Cantonese cultural warriors fight back
By Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - How do you stop 50 million people from speaking in their native
dialect? The answer is that you cannot.
The Chinese nation, or more exactly the Han majority, has had a unified written
language for more than 2,000 years. However, the same characters can be
pronounced very differently in over 100 dialects. A Beijinger may not
understand what a Shanghainese says. And a Shanghainese may not understand the
Cantonese dialect spoken by people in an area from Guangzhou to Hong Kong.
In the past two weeks on both sides of the border separating Hong Kong from the
mainland, protesters who feel that their
Cantonese dialect and heritage are under threat by the Chinese leadership's
obsession with national unity in nearly everything have taken to the streets to
make it perfectly clear that nothing can force them to give up their native
Just this Sunday, hundreds of people staged parallel rallies in Hong Kong and
Guangzhou, provincial capital of Guangdong, demanding space - and lots of it -
for the Cantonese dialect and culture in China's national life.
In Hong Kong, where freedom of speech and assembly are a way of life, the
demonstration attracted media attention not for its size - only 200 or so
protesters turned out - but for the solidarity demonstrators expressed with
their brothers and sisters across the border in Guangzhou, the traditional
center of Cantonese culture once known as Canton.
Sunday's pro-Cantonese Guangzhou demonstration, the second in a week, took
place under much different conditions than the Hong Kong rally. It went ahead,
in the People's Park, despite a government ban and media gag. But it was
quickly shut down by police, who scuffled with protesters and wound up
arresting about 20 people, including four Hong Kong journalists.
At the same time, 200 demonstrators, watched but unimpeded by police, made
their orderly way from Hong Kong's Wan Chai district to government headquarters
Media accounts took note of the youthfulness of the demonstrators, many of whom
were twenty- and thirty-somethings suffering from what sociologists call
"We have to defend our cultural autonomy," Crystal Chow, 23, told Asia Times
Online at the Hong Kong rally's meeting point on a playground in Wan Chai. A
graduate of the Chinese University of Hong Kong with a degree in cultural
studies, she accused the central government of "cultural hegemony" dressed up
Raphael Wong, a 21-year-old student at Polytechnic University, said that he and
his friends had come to the demonstration because "we are going to share the
idea that we have to protect our culture."
Bruce Ng, 28, a postal worker, carried a sign that can be translated as
"Different Dialects/Mutual Respect."
Radical Hong Kong legislator "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung, never one to pass up
a protest, was also on the scene, at one point leading demonstrators in an
obscene chant that had been the battle cry of a famous Cantonese general in
late Ming Dynasty against his Manchu counterpart: "F**k his mother! Hit them
The same chant was heard on Sunday in Guangzhou before police silenced it.
For seven years, until last month, a plaque carrying the battle cry had been
placed at the base of a statue honoring the Ming general Yuan Chonghuan
(1584-1630), in his native city of Dongguan in Guangdong. When local
authorities removed the plaque, it sparked an online protest that was then
greatly exacerbated by a proposal, made by the Guangzhou Municipal Committee of
the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a political
advisory body to the city's party committee. The municipal committee proposed
that Guangzhou TV's most popular channels start broadcasting in the central
government-designated national language of Putonghua, also known as Mandarin,
rather than in Cantonese.
Those virtual protests turned real on July 25, when more than 1,000 people
showed up for a pro-Cantonese rally at a Guangzhou metro station. In an attempt
to thwart that protest, police blocked Jiangnanxi Road, which was its gathering
point, and also stopped a local band from playing Cantonese songs. But the
defiant protesters continued, shouting slogans such as "Support Cantonese" and
"Shut up, Ji Kekuang."
It was Ji, a member of the CPPCC Guangzhou committee, who offended Cantonese
pride when he motioned for the language change for Guangzhou TV. His argument -
presumably filtering down from provincial Communist Party chief Wang Yang, an
appointee from the north - was that the switch would make Guangzhou a more
hospitable place for visitors from other provinces when it hosts the Asian
Games in November.
Ji may have won favor among his Putonghua-speaking superiors in Beijing for his
proposal, but it has also turned him into to the whipping boy for a growing
pro-Cantonese movement that now has spilled across the border into Hong Kong.
For the people of Hong Kong and Guangdong, of course, there is great irony in
all this. Cantonese has a much older linguistic history than Putonghua and,
indeed, could well have become the national language after the founding of the
Republic of China (ROC) by Guangdong native Sun Yat-sen in 1912. But the
subsequent civil war and the establishment in 1949 of the People's Republic of
China under Mao Zedong made that impossible.
Still today, besides being the native tongue of more than 50 million people in
China, Cantonese is also spoken by 20 million members of Chinese diaspora.
In today's China, however, Putonghua, a standardized form of Mandarin based
heavily on the Beijing dialect, is the language of the country's schools, state
media and government departments, which has inevitably led to a decline in
local languages and dialects. In Guangdong, some schools have reportedly
punished students for speaking Cantonese instead of Putonghua.
In the same way that many middle-class parents in Hong Kong, a former British
colony, speak English to their children at home in the hope that it will
advance their educational and career prospects, upwardly mobile Guangdong
parents teach Putonghua to their offspring.
Now it appears a younger generation of Cantonese speakers is starting to balk
at what they see as the marginalization of their language and culture.
Ham-fisted responses to their anxiety - like the ugly suppression of the
protest in Guangzhou on Sunday - only heighten their fears.
China's 30-year economic boom was fueled by the manufacturing industry in
Guangdong's Pearl River Delta, and in the 1980s and early 1990s the province
was also a cultural hub. But those were the early years of China's economic
miracle. Guangdong, helped by its proximity to Hong Kong, was the first
province to open up to foreign investment and also the first to get rich;
meanwhile, the nation became fascinated with the slickness and sophistication
of Hong Kong television, films and popular music, almost all of it in
But Guangdong's manufacturing prowess is being threatened by cheaper set-up and
labor costs in other provinces, and China's entertainment industry is much more
talented and diverse, as well as more united by the common language of
Putonghua. Beijing and Shanghai, not Guangzhou and Hong Kong, are now the
nation's cultural hubs.
Sensing this loss of position, Guangdong authorities recently set aside 25
billion yuan (US$3.7 billion) to promote local culture over the next five
years. But these are the same officials now snuffing out protests rooted in
Cantonese pride, who accuse rally organizers of having "ulterior motives".
The good news for the demonstrators is that, despite their worst fears,
Cantonese culture will continue to thrive. While it may not claim the same
prominence it enjoyed early in the nation's economic boom, it is simply too big
and richly embedded in Chinese history to be suppressed.
That said, the pro-Cantonese campaign should serve as a reminder that China is
a land of 160 dialects and 130 minority languages, many of which truly are
endangered. While there is nothing wrong with having a national language,
suspicion and suppression of minority languages and cultures is another story -
one that has produced a backlash of violent revolt among the Uyghur people in
the northwestern Xinjiang region and also in neighboring Tibet.
China's linguistic and cultural diversity is surely a strength, not a weakness.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at