Cantonese vs Mandarin language wars

Looks like despite my best efforts to frame the recent protests over Cantonese language TV broadcasts in China as a cultural issue, and not a political one, my editors have decided to lop off the last paragraph of my article (so that it now doesn’t really make sense). Sigh, at least I tried. Read the uncensored version here, or the censored nonsense at China Daily:

Living here in the northern capital, I don’t usually come into contact with the Cantonese language, except when a Hong Kong tabloid magazine is thrown in my lap at the nail salon or Canto-pop drifts into my open window from a karaoke-equipped restaurant downstairs. But recently, Cantonese has been all over the mainstream headlines.

In response to a government proposal to reduce Cantonese television broadcasts in favor of Mandarin content, dialect speakers have organized protests in Guangdong and across the waters in Hong Kong. While the government’s alleged rationale is to make Guangdong more tourist-friendly to Mandarin savvy visitors who will descend on the city for the Asian Games in November, southern natives worry that this is part of a grander plan to abolish their cultural-linguistic heritage.

What to make of all the hoopla around this “language war”?

As a native Mandarin speaker, I daresay the popularization of my language across mainland China, and in Hong Kong after 1997, has been a good thing for me.

Visiting southern cities in the past felt more foreign than crossing the border into another country. In a truly foreign land, I would simply be an outsider and can rely on warm-hearted locals to help me navigate. But, in my own country, the north-south cultural and historical enmity makes people less inclined to assist a lost traveler from higher latitudes.

On previous trips, I could hear my southern compatriots’ frustration, disdain, and mistrust in their sharp staccato replies to my ignorant questions. Even our shared written language didn’t help, for although we share a common set of Chinese characters, Cantonese is frequently written using spoken colloquialisms that only make sense when read in dialect.

Over time, as Mandarin instruction was institutionalized in schools all around China and Chinese (Mandarin) wealth grew, southerners became more willing, and able, to communicate with their northern brothers and sisters.

I experienced the transformation fully than at the Hong Kong high-end department store Lane Crawford. Pre-1997, the well-coiffed salesladies never deigned to respond to my requests unless I spoke to them in perfect English. Post-1997, I could hardly fend off the staff rushing at me offering well-rehearsed Mandarin services. With the influx of mainland tourism spending, taller, broader women walking into the store must’ve started to look like big wads of renminbi bills.

Although I enjoy the benefits of “Mandarinization,” I can empathize with the Cantonese and the big fuss they’re making over their television broadcasts. Harvard professor Marc Shell has written that language is a key battleground for cultural conflict. More tangible than race or religion, the words that come out of our mouths are explicit identifiers of the groups to which we belong. A Cantonese person may not look that differently from me, but we identify with separate ethnic groups within China. Discussing language-based disputes internationally, Shell says, “You can pretend a Jewish person is Christian, but if he speaks a different language, you can’t pretend he speaks yours.”

I grew up surrounded by the loud brash sounds of northeastern Mandarin – “dongbei hua.” The more years I spend away from my hometown, the more endearing I find my native accent. Nothing breeds trust and good feeling quicker than hearing familiar speech in a faraway land. I once made friends with a restaurant waitress in a Chinese take-out joint in Paris – with whom I had very little in common – simply because I detected “dongbei” tones in her French. At the time, I longed to be around someone who reminded me of home.

Collectively, northerners are also bonded by an annual ritual that is very much language-based. Every Lunar New Year’s eve, nearly every household tunes into the CCTV variety show.  The show’s content is geographically biased: as one generation of vocally dexterous Mandarin entertainers has promoted a second generation of protégés (like Zhao Benshan and Xiao Shenyang), the majority of the show is now presented in northern accents on subjects of northern humor. My cousin, who married a Cantonese-speaker, took his family to Fujian last New Year. I asked him how well the CCTV program was received down there and he retorted, “Nobody watches it here in the south.”

Squabbles over language and cultural heritage are ubiquitous the world over. From the francophones versus anglophones in Canada, to Hindi-speakers against proponents of the thousand other indigenous languages in India, or Hungarian minorities fighting for equal footing with Slovakian linguistic dominance in Bratislava, the Mandarins versus the Cantonese is but one of countless similar tiffs.

But what exactly are the Chinese Cantonese really fighting for?

The more ardent defenders of Cantonese see their struggle as a stance for freedom of choice. Others believe they’re repelling an effort to weaken regional cultures through promoting Mandarin.

Yet, the Cantonese “everyman” seems to be riled up for much less lofty reasons. On a wide range of English, Chinese, and colloquial Cantonese bulletin boards (the latter of which I can finally read after college conversational Cantonese classes), most people seem to be more upset about stiff voice-overs and non-emotive soap operas than any systematic undermining of Cantonese culture.

“Of course we have to watch ‘Sing Ye’ (a nickname for Zhou Xingchi, a famous Hong Kong comedic actor) in Cantonese!”

“Beijing Satellite broadcasts programs in ‘Beijing hua.’ How come Guangdong Satellite doesn’t have local dialect programming?”

“Cantonese people don’t like to watch Guangdong Satellite. That channel is for Mandarin-speakers. We prefer TVB.”

Even some dedicated Cantonese advocates seem to take the matter lightly and can apply good old Cantonese colloquial humor in this time of conflict. An image printed in Time magazine shows an elderly gentleman at a Hong Kong protest holding up a sign that reads, “I love Cantonese. I know ‘stew winter melon’ (which sounds like “putonghua” when read out loud in dialect).”


6 thoughts on “Cantonese vs Mandarin language wars

    • Evan – not the first time I’ve been censored! I have some pretty funny censorship stories though – more fit for private email than public posting 🙂

  1. Well, it goes without saying that people who don’t toe the official line simply do not exist. It should been expected then that the last few sentences got removed by your editors. Funny thing too, I believe that the official line is that such “editing” also does not exist. I’m surprised you didn’t mention French speaking Quebec as a comparison. Those guys speak their own lingo and Canada seems to run just fine.


    • BP – you’d be surprised with how much leeway there is to NOT tow the official line, but as with everything in China, it’s all done very creatively. It’s kind of like a collective social mild subversion. Everybody winks and nods on the fact that rules are tauted only to be broken…. I think the Canadians and Quebecois would strongly disagree with “run just fine.” Yes, Canada works well as a country, but the province is fraught with ridiculous politics!

  2. I am trying to decide which to learn, Cantonese or Mandarin. I am a native English speaker (United States) and have little exposure to either. I have been doing some research, and it looks like it may be better to learn Mandarin as an overall second language. However, it seems like Cantonese is a language that is needed to conduct business in Hong Kong. At this point I am not doing any business in China at all. My reason for wanting to learn the language(s) is to develop a skill set that will be in demand in the very near future (if not already).

    I was reading that it may be easier to learn Cantonese first and than add on Mandarin (if able to) so as to be more useful overall. This sounds like it may be very difficult to do.

    If I had to choose only one, which do you think I should learn, Cantonese or Mandarin?

    Is it possible to learn both simultaneously seeing as how they share a common written form?

    If it is possible to learn both simultaneously, do you know of (or recommend) any schools (or materials) that teach in this fashion (in U.S.)?

    Thank you for your time. I look forward to your response.


    • BT – thanks for your comment. I’m a native Mandarin speaker, have studied Cantonese and have done business around the US/Asia. As a rule, I would say definitely learn Mandarin. China, not Hong Kong or select parts of Cantonese-speaking southern China, is growing as an end market (transitioning out of its role as a low cost producer) for more and more of the goods being produced globally. Everybody is learning Mandarin — the Japanese, the Koreans, the Americans (have you read about how much Chinese-speaking nannies earn in the US?) – to get a piece of the China pie. Even the Cantonese are learning Mandarin to do business on the mainland. Unless you’re working with low-end industries (like sourcing from very local producers in Canton, for example) and mom-and-pop enterprises (whose older owners may not have gotten on board with the new language trend), I would say a command of Mandarin is way more helpful than a command of Cantonese. Knowing one will give you a slight advantage in learning the other (grammar is slightly different, pronunciation is different but if you’re a linguist you can trace common roots, but they share a written set of characters, with the exception that “China’s Chinese” is written in simplified characters, which people who grew up in HK or Taiwan need to adjust to or learn to read). Mandarin is actually easier to pick up than Cantonese because it has fewer tones. So, to sum it up, learn Mandarin — don’t learn a dialect when you can learn the ‘official language’ that is shared by Chinese people around the world. Hope this helps.

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