Language is often seen as a symbol of the “soft power” of a particular place.
For example, back in the 1980s and ’90s, when Hong Kong’s pop culture was in its heyday, Cantopop songs were all the rage across the mainland.
And thanks to the cultural predominance of Hong Kong in those days, many common Cantonese expressions were also widely used by mainlanders in their everyday conversations.
However, as mainlanders have been getting increasingly wealthier ever since the handover in 1997, and the entertainment industry in the mainland has also been growing rapidly, so much for that lopsided cultural influence.
And because of the increasingly overwhelming cultural influence of the mainland, many common colloquial expressions used by Mandarin (or Putonghua) speakers are now often heard in the everyday conversations of the Hong Kong people.
However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that Beijing is stepping up its efforts to unify the spoken language and eliminate local dialects across the nation as a means to tighten its grip on ideology.
At present, Mandarin speakers account for some 70 percent of the total population in China, while there are still 400 million people across the country who are communicating with others in their own indigenous dialects on a daily basis.
The central government has already set a goal of boosting the percentage of Mandarin speakers to 80 percent by 2020.
In fact, given the rapid urbanization and expansion of the public transport network across the mainland, as well as the ubiquity of the internet and the popularization of education, many local dialects have become moribund.
As schools across the mainland are using Mandarin as their medium of instruction, many parents now tend to speak in Mandarin, or both Mandarin and their own dialect, at home in order to help their children master the language.
Yet it appears Beijing still finds the pace of the ongoing extermination of local dialects a bit too slow, and is therefore attempting to speed up the process through executive measures.
And being one of the most influential dialects in the mainland, Cantonese is inevitably on top of Beijing’s hit list.
In order to kill the dialect more efficiently, Guangdong authorities have been gradually banning Cantonese TV and radio broadcasts and replacing them with Mandarin programs since 2012.
And Beijing’s bid to eliminate Cantonese has spillover effects on Hong Kong, too.
Amid cross-border conflicts between mainlanders and Hongkongers, the potential threat to the official status of Cantonese as our mother tongue has become a cause for growing concern among the public.
Unfortunately, perhaps being too desperate to kiss up to Beijing, some government officials and influential public figures in Hong Kong have been doing stupid things that are fueling such concern.
For example, the Education Bureau has sparked a major controversy by posting an article on its official website, in which the author, a mainland academic, claims that Cantonese is not a mother tongue “in the strict sense”.
Worse still, Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung was both evasive and equivocal when asked by media what his mother tongue is.
As a result, the stance adopted by both the Guangdong authorities and the SAR government on Cantonese has provoked a widespread backlash in society, and triggered a mass movement to safeguard Cantonese both in the mainland and Hong Kong.
Recently, a controversy concerning a textbook article for mainland primary school students has grabbed headlines across the nation.
What sparked the entire saga was a decision by the Shanghai Educational Publishing House to replace the term “grandmother” (“外婆“) with “laolao” (“姥姥”), a colloquial expression to address one’s grandma mainly used by northerners, in that textbook article.
The decision, when it came to light, immediately sparked a bitter online feud between netizens for and against it.
In the face of snowballing public uproar, the Shanghai Educational Publishing House finally backed down and agreed to reverse the decision.
As a matter of fact, most young people in Guangdong or Shanghai can speak fluent Mandarin nowadays.
In Hong Kong, Mandarin is frequently spoken both in the streets and on school campuses.
The choice of language is a natural process; any act of government intervention to mandate the use of Mandarin is likely to backfire because it would only stiffen people’s resolve in protecting their own indigenous dialects.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 29
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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