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The people of the Pearl River

The people of the Pearl River


The Cantonese are said to be a mix of peoples who emigrated south and married with indigenous groups that originated from the Yue kingdom that once extended across much of southern China.

Today the definition has narrowed to those born in Guangdong (additionally millions of overseas Chinese are ethnically Cantonese because of the long history of emigration from the province).

The large numbers of Cantonese living outside China means that classics of their cuisine like sweet and sour pork, Cantonese fried rice, and beef with oyster sauce are more likely to be served up in restaurants around the globe than dishes from other regions of China.

However, the province’s signature offering is its dim sum – bite-sized buns and dumplings, often served from small steamer baskets and washed down with cups of tea.

Guangdong’s distance from the imperial capitals of the past has also bred its independent streak, which rears its head today in the debate over the future of its local tongue. Cantonese has been a culturally significant language for centuries, flourishing in the form of Cantonese opera, which dates back to the Song Dynasty of the 13th century. More lately, the language has reasserted itself in the Chinese-speaking world in the frenzied activity of Hong Kong’s film industry, which trailed only Hollywood and Bollywood in movie output for much of the 1970s and 1980s. Later, Cantonese kept up its influence with the rise of Cantopop songs that ruled the roost across China for much of the 1990s.

60 million

The estimate of Cantonese speakers in China, roughly equivalent to the number of people who speak Italian or Urdu

Today the Cantonese feel a little threatened by the push to encourage more spoken Putonghua, the ‘official’ language (regarded as a unifying medium, and also referred to as Mandarin). Putonghua (literally: ‘common speech’) was enshrined as China’s lingua franca in 1955 and is now spoken (not always very well) by about 70% of the population. Fans of Cantonese hit back that it’s the mother tongue of at least 60 million people, and many resent the call for more Putonghua, seeing their own language as richer and more colloquial.

Hence some of the sensitivity in Hong Kong, where there was little interest in speaking Putonghua before the territory was returned to Chinese rule. Now Putonghua has overtaken English as the second-most spoken language, although Cantonese remains dominant in daily conversation, the media and local commerce.

There’s unease across the border in Guangdong too, where the massive influx of migrant workers from other parts of China has seen Cantonese become a secondary language in some cities. That’s less the case in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, where there have been protests at efforts to replace Cantonese-language television with programming in Putonghua. Nonetheless policymakers from Beijing have argued that Cantonese is a dialect of an older form of Han Chinese, from which Putonghua derives.

Plenty of Cantonese disagree, claiming that Putonghua isn’t even indigenous because it was modified from the Manchurian mother tongue of the Qing Dynasty, and assert the sanctity of Cantonese as a language in its own right and as a mainstay of their southern Chinese identity.

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