhou’s political advisory body who suggested the switch to Mandarin on local television. Police broke up the rally, citing public security concerns but sympathisers in Hong Kong say that they will now hold a pro-Cantonese demonstration in the city this weekend.
“We want to express our dissatisfaction and worry,” says Alvis Zhou, 21, one of the demonstrators in Guangzhou. “We don’t hate Mandarin, and it’s okay for us to speak it in schools, but the government has gone too far with its plan to use more Mandarin on local TV channels.”
In response, spokesmen for the Guangzhou city government played down the unrest, insisting that it had been instigated by “people with ulterior motives”. They also claimed the proposal had been misunderstood, and that it was a suggestion rather than an administrative order.
The perceived threat to Cantonese mirrors the concerns of speakers of different dialects in other areas of the country, where Mandarin is gradually becoming the default tongue.
Its spread has been helped by the years of economic growth. Greater labour mobility has seen migrants move from their home provinces in search of work. Many end up marrying people from other provinces and then need a common language with which they can communicate.
Further encouragement of Mandarin’s spread is also official policy. Some Guangzhou primary school students are barred from becoming class captains if they speak Cantonese. Peer pressure even means that some children are reluctant to speak to their parents and grandparents in Cantonese because they have become so used to speaking Mandarin at school, says Yangcheng Evening News.
Some parents agree. “Children have to speak Mandarin in school anyway, so it’s better for them to get used to it at home too,” says a mother from Guangzhou, who speaks Mandarin to her son.
But behind the public outcry in Guangzhou is a deeper concern that the nation is moving towards a culture of monolingualism. Critics worry that many of the country’s dialects will soon become endangered if children no longer learn to speak them.
But most languages disappear because their speakers voluntarily abandon them, says the South China Morning Post. Where a dominant language is associated with progress and economic success, speakers of minority languages come under pressure to learn it in order to get on.
Still, linguists say more should be done to avoid the loss of a diverse cultural heritage.
“Language is the root of culture. If this root is gone, the culture will very quickly – within one, two or three generations – die out completely,” says Professor William Wang Shi-yuan of Chinese University. “So we should help preserve endangered languages and culture.”
Cantonese may sound – to the Western ear – far less mellifluous than Mandarin (it has seven tones rather than four, giving it a more jagged air). But it has a geographical reach far beyond its home provinces (much of the Chinese diaspora over history has come from coastal regions where Cantonese is spoken. Its prevalence in Hong Kong has further boosted its international exposure.)
For example, it has given the world two of the best-known Chinese words: ‘dim sum’ (‘dianxin’ in Mandarin) and ‘wonton’ (‘huntun’). Moreover, its speakers have access to a labyrinth of jokes and puns that are virtually untranslatable – as well as an unrivalled lexicon of swear words (for more on which, read the Hong Kong-based novels of James Clavell).
As the 300,000 Cantonese speakers in the UK would be quick to point out: it would be a shame if China lost all that.
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