The existential crisis of an age-old language

By Yo Tong on March 1, 2012
Bruce Lee, whose mother-tongue was Cantonese, would have been required to obtain permission from the Central Government to use his language when starring in his movies if he had still been alive today.

Cantonese, one of the five major Chinese languages, is facing an existential crisis following the Guangdong Provincial government's ratification of a law that will virtually eradicate it from education and mass media.

In the southern province of Guangdong, media reported that the “Guangdong Provincial Regulation on National Common Language and Characters“, which will be implemented on March 1, 2012, is based on the “National Common Language and Characters Law”, but adds clauses regarding the responsibility of governmental organs such as academia, broadcasting, and so forth in “the Work of (Promoting) Language.“

Chinese media quoted an official of Shenzhen as saying that, in the Sixth Plenary Session of the 17th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), the country will be vying to improve the nation's cultural soft power and advocate Chinese culture. The regulation will implement a strategy that seeks to “promote and regulate the use of the national common language, and scientifically protect ethnic languages.”

The third article of the Guangdong Provincial Regulation states that the “National Common Language“ is

Putonghua and standardized (read: simplified) Chinese characters [...] Putonghua sets Beijing's pronunciation as the standard pronunciation, the northern dialect as base dialect, the canon of modern vernacular writings as the standard of grammar.

The fourth article evinces that the “People's Government at all levels shall strengthen the leadership in promoting a national common language in the respective administrative areas.” These include “civil, cultural, information industry, commerce, radio, film, television, press and publications, and education“ bureaux.

The fifth article states that the

governments above the county level should include the national common language work into national economic and social development planning, and combine financial resources to arrange special funds for the promotion of Putonghua and the standardized Chinese characters.

Through these regulations, Cantonese is effectively banned from public broadcasting in Guangdong in favor of Putonghua (i.e. Mandarin).

In a broadcast by Nanfang Television Station, one of the primary Cantonese television channels, effective today, radio and television (including online audio and video streaming) must use Mandarin Chinese as the “basic language” for broadcasts, presentations and interviews. The use of “dialects“ - such as Cantonese - in broadcasting requires permission by the State Council.

Guangdong Province, ChinaAs one of the five major Chinese languages, Cantonese has a long history that dates back to the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC). Compared to Mandarin, China's official language, the pronunciation and grammar of Cantonese is closer to that of classical Chinese. It is spoken by about 100 million people in Guangdong (or Canton, whereafter the language was named), Hong Kong, Macau, as well as among the Chinese diaspora overseas in places such as Singapore, Taiwan, Canada, the United States, Australia, Japan and many other places. It was also the mother-tongue of the late Qing reformers Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen as well as many famous Chinese scholars and intellectuals.

Netizens in Guangdong and Hong Kong voiced their concerns on the internet. Some feared the annihilation of their culture as well as that of their individuality. One netizen commented,

Promoting Mandarin by suppressing Cantonese is not beneficial to the plurality of thoughts and cultures. As language is a medium for culture, belief, customs and a shared sense of identity, abolishing Cantonese is equivalent to abolishing Southern Yue Culture, which proves China's hegemony and imperialist tendencies (because the need to abolish Cantonese derives from the urge to build one great unified empire). It is hopelessly foolish to abolish cultural plurality in a knowledge-based economy.

Cantonese is not the sole victim of such regulations. Shanghainese, which once served as the regional lingua franca of the entire Yangtze River Delta, is facing the same situation. In an article from February 2011 in the Global Times, Qian Nairong, a professor of Chinese language at Shanghai University was quoted as saying,

the Shanghai dialect carries the city's cultural identity and heritage. It is therefore immensely important we teach our children the dialect. If we fail, our dialect will disappear within 20 years time.

Both Shanghainese and Cantonese are set to face a gargantuan challenge: the top-down obliteration thereof by the central Chinese authorities. The biggest difference is that, while Shanghai scholars, comedians, and even airlines cooperate in the strenuous battle to preserve their language and cultural heritage, similar movement is unnoticeable amongst Cantonese speakers in Guangdong Province.

In Hong Kong, the vibrant port city in the Southern Yue Cultural Sphere, opinions regarding the use of Cantonese and Mandarin are divided. Although Hong Kong is not under direct Chinese jurisdiction thanks to the “one country, two systems” framework, some netizens share common concerns with people in Guangdong who are beginning to compare the language regulations in different parts of China such as Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tibet, and fear their implications.

On the other hand, many parents in Hong Kong who are bound by the colonial mindset (of both the British Empire and the Chinese quasi-imperialist regime), are under the impression that Mandarin is superior to Cantonese. These people tend to believe that by learning Mandarin before Cantonese, their children will enjoy a strong tailwind when competing with their peers. Hong Kong's school systems is one of the fiercest and most competitive in the world, so they believe that even a small advantage such as this could result in a lucrative butterfly-effect in the future. Hong Kong's local government and schools are now striving to show their loyalty to the central government in Beijing by introducing Mandarin as the undisputed preeminent Chinese language.

Guangdong province has had a long tradition of cultural encounters with the West, and it provided fertile ground for countless innovative ideas in East Asia. The central Chinese policy makers have already done a fantastic job in demolishing their own culture in movements that paralyzed the country, such as the Cultural Revolution. Many people spread across the world would like to see Cantonese culture and language preserved. Now, facing the monolith of central authorities, their fight seems to be an uphill struggle.