"Cantonese" song

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This hauntingly beautiful song is the unofficial anthem of the Hong Kong democracy protest movement:

The title of the song is "Boundless Oceans Vast Skies" (hoi2 fut3 tin1 hung1 海闊天空) (" as boundless as the sea and sky; unrestrained and far-ranging"). It is performed by the Hong Kong rock band Beyond.

This video brings tears to my eyes and sends chills up my spine every time I watch it, not only because of the sentiments it expresses and the pure emotion of the voices, but especially because of the knowledge that the lead singer, Wong Ka Kui, died in a tragic stage accident in Tokyo at the peak of his and the band's career. This happened on June 24, 1993, just a month after the release of this epochal song.

Along with umbrellas and yellow ribbons, "Boundless Oceans Vast Skies" (hoi2 fut3 tin1 hung1 海闊天空) has achieved iconic status within the democracy movement. (See: "Icons of protest: Hong Kong's new symbols of freedom.") Here are the lyrics.

Let us turn to some linguistic aspects of the song.

Of course, the pronunciation is Cantonese, but to what extent are the grammar and vocabulary of the song also Cantonese?

The answer is nil. The subtitles indicate the song's vocabulary and grammar are written in standard Chinese which is regarded as the appropriate high (poetic) register for some songs. The subtitles have included such standard Chinese characters as bat1 不 (negative particle), liu5 了 (particle of completed action), naa6 那 (distal demonstrative), ze3 這 (proximal demonstrative), all of which have corresponding Cantonese forms that are commonly used in colloquial or casual speech.

I'd like to focus on a particularly poignant line of the song which recurs at 2:22, 3:34, 3:46, and 4:12): bui3hei3 liu5 lei5soeng2 背棄了理想 ("abandoning [one's] ideals"). My attention was drawn to this line because I saw it translated in various places as something like "giving up one's dreams", which gets into a whole other realm, that of mung6[soeng2] (Cant.) / mèng[xiǎng] (Mand.) 夢[想]. See:

None of this dream talk has anything to do with what "Boundless Oceans Vast Skies" (hoi2 fut3 tin1 hung1 海闊天空) is about.

By the way, I noticed written on the wall behind the singers in the video the phrase ngo5 dei6 aa3 我哋呀 ("we / us!"). Now that is real Cantonese!

As a Hong Kong friend who grew up with Beyond puts it:

…not only is this a super famous HK song, it is also one of the all-time most requested songs in KTV all across China. Non-Cantonese speakers would sing this song in Cantonese (although the pronunciation isn't exact…)

The grammar and vocabulary of the song are not Cantonese, but standard shūmiàn / syu1min6 书面 ("book; written") Chinese, but may not be 100% "Mandarin" (I can't tell, some wordings might sound / feel "awkward" to a Mandarin speaker perhaps?).

"Boundless Oceans Vast Skies" (hoi2 fut3 tin1 hung1 海闊天空) speaks to the hearts of Hongkongers for all of the reasons mentioned above, but particularly because its pronunciation is in Cantonese. Yet the song also touches all Chinese because it is written in the standard book language shared by speakers of all the topolects.

In the context of the Hong Kong democracy protests, perhaps the most powerful phrase in the song is the repeated oi3 zi6jau4 愛自由 ("love freedom"). This resonates with the sentiments of the students at the barricades when they face tear gas and pepper spray. I suspect that it, and the song as a whole, will sustain them right to the end of the present confrontation.

[Thanks to Robert S. Bauer and Mandy Chan]


  1. jfruh said,

    October 24, 2014 @ 7:50 pm

    OK, I'd love to know what exactly you mean by "pronounciation" here. Assuming, as is often discussed here, that Cantonese and Mandarin (is "book Chinese" Mandarin or something else again?) are in essence different languages, related but mutually unintelligible, would this be the equivalent of, say, using French vocabulary but Italian grammar? How intelligible is a song like this to native Cantonese and/or Mandarin speakers?

  2. Norman said,

    October 24, 2014 @ 7:51 pm

    We were singing it at the NYC rally in support of HK a few weeks back, along with both the English and Cantonese version of "Do You Hear the People Sing" from Les Miserables – which has somehow also become the 2nd anthem of the movement.


  3. Victor Mair said,

    October 24, 2014 @ 7:54 pm

    Here's another version of "Do You Hear the People Sing?"


  4. Elonkareon said,

    October 24, 2014 @ 8:08 pm

    @jfruh I imagine it's more like singing an English song with German pronunciation. Native speakers of German will recognize the sounds as their own, other English speakers will just hear it as a strange accent.

  5. Mara K said,

    October 24, 2014 @ 8:15 pm

    Or is it like singing a Latin song with French pronunciation?

  6. mcur said,

    October 24, 2014 @ 8:32 pm

    Perhaps a bit like singing the Marseillaise like this:

    All on, infants de la patrie,
    The jour of glory is arrived!
    Contra us de la tyrrany,
    The standard sanguine is lifted!

    Unintelligible as French, very weird but perfectly understandable to an English speaker with rudimentary French.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    October 25, 2014 @ 12:06 am

    The sounds of characters are often quite different from one topolect to the next. Just taking Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) and Cantonese, the former has four tones, whereas the latter traditionally was considered to have nine tones, but now is thought to have six tones in Hong Kong and seven in Guangzhou. Furthermore, the entering tones of Cantonese (final -p, -t, -k) do not exist in MSM, so they alone give a very different sound to the two languages.

    Initials also come out sounding very different. For example, fut3 闊 ("wide") in Cantonese is kuò in MSM.

    One of my favorite examples of the great divergence between Cantonese and MSM is 屈, which in Cantonese is wat1 and in MSM is qū (Wade-Giles ch'ü1).

    Considering such wide disparity of pronunciation of the same characters between the two languages, one can well appreciate how hard it would be for speakers of one language to understand speakers of the other language — just on the basis of pronunciation alone.

    Remember, here I'm only talking about Cantonese and MSM pronunciation of the same Zhōngwén / Zung1man4 中文 ("written Chinese") character text. Once we're dealing with a full-blooded Cantonese text (not "written Chinese"), then all bets are off, since not only will the pronunciations of the characters differ, the grammar, the lexicon, the syntax, the idioms, and everything else will be dissimilar.

  8. Jacob said,

    October 25, 2014 @ 9:24 am

    That 屈 is a great example of non-Chinese names being ascribed characters that just don't work in Mandarin. 屈臣氏 the Hong Kong chain store sounds like Watson's in Cantonese but not at all in Mandarin.

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 25, 2014 @ 2:09 pm

    So it's like singing the Marseillaise like this?

    ¡Vamos, infantes de la patria!
    El día de la gloria es arribado.
    Contra nos de la tiranía
    El estándar sangrante es levantado.

    Every word is a cognate, except that I had to cheat with the first one.

  10. Michael Rank said,

    October 25, 2014 @ 2:35 pm

    Because of Watson's, I'm aware of 屈 being wat1 in Cantonese but how can 闊 be fut3?

  11. DMT said,

    October 25, 2014 @ 7:00 pm

    @mugir, Jerry Friedman: Imagine that the English-speaking world was ruled from Paris and that under normal circumstances we would only write in French. Written English would be used only to evoke a highly colloquial tone – e.g. on Twitter, internet discussion boards, some forms of advertising, or to convey a subtle hint of political independence from Paris. However, when reading texts written in French, we would not pronounce them in the same way as Parisians, but rather according to the following principles: (1) when there is a direct English cognate for a French word, we use the cognate and pronounce it in the usual English way; (2) when there is no direct cognate available, we interpret the French spelling according to English orthographic conventions.

    So for the Marseillaise, we would write:

    Allons enfants de la Patrie,
    Le jour de gloire est arrivé !
    Contre nous de la tyrannie,
    L'étendard sanglant est levé,

    But we would pronounce it:

    /allonz ɪnfənts de la patri:
    lə jauər də glori: est əraɪvd
    kantrə naus de la tɪrəni:
    lə stændəd sæŋglənt est eleveɪtəd /

    This style of pronunciation would preserve older phonetic features that have been lost in modern French such as the /nts/ in “enfants” and the /st/ in “est” (just as Cantonese preserves older features of Chinese phonology that have been lost in Modern Standard Mandarin, such as the final /t/ in “bat1 不”). English speakers would therefore claim that “English is a much older language than French” and “Medieval French poetry sounds better when you read it with English pronunciation.”

  12. Michael Watts said,

    October 25, 2014 @ 7:43 pm


    Surely the French word "est" has a direct English cognate in "is"? And it looks like "us" is a direct cognate of "nous" as well.

    But more generally, I don't get why you think the situation you describe is a better fit to Cantonese/Mandarin than the one Jerry Friedman describes, where natural French is rendered word-by-word into its Spanish cognates. Cantonese and Mandarin are sister languages just like Spanish and French (and totally unlike English and French — reading medieval French poetry in an English pronunciation is obviously farcical, while Cantonese and Mandarin would be equally legitimate choices for a Reuchlinian reading of a Middle Chinese poem). There are plenty of Latin features just in that snatch of song that get preserved in Spanish but not French: the /nts/ cluster in "infantes" (heck, from a Latin perspective Spanish also gets the insertion of a vowel between /nt/ and /s/ right), the structure of "gloria", the /s/ of "estandar", the form of the passive participial ending…

  13. Victor Mair said,

    October 25, 2014 @ 8:35 pm

    @Michael Rank


  14. DMT said,

    October 25, 2014 @ 8:43 pm

    In most cases, a French-Spanish analogy works much better than French-English; however, in the case of the Marseillaise, the direct cognate translation seems too close to regular Spanish to capture the feeling of book-language Cantonese. My strained attempt at a French-English analogy was an attempt to produce something that looks as "strange" as Cantonese book-language. (Not that this sort of thing is perceived as strange by Cantonese speakers – for them, it's perfectly normal.)

  15. Gnoey said,

    October 26, 2014 @ 12:09 am

    I grew up speaking both Mandarin and Cantonese.

    I find that Cantonese songs produced in Hong Kong, including the one above, tend to use somewhat bookish language and unusual turns of the phrase that are not commonly seen in Mandarin songs. For example in the Cantonese song above, one encounters expressions like "誰人" ("who"), and "你共我" ("you and I"), which would be extremely unusual in a Mandarin song. Even without the use of purely Cantonese expressions, one can often tell, just by looking at the lyrics, that a song is meant to be sung in Cantonese, because there is a distinct flavour to its language.

    It is very common for Hong Kong singers to produce two versions of the same song: a Cantonese one and a Mandarin one, for different markets. While the music is the same, the lyrics are often very different in order to cater to different linguistic sensibilities, because lyrics written for Cantonese lose their rhyme and subtleties when sung in Mandarin, and vice versa. And of course, given the vast disparity in pronunciation between Cantonese and Mandarin, people who only speak either language will not understand what is being sung in the other language merely by listening. However, as both groups share the same literary language, they will be able to understand both the Cantonese and Mandarin lyrics when they are written down.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    October 26, 2014 @ 8:32 am


    Thanks for the excellent comment.

    "…as both groups share the same literary language, they will be able to understand both the Cantonese and Mandarin lyrics when they are written down."

    Except that Mandarin speakers won't be able to understand full-blown Cantonese lyrics (with lots of special characters and distinctly Cantonese terms, particles, etc.), rather than Cantonesey Zhōngwén 中文 ("[written] Chinese"). Though they may find, as you correctly point out, that the Cantonesey Zhōngwén 中文 ("[written] Chinese") seems a bit odd in places, the Mandarin speakers will usually be able to understand almost all of it without too much difficulty. Of course, I'm talking about written Zhōngwén 中文 here. When Mandarin speakers hear Zhōngwén 中文 lyrics sung in Cantonese pronunciation but don't have the written text to follow along, then they won't understand what's being sung (unless they're already quite familiar with the song). When monolingual Mandarin speakers see full-blown Cantonese texts, they will have great difficulty reading much of it (depending upon the amount of distinctively Cantonese elements the texts contain), and when they hear full-blown Cantonese lyrics being sung, they won't be able to understand much of them at all (next to nothing if they aren't already familiar with the lyrics in written form, and even then it will be a hard go).

  17. AntC said,

    October 26, 2014 @ 8:52 pm

    But wait! (And at risk of peevery that all pop songs sound the same.)

    Isn't that refrain the same as "Universal Soldier"? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_Soldier_(song)

    (Sorry, but I can't share the feeling of Victor's 'hauntingly beautiful'. I acknowledge that I don't understand the words, and therefore not the message. But if a tune has merit, that should stand independent of the lyrics. 'Hauntingly beautiful' I would apply to the slow movement of Bach's double violin concerto, or Erbarme dich from the Matthew Passion.)

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 26, 2014 @ 9:35 pm

    DMT and Michael Watts: Thanks for the interesting comments. I'm a bit surprised that the Spanish version of the Marsellaise seems less strange than book-language with Cantonese pronunciation. But of course if I tried to keep going, I'd run into French words with no Spanish cognates, which would give a result that would be beyond strange.

    I probably should have "translated" jour as diurno, come to think of it. That would have been stranger.

    (Imagine my surprise, though, at finding that the Spanish cognate of mugir is mugir.)

  19. J. Random Hacker said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 10:31 am

    (complete with nonexistent Spanish words made to be theoretical cognates to the French)

    ¡Andamos, infantes de la patria!
    El diurno de gloria es arribado.
    Contra nos de la tiranía
    El estándar sangrante es levado.

    ¿Entendéis vos dentro las campañas
    Mugir aquestos feroces soldados?
    ¡Ellos vienen usque dentro vuestros brazos
    Desgorgar vuestros hijos, vuestros compañeros!

  20. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 4:16 pm

    J. Random: Very nice. I didn't realize aller and andar were both from ambulare. Two nits, though: Shouldn't it be aquestes? Also, this dictionary says jusque is from Latin inde usque—and inde does have a Spanish reflex, ende. I think it's rare now, but all the better.

    ¡A las armas! I'd finish it (or administer the coup de grâce), but apparently the very last word, sillons, is from Gaulish and has no Spanish cognate.

  21. Ray Girvan said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 7:27 pm

    @AntC: But wait! … Isn't that refrain the same

    Some musical motifs are well-trodden. The beginning phrases of Boundless Oceans Vast Skies struck me as extremely similar to those of Elisa Toffoli's Dancing, which I do find hauntingly beautiful.

  22. AntC said,

    October 28, 2014 @ 2:19 am

    @Ray G, sorry, no [to the hauntingly beautiful]. It would possibly help if this Elisa could sing.

    (I guess de gustibus non disputandum. Just like there are no languages/dialects universally acknowledged as beautiful or as ugly, to try to avoid this turning into music criticism log.)

  23. DMT said,

    October 28, 2014 @ 2:24 am

    @J. Random Hacker: Nice one – this works much better than my attempt. (Of course, evaluations of the appropriate degree of strangeness for artificially constructive lyrics are always going to be a tad subjective.)

  24. DMT said,

    October 28, 2014 @ 2:25 am

    (For "artificially constructive", read "artificially constructed".)

  25. Wentao said,

    October 30, 2014 @ 7:21 pm

    I wonder what is the intelligibility of songs like this to the average Cantonese speaker. I suppose one has to be sufficiently educated to understand the vocabulary? Is it better understood written than spoken/sung? (I'm a Mandarin speaker, but sometimes I may come across a classical or literary utterance, and won't be able to understand it until I see how it's written.)

    @Michael Rank
    Middle Chinese 阔 [kwat]. Vowel shift aside, Mandarin loses the final consonant, and in Cantonese [kw] becomes [f] (likewise 科 is pronounced [fo]). I guess the change is something like [k] > [x] > [f].

  26. Gnoey said,

    October 31, 2014 @ 7:10 am

    Though I'm not a native, I know enough Cantonese to be able to follow interviews and lectures in the language, but I have always found Cantonese songs hard to understand. They employ very little "true" Cantonese words and expressions; the lyrics are in more or less Standard Chinese pronounced using Cantonese, so they sound very different from spoken Cantonese.

    This reminds me of a language teacher I once had who said that the true mark of proficiency in a language is being able to understand songs sung in that language. I think there is quite a bit of truth in it. Songs demand a different level of competency, because they tend to use creative expressions that you don't normally find in regular conversation or writing, and the music warps the pronunciation of words so that they don't follow regular speech patterns. I stayed in Japan for several years, received my tertiary education there, wrote theses in Japanese, and read Japanese newspapers and novels with ease, but I still struggle to understand Japanese songs! I often have to read the lyrics before I can understand what is being sung.

  27. Chas Belov said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 2:47 am

    Barely survival level ex-Cantonese student here, with a particular fascination for differences between Cantonese and Mandarin.

    Do any Cantonese melody singers actually sing in full-on Cantonese as opposed to Cantonesey Zhongwen? I'm referring to singing numbers as opposed to hip-hop.

    In an effort to verify that hip-hop would be in full-on Cantonese, I checked for lyrics to HK rap group LMF's song 岑家拎 and found them at http://mojim.com/twy101043x2x9.htm (who bowdlerizes it to X家拎). NSFW, unless you're a linguist by trade.

    I find recognizable Cantonese words such as 唔, D, A, 系 (for "to be") and 0地 (for 哋). There was also the surprising (to me) L (for yeh in 乜yeh); that may be a typo, as the expected 乜野 appears later in the lyrics. There's Cantonese grammar (日日 in place of 每天 or 天天?). I also found the standard 不, in 不過 ("but") which is used in Cantonese, so it's not sufficient to look for 不 to establish Mandarin or standard Chinese.

    As for the Beyond song, I too find it haunting, even speaking as one who doesn't understand the lyrics without an English translation. I recall that one of their albums, 繼續革命 (Continue the Revolution) was banned in China, or at least some songs from it were.

    This isn't the first movement that chose a rock song for their anthem. The Student Democracy Movement in China chose Cui Jian's I Have Nothing 一无所有.

    I'm fan of popular music in many languages (listening to a Turkish rock Internet station as I write this), and have been listening to Beyond for many years.

  28. Wentao said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 5:13 pm

    Thank you for your response! I totally agree that there's some truth in your teacher's observation; I also find English songs way more difficult to understand than normal lectures and conversation. However, I'm curious what you think is the major obstacle in Japanese songs: is it more stylized sentence structures, more literary vocabulary, or less discernible pronunciations due to the music?

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