Will Linguistic Centralization Work? Protesters Demonstrate against Restrictions on Cantonese

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 16

The sign reads: "I love Cantonese. I know ‘stew winter melon’(when read in putonghua)"

A new and potentially potent type of grievance has raised its head in China. Linguistic grievance, which is to say anger over the central government’s relentless promotion of Putonghua (or Mandarin) at the expense of older and regional tongues (namely Cantonese), has taken center-stage in a simmering conflict that is exposing a growing central-local disconnect and a Beijing further out of touch with the nations it purportedly serves.

On Saturday July 31, local police in Guangzhou arrested a man who was allegedly accused of organizing a demonstration a week earlier (see below) demanding greater respect for the local Cantonese language. Police warned that future demonstrations would not be tolerated and their organizers punished (Taipei Times, July 31). Meanwhile, a similar protest had already been called for the following day in Wanchai, Hong Kong (South China Morning Post, July 31). The protests, the arrest in Guangzhou and the warnings are simply the latest—and probably not the last—in a growing chorus of widespread alarm in China over the enforced marginalization of traditional forms of speech and perhaps the reach of the central government.

In July, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC)—the top advisory body to China’s rubberstamp congress—wrote to the Guangzhou provincial government with the suggestion that ahead of the Asian Games in September, local television stations should broadcast prime-time shows in Mandarin instead of Cantonese. Doing this, the Committee asserted, would promote unity, “forge a good language environment” and cater to non-Cantonese speakers visiting the city. Guangzhou television responded by saying that it had no plans to alter its programming mix of Mandarin and Cantonese (Taipei Times, July 28).

The dispute was quietly swept under the official carpet. Yet it was too late, the cat was already out of the bag. According to the New York Times, “[T]he proposal sparked a backlash from local residents. They say it threatens the livelihood of their language, which is an integral part of the local culture. Of 30,000 people who voted on the issue in an online poll, about 80 percent were against the proposal” (New York Times, July 26).

In the late afternoon of July 25, a crowd, estimated at a thousand and reportedly summoned by internet postings over the preceding two weeks, gathered outside the Jiangnanxi Guangzhou Metro Station to protest the measures. A local band turned up at 16:30 to sing Cantonese songs, and from 18:00 to 19:30 local police blocked one of the main exits from the Metro.

According to the South China Morning Post, “Many people gathered around the exit, some displaying posters and wearing T-shirts with slogans in support of the local dialect. One poster said, “Languages slaughterer” in English and showed a skull and bloody bones . . . The protesters also shouted “Support Cantonese” and “Shut up, Ji Keguang.” [Ji was the central government official who suggested the switch of languages for local television] (South China Morning Post, July 26).

“One netizen composed his own song to voice his disapproval. Titled, ‘You Can Take Down Anything, But You Can’t Take Down Cantonese.’ He sings, ‘Houses along the streets have been taken down, taking away our memories. Now you want to take down Cantonese, who knows what will be left of it’” (New York Times, July 26).

In a videotape of the demonstration, the chant “Phou Tong Khwa Sau Pei” can be heard clearly. “Phou Tong Khwa” is the transliteration of Putonghua or Mandarin into Cantonese, while “sau bei” means roughly “f**k off!” [1].

Most participants expressed themselves by terms that are more reasonable. Said one, “We want to express our dissatisfaction and worry. We don’t hate Putonghua, and it’s OK for us to speak it in the schools, but the government has gone too far with its plan to use more Putonghua on local TV channels.” (South China Morning Post, July 26).

Meanwhile a second demonstration, which was announced in Hong Kong for August 1, saw several hundred, including some from China, march on government headquarters (AFP, August 1; South China Morning Post, August 2). Choi Suk Phong, one of the organizers in Hong Kong, said, “Cantonese was often portrayed as a second-class language when Hong Kong was under British colonial rule. Sadly the use of our mother tongue is now being attacked again, only this time the perpetrator is our Chinese government” (Taipei Times, July 28). At a separate protest, more than a thousand protesters turned out at the People’s Park in Guangzhou, where hundreds of police awaited them. Many were carried away or questioned, while onlookers hurled obscene epithets at the police (Xinhua News Agency, August 3).

None of these developments bode well for the central government. Debates about what should be the national language bubbled at scholarly and official meetings through the teens and the twenties of the last century, with the issue being whether the southern forms of Chinese, which preserve more traditional characteristics (e.g. the ru or entering tone) should be taken as the basis for the new speech—or alternatively, the dialect of the Beijing area, somewhat Mongolicized (e.g. the distinctive Beijing expression hutong or alley is thought to be of Mongol origin) and without the entering tone, be extended nationally. Northern and southern linguists could not agree, with the result that the Nationalist or Kuomintang) government simply promulgated the “national language” (or Guoyu) in 1932 [2]. The Nationalist’s standardization project enjoyed a good deal of success, particularly since exile to Taiwan, where Mandarin is now commonly spoken—at least in the north of the island—by people whose mother tongue was Taiwanese (or Japanese), a language that draws heavily on the Min-nan speech of Amoy, just across the Strait.

Contrary to its concerted effort to nationalize Mandarin, the original communist policy—before the party took power in 1949—was that local forms of speech should be encouraged. Such preservation of local linguistic identity, however, collided head-on with the communist government’s intent to centralize control over social life. The communist equivalent of Guoyu called Putonghua (common speech)—they are the same language with slight variations—was promulgated as the national standard and in 1982 made the national language of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Along with this initiative came intensive instruction (e.g. the forbidding of local speech in schools, etc.). Nevertheless, China is a big enough country to resist, and composed of many nations with sizeable constituencies that could perhaps even defeat such an ambitious effort by central authorities at social engineering.

Mandarin is an artificial language, created by a committee and formed by conventions, but having roots in mostly northern forms of Chinese speech. Cantonese by contrast is an organic language that has evolved over millennia. It is written in the same characters as Mandarin, with some unique additions. Sometimes it is called a "dialect" of Chinese, but more properly a "topolect" as it is used mostly in the southeast and in overseas communities, but it has all the attributes of a language. As one observer notes:

“Cantonese speakers have demonstrated an intriguing ability to seamlessly incorporate foreign words, particularly English ones, into the lexicon and proved more than adept at creative use of the language by employing puns and synonyms that makes Cantonese quite distinctive and worth treasuring not only for historical reasons … And, of course, Cantonese enhances a sense of identity. It is this that scares the rulers in Beijing; officials … are already accusing the defenders of Cantonese of having ‘ulterior motives’ (South China Morning Post, July 31).

While imposition of Mandarin has not proved universally popular, most have gone along with it. (Interestingly, through World War II the U.S. government taught Cantonese as well as Mandarin, as had the British government for use in her territories such as Malaya.) Cantonese is still the lingua franca of many ethnically Chinese communities overseas. Yet Western language teaching soon shifted to Beijing Mandarin, as did that of Singapore. So it may have seemed natural to the Chinese authorities to attempt to impose Mandarin on local television in Guangdong (e.g. as Mandarin has been imposed in Tibet). Furthermore, this might seem to simply be a natural extension of Beijing’s increasing might, prestige and standardization.

Yet a raw nerve has been soundly struck by the suggestion that Mandarin be substituted for Cantonese on local television. The response to the turmoil over Cantonese has been that speakers of other Chinese languages have been alerted to the steady decline in the number of their speakers, as Mandarin floods from the official media—and this is not to mention places like Tibet and East Turkestan (aka Xinjiang) where Mandarin is being imposed to replace non-Chinese languages in the name of promoting unity (South China Morning Post July 25).

Most importantly, to tamper with language is to play with fire. Nationalism and Social Communication, a classic text by Karl Deutsch (1912-1992) (MIT Press, 1953) shows how local topolects or under-developed local forms of speech—Cantonese would be a good example—are strengthened rather than weakened as the populations speaking them become more affluent, higher in status, and more confident. In this context, the local backlash could be seen as efforts to resist what might appear to be a conscious attempt by the central government to prevent different political power centers from emerging other than Beijing. Deutsch chooses the example of how farmer’s Finnish displaced German in Helsinki around the turn of the last century, as Finland’s rural majority became empowered by new prosperity. The same story can be told of "peasant" languages like Polish, Belorussian, Ukrainian. etc. at about the same time, which likewise over came German in the cities, as well as official Russian, and became languages in their own right, not Slavic dialects. A more recent example is from the 1960s when the Flemish of Belgium (Flemish is simply Dutch–in grammar and vocabulary—but pronounced variably and more softly) became a focus of proto nationalist feeling in Flanders, opposing the hitherto standard Belgian French. The process involved mass demonstrations and protests in the 1960s style. The upshot was that Louvain (French), home to a great medieval university became Leuven (Flemish).

Against this backdrop, one wonders whether similar processes could take place in China. It is one thing to have a grasp of Mandarin for official uses. It is something quite different to give up one’s historical identity as a cultured southern Chinese in favor of the identity of Beijing. The reaction in Guangdong, which encompasses a region every bit as rich, international and sophisticated as Beijing or Shanghai (whose own language is also being lost in the flood of enforced Mandarin), may be a sign of things to come, as local cultures, now wealthy, self-sufficient, and proud prove unwilling to abandon the languages they learned from their parents and grandparents and insist rather that they receive the same respect as the centrally-mandated national language.

Furthermore, it is a historic fact that other grievances can congeal around the linguistic, so awareness of speech may be the first step toward broader awareness of regional differences, an awareness made more confident by rising levels of income and education. Centralization in China has traditionally gone only so far. It may be reaching its limit now, as yet another element, affinity and loyalty toward local language and resentment of imposed forms of speech, enters the already long list of causes of social unrest in China.


1. See https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2488, and https://www/youtube.com/watch?v=2Eara3FTCes.
2. For this see S. Robert Ramsay, The Languages of China (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1987).