Is Cantonese a language, or a personification of the devil?

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Whether Cantonese is a language or a dialect is a subject that we have touched upon many times on Language Log, e.g., "Spoken Hong Kong Cantonese and written Cantonese" (see especially the remarks in the second half of the original post) and "English is a Dialect of Germanic; or, The Traitors to Our Common Heritage ."

But now it has become a hot-button issue in China, especially in Hong Kong, where the government's Education Bureau recently made a monumental gaffe by declaring that Cantonese was not an official language of the Special Administrative Region:  "Education Bureau rapped over Cantonese 'not an official language' gaffe:  Claim Cantonese 'not an official language' leaves public lost for words."

Here's an article in Chinese on the uproar that followed the announcement of the Education Bureau that Cantonese is not an official language of Hong Kong.

The bold assertion that Cantonese is "not an official language" of Hong Kong flies in the face of the Basic Law of Hong Kong, which states that both Chinese and English are official languages of Hong Kong.

Of course, trying to define what "Chinese" is is not an easy matter.  Surely, if we are talking about spoken language, then "Chinese" at the time the Basic Law was enacted, and even now, meant Cantonese, inasmuch as roughly 97% of the population of Hong Kong speak Cantonese as their Mother Tongue.  But if we're talking about written language, then "Chinese" at the time the Basic Law was enacted, and still now, signified Mandarin.  As anyone who has tried seriously to master both spoken Cantonese and written Mandarin knows full well, there is a world of difference between the two.  Never mind trying to master written Cantonese and spoken Mandarin, which are also sharply divergent.

Since stating that both Chinese and English are official languages of Hong Kong inevitably results in enormous confusion with regard to what "Chinese" is, after the handover in 1997 the stipulations regarding language usage were supplemented with a policy of liǎng wén sān yǔ 兩文三語 ("biliterate and trilingual").  By "biliterate and trilingual" it is meant that there are two official scripts (Chinese and the Roman alphabet; in practice that amounts to saying that the official written languages of Hong Kong are Mandarin and English) and three spoken languages (Cantonese, English, and Mandarin).  No matter how you slice it, according to the Basic Law and the supplementary language policy, Cantonese is an official language of Hong Kong, and it certainly is the de facto spoken language.

Those who have been following the debate on Language Log know that part of the problem lies in the mistranslation of the Chinese word fāngyán 方言 as "dialect".  Because this mistranslation plays havoc with the classification of Sinitic languages, I invented the word "topolect" as a more accurate replacement, one which would not interfere with efforts to make taxonomical sense of the innumerable varieties of Sinitic, many of which — like Mandarin and Cantonese — are mutually unintelligible.

I will not recap here all of the reasons why Sinitic fāngyán 方言 are not "dialects" nor how treating them as dialects distorts the Stammbaum relationships among them, but will only mention that more information  concerning the concept of fāngyán 方言 may be found here, here, and here.

More recently, I have revisited the problem of how to deal with fāngyán 方言 and the classification of Sinitic in the Festschrift for Alain Peyraube.

The declaration that Cantonese is not an official language of Hong Kong opened a horrible can of worms, but it had two positive results:

1. It helped to make sensible people realize that the discussion of "language" vs. "dialect" should be regarded as a linguistic matter, not a political football.

2. It revealed how ridiculous it is to refer to the Mother Tongue of tens of millions of people as a "dialect", especially when no one ever bothered to show in a principled manner what it is a dialect of and how it relates to other so-called mutually unintelligible "dialects" such as Taiwanese and Shanghainese.

As a consequence of the Education Bureau's blunder, a huge debate over the nature and position of Cantonese has erupted in Hong Kong, with respected public figures such as Alex Lo explaining straightforwardly  "Why Cantonese is a real language in Hong Kong".

To close this post, allow me to cite the discovery made by a colleague that shows just how despicably the Mandarinate views Cantonese, the venerable Mother Tongue of the people of Hong Kong.

I would never have imagined that Cantonese would be personified as the "Devil" himself and that ghoulish image used by the HK Education Bureau in teaching Putonghua to Cantonese-speaking young children in Hong Kong.

Yet this is precisely what is done in this video.

I think this video is downright bizarre, shocking, creepy, and highly objectionable. Toward the end the scene of the man pointing the gun right in the face of the young girl is horribly disturbing.

It's obvious this video was produced by mainlanders who think they are clever and creative. However, if any naive Cantonese-speaker had any doubts about how sleazy and underhanded are the methods used by the promotion-of-Putonghua agenda, this video should dispel them.

The laughable crudity of this video notwithstanding, there is a war going on in Hong Kong, one between government forces determined to promote Putonghua at all costs and a populace who naturally have an understandable affection for their Mother Tongue.

[Thanks to Bob Bauer]


  1. Sreekar Saha said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 1:22 am

    Something like this occured in Pakistan(promoting Urdu at the expense of Bengali),and 1971 occurred.Also,the anti-Hindi agitations in Tamil Nadu in India.
    Regional politicians(party leaders) in India are pretty powerful,so I don't think that regional languages in India will suffer as much.

  2. Simon P said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 2:40 am

    The law is ambiguous and weird, but it doesn't seem that strange to me to say that Cantonese isn't an official language of Hong Kong. The law says "Chinese", not Cantonese. If a government institution refused to offer service in Cantonese and only communicated in English and Mandarin, would they be breaking the law? After all, they are offering their services in Chinese and English, which is what the law demands.

    I'm glad that this debate is getting so much attention, because my feeling has always been that people in HK and (especially) Guangdong are oblivious to the attempts to stamp out Cantonese. Now they are getting angry, and it's about damn time. I speak six languages, and Cantonese is by far my favorite. I absolutely adore it and I wish it a great and prosperous future.

  3. Simon P said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 2:42 am

    About that video: Someone on the CantoDict forums claimed it was pruduced by the Education Bureau. Is that true? That would be truly shocking.

    A quote from the used "C Chiu" on CantoDict:
    "The most ridiculous idea is that the evil devil is being accused as a Mandarin-hater who tries to unify the whole country with Cantonese (更要以「粵語一統天下」). As a matter of fact, Putonghua is the lingua franca that has unified the mainland. But I won’t say that Putonghua should thus be branded the evil devil."

  4. Chas Belov said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 4:51 am

    At risk of getting on the HK Education Bureau's no-fly list, I will say that I love Cantonese, including written Cantonese. Interestingly, before I studied Cantonese (3 semesters, never got fluent), I thought Mandarin was beautiful and Cantonese sounded harsh. Once I studied it, though, now it sounds alive and Mandarin sounds cramped. I love the imagery in its idioms, the humor of "haang louh mh daai ngaan" ("walk, not bring along eyes" for "watch where you're going") and many other phrases ("tong sat" "pond louse" for catfish, proudly shown on chalkboards at HK style restaurants in San Francisco). Long live Guangdongwa!

  5. Chas Belov said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 4:56 am

    Ah, I forgot, also Cantonese is much better than Mandarin for hip-hop, because of the final consonant stops. (Not that I would expect that to play any part in the HKEB's thinking.)

  6. The suffocated said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 6:04 am

    @Victor Mair

    "But if we're talking about written language, then "Chinese" at the time the Basic Law was enacted, and still now, signified Mandarin."

    Huh? Why? The law in question only says that "In addition to the Chinese language, English may also be used as an official language by the executive authorities, legislature and judiciary of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region." It makes no reference to Mandarin or Cantonese.

    By the way, in HK, "it is the Judiciary's position that the official language of Chinese in its spoken form usually refers to Cantonese but also includes Putonghua." (Link)

  7. Stephan Stiller said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 6:11 am

    About the slogan 兩文三語 [C loeng5 man4 – saam1 jyu5 / M liǎng wén – sān yǔ] ("two 文 and three 語"):
    It reflects the mistaken view that there is only one "文" [C man4 / M wén] (here: written variety), namely 中文 [C Zung1man2 / M Zhōngwén] ("[written, in this context and in their view] Chinese"), in China alongside the many "語" [C jyu5 / M yǔ] (here: spoken variety). Even though 兩文三語 may sound like a case of diplomatic vagueness and ambiguity, the bizarre thing is that so many natives truly believe that there is only one Chinese (by which they mean "only one written Chinese"). They will for example say that one wouldn't write or say 寫普通話 [C se2 Pou2tung1waa2 / M xiě Pǔtōnghuà] ("to write Putonghua", ="to write Mandarin") because in their usage and understanding 普通話/Mandarin designates only a spoken variety. (They will also call Cantonese a 方言 [C fong1yin4 / M fāngyán], which they mistakenly understand to mean (and consequently translate into other languages as) "dialect". In their belief the various Chinese "dialects" are all very similar to each other, with mainly the pronunciations being different and the rest being improper dialectal "slang".)

  8. Stephan Stiller said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 6:58 am

    @ The suffocated
    Victor Mair is saying (among other things) that if one tried to put one's finger on the expression "Chinese language" as used by many Chinese and in HK's Basic Law, one would find that it de facto signifies "written Mandarin" in the written domain and "spoken Cantonese" in the spoken domain in the context of Hong Kong. The expression "Chinese language" conceals complexity.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 6:58 am

    @The suffocated

    If you've been following the debates over Cantonese on Language Log for the past few years, or if you have any experience living in Hong Kong, or if you know some spoken Cantonese and some written "Chinese" as they exist in Hong Kong, or if you are familiar with the educational system in Hong Kong, or if you've been reading publications from Hong Kong for the last half century and more, you would realize that Mandarin is the de facto written language in Hong Kong. As we have made clear over and over again on Lanugage Log, it IS possible to write Cantonese, but few people do it, and trying to write Cantonese in the schools and universities or in any formal setting will only get you in trouble. Consequently, I stand firmly by my statement above that the language law and the expanded policy implementing it in practice amount to saying that the written languages of Hong Kong are English and Mandarin. To be literate in "Chinese" in the context of Hong Kong means that a Cantonese speaker must learn the grammar, vocabulary, and syntax of Mandarin.

    As for the position of the Judiciary to which you refer, we may say that ironically they seem to understand the situation better than the Education Bureau, but we may also note that, being capable jurists, they are perhaps intentionally vague on the matter. Yet it is this very vagueness that is now causing all the trouble in Hong Kong. For decades, I've been appealing for a clearer recognition that "Chinese", neither in its spoken nor in its written forms, is not a monolithic entity. For this reason, Stephan Stiller is to be applauded for his intelligent statement of the complex situation in his comment above, which is in accord with reason and linguistic principles.

  10. ycl said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 8:19 am

    I never understood why Hong Kong never set an official standard for written Cantonese, based in newscaster speech, i.e. more Mandarin vocabulary than is usual but still using basic Cantonese vocabulary and grammar.

    The 中文 writing style they teach there isn't even good Mandarin, and is quite different from the present vernacular in the mainland. I can understand Taiwan sticking to their 1930s classicist style, but HK has no incentive to share that.

    Alas so much time has passed that inertia will keep the present stupid diglossia going forever.

  11. Mandy said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 8:19 am


    "Written Chinese" means 書面語, which means Mandarin. I would appreciate it if you could point out an actual official Hong Kong government document/correspondence that is written in Cantonese 口語.

    I've never seen one all my life growing up in Hong Kong. So if you've seen it in the past, please enlighten me. I'm genuinely curious.

    Thank you.

  12. Jon Lennox said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 9:48 am

    Given its contents, the original post's use of the phrase "the Chinese word fāngyán 方言" is somewhat ironic.

    I assume more accurate would be "the Chinese word 方言, which in Mandarin is fāngyán". What is the Cantonese word for topolect?

  13. Bob said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 11:29 am

    Prof. Mair talked about HK's Basic Law, please allow me to point out, China with its heavy hand, can cancel the "special administration zone" anytime. Making Basic Law in-operational. As Taiwan is bending its knees to China, and will "return to mother" soon, there is no more "one nation two systems" kind of talk in China. As happened in Taiwan in 1945, when KMT took over (as victor of WW2) Taiwan from Japan, government workers were replaced to Mandarin speakers, meaning mainlanders. Such thing could happen in Hong Kong. Hong Kong people are wise to learn Putonghua. –this scenario cannot be mentioned openly in HK–
    The Education Dept of HK is doing its job, preparing HK's children for the Putonghua future. Although "50 years no change" was said, but, it was not written down as a binding promise. The Change, including language, would come to HK a lot earlier than 50 years from 1997.

  14. julie lee said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 12:03 pm

    Yes, this whole question of whether regional speeches ( Cantonese, Shanghainese, Taiwanese, Fujianese, Shangdongese etc.) are dialects or languages is a political football, an emotional football. My circle of Chinese friends all had K-12 education in China or Taiwan and almost all came to the U.S. for graduate education many decades ago. None are linguists. To them, all these regional speeches or fangyan方言“topolects" are dialects of Chinese. When I've had the temerity to suggest that they were languages, not dialects, I pretty much had my head bitten off. The best these Chinese friends could say for me was: "It's understandable because you're really a foreigner." (Meaning, though born Chinese, I was educated K-12 abroad, and would have a different political consciousness and different loyalties.)

  15. GAC said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 12:04 pm


    That seems an overly simplistic idea of the situation in Taiwan and HK. Because of the politics of Taiwan, there's no reason I can see that they would significantly change the status quo right now. They may gradually move toward either returning to the mainland or declaring independence, but either move may require a generational shift.

    Also, in Hong Kong, the mainland may have the legal power to change the relationship at any time, but I suspect that they will be quite reluctant to do so. HK doesn't cause much trouble, and is very important economically. What's more, if the mainland rescinded the special administrative zone and immediately turned HK into another province with all the legal baggage attached, I expect there would be riots. You would have to be blind not to see how the anti-mainland sentiment in HK could not turn into something more serious under extreme conditions.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 12:41 pm

    @Jon Lennox

    No, not ironic at all.

    As I explained so patiently in the original post and in subsequent comments, contemporary written Chinese, for all intents and purposes, IS Mandarin. The Chinese word for "topolect" is 方言. In Mandarin that is pronounced fāngyán, in Cantonese it is pronounced fong1 jin4.


    Incidentally, I was very pleased to see that this widely consulted online Cantonese dictionary defines 方言 as "topolect; regionalect" instead of as "dialect", which, though widespread, I consider to be a mistranslation that has misled generations of linguists and lay persons alike.

    I studiously avoid the word "Chinese" in reference to the spoken varieties of Sinitic, reserving it strictly for the standard written form.

  17. Simon P said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 1:51 pm

    My latest conversation about the "language" issue was with a vietnamese-born Cantonese speaker whose claim that Cantonese isn't a language, but "slang", which boggled me a bit. This isn't the first time I've heard that, either. I think there's an old Cantonese dictionary called "A Dictionary of Cantonese Slang" or something similar, which is simply a dictionary of Cantonese, period. Nothing slangy about it.

  18. The suffocated said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 2:29 pm

    @Stephen Stiller, Victor Mair, Mandy

    I'm not saying that "written Chinese" in HK means written Cantonese. To my understanding (and regardless of what some teachers or bureaucrats think), the amalgamation of classical Chinese, ROC/Taiwan style Mandarin and Cantonese has always been accepted as legitimate in formal writing in HK. Therefore, HK style "written Chinese" is not the written form of any Chinese topolect, and it cannot be equated with (PRC style) Mandarin.

    E.g. in government documents, one can easily find sentences that are perfectly legit in both Mandarin and Cantonese, but one can also find phrases that are characteristically Cantonese (such as 經已), and phrases (such as 每日, 幾多, 幾時, 榮幸之至) that do not belong exclusively to any particular topolect, but have their roots in classical Chinese and are used much more frequently in spoken Cantonese today than in spoken Mandarin.

    Professor Mair claims that "To be literate in "Chinese" in the context of Hong Kong means that a Cantonese speaker must learn the grammar, vocabulary, and syntax of Mandarin." That's not true. In case of vocabulary, if you ask an average Hongkie which one of the following two sets of vocabs sounds more like proper Chinese, he/she will definitely pick the second one:

    "應對、加大力度、落實、講話、領導人、首席執行官" (MSM style)
    "應付、落力、實踐、發言、領袖、行政總裁" (HK style)

    And I don't see the Hongkies will abandon writing 頸、蠔、薯仔、生菜 but write 脖子、牡蠣、土豆、萵苣 instead at any time in the future.

  19. Stephan Stiller said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 2:56 pm

    @ Simon P

    If you're referring to Hutton/Bolton, I can't quite agree. For example, their work contains the Cantonese word 掛住 (gwaa3zyu6; "to miss <a person>") but not the Cantonese word 鎚仔 (ceoi4zai2; "(small) hammer"). Its coverage certainly transcends slang, but something like half of its entries have either faded from use or weren't ever widely known, probably because they belong into the same category as what you'd find in the Urban Dictionary for English.

    But it is true that many HKers refer to words or aspects of Cantonese using the words "slang" and "slangy" merely because they are not Mandarin.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 3:35 pm

    @The suffocated

    I still stand by my statement that "To be literate in 'Chinese' in the context of Hong Kong means that a Cantonese speaker must learn the grammar, vocabulary, and syntax of Mandarin." You've merely mentioned a few lexical items that are favored in Hong Kong; the same is true of local color expressions in various parts of China, including Beijing and Shanghai. The basic grammar, vocabulary, and syntax must still remain Mandarin, and if you stray far from that in the Hong Kong educational system, you will be penalized.

    As for greater and lesser amounts of classicisms in written "Chinese", that too varies throughout China, and I've often written about the problem of bànwén-bànbái 半文半白 ("semivernacular semiclassical") styles at various times and various places. That doesn't happen just in Hong Kong. There are certainly plenty of people in Taiwan who are fond of peppering their writing with classicisms, and I know lots of individuals and even some groups in mainland China who advocate greater amounts of classical in the classroom and in writing generally.

  21. Bob said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 4:19 pm

    One after another, all the CEO of the HK Special Administrative Region sworn-in their office in Putonghua. It is clear that Putonghua is HK's 1st Chinese.
    One day, Putonghua would be declared the administrative, legal, Chinese in HK. That is not to say, Cantonese or any other "regional languages" will be forbidden. There is no evidence that ROC/PRC's push for Mandarin/Putonghua has "killed" any regional languages.
    The Cantonese speaking entertainers of HK are the wise group, who see the vast market of mainland, and put out songs in Putonghua along with Cantonese. There are more than 500,000 immigrants from mainland since 1980, about 10 to 12% university students are mainlander. And 10 of thousands tourists from mainland everyday, there is a lot of reasons for HK people to learn Putonghua, just for communication purposes…..

  22. Victor Mair said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 4:42 pm


    "It is clear that Putonghua is HK's 1st Chinese."

    It is not clear what you mean by that.

  23. Bob said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 4:52 pm

    @Prof. Mair
    I do not see 半文半白 is a problem. Such writings are still accepted widely. The most popular song from HK in mainland, written some 20 years ago, sang in Cantonese, 上海滩, is a good example.

  24. Bob said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 5:33 pm

    @ Prof. Mair
    Chinese being composes of Putonghua (the national language} and many regional languages –some call them dialects, you prefer the term topolects– Beijingese, Shanghainese, Cantonese, Taiwanese, etc. For administrative purposes, there is a 1st language: the one uses by the government.

  25. Bob said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 5:50 pm

    PS if China really allow "one nation two systems", the CEO of HK SAR should swear-in in Cantonese, ort English; since the basic law of HK SAR doesn't define "Chinese" and allows English as one of the legal languages. There is a good chance that the next HK CEO will be selected by "popular votes", let wait and see what language he (there is no female candidate(s) surfaced at this time) would use to swear in. I suppose that he will use Putonghua, for he will not be appointed by Beijing, but he will be consented by Beijing.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 6:07 pm


    You may not see bànwén-bànbái 半文半白 ("semivernacular semiclassical") as a problem, but plenty of educators have been concerned about it for a long time.

    What does bànwén-bànbái 半文半白 ("semivernacular semiclassical") have to do with popular songs?

    My surname is Mair, not Vair.

  27. Bob said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 6:27 pm

    @ Prof Vair –> Mair
    Sorry about mis-spent of you honorable last name. My sincere apology.

    [VHM: You're still misspelling it.]

  28. Bob said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 6:35 pm

    @ Prof Vair –> Mair

    the popular HK song's 上海灘 lyric was written in 半文半白. it was song all over China, in kera-OKs, in concerts, in Cantonese yet.

    [VHM: Songs are one thing; speech and prose are another. We know that the areas of Chinese operas tend to be more literary, the spoken parts more natural and 白 (vernacular)]

  29. Levantine said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 6:41 pm

    Are the comments appearing out of sequence or something? The first mention of "Vair" that I see is in Prof. Mair's own comment.

  30. Victor Mair said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 7:20 pm


    I went in and corrected Bob's misspelling of my name several times, but he keeps doing it, even while apologizing for doing so.

  31. Levantine said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 9:54 pm

    Ah, thank you for the explanation. I think he may be playacting, though it isn't very funny.

  32. Mandy said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 11:00 pm


    You're so funny, now you say that "written Chinese" cannot be equated with "(PRC style)" Mandarin. So I guess written standard American English isn't really "English" as perceived by a British person because it contains "Americanized" spelling and vocabularies??

    Do you know how ridiculous you sound?

    Does the Basic Law specify that it has to be "PRC" Style Mandarin? How about PRC style Mandarin as is written in February of 2014??

    I don't care what your definition of Mandarin/Cantonese is. I'm talking about the Basic Law and what "written Chinese" is as interpreted by the Hong Kong bureaucrats.

    Again, please direct me to a Hong Kong official government document that is writting in Cantonese.

    Thank you.

  33. The suffocated said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 11:40 pm

    @Victor Mair

    If you are talking about the educational system, yes, it's true that what school teachers have in mind about "written Chinese" is essentially Mandarin. But if someone tries to use a well coded machine learning algorithm to distinguish between Chinese essays written by Mandarin speakers from those written by Hongkies, I'll bet that the precision is higher than 50% and this deviation from random guesses is statistically significant.

    Perhaps linguists classify HK style written Chinese, using their own taxonomy, as a dialect of written Mandarin (e.g. the HK style and the MSM style are mutually intelligible after all), but I don't think the general populace of HK intend to write Mandarin and perceive their writings as Mandarin. Mandy mentioned the term 書面語 (which, of course, literally means "written Chinese"), and she identified it with Mandarin. But in the context of HK, I think she is wrong: 書面語 refers to styles of formal writing. The style of acceptable formal writing in HK go beyond what are accepted as formal (or even correct) in Mandarin and there are many recognisable differences between the two. The relative frequency of occurences of 半文半白 writings is just one example, there are other differences as well, as in the usages of conjunctions 及, 與, 和, 暨, in character orders, in the preservation of functionalities of some characters etc.. There are also usages of lexical items that are considered correct in one style but not in the other, e.g. the use of 其實 in HK style formal writing to mean emphasis rather than contrast, or the use of 更好地 (or 應對、加大力度、落實、講話、領導人 that I mentioned in a previous comment) in MSM.

  34. Mandy said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 12:01 am


    Of course you are always right and everybody else is always wrong…I'm a member of the "general populace of HK" and I do perceive my formal writing as Mandarin. But that fact doesn't seem matter to you, because I'm always wrong.

    BUT, it doesn't matter what you and I think…so please don't keep changing your position by redirecting the discussion to somewhere else.

    Again, I ask you for the 3rd time, please direct me to a Hong Kong official government document that is writting in Cantonese.

    Thank you.

  35. Victor Mair said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 12:07 am

    @The suffocated

    I don't know where you grew up and were educated, but Mandy was educated in Hong Kong, and she thought she was learning a written Chinese that was essentially written Mandarin (not exactly the same as spoken Mandarin of any particular place, since those Mandarins differ all over). Many of the undergraduate and graduate students in my Department were also born and grew up in Hong Kong, and they thought that what they were being taught was basically a form of written Mandarin. I taught a course on Chinese language in the Chinese Department at the University of Hong Kong in 2003, and my 72 students were of the opinion that what they wrote was a form of written Mandarin that was very, very different from written Cantonese..

    As for all the other little details that you mention as distinguishing HK written Mandarin from Mandarin in the PRC, there are also plenty of such differences in Taiwan, as I know all too well, since that is where I learned my written Mandarin. Anyway, the style of written Mandarin in Hong Kong — including adherence to the traditional forms of the characters — is closer to Taiwan than it is to the simplified characters and prose style that was heavily influenced by Marxist-Communist rhetoric in the PRC.

  36. APOLLO WU said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 12:21 am

    I completely agree with Prof. Mair on the mistranslation of 方言 as dialect, the coined words of topolect or regionlect reflect the reality of mutually unintelligibility. Based on the meaning derived from the word dialogue, I would offer to translate dialect as 通言 in Chinese. As far as written Chinese used in Hongkong, it is mainly based on modern Mandarin Chinese, while written Cantonese being not taught in school, is considered as vernacular writing not appropriate for official use. 今天不回家 is a standard Chinese expression whereas 今晚唔番屋企 is the equivalent Cantonese expression. Again Prof. Mair is correct in saying that the 两文 in 两文三语 refers to English and Mandarin Chinese. It is certainly difficult to use the non phonetic Hanzi script to teach two different Chinese topolects without the help of Yuepin 粤语拼音 or Hanpin 汉语拼音. This state of affair coupled with incessant entertaining distractions may very well account for the rapid decline of language skill among the Chinese students in Hongkong. I believe the politicizing the language issue tends to obstruct the effort for achieving a rational solution in teaching Chinese that would meet the need of the upcoming generation of Hongkong Chinese.

  37. Mandy said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 12:30 am


    An acquaintance of mine who's a Hong Kong civil servant says this:

    香港現在的語文政策是仍是「兩文三語」,而教育局今次中招主因是以它的身份說牽涉語文的legal matter,直撞入普通話/廣東語的爭議了。其實廣東話真的不是香港的法定語文,不過廣東話de facto的流通性令其有近似"法定口語"的地位

    This is how Hong Kong people write in Chinese. Whatever you want to call it (PRC style, 国民style, HKongie style…), this is Mandarin, not Cantonese, period.

  38. The suffocated said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 12:33 am


    I don't understand why you keep asking me to produce a government document that is written in Cantonese. This is irrelevant to our discussion. Nowhere in my comments have I suggested that "written Chinese" means written Cantonese. What I am suggesting is that in the context of HK, "written Chinese" is simply a style of formal writing that is not entirely the written form of any spoken topolect (and hence not written Mandarin — nor written Cantonese, if that matters). This is a bit like classical Chinese, although the analogue is inexact.

    Your analogue of "British English vs American English" to "Mandarin vs HK style written Chinese" reminds me of the 白馬非馬 argument from the Warring State Period. The correct analogue here is not that "American English is not English" (it is!), but that "American English (HK style written Chinese) is not British English (written Mandarin Chinese)".

    As for the meaning of "written Chinese" under Basic Law, considering the political climate in HK when the Basic Law was drafted and enacted (and most Hongkies didn't want a handover), "written Chinese" simply could not possibly be made explicit to mean Mandarin, even if this was what Beijing wanted at heart. As the power of final interpretation of Baisc Law remains in Beijing, I have no doubt that someday, some bureaucrats in Beijing would like to "clarify" that "Chinese" means Mandarin when situation allows. But saying that "Chinese" at the time the Basic Law was enacted … signified Mandarin is just inaccurate. Back then, the article in question could only be intentionally vague and it must be phrased in a way that every side thought that "Chinese" signified its own favourite language/topolect/dialect.

  39. Mandy said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 12:34 am


    If you want to see what is 本文本白 (mixing 白話 and 書面語),you need to go to the Hong Kong Golden Forum.

    Oh, I'm still looking for that Cantonese Hong Kong official government document that you mentioned.

    Thank you.

  40. Mandy said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 12:43 am


    My question is totally relevant. Go back to your original question.

    "Written Chinese" in the Hong Kong context means "not Cantonese", everyone in the Hong Kong government knows it, this is why there has NEVER been any official document written in Cantonese.

    By 中文,Hong Kong people has always understood and interpreted it as Mandarin style of writing.

    Since you stress "context", your way of understanding is simply not how I and other "native" Hong Kong Cantonese speakers understand it.

    I'll leave it at that.

  41. Bob said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 1:27 am

    there is an ancient Chinese saying: 馮京作馬凉, I could not see which is V, which in M….

  42. Bob said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 1:48 am

    re Hong Kongers' written Chinese style is not "catch up" with mainland's current written Chinese; perhaps the Chinese text books for primary and secondary education in HK have to incorporate some current Chinese writings.
    Since most HKers" reading materials are local productions –HA HA, who would read the People's Daily from Beijing?!– But, reading it should be mandatory for newspaper/magazines' reporters, editors, and writers.,And up-date their writing…..

  43. The suffocated said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 2:03 am


    I think I can establish that "written Chinese" in Hong Kong is not Mandarin. This is a very, very narrow case, but the evidence is clear.

    In Hong Kong, when a Cantonese speaking witness testifies in courtroom, his/her testimony is recorded, without any modification whenever possible, in Cantonese. E.g. "佢打咗我一下" will not be rewritten as "他打了我一下" on paper. In contrast, if, say, a person testifies in French, the testimony will, in normal circumstances, be first translated into English or Chinese and then recorded. Now the languages that the judiciary uses to record court proceedings and judgments are of course official. So, this example shows that written Cantonese is accepted as part of official languages in HK, in the legal sense.

    In fact, the compilation of Hong Kong Supplementary Character Set (HKSCS) a few years ago was meant facilitate writing Cantonese in official government documents. Admittedly, its uses are mostly limited to transcripts, and schools have been promoting a Mandarin style of writing. But unless one is claiming that the HK government is not using official languages to write those government documents, the Cantonese ingredients in these documents show clearly that one cannot equate the "written Chinese" in HK to Mandarin (in a legal sense, let me stress again). Of course, that doesn't mean "written Chinese" is "written Cantonese" (no, it is not), and also doesn't indicate how an average Hongkie interprets the expression "written Chinese" in daily discussions.

    By the way, I totally agree that "written Chinese" in HK doesn't mean Cantonese, although you seem to think that I think in the other way round.

  44. Mandy said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 3:40 am


    Now you are just arguing for the sake of argument. Your court example shows exactly the 两文三语 language policy in action (oral testimony in court being recorded in Cantonese and everything else in standard written Chinese (ie, Mandarin). Why not in French? It's not recorded in French because regular Hong Kong people can't read it. How many more insane counter-claims can you come up with?

    You don't seem to know the difference between de facto and de jure.

    You think you know the language and policies better than the Hong Kong government and the entire native Hong Kong Cantonese population.


  45. The suffocated said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 3:41 am

    @Victor Mair

    I want to make it clear that I haven't, at any time, questioned the honesty of Mandy. When she said that she's a HKer and she perceives her formal writing as Mandarin, I believe, without even the slightest doubt, that she honestly said so. But I was also being honest when I made my claims.

    Everyone draws conclusions from its own experience and from what their acquaintances say. The question is whether this is representative sampling. Apparently no one has done a serious survey, so what we said are just speculations. You said that you have asked 72 HK students for their opinions. That's a good sample size, but not necessarily a representative sample, especially when they are all students taking a Chinese language course. See convenience sampling on Wikipedia. And most importantly, had this been a questionnaire survey, the question you asked might be a wrong one. Instead of asking them to choose between Mandarin or Cantonese, one should ask them if they perceive "written Chinese" as (a) written Mandarin, or (b) something that should not be classified as Mandarin, but a form of literary Chinese that may be or may be not the written form of a spoken Chinese topolect. The whole point of discussion here is "Mandarin vs non-Mandarin", but the comparison of Mandarin to Cantonese misleads one to pick a closer category.

    Also, since the original question is about what is meant be "written Chinese" under Basic Law, I have always taken "Mandarin" to mean the so-called MSM in China. Although I still stand by my statement that "HK style written Chinese is not Mandarin" had MSM be replaced by Taiwan style Mandarin, I fully agree to your comment that the style of written Chinese in HK is much "closer to Taiwan than it is to the simplified characters and prose style that was heavily influenced by Marxist-Communist rhetoric in the PRC".

  46. Mandy said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 3:58 am


    I forgot to mention about the Hong Kong Supplementary Character Set (HKSCS) that you mentioned. The HK government devised this system so the bureacruats can write out Cantonese street and place names with greater ease. Those words are not to be used in official government communication other than place names and in special circumstances. I'll give you a very recent example. There is a place in HK called 鴨脷洲, there have been instances when 脷 is written as 舌, but there is no such place as 鴨舌洲. But 鴨舌洲 showed up in government official web pages (because no one proofread the document), resulting in 大公報 and 文匯報 also calling this place 鴨舌洲. HK people don't think it's funny.

    You can't simply talk about policies without proper knowledge of HK culture.

  47. Stephan Stiller said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 7:45 am

    @ The suffocated
    1. The conventions for court transcripts constitute an exceptional case. Court transcriptions have only marginal relevance for most people's lives.
    2. Some of this disagreement seems to be terminological. 書面語 technically refers to a style of writing, but the question is what it de facto is. If commenter "The suffocated" writes that "HKers are educated to write in 書面語", we've given a label to something, but then the next question is: "What is 書面語?" Let's investigate: (1) It was historically meant to be something like a written version of spoken Chinese (though like in all vernacularization efforts, one would end up having to construct a spoken macrolanguage, and in the end things would stabilize at an equilibrium different from the founders' target), and either of them we now call "Mandarin". (2) HK educators have the Mandarin of the PRC in mind as a target standard, though there is (some) official acknowledgment of differences (i.e. I don't think anyone considers words like "巴士" to be problematic). (3) If you try to describe HK's 書面語 scientifically, you'll be forced to say that (i) it is much much more like Mandarin than like Cantonese and that (ii) it's mainly Mandarin with some classical elements and some local influence (mainly in lexis). So HK's 書面語 seems to be "a form of Mandarin". If you (commenter "The suffocated") reserve the word "Mandarin" for the spoken Mandarin of the PRC, that still doesn't change the fact that 書面語 is largely a written form of that (i.e. what you call Mandarin).
    3. I think all of us agree about the dialectal differences in written Mandarin (no matter what you call it) across the different locales of "Chinese", so it's good to see agreement among us.
    4. There are psycholinguistic reasons for why many HKers will perceive the written language and the spoken language as similar. An acquaintance from Jordan once told me that "yes, you are right that the spoken Arabic of Jordan and written Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) [which incidentally also varies regionally] are very different, but people switch so fast that they don't notice anymore". (Of course "people" means "those who manage to acquire a comfortable level of literacy".) Let me term this the "diglossic delusion". In any event, the actual problem is the relative increase in difficulty of attaining full literacy (I don't think anyone would complain if you could learn Mandarin or MSA/fusha on a weekend). While I appreciate the many facts which commenter "The suffocated" has presented, his interpretation that HK's 書面語 is an amalgamation of things hides the fact that (1) HK's 書面語 is really a Mandarin matrix language with admixtures from Classical writing and the local vernacular and (2) HK's 書面語 really does add to the learning load of HK residents, creating an additional obstacle for literacy in a place where the writing system itself is already difficult enough. When we say that "a Cantonese speaker must learn [everything except the pronunciation of] Mandarin" (though the "except the pronunciation" part in turn creates a problem for computer literacy, de facto forcing HK residents to learn a structural input method), we have these two things in mind. I can see that you (The suffocated) interpret the word "Mandarin" in a narrower way, but 書面語 is (everywhere) still best described as a form of Mandarin. If you don't do this terminologically, but use a "generic 書面語" as your basis for describing "written Chinese" across the Chinese locales, you'll end up with a more complex description and then still end up having to say that Mandarin and 書面語 are very close.

  48. Lugubert said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 8:19 am

    What surprised me most on the Cantonese – Putonghua divide when recently travelling China, was that my heptalingual travel partner used Putonghua when initiating conversations in Guangzhou, but Cantonese in Hong Kong. I would have thought that Cantonese still was the main if not only language in Canton.

    My extremely limited Putonghua at least verified that to be a sensible approach by my surviving one day on my own in Guangzhou. I didn't dare to explore HK alone, but in both cities I had totally equal (low) levels of understanding written signs, admonitions, instructions and menu cards.

    (Unrelated: Loved the dual registration plates on some HK cars! Worldwide unique?)

  49. Victor Mair said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 10:19 am

    From a Cantonese-speaking friend who hails from Hong Kong:

    Last week an acquaintance was looking for Czech translators to help a sick relative in Boston, and she forwarded to me these links from the Mass. General Hospital website (to show that there is no Czech):

    It's interesting that there is only one version of written "Chinese", but broken down into "Mandarin", "Cantonese", "Toisanese" in the Interpretors' list. (There is "French" and "French Creole" in both written and spoken.)

  50. Jenny Tsu said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 10:44 am

    I just want to throw in a comment to point out that HKers do know very well how to read (and probably write) written Cantonese, and the reason is: comic books. While many comic books are still written in "written style" Chinese (i.e. with Mandarin vocabulary / word order), many are written in pure Cantonese and these are widely read by children and adults. These are highly popular and many are very well written, entertaining literature. So whether or not written Cantonese is an official language in the sense that government documents are written in it, it is certainly an official language in the sense that there is an established corpus of literature which is supported by an established readership.

  51. Victor Mair said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 10:49 am

    @The suffocated

    Because you've finally admitted that you agree with Mandy, Stephan Stiller, and other competent commenters who hold that written Chinese in Hong Kong is fundamentally a type of Mandarin (which is what they've been trying to get you to understand all along), I will no longer engage you on this topic. Instead, I hope that the comments can return to a discussion of what this post is really about: the brouhaha over the Education Bureau's pronouncement that Cantonese is not an official language of the Special Administrative Region.

    Fortunately, we have some truly informed comment from an authority on the subject, Robert S. Bauer:


    Herewith I am I'm sending you material pointing out the difference between the Chinese terms for "official language" that were used in the Basic Law and in the Education Bureau's essay on its website. The Education Bureau had interpolated into the Basic Law its own term that had not been used there. I think this is what had set off the the public outcry.

    The term 法定語言 appeared in the original text on the Education Bureau’s website as follows:


    With Regard to Hong Kong’s "official languages", the Basic Law used the term “正式語文”:

    香港基本法,第一章: 總則,第九條:

    (One may also note how indirectly/obliquely the term was used to imply that 中文 is one of the two official languages, alongside English; it also seems curious that English was named twice).

    At any rate, does 正式語文 = 法定語言?

    正式 ‘1. formal (of actions/speeches/etc.); 2. official; regular’ (DeFrancis 2003:1255)

    法定 ‘legal; statutory’ (DeFrancis 2003:235)
    That is, ‘recognized or established by law’.

    語文 ‘(spoken and written) language; language and literature’ (DeFrancis 2003:1217)

    語言 ‘language; speech; tongue; word’ (DeFrancis 2003:1218)

    Sense Translations:
    正式語文 ‘formal/official written language’.
    法定語言 ‘official spoken language as established by law’

    正式 is a weaker term than 法定.

    Clearly, “法定語言” had been interpolated by the Education Bureau into the Basic Law which said nothing about any spoken language as established by law.


  52. Victor Mair said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 10:55 am

    For those who would like to gain a better grasp of what "written Cantonese", as opposed to "written Chinese" in Hong Kong and elsewhere, is like, this is a topic that we have engaged with in many posts on Language Log. Here is one good place to begin:

    "Cantonese novels"

    See esp. this comment for valuable resources concerning written Cantonese:

  53. Bob said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 11:57 am

    I too have received my primary and secondary schoolings in Hong Kong. And I can testify that I wrote in Mandarin. When I went to Taiwan to attend university, it only took me 3 or 4 months to master spoken Mandarin; because, I only have to learn to pronoun what I used to wrote. IN HONG KONG, WRITTEN CHINESE = MANDARIN.

    Some HKers put some Cantonese phrases in their writings, but, that does not change the basic , such as grammar, of the fact, that it is Mandarin.

  54. Bob said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 12:57 pm

    English speakers should be able to travel freely in HK, most HKers have some level of English. There are tourisst from all over the world in HK everyday. And Putonghua speakers can go anywhere in HK too, many sales persons can speak Putonghua.
    btw, the dual license plates you see on cars/trucks is the result of, both HK and China require its own registration of vehicles. If you want to drive the vehicle both in HK and China, you need duel license plates. –I don't know how people handle the change of drive on the left/right side of the road problem–

  55. Bob said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 1:22 pm

    re the original issue of this post, that the HK Education Bureau proclaimed that Cantonese is not the administration language of HK SAR.
    Of cause it was over-spoken. The Education Bureau IS not tasked with setting language policy for the SAR, nor it is the definition provider of the Basic Law….
    However, since 1971, when HK's government began 9 years free public education, the Education Bureau changed from mainly a regulative agency to be the boss of all HK's primary and junior high schools. It can set Putonghua as the administration language for these schools. And It can decided that Putonghua be the instructional language. –since the government of HK SAR is basically a dictatorship, its policies, including education policies, need not be approved by the general public.

  56. Bob said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 1:35 pm

    ps there are instructors, professors from mainland and Taiwan (the current Cultural Minister in Taiwan, taught in the HK Chinese University before she took on the post) teaching in most HK's universities, and using Putonghua/Mandarin to deliver their lectures. Many local students have to take preparatory classes in Putonghua/Mandarin in university. Educators in HK have urged high school students to learn Putonghua/Mandarin for a long time… some high schools –but not all– have been offering Putonghua/Mandarin training.

  57. Alan Chin said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 8:19 pm

    I'm neither resident of nor brought up in HK, and my literacy in any form of written Chinese is quite poor, but I have seen on official HK MTR subway signs the use of the character "唔“ rather than "不“ in sentences prohibiting smoking or loud music, etc.

    I'll also just throw in my 2-cents, as an American-born Chinese Cantonese and Toishanese speaker, it would have IMMENSELY aided my literacy if I had been taught written Cantonese, to write and read things exactly the way they sound, rather than this whole code-shifting, memorization of radicals and characters, totally new Mandarin-ized vocabulary that is the experience of a Cantonese student.

  58. Bob said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 9:20 pm

    @ Alan Chin
    Chinese always were taught a written Chinese different than their spoken language/topolect/dialect. Before the May-4th Modernization Movement in 1918, children (mostly boys) were taught to read and write 文言文. The goal was to enter service for the empire, became an official thru a series of examinations. If a person was successful, he still had to learn to speak Mandarin (by definition, the imperial court language), to gain an appointment to be an official.
    After 1918, in modern type schools, pupils learned to write in Mandarin, if not both speak and write in Mandarin. And most printed materials were replaced by written Mandarin gradually.
    –many billboard/advertisements in Hong Kong/Guangzhou are in Cantonese, just like such things are in Taiwanese in Taiwan, reflecting the recognition of local dialects/topolects nowadays.
    But, official notes are still written in Mandarin.

  59. Bob said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 9:33 pm

    @ Alan Chin
    You can write in Cantonese if you like, most people who know Chinese would be able to understand what you wrote. (to understand Cantonese by sound and be able to speak Cantonese are more difficult).

  60. Victor Mair said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 10:47 pm

    More from Bob Bauer:

    Another part of the sentence in the Education Bureau's essay that elicited comment is that Cantonese is a kind of dialect of China ["廣東話(一種不是法定語言的中國方言)" 'Cantonese (a dialect of China which is not a spoken language established by law']. This is being interpreted as an attempt to denigrate Hong Kong Cantonese, knock it off its pedestal and put it in its place.

    I think it's worth pointing out that a language, for example, English in America, can have de facto official status. Although there has been a movement afoot for some time to pass a federal law establishing English as the official language of the USA, this has not yet happened.

    In regard to Cantonese, the way it is being used today in Hong Kong as the ordinary, regular, default spoken language in official government settings, the law courts, business offices, radio and television broadcasts, as the medium of instruction in schools, and the fact that 96% of Hong Kong’s seven million residents speak it as their usual speech variety or as another dialect/language have clearly made it Hong Kong's de facto official Chinese variety. So, in the context of daily reality Cantonese-speakers can feel fully justified in calling it Hong Kong’s official spoken language – and not merely a Chinese dialect.

  61. Victor Mair said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 8:20 am

    Article in Chinese that reveals some of the seismic implications of the Education Bureau's declaration that Cantonese is not an official language of Hong Kong:

    Chēng Yuèyǔ﹕Yuèyǔ yǒngyuǎn fǎnpàn! 撐粵語﹕粵語永遠反叛! ("Support Cantonese! May Cantonese Forever Rebel!")

  62. Bob said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 11:20 am

    according to the current CEO of HK SAR, 梁振英, there are about 100,000 mainlanders come into HK everyday; and about 150,000 HKers go into mainland everyday. Mainland and HK are tied in commerce deeply. Millions of HKers have quietly learned to speak Putonghua. Actually, since the coming of tourists from Taiwan in the 1980's, and ever more from mainland in 1990's, Mandarin/Putonghua is essential in many segments of HK's economy. Meanwhile, Cantonese is not hurt.
    During the 150+ years of British colonial rule in Hong Kong, when English was the only (until the last 10 years or so) legal language, Cantonese was spoken openly and commonly. –what is done openly and commonly, such as splitting on the street (in the old days), does not make it legal–
    I am not saying Cantonese should not be a legal language/dialect/topolect in Hong Kong, but, be able to speak Mandarin/Putonghua enable HKers a wider economic scope, and is needed for higher education.
    I fully understand, many HKers are using the language issue to call for countering any include of influence from mainland.
    Politically speaking, many HKers want to make HK as a democratic showcase. To set an example for mainland. Then, HK cannot be an isolated island. HK needs to speak mainland's language.
    Since the beginning of 20th century, many Guangdongers, 孫中山, 孫科, 康有為, 梁啓超, ….etc., who made their marks on China, they all have to be able to speak Mandarin.

  63. JS said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 2:21 pm

    Well, reading the comments, it's not hard to understand why many have tended to throw up their hands and consider everything written in Chinese characters to be "Zhongwen." There doesn't seem to be any way around acknowledging the extremely strong resemblance of HK Shumianyu to Mandarin from the structural perspective, while remembering that an author of such text may yet be entirely unable to understand spoken Mandarin or produce it him/herself — and also that certain written constructions, as those with wenyanwen flavor, may not be meaningfully assignable to any particular of the living Sinitic languages.

    A relevant view appears in the second paragraph of the article Prof. Mair posted just above, where the author quotes with approval a Prof. Shu-leung Dang: “Whether or not Poutungwaa/Putonghua is the language of instruction for Language Arts classes bears no direct relation to resultant language ability levels [of students]—one cannot directly equate Beijing Mandarin and proper syuminjyu/shumianyu; if such were the case, Beijing students would have no need for Language Arts classes.”

    And note the high school principal quoted as remarking "在我間學校裏只能聽到英語或普通話"… perhaps he/she was not in the school at the time?

  64. Victor Mair said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 5:04 pm


    "there is an ancient Chinese saying: 馮京作馬凉, I could not see which is V, which in M…."

    You think that "V" looks like "M"?

  65. Guy said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 5:19 pm

    It's interesting that any attempt by Mandarin to invade the domain of Cantonese in HK generates such controversy whereas the overwhelming dominance of English as HK's commercial lingua franca doesn't raise an eyebrow. I have plenty of Hong Kong friends who update their Facebook page in English, traditional Chinese and written Cantonese but would never dream of using simplified Chinese as it is "foreign" and not part of their culture.

    Unfortunately, the trends in HK are simply mirroring the wider Chinese speaking world. Local dialects are dying out amongst the younger generations of Chinese speakers in Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore and Shanghai. Even in Guangdong, the local dialects are beginning to wilt under sheer demographic pressure.

    HK's "two written languages, three spoken languages" policy is admirable and sensible but squeezed between English and Mandarin, I wonder how long before Cantonese is slowly discarded from the education system in favour of the two more "useful" languages.

  66. Guy said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 5:30 pm

    Also, the Yahoo HK article originally linked to was interesting because it pointed out that the cultural heyday of Cantonese was in the 80s and 90s when younger generations of Chinese speakers in Taiwan, China and Southeast Asia would follow Cantopop music, television and movies.

    Back then, plenty of non-Cantonese speakers could sing Canto karaoke and quote a few famous lines of HK movies. That era has long since passed with virtually all Chinese language blockbusters these days produced in Mandarin for the mainland market and Chinese pop music now centred in Mandarin-speaking Taiwan.

    And of course, the dominant language for Asian pop culture is Korean now!

  67. Bob said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 5:53 pm

    @ Guy
    a dialect/topolect dies out, because of change of social fabric. People migrant to cities from rural areas and let their children be brought up by baby sitters and day care centers… thus makes the continuation of a dialect/topolect difficult. In the rural areas, or the old days, while both parents work, grand parents are tasked with take care of the kids, and pass on their dialects/topolects.

    @ Prof Mair 馮京作馬凉 means one's eyes play tricks with one's mind.

  68. Bob said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 6:13 pm

    @Guy cont.
    I don't see Cantonese will die out in Hong Kong or Guangzhou, for both cities are still attracting immigrants for other regions, unless the population become emigrants, move to other regions, Cantonese will has the critical mass and live on.i

  69. Alan Chin said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 8:30 pm

    I'm afraid that there is, from my point of view, a real fear of Cantonese dying out, or, at least, not making more headway.

    In Guangzhou and much of Guangdong province today, you will hear Mandarin spoken much more than it was even a few years ago — because of the influx of migrant workers, the greater mobility of a new Mandarin-speaking Chinese middle class, and continuing official pressure from the central government in favor of Mandarin — all of which means that it is indeed advantageous for Cantonese who want to increase their own business ties and mobility to speak Mandarin. There is a tipping point in any such situation, where a speaker of a language considers that it is "perfectly normal" to speak that language, and speakers of other languages have to either adjust or perish, rather than the first speaker having to do so. Call this, usually, "home language bias". Up until the 1990s, Cantonese was this language in Guangzhou and most of GD. But these days, that tipping point has been crossed; that is to say, Mandarin speakers in Guangzhou EXPECT you to be able to speak Mandarin.

    Now in HK it is still the other way around and probably will be for a long time. The HKers led the way in contemporary written Cantonese and will continue to be. In an apolitical context, one would think that the flowering of Cantonese literature, movies, television, music, and popular culture in the last century would mean that it is not only secure but vibrantly growing as a language. However, the politics make all the difference. Because as a Cantonese speaker, it isn't only my interest for it to survive as an "informal" or "spoken at home" only patois, which certain Cantonese people formally educated in Mandarin or in the old school seem to think is OK and would continue to be OK. Rather, it would be in my interest to see Cantonese become an official or almost-official language FULLY, with universal instruction, signage, legal use, etc.

    But that would, even in an ideal world, mean greater POLITICAL separation too from Mandarin and the other Sinitic languages. All you have to imagine that is to look at the different Frenches and Germans divided between France, Belgium, Switzerland, Quebec, Haiti, Germany, Austria, etc. Or even the fairly minor differences between American and British English. And more than anything else, the regime in Beijing existentially fears that. So expanding Cantonese is a non-starter, and we are left with trying to preserve it. A poor hand to be dealt in linguistic terms compared to the springtime of nations and attendant languages that Europe experienced in the last couple of centuries. So it goes…

  70. Victor Mair said,

    February 12, 2014 @ 7:46 am

    @Alan Chin

    Judging from what is happening to Taiwanese and Shanghainese, I would have to concur with your qualms about the threats to the ultimate existence of Cantonese.

    Taiwan has not even been swallowed up by the PRC yet, but already I have met many Taiwanese under 40 who can barely speak their Mother Tongue. I've elsewhere described my experiences in Shanghai where more and more young people are unable to speak fluent Shanghainese. And just think of the situation with Cantonese in Guangzhou and other parts of Guangdong province and in Shenzhen.

    So long as Hong Kong was under British rule, Cantonese was not endangered (indeed, it prospered, including going further toward the development of a written form of the language than anywhere ever before), but — as many of the comments to this post have shown — the situation has change radically since the takeover of Hong Kong by the PRC in 1997.

  71. Victor Mair said,

    February 12, 2014 @ 7:48 am

    These comments from a native Hongkonger provide important background for the current uproar over the government's latest efforts to downgrade Cantonese:


    I've watched the video around the time this gaffe broke out. It sparked quite a discussion, and it shows the government's subtle way of diminishing Cantonese usage in hopes of 'assimilating' Hong Kong into just another city of China, after the collapse of the National Education scheme in 2012 (
    Part of why there are so many misconceptions about the language, I think, is that we're never taught why learning the language is important apart from its utility values. We learn it's important because we need it to survive in society and place a very low emphasis on appreciating the language or really learning something about the language itself. Given the vigorous curriculum that students have to go through and their usually packed after-school schedule, and having gone through that stage myself, I can't really blame the students for not wanting to learn more about the language.
    Regarding the question on my name, my grandfather was born in Taishan, Guangdong. He was born with the surname 'Ng' 伍 there, a common surname in that city, but he changed it to 'Wu' during the WWII period as an act of patriotism (at least, this is the version my parents tell me), and all of his children are named in Hanyu Pinyin afterwards. My father follows suit for me and my sisters, though he did so out of convenience, since it will be weird to have a Hanyu Pinyin surname and a Cantonese first name. To clarify, I was actually born in USA, when my mother happened to be visiting a relative here, but I was raised in Hong Kong and didn't come to USA again until a few years ago to begin my undergraduate education here. While I hold both USA and Hong Kong citizenship, I like to consider myself as a (native) Hong Konger, given that apart from my first month of birth I've spent my whole life there.


    VHM: Since this individual uses the Hanyu Pinyin version of his name rather than the Cantonese one, I asked him why he does so, and that is the reason he addressed that issue in his comments. After I received the above comments, I sent him the following reply:


    Thanks for your detailed explanations.

    Do you know how to pronounce your Cantonese name and surname?

    Have you ever considered using your Cantonese name and surname?

    Do you, in fact, under any circumstances ever use your Cantonese name and surname?


    VHM: If he responds to those questions, I will let you know what he says.

  72. Bob said,

    February 12, 2014 @ 3:23 pm

    @ V. Nair
    Even when I was in Taiwan, around 1970, Mandarin had been the legal and educational language for 25 years, my Taiwanese classmates used Taiwanese in conversations among themselves. Once one wandered outside the university campus, in City of Tainan, Taiwanese rather than Mandarin was the norm. That was when Taiwanese was treated as non-entity by the KMT government. Now, Taiwanese had been recognized as a legal language, Taiwanese is hardly fading away. –as I reported here earlier, for the last 10 years, TW's elementary schools' pupils who are not Taiwanese speakers are required to take classes in Taiwanese– If you watch imaged from any of Taiwan's elections, you hear mostly Taiwanese….

  73. Bob said,

    February 12, 2014 @ 3:55 pm

    Ps Shenzhen was founded (as a city, Special District.) about 30 years ago, it was a "northerners' city" from day one. Not only the city administration were sent down from Beijing, many corporations were state capital or semi state capital entities with Northerners as officers. This new city attracted people from all over the country to come for new opportunities, and made Putonghua was needed to be the language of communication. While the factory workers, store clerks talk among themselves in Cantonese, they switch to Putonghua to talk to office works, supervisors, and costumers.
    Shanghai's fast growth in recent years required larger numbers of works and attracted people from other parts of China, rendered the use of {Putonghua. But, in the traditional areas where natives Shanghainese resided, Shanghainese was still heard in stores and at homes.

  74. Bob said,

    February 12, 2014 @ 4:02 pm

    @V. Mair…
    very sorry again, this time, my finer hit the N instand of the M (which are next to each other on the keyboard).. Is there a way I can edit the entries after I hit "submit comment"?

  75. Bob said,

    February 12, 2014 @ 5:31 pm

    @V. Mair
    I am curious why did you question you friend who uses Mandarin rather than Cantonese Romanized version for his name, whether he could pronoun his name in Cantonese. He informed you that he has spent his life from 2nd month to finishing high school in Hong Kong. And he considers himself a HKer. Barring some very special circumstance, he speaks Cantonese, and would be able to pronoun his name in Cantonese. Since the written form of Mandarin and Cantonese are the same, unless he uses to use his English name, when he fills out forms, he uses the same Chinese characters, whether he pronouns his name in Mandarin or in Cantonese. If and when he uses Mandarin/Hanyu, he would pronoun his name in Mandarin/hanyu; and ordinary (when he was in HK) he would pronoun it in Cantonese.

  76. Bob said,

    February 12, 2014 @ 6:38 pm

    ps professor, you really ought to ask your friend, a HKer, who use a Pin-yin Han-yu Romanization for his name, –quite common these days because large numbers of new immigrants from mainland who have settled in HK– whether he put his family at front (the mainland version) or at back (the HK version, following English way), when he writes his name in Romanized format. Writing one's name as in mainland, with family name first, has created identity problem in USA… Remember the professional basketball player Yeo Ming? whose family name is Yeo, but sports reporters kept on addressed him as Mr. Ming.

  77. julie lee said,

    February 12, 2014 @ 7:09 pm

    Why or how did the Taiwanese language re-assert itself and make a comeback?

  78. Bob said,

    February 12, 2014 @ 9:22 pm

    @J. Lee
    Taiwanese has never gone away. So, there is no question of "when has it come back". Outside of Taipei City and Xin Bei City (formerly Taipei county), where Taiwanese residents out number people who came in 1949, Taiwanese has always being spoken. Even in the face of Taiwanese was treated as non-entity by the KMT government. After the allowance of Taiwanese also a legal language in Taiwan, when Taiwanese was permit to be used in all levels of Legislatures, Taiwanese also can be used to conduct official business in government agencies. It asserted itself along with the Taiwanese people asserted themselves, with election reforms, there are more Taiwanese legislature members than before.. and form a chapter in the ongoing Taiwan independence movement.
    –to some extend, the Taiwan example provides lessons for HK, HKers demanding Cantonese as one of the legal language, also set the way of expanding HOME RULE, to assert themselves to Beijing.

  79. julie lee said,

    February 12, 2014 @ 9:35 pm

    Thanks, Bob.

  80. Dave Cragin said,

    February 12, 2014 @ 11:53 pm

    @Guy’s comment that many HKers continue to use English without controversy: India’s experience with English is relevant.

    When the English pulled out of India, some expected that the English language would be gone within 10 yrs. The opposite happened: it became even more dominate. Even though Hindi is also a national language, it favors those whose local language is or is related to Hindi. For all others, English is an equalizer. Once English was no longer imposed on India by outsiders, the negative associations with it disappeared and the value of learning it became apparent, particularly in regards to its pathway to business and science.

    It sounds like HK has a somewhat similar situation: now that English is no longer imposed by outsiders, HKers can use it to their advantage.

    A humorous aside to this: I used to work for a French-owned company. When talking with our Italian affliate, I asked if they spoke French with the French (I knew It/Fr are closely related Romance languages). My Italian colleagues said "oh no – We use English! If we used French, that would give the French an advantage." (and this was within the same company).

  81. Alan Chin said,

    February 13, 2014 @ 1:35 am

    When I read "we're never taught why learning the language is important apart from its utility values. We learn it's important because we need it to survive in society and place a very low emphasis on appreciating the language or really learning something about the language itself", describing one way of looking at HK's relationship to Cantonese, I could not agree more — and that is the problem — that though long-term survival might not be entirely, existentially threatened, expansion and greater legitimacy are…

    …which, with regards to Shenzhen, it was ONLY the politics of the situation that meant 10 million migrants from all over China would speak Mandarin from day one in Shenzhen. Almost anywhere else in the world, if you created a new city halfway between two large cities (in this case Hong Kong and Guangzhou), all the new people would adapt and speak the dominant language there.

    Imagine, if the EU created a Special Economic Zone city between Frankfurt and Hamburg, what language would 10 million people from all over Europe speak? German? English? If we are to stretch this analogy, they certainly wouldn't automatically speak Brussels Belgian French! (not that the EU has Belgian French as its lingua franca; but if the EU were China and its capital Brussels, then that would be the analogy…)

    So yes, we CAN write in Cantonese. We can speak it. But that writing gets little formal recognition, and more importantly, is not specifically taught. Especially for legacy speakers born abroad like myself, all of this made it very hard to learn. I had two hours of Cantonese school after American school, Monday to Friday, for five years. Yet I only know a few hundred characters well. Even accounting for the intrinsic difficulty of a non-phonetic, non-alphabetical writing system, and perhaps the antiquated pedagogical methods of the 1970s, and my own failings, I think it's fair to assign at least a measure of analysis to the tortured politics and linguistic choices of China since 1919.

    Language battles tore the Austro-Hungarian Empire apart. A hundred years later, parts of those lands remain impoverished and underdeveloped, having had to endure fascism, communism, and now post-communist corruption. But they do all get to speak and write German, Hungarian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Slovene, Croatian, Romanian, Ukrainian, etc. now…

  82. Dave Cragin said,

    February 13, 2014 @ 11:58 am

    To add some context to Alan's comment on creating the city of Shenzhen, the numbers are amazing: In 1979, it had 30,000 residents. By 1985, 350,000. By 2011, 14 million. (See Science 33: 555-557, 2011), i.e., a city with a population bigger than Belgium created in a ~30 yr timeframe.

    I had known China was undergoing significant changes, but the numbers from the article above gave me new perspective on this.

  83. Ivan Lau From HK said,

    February 16, 2014 @ 1:06 am

    As a Hongkonger, I think it is quite wrong to classify the written Chinese is "Mandarin". As a matter of fact, written Chinese is Chinese(traditional or simplified), spoken Chinese is PTH (among most county in China) or other dialects, and Cantonese in Southern China.

    In fact some scholars already show that Cantonese has inherited quite a lot of vocabularies that is used in ancient China, (as Cantonese is the language used in Southern China from long time ago), while PTH is only transformed from th1 "Manchu" people, who got China's sovereignty Qing dynasty.

    That's why in cantonese we say "係" (means the verb-to-be in English) or "蒞臨" (means coming to) and that's also used in written Chinese. While for PTH, a lot of words are added with "兒" (eg. for toys, in Cantonese is 玩具, in PTH is 玩具"兒", but the "兒" usually bears no meaning.) And that "兒" is never used in written Chinese.

  84. Sai Law said,

    February 16, 2014 @ 4:59 pm

    As a court interpreter, I must agree with 'The suffocated' (have not read previous postings by the way, so don't know why the person is in that state) that court transcripts are official documents. They may not play a significant part in most people's lives, but imagine if you were tried for murder, and you had to depend on the court stenographer to translate your spoken Cantonese into written Chinese. I once had a case where a colleague had to translate from Toisanese into Cantonese because she did not know the religious terms that I knew in English (for a Canadian court) and I did not know Toisanese, but she was a professional interpreter. Court stenographers are not and I would not trust them to translate what I said in one dialect into written Chinese just as I would not trust an internist to operate on my appendix!

  85. Victor Mair said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 6:45 am

    @Sai Law:

    I think we all agree that, ipso facto, "court transcripts are official documents". But that has nothing to do with what is or is not Chinese, what is or is not Zhongwen, what is or is not Mandarin, what is or is not Cantonese, what is or is not Toishanese.

    @Ivan Lau From HK:

    What most people, including native Hongkongers who have contributed to this long thread, agree is that contemporary written Chinese — by virtue of its basic grammar and lexicon — is "a kind of Mandarin". Naturally, it is not the same as any type of spoken Mandarin, which, as we have pointed out above, varies from place to place, and it contains fewer colloquialisms than the various varieties of spoken Mandarin, be they Putonghua on the Mainland, Guoyu on Taiwan, or Huayu in Singapore, or one of the countless topolects of Mandarin throughout China.

    Your assertion that "written Chinese is Chinese (traditional or simplified)", even though it is only a part of your flawed statement that begins "As a matter of fact" is problematic on several counts. First of all, it is tautological: "Chinese is Chinese". What then happens to the other kinds of "Chinese"? Is PTH not Chinese? Taiwanese not Chinese? Cantonese not Chinese? Secondly, by mentioning "traditional" and "simplified", you are confusing script and language. Whether one writes "Chinese" with traditional or simplified characters has nothing to do with the nature of the language. Simplified and traditional characters are parallel writing systems that can record various languages: Literary Sinitic, PTH, Taiwan Guoyu, and so forth.

  86. Victor Mair said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 9:34 am

    "How a dialect differs from a language"

    Cantonese is a language, NOT a dialect. It is good that The Economist has spoken so forcefully and sensibly on this important matter.

  87. An HTML Validating Sort of Person said,

    February 19, 2014 @ 4:14 pm


    I'm not sure how WordPress works, but out of curiosity, I ran this page through an HTML validator. Apparently, your tenth paragraph has mismatched tags. It's opened with <div>, but closed with </p>. I tried saving a copy of the page and replacing the opening tag with <p>, which fixed the issue with the background, so I imagine it would do the same for this post.

    A minor thing, but your blog usually has such a clean layout; it would be a shame to leave it like this.

    [(myl) It's fixed now.]

  88. Elizabeth in Macau said,

    May 20, 2014 @ 11:56 pm

    I have no doubt that the "enormous confusion" caused by the pronouncement of the two official languages, English and Chinese in Hong Kong and Portuguese and Chinese in Macau was entirely deliberate. It's vagueness allows for "clarifications" later on (such as different interpretations of what "Chinese" refers to, thereby leaving the option open. It could be that someday a Macau person may find themselves in a government agency without the right to be served in Cantonese (this situation is fiercely guarded against in French speaking Quebec). It also avoids conflict by not directly opposing the interpretation of any particular group. The ambiguity may give us some comfortable wiggle room now, but in the future could easily be re-interpreted and used by both anti-mainlander groups and the pro-Beijing camps alike. Perhaps it would be better to clear that up now and make sure the "biliterate, trilingual concept" will hold.

  89. HL said,

    September 4, 2014 @ 3:31 pm

    To elaborate on some of the previous comments:

    Professor Mair and Elizabeth in Macau's observations that the vagueness in designating "Chinese" as an official language in Hong Kong is deliberate, are accurate. The vagueness has much (if not everything) to do with the politics and legacy of colonial rule in Hong Kong.

    Until 1974, the only official language in Hong Kong was English. "Chinese" was adopted by the colonial authorities as an official language, partly in response to demands to do so from local identity movements by the post-war generation of Hongkongers who grew up in Hong Kong (as opposed to 1st generation immigrants), and also (it seems) to appear more responsive to a restive population that had erupted into riots in 1967. Nevertheless, in practice "Chinese" was a subordinate official language; most colonial government and court documentation continued to be in English only. The colonial regime saw no need or desirability to designate a particular Chinese language as the official standard, though the de facto spoken standard was and remains Cantonese, which in Hong Kong's courts is still referred to as Punti 本地話, i.e. "the local language" of Hong Kong.

    At the same time, there was and to a large extent still is a consensus among the various Chinese linguistic communities in Hong Kong (there are substantial minorities of Hong Kong Chinese whose ancestral languages are those of various provinces across China) that Cantonese is the lingua franca of ethnic Chinese in Hong Kong. Further, back in the 1970s (and even into the early 1990s), most Hongkongers, when referring to spoken Chinese (講中文) were in fact speaking of Cantonese. Hence at the time nobody saw the need to be more specific in designating a particular variety of Chinese as the official standard.

    Hope that helps in terms of providing historical context.

    I will quibble somewhat with Professor Mair's observation that written signifies Mandarin, however – depending on what is meant by "Mandarin". I do agree that in learning written vernacular Chinese one must in practice learn elements of Northern varieties of Chinese. However written vernacular Chinese, whether in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong or overseas Chinese communities, in fact is significantly different from Putonghua or any standardized spoken Mandarin dialect. While heavily weighted in favour of Northern Chinese languages, written vernacular Chinese has always been a compromise, or continuum if you will, between Literary Chinese(文言), the early vernaculars found in Ming and Qing literature, and the various modern local vernaculars. This was an explicit policy decision made by the Republic of China government and that is also why guoyu (國語) especially in the 1920s and 1930s contained significant borrowings from Shanghainese and Cantonese (as attested from film as well as printed works from the early ROC era, such as the Mathews' Chinese-English dictionary). I would respectfully disagree with Stephan Stiller's remarks that written vernacular Chinese (merely) contains some classical elements. Depending on the context and the educational background of individual writers, the influence of Literary Chinese continues to be heavy, though I am aware that nowadays many ethnic Chinese would prefer to not have to deal with the literary language.

    I am aware, as Professor Mair has pointed out, that quite a few educators discourage the use of Literary Chinese, whether in whole or interspersed with modern vernacular usage, however hostility to contemporary use of Literary Chinese is by no means universal among instructors of written Chinese. Nor, despite the efforts of some instructors who seem hostile to anything other than "pure" Putonghua, is it in fact practical to draw a bright line between Literary and modern Chinese or to eliminate the continuing imprint of Literary Chinese on all of the modern written varieties of Chinese.

    As such, written vernacular Chinese in Hong Kong is not strictly "Mandarin", unless by "Mandarin" one is in fact referring to a variety of written Chinese descended from the early ROC standard that continues to be significantly influenced by Literary Chinese and Cantonese. In light of Stephan Stiller's comments above, I may be taken as splitting hairs, but due to the influence of Literary Chinese it can be plausibly argued that not only is there diglossia between spoken Cantonese and the standard written vernacular(s) taught in most schools, there is also diglossia between Putonghua and written vernacular Chinese, (albeit to a lesser degree than with Cantonese), such that written vernacular Chinese isn't "Mandarin" but is instead a creature of its own.

    Otherwise I am largely in agreement with the observations in Professor Mair's original post.

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