The Cantophone and the state

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Cantonese — its nature, its status, its past, present, and future, its place in the realm of Sinitic languages and in the world — has been one of the chief foci of Language Log.  Consequently, it is my great pleasure to announce the publication of the three-hundred-and-thirty-fourth issue of Sino-Platonic Papers:

“The Concept of the Cantophone: Memorandum for a Stateless Literary History,” by Wayne C. F. Yeung.

This is a landmark work of scholarship that penetratingly probes the position of Cantonese — and thereby all "Chinese" topolects — in the complex mix of language, literature, nation, politics, and culture.  


This essay considers the Cantophone as a subject(-to-come) of literary history foreclosed by Sinophone statelessness. Cantonese, historically marginalized in Sinitic literacy and subjected to compradorial colonialism, highlights the complexity of topolectal representation beyond the "local vs. national" binary. This is further compounded by the Cantonese-speaking diaspora and the global cultural industry, owing much to the historical status of Hong Kong as a colonial city on the periphery of China and an Asian outpost of Cold War liberalism. The Cantophone suggests a topolect-based literary-cultural system eccentrically centered upon Hong Kong, existing in negotiated entwinement with the logics of state-authorized orthographies, sinographic or alphabetic. As a non-sovereign space, Hong Kong nonetheless informs, beyond its spatial border, a Cantonese-based cultural archipelago even while it negotiates its formal dependence on Anglophone and Sinophone literary capitals.

Instead of considering "dialectal literature" (fangyan wenxue) as a subset of national literature, this essay analyzes in four parts the literary politics of topolectal representation as played out within what the author calls the "colonial-classical-national-local" intellectual-historical matrix. To the extent that writing Cantonese is a textual performance independent from the category of the locally-embodied "native speaker," the essay suggests that topolectal misfit within different orthographic orders far exceeds the questions of Sinophone place-making; it sustains both a non-national alternative to retell sinographic literary history, and an inscription of epistemological difference within/out "Chineseness" as a postcolonial ethnocultural identity. As a thought-experiment, the Cantophone is an invitation to an exercise in thinking literary history without the One-ness of nation-states.

Keywords: Topolectal literature, Sinophone studies, written Cantonese, non-national literary history, statelessness


This and all other issues of Sino-Platonic Papers are available in full for no charge.

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Selected readings

1 Comment

  1. Gene Anderson said,

    June 15, 2023 @ 10:44 am

    Cantonese is a separate language with its own literature, including oral literature and folk songs that should be recorded NOW, while there is anyone left who remembers anything. I have watched the dying of too many traditions.

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