In China, protests underscore a rift over dialects


In Guangzhou, the city formerly known as Canton, Chinese government banners hang in primary schools with instructions to use the country’s official language, Mandarin, also known as Putonghua:

“Speak Putonghua, write standard Chinese, use civilized language, be a civilized person.”

But residents of the city, the capital of one of China’s proudest Cantonese-speaking regions, recently marched by the hundreds to protest a new government proposal to switch television broadcasts from the local dialect to Mandarin ahead of the multi-sport Asian Games scheduled for November in Guangzhou.

“Protect our mother tongue!” some Guangzhou residents shouted. “Get lost, Mandarin!”

On the same day, about 200 people marched in Hong Kong, where Cantonese is the official Chinese tongue, converging on government headquarters. A week earlier, nearly 1,000 people in Guangzhou had blocked a subway station to show their opposition to the proposed change in television broadcasts.

For years Cantonese speakers in southern China have complained that local culture is being eroded under orders from Beijing, where Mandarin dominates. The recent protests highlight a traditional rivalry between north and south as well as the government’s efforts to bring the country under one language, local residents and experts say.

Cantonese — as the second most spoken dialect in China and until recently the language most common among Chinese living abroad — has long been a key part of Chinese culture.

Generations of Cantonese-speaking immigrants built America’s first Chinatowns and introduced dim sum, chop suey and Bruce Lee (the martial artist and film star was born in San Francisco but mostly grew up in China).

As more Mandarin-speaking migrants from other parts of China move into Guangzhou and other Chinese communities across the world, Cantonese is becoming less prominent, analysts and experts say. And the government is speeding up the process, they say.

“Putonghua taking over local dialects is a movement we have seen for some time now,” said Cheris Shun-ching Chan, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Hong Kong.

Students in Guangzhou have been penalized for speaking Cantonese, and teachers must pass a Mandarin proficiency exam. Many employers also check whether potential hires can speak Mandarin. Fewer than half of the 12 million people in the city speak Cantonese.

The two dialects feature significant differences. Cantonese has 59 vowel sounds, twice as many as Mandarin’s 23. Cantonese also has nine tones, compared to Mandarin’s four. For these reasons, Cantonese is considered by some as richer and more specific. Some linguists say that it’s actually a wholly separate language and not just a dialect of Chinese.

“This conflict is about local language, but it is also about a form of political struggle,” said Chan, emphasizing that national political power is concentrated in the north.

Some historians and many residents of Guangdong province say Cantonese was nearly adopted as the country’s official language when the Republic of China was founded in 1912. Sun Yat-sen, the leader of China’s Nationalist movement, was from Guangdong. The province, having been the only region open to trade with the West, was the country’s most prosperous.

But eventually, after the communist revolution, standard Mandarin became China’s national language.

According to state media, government authorities proposed using Mandarin for broadcasts of the Asian Games as a way to “forge a good language environment” and cater to non-Cantonese-speaking Chinese visitors to Guangzhou. News and primetime shows would also be in Mandarin.

Local residents worry that such a switch would punish older Guangzhou residents who have never learned Mandarin.

Chun Yunian, a graduate student at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, said the older generation has often complained that the young people of Guangzhou don’t care about their culture and are always looking up to foreign cultures.

“Now, they’re proving they do care,” she said. “It’s like they’ve all woken up.”

Kuo is with The Times’ Beijing Bureau. Tommy Yang contributed to this report.