Hong Kong in Vortex: Cantonese or Mandarin?

Series stories 1


In the year of 1997, the sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred back to People’s Republic of China. Since then, the people in Hong Kong live in a bittersweet under the ‘one country, two system’ policy. Among those bitters, one of the controversial topics is the promotion of standard Chinese (国语;國語Guo yu/普通话Pu tong hua) in Hong Kong.

Hongkongers are reluctant to learn and speak standard Chinese. But the more violent they reject, the stricter the instructions from Education Bureau will be. Recently, Sukie, a Hongkongnese piano teacher in a local kindergarten left her comments on Facebook, referring that her students were not allowed to speak Cantonese but only Mandarin in school, and were asked to watch, to report each other.

Some protesters pull the issue to a political level. Indeed, language is definitely an important tool for ruling and educating people. Is the popularization education of standard Chinese merely the Beijing’s political policy, a tool of ‘brainwash’? What is a mixture situation that Hongkongers tend to bind the social problems with the central government?

I would like to propose one perspective that I found much closer to the essence of the issue: mother tongue, motherland, Hongkongers’ identity and Hong Kong’s future. 

The discussion will start from China’s language complexity, Hong Kong’s dialect reality, and further reach the Hongkongers’ strength of identity, to the reasons and conflict behind. 

What is standard Chinese?

What is known in English, Mandarin, is how the people call the Chinese language in general, but originally Mandarin is one major dialect of it.

Mandarin Chinese is the most used Han dialect among Chinese. It is a dialect group spoken across most of northern and southwestern China, which was used by the mandarins during China’s empire period to communicate with each other and the emperor. As so, the Beijing dialect gradually became the basis of Mandarin Chinese.

In 1909, the government of Republic of China (ROC) tried to promote a standard Chinese; in 1913, the Pronunciation Unification Committee of the National Education Department voted by province, hence the Beijing dialect became a basic pronunciation system of the standard Chinese: 國語Guo-yu (national language).

Later after 1949, KMT (national party) was defeated by CCP (communist party) during the civil war, and the ROC government took ‘guo yu’ to Taiwan, promoting it among the aborigines. Then, the PRC government changed the name ‘国语Guo yu’ (national language) into ‘普通话Pu tong hua’(common language) to avoid any potential and unnecessary misunderstandings among different ethnic groups. The Pu-tong-hua’s pronunciation system inherited from the Guo-yu, which has become different from each other in details during half century’s separate rule (mainland China and Taiwan).

Both Guo-yu and Pu-tong-hua belongs to Mandarin. In Taiwan, the standard Mandarin called 國語; In mainland China, it called 普通话.  

How about Hongkong after the 150 years’ rule by Great Britain?                                                                                                                                  


Reality in China

The Basic Law of Hong Kong stipulates that Chinese and English are the two official languages of Hong Kong.[1]During the British colonial era, English was the sole official language until 1974. As the majority of the population in Hong Kong are descendants of migrants from China’s Canton Province, the vast majority speak standard Cantonese or other Yue Chinese varieties as a first language, with smaller numbers of speakers of Hakka Language or the Teochew dialect of Southern Min. In addition, immigrants and expatriates from the West and other Asian countries have contributed much to Hong Kong’s linguistic and demographic diversity.
Languages of Hong Kong – Wikipeida

Why does this conflict between Cantonese and standard Chinese exist since they are both the official languages of Hong Kong now? Before we get anything to the ‘political bullshit’, let’s understand some down-to-earth facts about the diversity and complexity of Chinese language first.

The Chinese languages have undergone a lot of reclassification lately (Mair 1991), from one Chinese language a couple of decades ago up to 14 Chinese languagestoday according to the latest Ethnologue.
However, Jerry Norman, one of the world’s top experts on Chinese, says that based on mutual intelligibility, there are 350-400 separate languages within Chinese (Mair 1991). According to Gong Xun, a Sichuan Mandarin speaker in Deyang, China, by my criteria of distinguishing between language and dialect, there would be 300-400 separate languages in Fujian alone.
So far, 2,500 dialects ofthe Chinese language have been identified, and a number of them are separate languages.
I have been doing research on this issue recently. Based on the criteria of mutual intelligibility, I have expanded the 14 Chinese languages into 365 separate languages.
A Reworking of Chinese Language Classification By Robert A. Lindsay

This is a rather incomplete report.

In case you are interested, Robert also analysed the levels of incommunicability between different dialects by data, indicating the gap of China’s dialects is much larger that of the UK or the US.

As I mentioned, the Mandarin Chinese is a group of dialects spoken across the north and south-west of China, how about the other part? It’s better to put a dialect map of a south-eastern China here, which shows the main part of China who speaks Cantonese (the grass green one) clearly:


☝🏻Categories of Han dialects in the southern-east part of China
👇🏻In comparison with the dialects of Arabic



For a country with 1.4 billion people with thousands of different dialects, a dominating national dialect is more than necessary. Despite the popularization of Pu-tong-hua has been carrying for decades, there are still 30% of Chinese population can’t speak standard Mandarin, which means hundreds of millions of people are speaking other languages. In some rural areas, only 40% of people speak standard Mandarin. The government set a target to make sure 80% of its citizen to speak Mandarin by 2020. (chinanews.com)

Meanwhile, local governments are advocating citizens to cherish the local culture while promoting standard Mandarin, suggesting that “the popularization of Pu-tong-hua is never a put-down of local dialects, the two are interdependent”, rather, “it helps to promote a more tolerant environment among varied local culture”; besides, “either the common language or the dialect will keep evolving as time passes by, and they will mutually promote and fuse with each other”. (Ministry of Education of PRC)


Hong Kong’s Struggle

Of course, Hong Kong is never one of those ‘rural areas’. But the Mandarin popularization in Hong Kong has been facing much of resistance for the two decades since the handover.

屏幕快照 2018-04-15 00.14.06

Data collected from HKSAR government

For Hongkongers, nearly 90% of them take Cantonese as the mother tongue, and language never means something more than a communication tool, learning Mandarin (Pu-tong-hua) is just as useful as learning English. However, the bully carry-out process of policy is not a fresh topic for China’s local governments, which is said appeared in the promotion of Hong Kong’s Mandarin education. 

Some Hongkongers have shown a detest towards it. On the one hand, people claim to protect Cantonese and local culture by refusing learning standard Chinese. On the other, protesters bind Mandarin promotion with the ‘brainwash’ and ‘violent’ control of the Beijing central government, claiming that ‘Hongkongers need not learn Mandarin’. 

But what are they struggling with deep inside? 



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