Chinese Corner

Mother Tongue

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

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.


Contemporary Dragon Ladies

China historian Gina Tam on Women and Power by Mary Beard

The first woman to ever have been told to “shut up,” according to Mary Beard’s sharp manifesto Women and Power, was Odysseus’s wife Penelope. Upon recognizing that her son Telemachus was entertaining a group of unwelcome visitors, she intervenes, only to be told to return to her proper place. “Mother,” he tells her, “go back up into your quarters and take up your own work… speech will be the business of men.” For Beard, this is the beginning of an uncomfortable, long history of telling women to hold their tongues and take their place outside the inner circles of power – from Telemachus to the male CEOs of today’s board rooms, from the Amazonians to Theresa May, “notions of power that exclude women,” have been strikingly durable across space and time.