Once upon a time, Cantonese was the language that transported Chinese cinema, business and culture across the world.
Why Cantonese teenagers are ditching their mother tongue for Mandarin
But that’s all changing. Cantonese is being spoken by fewer and fewer people in its spiritual home. The language is fighting what locals fear is a losing battle against China’s official tongue.
Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, is the capital of Guangdong province – and the home of Cantonese. Spoken by 73 million people across the world, Cantonese has had great global influence because most of the early Chinese immigrants came from southern China. When they moved, they took their culture and language with them.
Mandarin, also known as Putonghua – “common speech” – originates in the north of China, around Beijing. Selected as the national language in 1932, it’s spoken by some 1.1 billion people across the world – and counting.
And now at taxi queues, bus stations, restaurants and street corners in southern Chinese cities such as Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Dongguan, grandparents can often be heard speaking to their grandchildren in strongly accented Mandarin, while young parents switch from Cantonese to Mandarin when talking with kids and teenagers.
“It’s a pity, but it’s necessary because most kids nowadays don’t like speaking Cantonese even though they were born and are growing up here,” said 40-year-old Luo Bihua, the mother of an eight-year-old boy in third grade.
“The schools and the government have been discouraging Cantonese in the community for a long while.”
Guangzhou’s Cantonese speakers and the local media cheered last year when a textbook designed to teach to teach spoken and written Cantonese was launched at the city’s Wuyang primary school.
It included the basics, such as Cantonese Romanization and grammar, and the history and origins of the dialect, and the aim was to promote its use in other schools across the city.
But the textbook’s author, Rao Yuansheng, said the local authorities soon put a stop to the project. He declined to comment further.
The mother of one boy at the school said she had heard about the project “but never had the chance to read the textbook.”
“Actually, as a Cantonese, I would love to let my children study Cantonese at school,” she said.
Only one Hong Kong movie with Cantonese dialogue, Mad World, debuted on mainland cinema screens last year.
The Ministry of Education and the State Language Commission said last year they wanted 80% of China’s population to be speaking Mandarin by 2020. Around 70% are estimated to do so at present, with several hundred million people speaking other dialects.
“As that national policy is to make Mandarin mainstream in society, it’s difficult to see local officials making any moves to defend Cantonese,” said Han Zhipeng, a commentator and former member of the Guangzhou city Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
The manufacturing boom that followed China’s opening up to the world at the end of the 1970s, mostly fueled by investment from Hongkongers and overseas Chinese that spoke Cantonese, has passed its peak, and Guangzhou businessman Liang Zhongqun says that this is what has made Cantonese less influential in mainland China.
From the early 1990s to the late 2000s, millions of migrant workers flocked to Guangdong from hinterland provinces.
“In many migrants’ eyes, Cantonese culture was advanced and developed,” Liang explained.
New arrivals had been keen to learn Cantonese and discover the regional culture, viewing such knowledge as a way to get ahead in business.
People paid hundreds of yuan to learn the dialect, and Hong Kong’s transformation into an ultra-modern, international community – with a flourishing entertainment industry – added to its allure.
Until the late 2000s, Cantonese was the fashionable language among Shenzhen teenagers, whether at school, shopping centers or karaoke clubs.
And there were protests in Guangzhou in 2010 when the city government proposed that its two main television stations switch from broadcasting in Cantonese to Mandarin.
“At that time, speaking Cantonese made us feel more international and that we had more in common with international cities like Hong Kong or New York than with people from the hinterland who could usually only speak Mandarin,” said Jade Xu, a 36-year-old teacher in Shenzhen.
But none of her students use Cantonese nowadays, viewing Shenzhen as just as international as Hong Kong but more innovative and aggressive in its economic and technological development.
There was also a growing gap between teenagers in Guangdong and Hong Kong on political and economic issues, which had made Cantonese less popular in Shenzhen, she said.
With 73 million speakers, Cantonese is far from dead – but, for now at least, Mandarin has the upper hand.