17 June 2019
A local television program is shown at a restaurant in Guangzhou. In August, Guangzhou television switched its news programs from Cantonese to Mandarin. Photo: AFP
A local television program is shown at a restaurant in Guangzhou. In August, Guangzhou television switched its news programs from Cantonese to Mandarin. Photo: AFP

What is the future of Cantonese?

When I first stayed in a house in Guangzhou in the 1980s, I found that TVB was switched on all the time. I asked the family whether they ever watched state television channels in Mandarin. The reply was peals of laughter at such a stupid and naïve question – Guangzhou people only watch Cantonese TV.

At that time, Cantonese was the dominant language of the city. If you wanted to do business and join the mainstream of society, you had to learn it. But this is no longer the case – about half of its 14 million residents come from outside Guangdong and speak Mandarin. They do not have to learn Cantonese.

In August, Guangzhou television switched its news programs from Cantonese to Mandarin. Four years ago, a proposal to do this provoked widespread protests — but not this time.

Hong Kong people are wondering if Guangzhou today will be their city tomorrow. More than 95 percent of Hong Kong’s population use Cantonese as their mother tongue; it is the dominant language in the Legislative Council, media, most schools and much of the business world. Mainland students who want to work here after graduation learn it to improve their job chances.

But that is changing. Since 1997, nearly one million mainlanders have migrated on one-way visas to Hong Kong. While about two thirds are family reunion cases, the majority Cantonese, the rest are Mandarin speakers from all over the mainland.

In 2000, the Curriculum Development Council of Hong Kong said in a document on language that using Putonghua to teach Chinese was the long-term goal. In the academic year 2008-09, the government said that HK$200 million would be injected into the Language Fund to help schools switch from teaching in Cantonese to Mandarin. Currently, 160 schools are supported by the scheme.

Many schools, primary and secondary, not only teach Chinese in Mandarin but also use it as a medium of instruction for subjects other than English.

It is a complex issue for parents and teachers. Parents would like their children to be able to write Chinese and English and be fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin and English, but are divided on the best way to achieve it.

For teachers, the issue is critical; if their Mandarin is not fluent enough, they will lose their job if it became the mandatory medium.

For people in business and the government, there is a strong incentive to learn, to deal with mainland clients and officials and win contracts and promotion.

For Hong Kong people, the nightmare case is Shanghai. Up to the 1980s, Shanghainese was a thriving language. Now it is dying, with Shanghainese radio to end when the final two broadcasters retire. Mandarin has triumphed.

A better scenario is Taiwan. When the Nationalist government moved there in 1945, it ruthlessly imposed Mandarin on a population that spoke Taiwanese and, among the educated elite, Japanese.

This intensified after 1.6 million mainlanders moved there with President Chiang Kai-shek in 1949. It became mandatory in the government, the media and education, the sole official language. Primary school children who chatted with their friends in Taiwanese in the playground were hit by their teachers and ordered to wear a plaque saying “I must speak Mandarin”.

Things began to change after the end of martial law in July 1987. The opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) promoted Taiwanese; Nationalist President Lee Teng-hui used it in his end-of-the-year speeches. It was used in the Legislative Yuan and electoral campaigns, encouraged by both the DPP and civil society, and was included in the school curriculum.

During the eight years of Chen Shui-bian as DPP president from 2000 to 2008, its status was further enhanced.

Now both major parties have embraced language diversity, with radio and television in Mandarin and Taiwanese, as well as Hakka and aboriginal languages.

Thanks to Chiang’s hardline policy for over 30 years, Mandarin remains the dominant language and the one in which most people under 45 feel most comfortable. But Taiwanese has an established place, in both spoken and written form. The two languages have found a happy co-existence.

That would be a much better future for Hong Kong than the Shanghai nightmare.

The writer is a Hong Kong-based journalist and author.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe