Debunking a myth about Mandarin

May 25, 2018 10:43
Hong Kong’s ‘traditional way of life’ includes the Cantonese language. Hence, the use of Cantonese as the medium of instruction for school kids should be respected, say observers. Photo: Bloomberg

The "big brother" portrayed by famous British author George Orwell in his classic novel 1984 is constantly spying on his people and trying to indoctrinate them with absurd misconceptions, or the so-called "Orwellian nonsense", a phrase that has caught on recently in the West.

Unfortunately, it appears our government has been adopting "Orwellian nonsense" more and more frequently in recent years.

Firstly, the Education Bureau (EDB) recently required history textbook publishers to stop using the phrase "to take back the sovereignty over Hong Kong" on the grounds that it is misleading.

The announcement has baffled a lot of Hongkongers, since the phrase has been frequently used by not only chief mainland officials over the years, but also former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping himself during the 1980s.

In another move, the EDB recently posted an article on its official website, in which it refers to Mandarin as the "mother tongue" of the people of Hong Kong, whereas Cantonese is only an unofficial "dialect".

The article immediately set the internet alight, and sparked a bitter online feud among netizens both for and against the notion.

As I have mentioned before, the truth is, Cantonese and Mandarin, along with 7 or 9 other dialects, actually form the sub-branches of the big family of the Chinese language.

In other words, it would be misleading to refer to Mandarin as the mother tongue of all Chinese people, because Mandarin and other regional dialects, including Cantonese, are actually on an equal footing and belong to the same family.

It is true that most Hong Kong people are unable to speak fluent Mandarin.

However, perhaps little known is that Mandarin is actually far from being the universally spoken language even in the mainland.

Therefore, to say that Mandarin is the mother tongue of all Chinese and that every mainlander can speak fluent Mandarin is a typical “big brother” lie.

And numbers don’t lie. According to the official figures published by the State Council in September 2017, the popularization of Mandarin, or the Putonghua, only reached 73 percent among the entire mainland population.

Meanwhile, the remaining 27 percent of mainlanders, whose numbers total over 380 million, don’t speak Mandarin in their everyday life.

The official figures have completely dispelled the popular myth that Mandarin is the universally spoken language across the mainland.

To put the figures in perspective, the numbers of people in the mainland who don’t speak Mandarin are around 50 million more than the whole population of the United States, or three times the size of the total population of Japan.

As we saw in recent TV news reports on the 10th anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake, many Sichuan people were speaking in front of the camera in their local dialects.

And in major cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu, the percentage of the local population who communicate in their indigenous dialects in their everyday life remains substantially high.

In fact even Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping often spoke in their own Hunan and Sichuan dialects rather than Mandarin, both on private and public occasions, during their lifetime.

Under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s existing system and traditional way of life are preserved after the handover, and the “traditional way of life” of course includes our daily spoken language.

As such, the popular use of Cantonese as the medium of instruction in our schools should be respected.

Moreover, the SAR government must avoid being overly aggressive in promoting the use of Mandarin in Hong Kong. In particular, Cantonese must not be marginalized through mandatory or intimidating means.

Under China's 13th Five Year Plan, Beijing has vowed to achieve the full popularization of Mandarin across the mainland by 2020.

However, I have serious doubts as to whether the Communist Party can really achieve this ambitious goal.

It is because there are only two years left before 2020. How is it possible that mainland officialdom can convert 380 million people into speaking Mandarin within such a short period of time?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 24

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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HKEJ columnist