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‘Cantonese is not a dialect’: Chinese netizens’ defence of Cantonese as a regional lingua franca

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This article reports on an inquiry into Chinese netizens’ online discussions related to the ‘Protecting Cantonese Movement’ in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, on the Chinese mainland. It interprets the ideological discourses used by Chinese netizens in online discussions to protect the status of Cantonese, a regional variety of the Chinese language. These netizens were found to have drawn on the international prestige and traditional heritage of Cantonese in arguing for maintaining its status as a regional lingua franca. Drawing on research on the individualisation of society in China, this article contends that these netizens may be seen to be recontextualising the political establishment's discourses and appropriating them as powerful weapons in defence of their linguistic rights. It was also found in the inquiry that non-Cantonese-speaking migrants were problematised by the netizens as a cause of the predicament of Cantonese, creating a significant challenge for policymakers and language educators in their efforts to create a ‘harmonious’ society on the Chinese mainland. One may argue that harmony can be achieved through respecting individuals’ linguistic rights.
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‘Cantonese is not a dialect’: Chinese
netizens’ defence of Cantonese as a
regional lingua franca
Xuesong Gao a
a Faculty of Education, The University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam
Road, Hong Kong, SAR, China
Version of record first published: 19 Apr 2012.
To cite this article: Xuesong Gao (2012): ‘Cantonese is not a dialect’: Chinese netizens’ defence of
Cantonese as a regional lingua franca, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 33:5,
449-464
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‘Cantonese is not a dialect’: Chinese netizens’ defence of Cantonese as a
regional lingua franca
Xuesong Gao*
Faculty of Education, The University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam Road, Hong Kong SAR, China
(Received 4 January 2012; final version received 22 March 2012)
This article reports on an inquiry into Chinese netizens’ online discussions related
to the ‘Protecting Cantonese Movement’ in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, on
the Chinese mainland. It interprets the ideological discourses used by Chinese
netizens in online discussions to protect the status of Cantonese, a regional
variety of the Chinese language. These netizens were found to have drawn on the
international prestige and traditional heritage of Cantonese in arguing for
maintaining its status as a regional lingua franca. Drawing on research on the
individualisation of society in China, this article contends that these netizens may
be seen to be recontextualising the political establishment’s discourses and
appropriating them as powerful weapons in defence of their linguistic rights. It
was also found in the inquiry that non-Cantonese-speaking migrants were
problematised by the netizens as a cause of the predicament of Cantonese,
creating a significant challenge for policymakers and language educators in their
efforts to create a ‘harmonious’ society on the Chinese mainland. One may argue
that harmony can be achieved through respecting individuals’ linguistic rights.
Keywords: vernacular languages; language rights; discourse analysis; language
ideologies; multilingualism
Introduction
It has been well noted in sociolinguistic research that nation-states play a crucial role
in promoting dominant linguistic varieties as national languages and subjugating
others to their subordinate status (Edwards 1994; Gao 2009; Haugen 1966; Trudell
2010). As an example, the government in Singapore has made Mandarin Chinese
(the standard modern spoken Chinese) the ‘mother tongue’, a compulsory school
subject, for Singaporean Chinese despite the fact that ‘the mother tongues’ for most
of them are ‘Chinese dialects such as Hokkien, Cantonese and Teochow’ (Tan 2006,
55). At the same time, research has shown that individuals display their loyalty to
their regional and social linguistic varieties as a means to sustain sociocultural bonds
and assert their identities (Lai 2011; Wang and Ladegaard 2008). As a result,
conflicts often arise between individuals and nation-states over the status of
particular linguistic varieties in many contexts. For instance, the public in Taiwan
fought a few decades for a language policy that endorses the use of regional Chinese
varieties including Holo Taiwanese and Hakka in addition to Mandarin Chinese as a
medium of instruction in formal education (Scott and Tiun 2006; Tsao 1999).
*Email: xsgao@hku.hk
Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development
Vol. 33, No. 5, August 2012, 449464
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Critical examination of such conflicts presents opportunities to help uncover the
processes underlying the arbitrary classification of linguistic formsas language and
dialects as well as those sustaining various social institutions such as the nation-
state, schooling, gender, dispute settlement and law(Woolard and Schieffelin 1994,
56). Such inquiries also help to reveal how individuals are appropriating these
processes in pursuit of their localised meanings and their own agenda in advancing
the case for their subjugatedvarieties of national languages in these contexts. For
these reasons, this article inquires into Chinese netizensonline discussions related to
the Protecting Cantonese Movementin Guangdong Province on the Chinese
mainland.
The Protecting Cantonese Movementinvolved a series of spontaneous
demonstrations that took place in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province,
southern China, in July 2010 (The Encyclopedia of Virtual Communities in Hong
Kong n.d.). The movementwas reportedly caused by the publishing of a document
submitted by the local committee of the Chinese Peoples Political Consultative
Conference (CPPCC) to the municipal government proposing the switch from
the use of Cantonese,
1
a regional variety of the Chinese language, to Putonghua, the
national spoken variety of Chinese, on local television channels. The proposed switch
was part of a set of suggestions on how to improve the softenvironment (i.e. the
sociocultural environment) for domestic and international visitors who would be
attracted to the city by the forthcoming international sports event, the Asian Games
2010. Despite strong opposition recorded by a survey it conducted, the local
committee of the CPPCC still insisted on submitting the proposal to the government.
Their intransigence caused uproar among local Cantonese-speaking residents,
especially netizens in Guangzhou. Out of anger and fear of Cantonese losing its
status as a regional lingua franca, these netizens appeared in a series of mass protests,
shouting slogans against the proposal and openly demanding that the government
protect the use of Cantonese as a regional lingua franca.
The focus of this article is to interpret the ideological discourses used by these
Chinese netizens in online discussions to protect the status of Cantonese as a
regional lingua franca. Ideological discourses about language refer to sets of beliefs
about language articulated by users as rationalization or justification [for] perceived
language structure and use(Silverstein 1979, 173). I contend in this article the fact
that these netizens advanced various ideological discourses and participated in public
protests to defend the status of Cantonese is closely related to a deepened process of
individualisation of the Chinese society (Yan 2010). The discussions illustrate how
these Chinese netizens covertly recontextualised the political establishments official
discourses concerning the nations pursuit of modernisation and appropriated them
in defence of Cantonese as a regional lingua franca (Bernstein 1990; Erjavec and
Volcic 2007). They also underscore the tensions underlying the governments efforts
to achieve unity and harmony at a time when the Chinese society has become
increasingly pluralistic and individuals have begun to pursue their rights, including
their linguistic rights. In the coming sections, I shall first situate this movement in a
broad linguistic, social and political context on the Chinese mainland before briefly
introducing the theory of individualisation of society within the Chinese context as
the analytic perspective for the inquiry. I shall then describe the methodological
approach adopted in the inquiry before presenting the identified themes in the online
discussions.
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Cantonese as a regional lingua franca in shifting contexts
Greater China, including Taiwan and Hong Kong, has at least 2,000 more or less
distinct dialects or subdialects, making it an extremely complex and heterogeneous
linguistic context (Li 2006, 150; also see Tsao 1999). Since the time of the First
Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (BC 221), Chinese governments have made
concerted efforts to achieve a unified linguistic medium for communication (Li and
Zhu 2010). Emperor Qin standardised the written system of the Chinese language,
but various regional varieties are used in different geographical regions, often
referred to as dialects (DeFrancis 1984; Tsao 1999). In 1956, Putonghua, also known
as Mandarin Chinese, became the standard modern spoken Chinese in the Peoples
Republic of China (PRC) (Chen 1999). To assure dialect speakers the government
then emphasised that the adoption of Putonghua as the national standard was not
meant to wipe out dialects artificially, but it was intended to reduce the scope of
dialect use progressively(Guo 2004, 46). In recent decades, linguists in China have
argued for proper treatment of the national standard varieties and regional varieties
in language planning, while policymakers have also reiterated that they have no
intention of eliminating these regional varieties artificially, naturally, or by any other
means or under any other situations(Guo 2004, 51). To standardise language use
across the country, the Law of the National Commonly Used Language and Script of
the Peoples Republic of China in 2001 confirmed the primacy of Putonghua and
stipulated that these regional Chinese varieties can be used in situations such as
artistic performances or teaching (China 2001). In particular, the use of these
regional varieties including Cantonese in broadcasting needs approval from the
Radio and Television Broadcasting Bureau of the State Council.
Cantonese became a flashpoint for this open confrontation between the political
establishment and netizens because of its unique status in the shifting sociopolitical
and linguistic conditions on the Chinese mainland. Like other southern varieties of
the Chinese language, it retains many phonological, lexical and syntactic features of
the ancient Chinese language. In contrast, Putonghua might have incorporated
phonological elements from nomadic tribes who conquered the Central Plain in
North China and became assimilated into the Han Chinese people (Coblin 2000).
Cantonese has also been an influential lingua franca in South China, including
Guangdong province, as well as in regions such as Hong Kong and Macau (Chen
1999; Li 2006). An estimated 100 million people in these provinces and regions speak
Cantonese (Wikipedia n.d.). In fact, Cantonese and Putonghua were two serious
contendersfor being the national language in the early twentieth century (Tsao
1999, 334). Despite Putonghua being promoted as the standard modern spoken
Chinese in the last century, the status of Cantonese as a regional lingua franca has
been maintained, as it is widely used in the Chinese Diaspora and in cities of
international status like Hong Kong (Li 2006). For instance, Cantonese is used as a
medium of instruction in most of Hong Kongs primary and secondary schools (Lai
2011). The vernacular Cantonese in the region has also developed its written form,
and in Hong Kong the influence of written vernacular Cantonese can be found in
cultural products, including pop songs, movies, magazines, newspapers and literature
(Snow 2004). These cultural products are highly popular among the Cantonese-
speaking and non-Cantonese-speaking populations in Greater China, further
expanding the status of Cantonese as a respected regional variety of the Chinese
language. As entrepreneurs from Hong Kong helped transform Guangdong into
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one of the most developed economic powerhouses in China in the past three decades,
Cantonese emerged as a prestigious linguistic variety within China (Chen 1999; Gao,
Su and Zhou 2000). Therefore, it is hardly surprising that Cantonese-speaking
residents in major cities such as Guangzhou in South China have closely associated
the use of Cantonese with their regional culture and identities.
However, the public use of Cantonese had already been subjected to national
legal restrictions in Guangzhou before the local committee of CPPCC made its
proposal. In accordance with the national law (China 2001), Putonghua is the
medium of instruction in schools and used in public services in the region. This
explains why reports on pupils being reprimanded for using Cantonese in
Guangzhous primary schools were circulated in Internet forums. The ascendance
of Cantonese as a regional lingua franca has been further undermined by the rise of
China as a global power in the past decade. With the country closely engaged with
the rest of the world, the Chinese Government has been increasingly active in
promoting the Chinese language as an international language (Li and Zhu 2010;
Yang 2008). The dominant position of Putonghua is being further strengthened as it
is being taught and promoted internationally as the standard spoken Chinese variety
(Gao, Leung and Trent 2010; Yang 2008). It is noteworthy that the proposal
concerning the use of Putonghua in Guangzhou television programmes was made in
response to the arrival of domestic and foreign visitors to the Asian Games 2010, an
international event. In other words, the need to present the standard Chinese
language internationally might have further limited the use of its regional varieties
such as Cantonese outside of and in China. In addition, the need to use more
Putonghua in Guangzhou has been necessitated by the influx of migrants from other
parts of the province or country who have their own regional Chinese varieties. As
revealed in the heated discussions following the Protecting Cantonese Movement,
local Cantonese-speaking residents in Guangzhou were seeing their ways of life being
gradually eroded. As a result, the proposed limitations on using Cantonese in public
arenas by the local CPPCC committee prompted them to defend their linguistic
rights and preserve their own cultural niche in public.
Individualisation of society in the Chinese context
The Cantonese-speaking local residentsresponses to the proposed switch to the use
of Putonghua in Guangzhou television programmes in the Protecting Cantonese
Movementmay have been related to the age-old fear among users of regional
linguistic varieties when the national government promotes a national standard
language different from theirs (Guo 2004). However, the very fact that they were
willing to participate in public protests for their linguistic rights can be interpreted in
the light of the increasingly deepened individualisation of the Chinese society in
recent years.
According to Beck (1992), individualisation in Western Europe indicates a
categorical shift in the relations between the individual and society, as individuals
were freed from all-encompassing social categories, such as family, kinship, and
class, and has emerged as the reproduction for the socialin a society (Yan 2010,
48990). In other words, individual decisions play a critical role in shaping an
individualised society, as individuals pursue a life of their own in it (Beck 1992).
Even though social and cultural conditions were once regarded as unconducive to
the individualisation of East Asian countries such as China, Japan and Korea,
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individualisation has also taken place in these societies (Beck and Grande 2010).
In fact, individualisation has led to significant social transformations in these
countries, including the legitimization of individual desires, promotion of
individual rights and freedom, and shifting balanceamong the individual, social
groups, and modern institutions(e.g. the state) (Yan 2010, 507).
Yans (2010) analysis of societal changes on the Chinese mainland after 1949
reveals how individual Chinese were first freed from traditional norms and values
and then encouraged to be self-enterprising by economic reforms in the late 1970s.
However, the process of individualisation of Chinese society is unique, as it has been
carefully managed and monitored by the political establishment (Gao forthcoming;
Yan 2010). For instance, despite its efforts to reduce the influence of traditional
values and norms on individuals, the political establishment endorses a dual notion
of individual selves, which conceptualises individuals as having two selves: the small
self, centred on personal interest, and the great self, based on the interest of the
nation(Yan 2010, 494). Individuals are commended by the political establishment
for their sacrifice of smallselves for the sake of advancing the greatself (Yan 2010,
507). The past few decades have also witnessed both the emergence of desiring and
enterprising selves on the Chinese mainland and the resurgence of Chinese cultural
traditions and the promotion of Neo-Confucianism in the 1990s (Miller 2010; Zhang
1998; Zhao 1998). These phenomena reflect the political establishments commitment
to the nations pursuit of modernisation and global engagement. They also show its
dedication to maintaining Chinas cultural integrity and ensuring individual citizens
Chineseness. As a result, enterprisingindividuals are subject to the mediation of a
diffusion of traditional cultural values and modernisation discourses (Bush and
Qiang 2000; Fu and Tsui 2003; Gao forthcoming).
In this individualisation process, individual Chinese have begun to assume an
importance that they have never been accorded in the last decade with an
increasingly liberal economy. Given this socio-economic change, it has become
ever more difficult for these individuals to see why they should sacrifice their own
interests in order to promote a harmonioussociety at a time when society itself is
becoming ever more individualised and pluralistic. Mass incidentstake place much
more frequently than ever, as individuals on the Chinese mainland have become
gradually more aware of their rights and vocal in their pursuit of these rights
(e.g. Tanner 2004). Indeed, a growing number of mass incidentsrelating to land or
wage disputes on the Chinese mainland show that individual Chinese demand that
their rights be respected and protected (Yan 2010). The Protecting Cantonese
Movementis just one such incident, but it is an unusual one because of its
ideological nature, as it involves individuals demanding that their linguistic rights be
respected. It is also a movement primarily initiated and sustained by Chinese
netizens, who have reached 485 million, 36.2% of the total Chinese population
(CINIC 2011, 4).
The inquiry
The study observes the increasing importance of the Internet forum as a major venue
for Chinese netizens to express their views, in particular, their views about politics
and society, thus allowing them to have an impact on how public affairs should be
run on the Chinese mainland (Yang 2004). It addresses the following research
questions:
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(1) What ideological discourses did Chinese netizens use to defend Cantonese as
a regional lingua franca?
(2) How did these netizens use these ideological discourses in their defence of
Cantonese as a regional lingua franca?
In the inquiry, message posts in three online discussions were collected, including a
Youtube video discussion (YT), a South Daily (SD) online news forum discussion
and a Guangzhou Television website discussion (GT). These messages were written
in a mixture of vernacular written Cantonese, modern written Chinese and
English. The Youtube discussion involved participants who posted responses in
contexts other than China, as Youtube is banned inside China, and only motivated
netizens in China could get involved using techniques to bypass the firewall.
The other two discussions were cached content, still retrievable on the Internet at
the time of data collection, although many such online discussions might have been
already deleted.
The primary aim of the analysis was not to code the data according to the content
of the messages and then count the numerical frequency of particular messages in the
discussion. Rather, the analysis focused on what the netizens believed the status of
Cantonese to be in relation to the Chinese language and the discourses that they used
to justify their position in the discussion. The netizensdiscussion posts were
analysed in four stages in which paradigmatic analytic procedureswere used to
produce taxonomies and categories out of the common elements across the database
for the analysis (Polkinghorne 1995, 5). First, the posts were read for a general idea
of the various issues involved in these discussions, with no intention of categorising
them. At the same time, it was noted that all the three online discussions included
posts from netizens who made personal attacks against individuals who endorsed the
CPPCC proposal. In addition, more than half of the posts contained a few words or
emoticons through which netizens expressed their support or disagreement. Some of
them were repeated postings from netizens who were apparently committed to
propagating their messages. For these reasons, the second stage in the analysis
involved retaining the discussion posts that were related to the scope of the research
questions and removing those that might be considered irrelevant and repetitive. As a
result of this stage of identification, 378 posts were selected for further analysis out of
the 2260 messages (108 out of 1511 YT, 141 out of 377 SD and 129 out of 372 GT
discussion posts). Next, a third reading was conducted, in an endeavour to identify
and categorise discussion posts in terms of their main messages. After this
preliminary categorisation, a fourth reading of the data helped the researcher to
refine the categories and establish the connections between the categorised data for
interpretation. The following comment from the Youtube discussion in support of
Cantonese illustrates how the data were analysed and interpreted:
I do not think that Putonghua is a Chinese language at all. Many classical Chinese
writings cannot be pronounced well in Putonghua. Poems from the Tang Dynasty, if
read in Putonghua, have no rhymes and sound horrible. 80% of overseas Chinese people,
especially those in Malaysia, speak Cantonese. I remember a television interview with a
foreigner who learnt to speak Putonghua in Beijing and then learnt to speak Cantonese
in Hong Kong. He said that Cantonese sounds much more beautiful than Putonghua.
Cantonese is really a lively language. (translated from vernacular written Cantonese,
YT-23)
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When the aforementioned extract was analysed, three themes were found in this
particular netizens defence of Cantonese as a lingua franca in the region: first,
the connection between Cantonese and classical Chinese and the argument that
Cantonese should be treated as a proper Chinese language, more so than Putonghua;
second, the international status of Cantonese as a language, including its popularity
among overseas Chinese and even among non-Chinese speakers; and third, the
intrinsic qualities of Cantonese as a language including its liveliness. In addition, the
netizensstrong identification with Cantonese was found to have been accompanied
by otheringdiscourses in which other groups, in particular, Putonghua-speaking
migrants from other Chinese provinces, were defined as being in opposition tothe
Cantonese-speaking group (Palfreyman 2006, 213). The following sections will
illustrate how these netizens strategically employed these ideological discourses in
their efforts to protect the status of Cantonese as a regional lingua franca.
The defence of Cantonese as a regional lingua franca
As revealed in the analysis of the discussion posts, the majority of the netizens
(nearly 90%) involved in the three discussions regarded any attempt to limit the use
of Cantonese in public space as a threat undermining the legitimate existence of
Cantonese as a regional lingua franca. These netizens expressed their pride in
Cantonese as an internationallanguage. At the same time, they drew on
the linguistic history of the Chinese language to affirm their pride in the unique
linguistic qualities of Cantonese. In addition, they acknowledged the foundational
role that Cantonese has in sustaining a vibrant regional culture and their assertion of
their local identity. While placing Cantonese at the core of their local identities, these
netizens were also found to have problematised outsiders, largely migrants from
other Chinese provinces, as undermining their social, cultural and linguistic niche.
International prestige of Cantonese
As found in the discussions, the global influence of Cantonese was frequently cited
by the netizens to justify the privilegedstatus of Cantonese as a regional lingua
franca that needs to be protected. The netizensrecourse to these globaldiscourses
may be interpreted as a subversive strategy on their part to challenge the proposal to
limit the use of Cantonese in the public sphere as a result of Chinas deepened
engagement with the rest of the world. In response to the nations globalisation
challenge, these netizens contended that Cantonese is an international language and
even more international than Putonghua. Their references to Cantoneses global
prestige constituted the legal foundation upon which they based their assertion of
their linguistic rights. In the three discussions, at least 12 netizens cited the United
Nations as an authoritative source for the legal status and international recognition
of Cantonese as follows:
... Cantonese is not a dialect. It is a legal language acknowledged by UNESCO. It is
used not only in Guangdong on the Chinese mainland, but also in countries and regions
including Hong Kong, Macau, the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, Southeast
Asia. Because it is used in so many different places, Cantonese is one of the leading
world languages. It also has its own orthographic and phonological systems. It is not
just a kind of spoken dialect used in a confined region as some of you may believe.
(translated from modern written Chinese, GT-26)
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Another netizen added further force to this argument concerning the international
status of Cantonese by pointing out there are over 100 million people speaking
Cantonese in this world(translated from modern written Chinese, GT-23), while
many national languages in this world, as noted by this netizen, have far fewer
speakers. Besides, as overseas Chinese are more likely to be proficient in Cantonese
than in Putonghua, the netizens argued that it was necessary for the city to have
more Cantonese TV programmes to attract more overseas Chinese viewers, so that it
could achieve its internationalisation goal instead of reducing Cantonese air time:
I have always been told that many overseas Chinese speak Cantonese. It helps unite
these people to use more Cantonese. (translated from modern written Chinese, YT-89)
Furthermore, the netizens believed that the use of Cantonese in the public sphere
never hurts the international image of a modern metropolis in ways that are
problematised by the CPPCCs proposal. To advance this view, they referred to the
linguistic situation in an international metropolis such as Hong Kong as a crucial
piece of supporting evidence. As Hong Kong is widely seen among all the discussants
and residents in the region as an international city, the prevalent use of Cantonese in
Hong Kong on most social, cultural and political occasions means that the use of
Cantonese does not diminish the international reputation of Hong Kong in the
world. In particular, the use of Cantonese in Hong Kongs television and radio
programmes constitutes a strong argument against the CPPCCs proposal to limit
the use of Cantonese in Guangzhous television programmes. As a result, these
netizens found it a laughable idea to consider reducing the use of Cantonese in public
space:
Cantonese is a dialect? What a laughable idea! What a laughable idea for people in
Guangzhou. What a laughable idea for Chinese living in Hong Kong and Macau. What
a laughable idea for overseas Chinese! What a laughable idea for the United Nations.
(Translated from written modern Chinese, GT-41)
As can be seen from these netizensviews, the use of Cantonese helps to enhance the
citys global engagement, and therefore they consider it entirely counterproductive to
limit its use. In addition, they strongly believe that the status of Cantonese as a
regional lingua franca is justified by its vibrant linguistic tradition and superior
qualities.
Cantonese’s traditional heritage
To advance their argument for Cantonese, many netizens contended that Cantonese
has a richer traditional heritage and it is much more of a national Chinese language
than Putonghua. Among the netizens who used these tradition-based discourses to
defend Cantonese as a regional lingua franca, some associated Cantonese with
ancient Chinese culture and argued that Cantonese-related cultural heritage should
be accorded respect because of its historical and traditional linkage. Such use of
tradition-based discourses resembles the political establishments recent efforts to
revive Chinese culture and tradition as a means to retain Chinese individualsloyalty
to the nation in their pursuit of global engagement (Miller 2010; Zhang 1998).
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For the same reason, the netizens put forward an argument that Cantonese needs to
be protected and preserved as a cultural treasure:
All in all, Cantonese is a very important cultural treasure. [Our Chinese cultural
treasure] also includes other dialects including Min, Hakka and Wu. In fact, ancient
Chinese poems can only be meaningfully read in southern Chinese dialects. These
dialects are keys to the cultural roots that connect us to our Chinese ethnicity. The
dialect has so much cultural essence. If we destroy this dialect, we are destroying our
culture. (Translated from written modern Chinese, YT 62)
This pride in the traditional legacy of Cantonese has also translated into many
netizensbelief in the superior quality of Cantonese, especially with regard to its
pronunciation. For instance, one netizen recalled the time when Cantonese was a
popular language across the nation, and many people were then learning to speak
Cantonese:
I think that Cantonese is a language with melody. Many of my friends in other parts of
the country told me that Cantonese sounds really beautiful. It was like singing to them.
I feel very proud whenever they say it. If everyone? in China spoke Putonghua, and
Putonghua became the only language in China, wouldnt it be too boring? (translated
from modern written Chinese. Those in italics were translated from vernacular written
Cantonese, SD-55)
This belief that Cantonese is a more melodious language suggests that the netizens
perceive Putonghua to be inferior as a national language. However, this view,
together with the view of Cantonese as a cultural treasure, still considers Putonghua
as part of the Chinese culture, and an important part of it. Such views may appear to
be quite conservative and pro-establishment if they are compared with other
netizensdiscourses concerning the traditional superiority of Cantonese. A radical
view perpetuated by many netizens in the three discussions was that Cantonese is
THE Chinese language, much more than Putonghua, a northern Chinese dialect.
An even more radical view among these netizens was that Putonghua is not a proper
Chinese language but is a language imposed on the Chinese population by the
invading nomadic tribesmen from the north in ancient times (Coblin 2000). As a
result, Cantonese is not merely a dialectal variety of the Chinese language, but, on
the contrary, the authentic Chinese language spoken by millions of true Chinese
centuries ago. For these reasons, these netizens found it unacceptable for Putonghua,
which they nicknamed boiling melonin vernacular written Cantonese (bao dong
gua, close to the pronunciation of Putonghua), to become the only language in the
region:
Putonghua from the North came into being when nomadic barbarians entered the
Chinese Han peoples land around the time of the dynasties of Yuan, Ming and Qing.
Their languages polluted the Chinese language and made todays Chinese language
monotonous in tones. Cantonese has preserved the classical and elegant quality of
language in our pronunciation and lexis. Our pronunciation and lexis can be traced to
the dynasties of Sui and Tang in the 7
th
Century. For this reason, Cantonese is also
called Tangs language. Our forefathers left their home places and travelled to
different corners of the world. They called themselves citizens of Tangand they live
in the town for citizens of Tang (Chinatown). (translated from modern written
Chinese, YT 105)
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As mentioned earlier, their resort to traditional heritage in defence of Cantonese
echoes the political establishments recent promotion of cultural traditions and Neo-
Confucianism on the Chinese mainland. It is unlikely that these netizens harbour any
realistic hope that such use of historical narratives can negate the reality of
Cantonese being presented as a Chinese dialect, subject to the dominance of the
standard Chinese variety as defined by the political establishment. However, these
references to Cantoneses historical links not only support their demand for their
linguistic rights to be respected but also transform the maintaining of Cantonese as a
regional lingua franca into an obligation for individual Chinese, as they are
commanded by the political establishment to maintain Chinas cultural integrity.
Cantonese as foundational to local culture and identity
Apart from its international prestige and traditional heritage, the netizens contended
that Cantonese was not only the mother tongue of people in Guangzhou and its
neighbouring areas but was also needed to sustain a vibrant local culture (Snow
2004; Wang and Ladegaard 2008). They accused those who supported the proposal
to use more Putonghua in local television programmes of [having] no respect for us,
as seen in the following extract:
When have I ever depreciated your mother tongue? Have a look at yourself mate, please,
youre depreciating our mother tongue. You have no respect for us, you expect us to
bend over our backs to learn your language, we already have to learn YOUR language
(Cantonese is not even taught), who is depreciating other peoples mother tongue? You
tell me. (English original, YT-77)
This emotionally charged response was echoed by those who feared Cantonese being
spoken by fewer and fewer locals in the region. Driven by such fears, they lamented
that many local children were unable to speak Cantonese these daysas they were
likely to be reprimanded if they spoke Cantonese in school. For others, the
disappearance of Cantonese in the public sphere predicted the denouement of local
culture:
Language embodies culture. I was wondering whether this official wants to eliminate
Guangzhous culture. I cannot really understand this person. He does not have a proper
family education. Otherwise, he would know that we should never forget the language
used by our ancestors even when we are forced to sell the land left by them. (Translated
from written modern Chinese, SD-12)
With such strong identification with Cantonese, it is no wonder that these netizens
ideological discourses about Cantonese became increasingly legalistic, as they not
only demanded respect for their individuality but also wanted to exercise their
linguistic rights:
Dialects like Hakka, Cantonese and Putonghua may disappear eventually. We can
accept this historical eventuality. However, as of today, we would like you to respect our
rights to use Cantonese or Hakka to express our views. If you cannot understand us,
and you consider these views relevant to you, please let us know. We can find a way to
make ourselves understood, such as by using Putonghua, English or asking help from a
translator. (translated from modern written Chinese, SD-06)
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As can be seen in the above extract (as well as in others), the netizen considers
Cantonese on a par with Putonghua as a variety of the Chinese language and
demands that his or her linguistic right be respected in explicit terms. Such rights
discourses speak for an awareness among the netizens that they are entitled to
advance their own interests (Yan 2010). At the same time, the netizens were also
found in the discussions to have problematised’‘outsidersas the cause undermining
the status of Cantonese as a regional lingua franca.
Problematic outsiders
One of the most noteworthy findings emerging from the analysis relates to the
netizens’‘otheringof outsiders, who were mostly non-Cantonese-speaking non-
local residents in the region. Many netizens not only blamed these outsidersfor the
declining influence of Cantonese as a regional lingua franca,but also accused them
of being accomplices in destroying Cantonese culture and the ways of life in the
region. This is probably not surprising because the proposal to use more Putonghua
in Guangzhou television programmes was made by a descendant of northern Chinese
in the CPPCC for the purpose of helping other outsiders, tourists and migrants
alike, integrate into the life in Guangzhou more easily. With Guangzhou located in
the southern part of the Chinese mainland, most outsiders, including a large
number of government officials, were those who came from geographically northern
areas. As a result, these outsiderswere frequently referred to as bei (north) lao (guy,
with a similar sound to the Chinese character for ‘‘profiteer’’)in the discussions.
Even though some netizens did speak out against such stereotypical views about
migrants, more netizens in the discussions shared the view that these outsiderswere
causing all the problems, including the declining influence of Cantonese. Mild
criticisms of these problematicoutsiders can be detected in the following extract:
If I go to Beijing, I use Putonghua to talk to local people there. If I go abroad, I use
English with friends there. ...If you come here and do not know any Cantonese, we still
welcome you. If you ask me questions in Putonghua, I will answer in Putonghua....
When I am in Guangzhou and talk to strangers, I have to use Putonghua first....
Guangzhou is no longer Guangzhou with its own unique culture.... Arent you all
satisfied? Why are you still trying to limit our use of Cantonese? (translated from
modern written Chinese, SD-05)
As can be seen in the above extract, the netizen appears to be saddened by the fact
that Cantonese can no longer be freely used in Guangzhou as a result of mass
migration from places where other linguistic varieties, in particular, Putonghua, are
used on an ever larger scale. A much stronger critical censure of problematic
outsiders can be found in a poster created by a netizen, in which a group of angry
residents in Guangzhou were shown shouting We speak Cantonese in Guangzhou.
Those who cannot go home!(translated from modern written Chinese). At least six
netizens even related the rising crime to these profiteersfrom north China as
follows:
Some leading profiteersalways complain about security problems in Guangzhou. But
all these crimes were committed by these outsiders. As headprofiteers, they should
really get rid of these outsiders, leaving only those authentic Guangzhou people.
(Translated from vernacular written Cantonese, SD-103)
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Apparently these netizens regarded all the non-Cantonese-speaking migrants,
including those who work in the governments and migrant peasant workers, as the
causes of various social crimes in the society. In other words, peasant workers had
made the city unsafe while northern Chinese officials were corrupt and incompetent.
While some profiteerswere held responsible for the crimes worsening the regions
security situation by the netizens, others were also seen as potential competitors
for jobs:
Dont we have enough people in Guangzhou? Our city has changed beyond recognition
possibly because we are having more and more outsiders. These outsiders may be the
reason for our deteriorating employment situation. Outsiders should come to help build
this city. They should not colonize this place to be their world and land. (translated from
modern written Chinese, GT-13)
In addition, these netizens complained that outsiders, including migrant peasant
workers, were obtaining more and more benefits that locals did not have.
They propagated a fear that the city would be no longer theirs, the threat to limit
the use of Cantonese in the public sphere being a clear sign of this. Such views
inevitably caused netizens who were themselves from cities other than Guangzhou, or
those who were sympathetic to the cause of outsidersto argue that outsiders,
especially migrant workers, were in Guangzhou as cheap labour forcesfor its
manufacturing workshops. Many of these workshops produced cheap copy
(shanzhai) products for the rest of China and the world. Such opposition induced
those who regarded outsidersas causes of their problems to put forward even
stronger rebuttals, revealing the complex social problems driving this Protecting
Cantonese Movement:
When we are accommodating all these outsiders, profiteers from the North still describe
us as those who discriminate against outsiders. When we did not have that many
outsiders in Guangzhou, we could sleep with our doors open. Thanks to these high
qualityoutsiders, we now cannot. Cheap copyproducts are produced in Guangdong.
This just means that there is nothing to be proud of if we as a nation cannot invent our
things. But why are they produced in Guangdong? Because they do not have the
capacity to produce cheap copyproducts in those northernersprovinces. They do not
have logistic support to get their products out and these cheap copyproducts will have
to be exported to the third world. They push people around when boarding the
underground train. They regard themselves as those from the centre of the dynasty,
which has lasted 5,000 years. They do not even know how to behave themselves when
they come to the South. (translated from modern written Chinese, YT-80)
As can be inferred from the aforementioned extract, there seemed to be some
fundamental social, cultural and political causes underlying the netizensstruggle to
maintain Cantonese as a regional lingua franca. The local residents who stood up for
the status of Cantonese felt that they were being deprived of their culture, language,
ways of life and rights by these profiteersfrom the north. The discussions
concerning the status of Cantonese as a regional lingua franca also allowed many
netizens to assert their regional identities and linguistic demands in explicit terms. As
a result, the ideological discourses that the netizens engaged in about Cantonese
reveal the tension that a multilingual and multicultural nation inevitably has to cope
with when projecting and promoting one linguistic variety as the representative one
for the nation.
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Discussion
This article has examined the discourses that netizens used in online discussions
immediately following the Protecting Cantonese Movementto justify the main-
taining and promoting of Cantonese as a regional lingua franca. The fact that
individuals would protest for their linguistic rights unmistakably reflects a deepened
individualisation of the Chinese society, in which individuals are increasingly
assertive and can no longer be persuaded to easily give up their smallselves for
the sake of the greatself (Yan 2010). It is also noteworthy that the discourses the
netizens used to defend Cantonese as a regional lingua franca are characteristic of
the individualisation process as managed by the political establishment (Yan 2010).
As identified in the analysis, the netizensideological discourses about Cantonese fell
within the boundaries set by the political establishment, as they drew on its
international prestige and traditional heritage to advance the case for Cantonese as a
regional lingua franca. These discourses resemble the political establishments
expectations of individuals to remain Chinese during the process of embracing the
world. In the meantime, it can be argued that these netizens were actually
recontextualising the political establishments discourses and appropriating them
as powerful weapons in defence of their own linguistic rights (Bernstein 1990).
By doing so, they legitimatised both their rights and their efforts to protest for their
rights.
In addition, it deserves further attention that migrants from other parts of the
country, especially those who do not speak Cantonese, were singled out by the
netizens for causing the predicament of Cantonese. Amidst the outcries against
the proposed deprivation of their linguistic rights, one can sense the frustrations that
these netizens experienced as they felt that their entitled ways of life and valued
linguistic practices were being undermined by the rapid changes induced by societal
development and mass migration. The netizensassociation of Putonghua with
marauding nomadic barbariansreflects a besiegedmentality among these netizens
as they portrayed Cantonese-speaking Chinese as the last defenders of traditional
Chinese culture and language. In the discussions, these netizens expressed their
uneasiness about their social, cultural and linguistic niches apparently being
undermined and threatened by migrants from other parts of the country.
It needs to be acknowledged that the online discussions may have attracted
participants who were more likely to dominate the scene with their views.
Nevertheless, these online discussions reveal the tension that Chinese society has
to address, as individuals are increasingly vocal in their pursuit of rights, and society
consists of various groups bonded by social, cultural, linguistic and regional ties
(Yan 2010). There is no doubt that a shared lingua franca still plays a vital role in
building a strong, unified nation (Li and Zhu 2010; Tsao 1999), but the Protecting
Cantonese Movementdraws attention to the fact that regional Chinese varieties are
at the core of Han Chinese individualsself-assertion. With the increasing
importance of individuals, there is a need for policymakers and language educators
to recognise this multicultural and multilingual reality among the Han Chinese when
promoting a linguistic variety as the national variety. Unfortunately, the recent rise of
Chinese as an international language has generated an even stronger need for
Putonghua and modern written Chinese to be promoted as the Chinese language,
often at the expense of other Chinese varieties (Gao, Leung and Trent 2010; Yang
2008). It is an increasingly complex challenge for those running the nations affairs to
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decide whether to respond positively to individualsdemands for their linguistic,
cultural and social rights, or to continue pursuing the goal of a unified nation
associated with the national standard varieties of the Chinese language.
Conclusion
This article has examined the Chinese netizensdiscourses in online discussions
related to the Protecting Cantonese Movementand interpreted the ideological
discourses that these netizens used to defend the status of Cantonese as a regional
lingua franca. The debates revealed a strong commitment among the netizens to their
own variety of the Chinese language and reflect the heterogeneity of ethnic Han
Chinese. The whole movement is indicative of the increasing importance of
individuals on the Chinese mainland and suggests that the individualisation of
society is an inevitable process, creating challenges for policymakers and language
educators on the Chinese mainland. Although street demonstrations can be easily
discouraged through force and legal procedures, the government nevertheless faces
the task of appeasing the public and satisfying their demands so as to maintain a
harmonioussociety.
In order to cope with these challenges, it is probably crucial for the political
establishment not to see them in terms of either-orsituations. The promotion of a
standard Chinese variety as the national language can be undertaken with other
existing Chinese varieties being used in private and public spheres. If individual
rights, including linguistic rights, could be acknowledged and respected, individuals
may be encouraged to become aware of the linguistic diversity in China and
appreciate the importance of having a shared language. As suggested in these online
discussions, the importance of having a unified lingua franca is clearly appreciated by
many netizens who strongly opposed any initiatives to limit the use of Cantonese as a
regional lingua franca. Therefore, it is time for policymakers and language educators
in China to rethink national language planning, fully recognising the multicultural
and multilinguistic reality among the ethnic Han Chinese.
2
It is no cliche to say that
harmony can be achieved through respecting individualslinguistic rights.
Acknowledgements
I would like to thank the editor and anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments on
drafts of this paper. The study in this paper was partially supported by an Internal Research
Grant (RG6/10-11R) at Hong Kong Institute of Education.
Notes
1. It has been a subject of debate as to whether or not Cantonese should be regarded as a
Chinese dialect or an independent language (Snow 2004). In this article, I refer to it as a
regional variety of the Chinese language to reflect ‘China’s tradition of political unity, the
traditional unity of its written language, and the subordinate position that Cantonese
plays in this scheme of things’ (Snow 2004, 46). In contrast, many netizens in this inquiry
resisted Cantonese being regarded as a ‘dialect’ (fang yan) because ‘a dialect is almost
certainly no more than a local non-prestigious variety of a real language’ (Wardhaugh
1998, 23).
2. Unfortunately, as the manuscript is being drafted, the provincial government in
Guangdong has issued ‘Regulations on the National Language Use in Guangdong’
(to be effective from 1 March 2012). These regulations reiterate that all radio, television
462 X. Gao
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and Internet broadcasting programmes must use Putonghua as the working language.
Those using regional dialects need approval from the Provincial or National Broadcasting
and Television Authorities. See http://zwgk.gd.gov.cn/006939748/201112/t20111216_
297089.html
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... Page 5 of 8 drawn much attention from researchers (e.g., Gao, 2012). This paper by Li, Kang, Ding and Zhang presents a historical overview of the scholarly literature on the "Protecting Cantonese Movement" (PCM) in Guangzhou, through methods of bibliometric analysis and content analysis. ...
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This special issue (Asian Pacific Journal of Foreign and Second Language Education, 2022) sets out to revisit major bilingual and multilingual education policy and planning issues in key cities across the dynamic Greater Bay Area (GBA) of China (including Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Macau), as informed by the emerging insights from translanguaging theory (Li, 2018). Specifically, contributions are invited from the GBA and beyond to trace the milestone developments of relevant language policy and planning (LPP) initiatives featuring governmental policies on the language of instruction (e.g., English as Medium of Instruction, Chinese as Medium of Instruction) and the daily use of multiple linguistic resources or repertoires (e.g., language learner's L1 or mother tongue) in foreign/second language classrooms and/or in content-based classroom instruction. As such, major papers in the special issue not only set out to provide historical and analytical reviews of these related LPP issues across Hong Kong, Macau, and Guangdong Province but also reflect upon the language use and behaviors of the residents, showcasing their identity and attitudes and ideological stance toward the multiple languages that are being taught or used in daily life. Toward the end, we outline our research agendas for future endeavors in broader domains in the GBA and beyond through the translanguaging analytical tools. Overall, our position is that the GBA presents itself as an evolving, complex, and superdiverse zone of “Translanguaging Spaces” within which key LPP issues may need to be reconceptualized and implemented in such a way so as to fully reflect the dynamic and fluid multilingual, multicultural, and multisemiotic lived reality of the residents in this megapolis region.
... The use of a local language in the public domain is one of the key drivers for its maintenance. As a local dialect in most cities in the GBA, Cantonese maintenance has also drawn much attention from researchers (e.g., Gao, 2012). This paper by Li, Kang, Ding and Zhang presents a historical overview of the scholarly literature on the "Protecting Cantonese Movement" (PCM) in Guangzhou, through methods of bibliometric analysis and content analysis. ...
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This special issue sets out to review and provide new insights into the bilingual and multilingual education policy in the Greater Bay Area of China (GBA, including Hong Kong, Macau, and Guangdong) in the light of the emerging translanguaging theory (Li Wei, 2018 & 2021; Li & Shen, 2021; Li & Kelly-Holmes, 2022). Specifically, it will apply the translanguaging lens to discuss the language of instruction (LOI; e.g., EMI, CMI) policy and the use of multiple linguistic codes (or mother tongue) in the foreign/second language classrooms and or content-based classrooms (CLIL). It features historical and analytical reviews of key language policies planning (LPP) issues in Hong Kong, and Macao, and Guangdong, tracing and discussing their past (background), present status and future developments. Overall, it is argued that LPP should not be monolithic, but be 'equitable multilingual' to capture the fluid, dynamic and complex social-linguistic interactions characterizing the superdiverse, multilingual, multicultural, and multisemiotic life realities of the GBA residents. All papers in this special issue can can be downloaded from the following link of Springer: https://link.springer.com/journal/40862/topicalCollection/AC_50173a3965f9b2293e4cbf95b9cb75bd
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The received view of standard Mandarin is that it has been Pekingese-based for at least six hundred years. Recent research, little known outside a small circle of specialists, has revealed that this view is flawed and that for most of its history this standard language had little to do with Pekingese. The present paper introduces these new developments to the academic community at large.
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