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Cantonese is not only a language, but also represents the Hong Kong identity

By: Vikey Chen |

Most Chinese speak Mandarin but not all. Cantonese is still the primary language used in Hong Kong, Macau, and other overseas Chinese communities. It is usually written in traditional Chinese characters instead of simplified Chinese characters (i.e., standardized Chinese characters used in Mainland China).

Many people believe that Cantonese comes from Hong Kong. But in fact, Cantonese originates from Canton, also known as Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong, a coastal province in southern China.

There are about 120 million people who speak Cantonese as their mother tongue. As the Cantonese-speaking population migrated to different parts of the world in modern times, Cantonese has become one of the most frequently used Chinese languages in the Chinese communities in North America, Australia, and other places.

Is it true that Cantonese almost became the official language in China?

Rumor has it that, at the time when the Republic of China was founded in 1912, Cantonese failed to be elected as the official language by a margin of one vote to Mandarin. Is that true?

Let’s look at history. This rumor originated in 1913, only a year after the founding of the Republic of China. It is said that the Chinese Congress was bitterly divided between the South and the North. The Cantonese (the South) congress members and the Northern congress members did not give in to each other on the issue of choosing the official language. Cantonese and Mandarin received the same number of votes. At that critical moment, Mr. Sun Yat-sen, dubbed the “father of the nation,” albeit a Cantonese-speaker himself, urged his fellow countrymen to choose Mandarin for the sake of the general good. A tie-breaking vote was cast, and Mandarin was made the official language in China.

However, this is not the real case. The truth is that, when the Qing Dynasty fell in 1912, the Commission on the Unification of Pronunciation was established by the newborn Republic of China. The delegates decided to promote a unified language nationwide. At that time, Mandarin was already the most popular language in China, spoken by a vast majority of its population. Therefore, Mandarin was selected, not elected, as the standard Chinese. There was no voting.

More than a century later, the rumor of Cantonese being voted out still persists in many people’s minds nowadays. It is enough to say that Cantonese has a significant status in Chinese society.

With the increasing pressure from China, what is the future of Cantonese?

Although the Basic Law, the de facto constitution of Hong Kong, stipulates that both Chinese and English are the official languages of the city, nearly 90% of the local population solely use Cantonese as the common language at home and in the community. English is just for study and business.

Hong Kong was once a British colony for more than 150 years until 1997. According to the original agreement between the UK and China, Hong Kong’s sovereignty was transferred to China in return for the city maintaining a high degree of autonomy and political freedoms. But the story did not develop as expected.

Since Hong Kong’s return to Chinese control, more and more people who reside in Hong Kong are learning Mandarin as a second language, and the pressure to abandon spoken Cantonese in schools has intensified. In fact, Hong Kong people are particularly sensitive to this issue. Cantonese is not only the language of Hong Kong, but also a major factor in the identity of most Hong Kong people, who prefer to recognize themselves first as a “Hongkonger,” but not a “Chinese.” The past decade has witnessed several “Defend Cantonese” protests in the wake of the government’s discouragement of using the language.

With Hong Kong’s increasing economic connections with the mainland and stricter political control from the Chinese government, almost all schools are now teaching Mandarin. The future of Cantonese is full of uncertainties. But one thing is for sure, any attack on Cantonese will only lead to an awakening of Hong Kong identity.

Vikey Chen is an education columnist from Hong Kong, and now she calls the US home.

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