Cantonese Is Dead

I’ve just landed in Hong Kong only to discover that Cantonese is dead.  Sei jo la! It must be true. The New York Times says so. But wait. Their reporter also calls Cantonese a “dialect”. (And determines that Mandarin is a “language”). And he goes on to declare that Mandarin is the “lingua franca” of East Broadway, the Fujianese stronghold of New York’s Chinatown.

Hmm. I was down on East Broadway just last Sunday with Long Hair, during his whirlwind 36 hour visit to New York City (his first trip to America!). We were there because one of his Hong Kong- American supporters owns an herbal shop there, and he wanted to give Long Hair some bags of fresh Wisconsin ginseng to take back home to Wong Yuk Man as a present, a sau seun.

The shop owner, of course, spoke to us in straight-off-the-Cathay-Pacific-777 Hong Kong Cantonese. As did at least half the people we passed on the way to his shop. As for the rest of the bustling pedestrians, shopowners and restaurateurs on East Broadway, I can confidently report that they were NOT speaking what the New York Times reporter has determined to be the new Chinatown “lingua franca”, Mandarin.

They were, of course, speaking Fujianese.

The, ahem, language of Fujian province.

Anybody who has studied Chinese linguistics is familiar with the complex and fascinating language map of China, but for some reason Americans, even Times reporters, manage to not get it. And what’s really even more frustrating is that a lot of Chinese themselves (like the people interviewed in the NYT article) are happy to go along with the Westerners’ misguided notion that Mandarin Chinese is the original Chinese native language from which all other so-called lesser Chinese “dialects” spun off.

But as we readers of Learning Cantonese know, linguistically, China is almost as vast and varied as Europe or India. The language of the Beijing region and of Canton are as different as Italian and Portuguese. In Hunan they speak a language with different roots and structure from the people in Wanzhou. Wanzhou language is vastly dissimilar from the language spoken in Sichuan.

Written Chinese was developed, thousands of years ago, with a purpose: to be the first pan-Chinese lingua franca–a kind of Chinese esperanto. The characteristics of written Chinese that we westerners find so difficult and cumbersome–the vast number of characters to memorize, the lack of a phonetic alphabet–are a direct function of the original project. Written Chinese had to be ideographic, for if it had been phonetic and pronouciation-based, it would have been useful only to one Chinese language group.

Mandarin–or as it is called here in Hong Kong, putonghua, “common language”–was created (yes, created!) for the same reason as written Chinese. The Chinese nationalist movement knew that in order to unite the far flung regions of China, they needed to establish a national language. The old story goes that Sun Yat Sen (a Cantonese speaker) got together with the top Nationalist honchos to vote on what the national language would be. And, but for one vote, all the bureaucrats in Beijing would be speaking in Gwong dung wah today.

Instead, they decided to base the national language of China on the Chinese spoken in the region around Beijing.

Still, despite more than 50 years of official support, education, and with all the levers of the central Chinese government pushing the primacy of Gwok Yu (national language), Mandarin is the first language of a whopping 40% of all Chinese. (It’s spoken by just 70% of Chinese, which is still an astonishing figure, given the primacy of putonghua).

Anyway, the “Cantonese is Dead” meme gets my dander up for all kinds of reasons. For one, it perpetuates the falsehood that Mandarin is the original Chinese language from which all others are somehow lesser, dialect derivatives. As a student of Cantonese, I resent this perfunctory dismissal of a rich language that is both older and more complex than Mandarin.

But more than that, I get annoyed because the “Rise of Mandarin” meme also feeds the central Chinese government’s distorted propaganda about Chinese ethnicity and identity. In the eyes of Beijing, all Chinese are “Han people”–whatever “Han” is (to my ears, the term carries the creepiness of “White” or “Aryan”). In their universe,  all Chinese are “Han” who should be speaking “gwok yu” (national language). And, every right thinking “Han” person from Taipei to Bangkok, from Sheung Wan to Mott Street must fall in line and get with the Motherland program: bowing to the inevitabilty of a new Chinese empire, ruled from Beijing.

I’m not against mutual intelligibility. I think it is great that Mandarin exists so that Fujianese can speak and exchange ideas freely and easily with Sichauanese and Chiu Chow. But language is not just about communication, it is about politics. And if you accept the “Cantonese is Dead”, “Shanghainese is Dead” and “Fujienese is dead” dialect meme, then you are also buying into the idea that there is just one China, and only one kind of Chinese. And that this “Chinese-ness” is defined (and controlled) by the central government of the People’s Republic of China.

I like diversity. So do Chinese. Without the distinctive, vibrant, regional cultures of Sichuan, Canton, Fujian, Hunan, and the tribal regions of the West, China would be a far less interesting and compelling place. Chinese-ness has evolved in splendid ways thanks to the sophistication, history and complexity of Hong Kong and the overseas Chinese communities from New York to Bangkok to Singapore and Melbourne.

And Chinese people do understand this. That’s why, in cities from Guangzhou to Shanghai, to Shantou, the kids speak two (and often three) languages–the one they speak at home, and the one they learn in school. That’s why the babble of business on East Broadway is in Fujianese, and the babble of business in Penang’s Chinatown is a polyglot of Fujianese (Hokkien), Cantonese and Mandarin. (This polyglot nation notion is very alien to Americans, which is probably why the New York Times article works on the assumption that one, and only one Chinese language must dominate Chinatown).

I’m also creeped out by artificial nation building projects, with their whiffs of racial supremacy and manifest destiny, whether they originate in Washington DC or Beijing. There’s much more spiritual strength, in the long run, in a nation that encourages people to be their polyglot, quirky, diverse and fascinating selves, rather than tries to mold them into some idealized mono-lingual “New Man.”

Language is a dangerous thing. It springs from the people, not from the bureaucrats. You can try to regulate it, squash it, punish people for speaking it. Yet it persists, survives, subverts. We speak, and what we speak is who we are. That’s not going to die anytime soon.

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