The interplay between Cantonese and Mandarin as an index of sociopolitical tensions in Hong Kong

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First it was the British from afar, and now it is the Chinese from the north who are imposing themselves on the people of Hong Kong.  In both cases, the imposition has been not merely political and economic, but has had important cultural and linguistic implications.  Language-wise, under which master have the Hongkongers (also known demonymically as Hong Kongers, Hongkongian, Hong Kongese, Hongkongese, Hong Kong citizens, and Hong Kong people) fared better?

This is a topic that has come up numerous times and in numerous ways on Language Log (see "Selected readings" below for a sampling of some relevant posts).  Now we have a new research article from Modern China (ISSN:  0097-7004; online ISSN: 1552-6836) that speaks to the problem from the vantage of recent data:

"The Ongoing Business of Chinese-Language Reform: A View from the Periphery of Hong Kong in the Past Half Century", by John D. Wong and Andrew D. Wong (first published online April 28, 2023)

Here's the abstract:

Against the backdrop of the changing meaning of the “Chinese” language in Hong Kong, this article explores how Mandarin, once an unproblematic link to a nebulous Chinese nation for Hongkongers, now reflects anti-mainland sentiments. In the 1970s, Hong Kong Chinese who fought against English colonial oppression embraced Cantonese as their de facto Chinese language even as some conceded the broader allure of Mandarin. As the popularity of Cantonese rose, the appeal of Mandarin lingered but did not result in its higher currency. In the period leading up to the 1997 handover, while the colonial government did not mandate the study of Mandarin, its economic practicality surged, especially as the reform era engineered tremendous opportunities for Hongkongers in the mainland. Ironically, as Hongkongers have registered enhanced Mandarin proficiency, mounting resentment toward Mandarin in the city over the past two decades has come to represent a response to intensifying mainland control over Hong Kong.

All things considered, I dare say that it was the British who fostered / promoted / allowed / encouraged the Hongkongers to speak in their own voice.


Bibliographical note

The article by Wong and Wong is accompanied by an excellent, freely available list of references.


Selected readings

[h.t. Geoff Wade]


  1. Mark S. said,

    April 30, 2023 @ 8:10 am

    See also this graph over time of attitudes in Hong Kong toward Mandarin and Cantonese.
    Sorry not to have anything more recent. This had been a regular survey … until Beijing made it very clear to Hong Kong that asking questions to which the answer might not be "We love the benevolent and gentle leadership of the Chinese Communist Party" was potentially unsafe.

  2. AntC said,

    May 2, 2023 @ 2:15 am

    I dare say that it was the British who fostered / promoted / allowed / encouraged the Hongkongers to speak in their own voice.

    (Let's remember HK or Cantonese hadn't had a separate identity/self-governance for centuries.)

    I think the British attitude to Cantonese language and culture could at best be described as 'benign neglect' over much of the period of hegemony. They tolerated Cantonese in the legal/administration and education systems from 1970's on. By which time HK'ers could see what the alternative might look like on the Mainland.

    The British never tried to impose English/suppress Cantonese in the way the PRC is now imposing Mandarin. English was the language of top-level government and international trade; Cantonese for day-to-day admin and local trade. HK'ers could see the value of at least some level of English. (And I experienced how little English penetrated: try making yourself understood getting a taxi to an obscure hotel in Causeway Bay; or an office block with only a Cantonese name on the periphery of Central.)

    Belatedly in the 1990's, Chris Patten tried introducing some sort of Westminster-style democracy, even at the same time as the handback was imminent. I was working in HK at the time; HK'ers thought this attempt was clownish. Patten/the British should have been working to strengthen Cantonese-language institutions and HK's ties to the international community (esp. the U.S., Japan), as a defence against what PRC would be sure to impose. There just would be not enough time to bed-in a culture of democracy — even if HK'ers had any enthusiasm for it.

  3. AntC said,

    May 2, 2023 @ 2:26 am

    Thanks @MarkS for those charts. They don't surprise me; nor am I surprised the survey got discontinued.

    By 1996 when they start, everybody knew what was coming, so they faced Mandarin with a sense of resignation/make the best of the inevitable.

    In the early 1990's there was a sense of embarrassment about Cantonese: it's not a 'proper' language. Everybody was trying to master Mandarin. There were some trying to promote literature and culture in Cantonese, but tolerated rather than supported by the British.

  4. julie wei said,

    May 3, 2023 @ 4:17 pm

    @ AntC : "In the early 1990's there was a sense of embarrassment about Cantonese: it's not a 'proper' language. Everybody was trying to master Mandarin. "

    I had a surprising encounter with Cantonese Pride (like Black Pride) two days ago in a San Francisco barber-shop /hair-salon.  I needed a haircut badly but didn't want to go to the 80 dollar-plus haircut place in our suburb, so my daughter took me to this street in San Fransisco where her son, a college student, regularly got haircuts for 26 dollars.  I was told they'd cut my hair for 26 dollars.  The shop was in a street in SF full of inexpensive Chinese cafes, restaurants, vegetable shops and so on.  It was late and the hair salon was closing and i was the last customer that day.  The woman and man working in the shop spoke Cantonese. Because the shop was shabby, with cracked and dirty linoleum on the floor and the price of a haircut was cheap,  I took the two to be people who didn't have much education.  They could speak some Mandarin with me.  Since it was very quiet and we were alone in the shop, I began to chat with the man cutting my hair.  He looked to be about 45-50 years old.  I asked where he was from and he said , "Taishan in Guangdong (Province)."  Taishan is Toisan in Cantonese.  "Oh," I said, "My mom's people were originally from Taishan, but though I speak Cantonese, i can't speak the Taishan dialect."  "Fewer and fewer people can speak it well now,"  he said.  "I go back and find my Taishan speech is much worse than it used to be."  He said when he went to school in Taishan, the teachers still spoke Taishan speech, but now school is taught in Mandarin.  People feel it's not much use leaning Taishan speech anymore because everyone speaks Mandarin now and they leave Taishan to look for jobs anyway, he said.  Oh, I said, Taishan is very important in modern Chinese history.  A lot of the early Chinese immigrants to America were from Taishan, and Taishan people were great supporters of Sun Yat-sen. In fact Cantonese people were very important to modern China.  Sun Yat-sen, Kang Youwei, and Liang Qichao, the most influential political thinkers and writers and political activists of the early 20th century were all Cantonese." In fact, I think the present-day resurgence of China has been greatly inspired by their writings.  He warmed to the subject.  He said:  "Hundreds of Taishan people died in the early revolutionary uprisings led by Sun Yat-sen. People have forgotten that. So many of the early revolutionary martyrs were from Taishan. People have forgotten that. People now have no respect for Cantonese.  It's all about Mandarin now.  You know, Mandarin is actually the barbarian language.  Cantonese is the real ancient Chinese language." He went on in this strain.  I said, "I really think dialects , the different local speeches, should be preserved."  He said:  "But they are trying to get rid of them. You know," raising his voice,"  Shanghai dialect, Cantonese dialect, Fujian dialect, and so on, are not really dialects.  They are languages, they are languages, not dialects !"  Here he was bursting with pride.  I was astonished.  I had thought that the proposition that Shanghainese, Cantonese, and Fujianese were languages not dialects was a proposition known to and still debated by Sinologists.  I did not know that it had filtered down to barbers and others in the general Chinese population. 

  5. julie wei said,

    May 3, 2023 @ 9:06 pm

    I should add that the barber, Mr. Chen, used the Chinese term
    _fangyan_, which I have translated as "dialect". Victor Mair has translated _fangyan_ as "topolect" or local speech. I translated _fangyan_ as dialect because that has been the traditional translation and Western understanding of the word. I agree with Prof. Mair that "topolect" is the correct translation and not "dialect". I have also been persuaded. by Mair's writings that Shanghainese, Cantonese, and Fujianese are languages not dialects. But I was surprised that Mr. Chen had also learned of this recently introduced concept.

  6. Jonathan Smith said,

    May 3, 2023 @ 9:41 pm

    @julie wei
    Thanks for this great anecdote.
    Re: fangyan, my thought is that the translation topolect is (1) an elegant etymological parallel; (2) usefully noncommittal wrt the technical question of "language" vs. "dialect"; and (3) pleasantly neutral wrt to relative prestige. And yet the term fangyan as actually used is not at all progressive in sense (3); rather, its implication is precisely of low (literally "marginal"?) status vis-a-vis a politcal/cultural center(s). So IMO we need to turn to a word like patois, or make up one like hintertongue or some such, to approximate it in English. Topolect of course remains useful in its own right for nonprejudicial reference to a language variety associated with a particular place.

  7. julie wei said,

    May 3, 2023 @ 10:51 pm

    Jonathan, thanks for appreciating the anecdote and for explaining the meaning of the word _fangyan_. Yes, _fangyan_ does have a lower-status connotation vis-a-vis the political/cultural center(s).

  8. Chas Belov said,

    May 6, 2023 @ 2:16 am

    @julie wei: Thank you for this wonderful story. It would be a shame if Cantonese, Shanghainese and others disappeared.

    Oddly, I used to think Mandarin sounded refined and Cantonese sounded harsh. Then I studied Cantonese for three semesters (because that's the major Chinese language in San Francisco). Even though I never got good at it, now Cantonese sounds lilting and Mandarin sounds harsh.

  9. julie wei said,

    May 6, 2023 @ 5:46 pm

    Hello Chas (yes I know it's Charles but I'm following P.G. Wodehouse
    in calling Thomas "Thos" in a novel):

    Thank you for appreciating the anecdote. I must confess that I grew up feeling sorry for Cantonese people, viz., people who spoke Mandarin with a heavy Cantonese accent– felt they were uncultured, were hicks. I think I absorbed that snobbery from family and friends. In fact the Oscar-winning film "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" was ruined for me because the principals Jacky Chen and Michele Yeoh spoke Mandarin with a Cantonese accent. It was painful listening to them. Michele Yeoh also speaks English with a Cantonese accent.
    However, like you, my attitude towards Cantonese has changed.

  10. Chas Belov said,

    May 16, 2023 @ 1:50 am

    @julie wei: Actually, while I do answer to Charles as well, folks who know me mostly do in fact call me "Chas" (with a "z" sound for the "s"). I do tend to peeve when people actually end it with a written "z".

  11. Chas Belov said,

    May 16, 2023 @ 1:54 am

    @julie wei again: Interesting about those stars. I don't know Chinese well enough to recognize when someone is speaking one Chinese language with the accent of another. That said, I did once overhear someone who sounded like they were speaking a "thick" version of Shanghainese (which I don't know but sometimes used to be able to distinguish from Mandarin and Cantonese). When I asked them, it turned out they were from a rural area outside of Shanghai.

  12. Vampyricon said,

    May 23, 2023 @ 1:01 pm

    I am told that Cantonese *was* the imposition by the British. Hong Kong's indigenous languages were mostly Cantonesic (for lack of a better term), like Waitau and Tanka, the latter of which gave the city its name, but also contained a Hakka and Teochew dialects. It was only with the immigration of Guangdong residents in the mid-20th century that Cantonese proper became the dominant Chinese language.

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