Chinese Corner

Mother Tongue5 min read

Cantonese is no mere “variant” of Mandarin – Gina Tam


Editor’s Note: Chinese Corner is going to take a break, but we won’t just be lounging at the beach. We’re off in search of native speakers, linguists, and language aficionados to guide us into the hidden corners of spoken and written Chinese, through varieties beyond Mandarin and Cantonese, from Archaic Chinese to internetspeak. Send us your burning #chinesequestions and we’ll start answering them when we’re nice and tan.  – Anne Henochowicz


In May, a packet of supplementary information promoting Mandarin in the classroom was sent to schools in Hong Kong. This collection of new research on effective language pedagogy included an explosive piece by Song Xinqiao, a consultant at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Research and Development of Mandarin Education, in which he claimed that it was incorrect to call Cantonese the “mother tongue” of Hong Kongers.

He premised his argument on a selective interpretation of the UNESCO definition of “mother tongue.” According to UNESCO, Song reasoned, “the mother tongue does not only belong to a person but an ethnic group”; Cantonese does not denote an ethnicity, but only a “Chinese dialect,” and therefore should not be called a “mother tongue.” Rather, Cantonese is one “variant of Mandarin,” which Song claims for the Chinese ethnic group as a whole. For Song, this was not up for debate – it was scientific fact. Chinese is an ethnic group, represented by Mandarin. Cantonese is not.

Gwong2 dung1 waa2 hai6 ngo5 mou5 jyu5 (Cantonese is my mother tongue). (Ah Toh)

The backlash was swift. Graphic artists like Ah To, author of Illustrating Cantonese, used his character “Little Chicken” to declare that “Cantonese is my mother tongue.” The incendiary Apple Daily used the opportunity for fearmongering, declaring a “Cantonese crisis.” Journalists excoriated Song, refuting his contention by attacking his very definition: the heart of the UNESCO definition for the term “mother tongue” is that it is a language individuals learn from birth, they claimed; the size or composition of the group it represented was not at issue. Even Chief Executive Carrie Lam weighed in to dismiss Song’s argument, surprising from a leader who is often reticent on issues that may draw Beijing’s ire.

The argument that Cantonese is a mere “variant” of Mandarin is deeply embedded in the history of 20th century China. Though a controversial claim among linguists, the Republic of China and its successor, the People’s Republic, have long held that Cantonese and the hundreds of other local languages known as fāngyán 方言 are what English speakers would call “dialects.” Within this model, dialects are defined by their lack of independence. Dialects are always dialects of something. Thus according to this state narrative, the core of Chinese identity is still defined by Mandarin Chinese, making fangyan speakers non-standard “others,” their identities only understandable through lens of Mandarin. The fact that many of Chinese fangyan have linguistic histories that pre-date Mandarin matters little; the historical myth the state promulgates is that Mandarin is the language from which all of China’s fangyan spring.

The implications of this argument are not lost on the people of Hong Kong. Hong Kongers see attacks on their language as symbolic of the Chinese Communist Party’s increasingly bald attempts to wield cultural and political power in the former British colony. From films like Ten Years, which imagines a dystopian future Hong Kong where Mandarin is strictly enforced, to protests against a recent decision by Hong Kong Baptist University that made Mandarin tests compulsory for graduation, Hong Kong citizens increasingly see the battle over language as a battle for the very right to express their own identity apart from the mainland. As Arthur Tam and Anna Cummins, two journalists who write for Time Out Hong Kong, among other periodicals, poignantly said:

Language is the tongue that gives a nation its voice. And Hong Kong’s voice has never been as intrinsically linked to its identity as it is right now. Cantonese isn’t just the city’s language; it’s one of the many yardsticks by which Hong Kongers measure their cultural and political differences from the rest of the Mainland.

The claim that Cantonese is a mere “variant” of Chinese simply confirms Hong Kong suspicions that Beijing is out to define – and thus destroy – their identity.

Not just a “language,” our relationship with our mother tongue is profoundly intimate and individual. Our mother tongue is our Proustian madeleine: “the way back, and the way in.” It is at once evokes something very personal – we only have one mother – but also the historical, something that webs us to our past. Through our mother tongue, we gain access to our mothers and our motherland. It creates relationships at once individual and collective.

I do not think that Song’s choice of “mother tongue” was accidental. He likely aimed to arouse Cantonese passions. Beijing has always mobilized emotional attachment to national symbols and ethnic narratives. Song seeks to delegitimize the claims that fangyan have a role in defining the Chinese ethnic nation. For Song, the Chinese nation only has one linguistic ancestor. That he distorts and embellishes the history of Mandarin matters little to him. For Song, there is only one legitimate “madeleine” for the Chinese people.

The Chinese state, that declares these expressions of identity illegitimate, has set itself up for a potentially volatile disconnect. Song both fundamentally understands the power of self-identification through language and woefully underestimates it. ∎

All illustrations by Ah To and used with the permission of the artist.