Is Cantonese dying in Canton?


Pupils read a slogan promoting Mandarin in an elementary school in Guangzhou (Credit: Bobo Yue)

“It is too embarrassing to speak Cantonese at school, isn’t it?” said Wang Yangxi, in Mandarin.

The 7-year-old was born and raised in a local family in Guangzhou, traditionally known as Canton, but he said he would talk to his peers both in and out of class in Mandarin, as Cantonese was “too difficult” and “awkward” for him.

Survey on Use of Cantonese, Jinan University, February 2018

According to a survey conducted in 2018 by Language Resource Center of Jinan University, a public tertiary education institution located in Hong Kong’s neighboring Guangdong Province, less than 70 percent of juveniles living in the provincial capital born after 2000 can speak and understand Cantonese.

“There is fear for the discontinuity of Cantonese among the next generation of Guangzhou, and this issue lies in the language environment of kindergartens and schools,” Rao Yuansheng, an expert in Cantonese culture, wrote on Weibo, a Twitter-like Chinese social platform.

“Guangzhou’s today will be Hong Kong’s tomorrow,” writes Fung Hei-kin, a commentator, on Apple Daily.

The name Canton, which the word Cantonese is derived from, originally came from a Portuguese language rendering of Guangzhou.

Cantonese is the lingua franca of both Guangzhou and Hong Kong. Apart from descrepancies in social systems across the mainland-Hong Kong border, however, the two cities also see cultural differences – Hong Kong encourages the use of Cantonese, Mandarin and English concurrently amid its policy of “biliteracy and trilingualism”, whereas Guangzhou, just like other mainland cities, observes Mandarin on its official occasions, including government-held conferences and even public events.

China has been promoting Putonghua, or Mandarin, since 1956 when its central government issued an official document to launch the campaign, and there have been controversies over the policy and the preservation of dialects, or local languages.

In Guangzhou, public transportation makes announcements in Mandarin, Cantonese and English. Guangzhou-based TV stations are also permitted to broadcast in Cantonese, which critiques on Boxun and The Standnews said was a strategy to resist the ideology of Hong Kong TV shows, or what the authorities called, “overseas TV programs”, when these shows were very popular among households in Guangdong.

In 2010, however, the municipal government of Guangzhou proposed that its two main TV channels switch to Mandarin broadcasting, which locals speculated as an act to do away with Cantonese and triggered several protests in the city, as well as Hong Kong, Macau and the United States.

“We have a thousand reasons to promote Mandarin, but nobody has any reason to hurt our mother language,” said Chen Yang, a Guangzhou-based TV host and newspaper columnist.

The then Secretary of Guangdong’s branch of the Communist Party Wang Yang told a press conference in 2010 that the speculation was “groundless.”

“Even I am learning Cantonese. Who dares to abolish it?” asked Wang.

2010 Guangzhou pro-Cantonese protest (Credit: Apple Daily)

According to China’s Ministry of Education, 70 percent of the country’s population could speak Mandarin by the end of 2015, compared to 53.06 percent in late 1990s. The ministry and the State Language Commission projected the rate to reach 80 by 2020 in an official scheme.

Chan Yat-wah, a secondary school teacher in the city said the authorities and schools had been discouraging the use of Cantonese, which, to some extent, caused a decline in the language’s dominance.

“Most of the students in my school speak Mandarin,” said Chan. “Students are required to rate teachers at the end of every semester, and one of the appraisal criteria is whether a teacher speaks Mandarin in class.”

A slogan reads “Speak Putonghua and write standard Chinese characters” (Credit: Chan Yat-wah)

Bobo Yue, a teacher who works at an elementary school with two campuses in Guangzhou, said there were still a large number of Cantonese-speaking students in her school and that the use of Cantonese among young people could vary among different places of the city.

“Most students at the campus in the old town speak Cantonese, but those at the other campus located in the neighborhood where most residents are newcomers to Guangzhou tend to speak Mandarin,” she explained.

A source who has worked at public schools for decades told the author that a few years ago, teachers in Guangzhou would be fined if they spoke Cantonese at school even when they were not in class. He requested anonimity because it was “not convenient” for him to talk to a foreign media outlet.

26-year-old Yue added, “I think the Mandarin campaign has been successful… When we were still at school, our teachers were compelled to speak Mandarin in class because of the policy. But now, we have to speak the language because students would not understand if otherwise.”

Amid the compelling campaign to promote speaking Mandarin and writing standard Chinese characters nationwide, local Cantonese speakers and media outlets, including state-owned Guangzhou Daily, hailed a textbook written by the city’s Wuyang Primary School to teach students Cantonese basics, grammar, history and songs in 2017 as a good tool to help preserve and hand down the language.

Yet the action received condemnation on the internet. Some called the public to report the school’s act of “playing up localism” to the Ministry of Education, saying it was “utterly detrimental to national stability and unity.”

Cao Xiaohua, a teacher from northern China’s city of Hefei, was one of those who lashed out against the school, accusing it of “inciting the independence of Guangdong” and “violating laws” including the country’s constitution.

The school declined to comment on the issue.

Cheng Sze Ting, a chief reporter with i-Cable News, said the accusations were “barbarous” and that different cultures in the country should respect and tolerate one another, when she reported the story.

“If speaking Cantonese means advocating the independence of Guangdong, does using Szechwanese mean Sichuan separatism then?” she asked. “If a Chinese learns to speak Japanese, does it mean he is a traitor to the country as well?”

Don Lee, a blogger focusing on Cantonese culture both in Guangzhou and Hong Kong, believed the popularization of Mandarin was not in contradiction with the preservation of Cantonese and said the Cantonese-speaking population was still very large in Guangzhou based on his observation.

He said the popularity of Cantonese culture and language in the last century could be boiled down to Guangdong and Hong Kong’s economic power.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Hong Kong was a very strong economy and that Guangdong saw rapid development as well due to the country’s economic reform so Cantonese language and culture, say Cantopop and soap operas, were deemed advanced and fashionable, Lee explained.

“Those who flocked from the hinterland to Guangzhou to work in labor-intensive industries in the last century were mostly uneducated so they did not have much cultural demand and felt comfortable adapting to local culture by studying Cantonese,” he explained.

“Now, many migrants to the Pearl River Delta are learned, elite people,” Lee continued. “They may feel reluctant to cater to locals. Instead, they would hope locals to speak Mandarin to them.”

The “strong cultural export” of the region was weakened since the economy and the cultural industry of the mainland witnessed rapid development, he said.

Chan said Cantonese became less prevalent in Guangzhou because of new lifestyles as well.

“Young people do not watch TV any more, not to mention Hong Kong TV programs. All they are exposed to is mainland shows and news, so they tend to speak Mandarin.”

Survey on Use of Cantonese, Jinan University, February 2018

Han Zhipeng, a commentator and former city councilor said he was worried people from Guangzhou would not and even could not speak Cantonese in the future.

“Some children from local families can only understand but cannot speak Cantonese and even find it weird to use the language among their peers,” he said. “If this trend goes on, it will be extremely dangerous.”

Both Han and Rao proposed the education authority and schools open courses to teach and carry on the Cantonese culture while promoting Mandarin.

South China Morning Post quoted Rao saying the local authorities soon halted Wuyang’s Cantonese-teaching project amid controversies.

Just like Wuyang and other schools on the mainland, Danan Road Primary School, strictly abides by the national policy and uses Mandarin as its medium of instruction apart from English classes.

However, seeing an increasing number of Cantonese born in Guangzhou who do not speak Cantonese, the school’s headmaster Ye Lishi actively promotes the language and encourages its students to speak it out of class.

“As locals, we hope to inherit Cantonese. If we do not use it, it will gradually wane and disappear,” said Ye, stressing her move was to preserve the Cantonese culture instead of acting against Mandarin.

“It is true when it comes to not only the language, but also our culture and traditions,” she added.

Ye’s school hosts Cantonese-related events, including Cantonese opera performances, to “constantly strengthen the atmosphere of Cantonese” and “make them students feel proud as part of the local culture.”

Lao Zhenyu, Guangzhou-based founder of a website for Cantonese culture, said it would be less “politically sensitive” to promote Cantonese in the name of promoting Cantonese culture, and he published a book in collaboration with other people keen on the culture in 2017 to teach children ancient Chinese poems in Cantonese.

“Some lines of the poems do not rhyme in Mandarin, but they do in Cantonese,” he said. “Cantonese is rich in culture and retains a lot of characteristics of the ancient Chinese language. If it vanishes, it will be a great loss for the whole Chinese nation.”

Despite several schools’ and locals’ efforts to promote the language, Han said it’s difficult to see initiatives by local officials to defend Cantonese. Although the country’s campaign is to make Mandarin the society’s mainstream and schools use Mandarin as the medium of instruction, Yangxi’s parents now require him to speak the local language at home.

“It is a matter of cultural inheritance,” said Yangxi’s mother.

“What is it?” he asked.

“It means handing down culture from one generation to the next,” she answered. “It’s like during the Chinese New Year, we eat glutinous rice balls, so you eat them as well.”

“I eat cookies.”

“Well, cookies. That’ll do too.”


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