The reasons behind the myth of Cantonese as a more authentic Chinese language

Commonly used Cantonese words and expressions that could not be found in standard Mandarin dictionaries. Image from (CC: AT-NC)

As explained in a previous post, there is not only one Chinese language but many variants and dialects. It was only after the establishment of the Republic of China (ROC) in 1912, that Mandarin, a language spoken in the northeast part of China and within the imperial court of Qing Dynasty, was made the national language of China. 

The decision was made through an arbitrary voting process by “the Standardization of Pronunciation Committee” on February 15, 1913, under the newly founded ROC. There were 44 representatives, but the Chair, Cai Yuanpei, the then-president of Peking University, held 29 votes, while the vice chair held 5 votes. 

Due to the lack of consensus and the rise of regionalism during the ROC's warlord era (1916–1928), the Mandarin national language movement was met with local resistance, and the central ROC government had to call for a “cultural revolution” to “save the country.” 

Mandarin, later called Putonghua, has served as the lingua franca in China, allowing those who spoke different Chinese languages to communicate with one another. The country remained linguistically diverse until the 1990s when  Putonghua was promulgated as the major medium of instruction in schools. 

Many complained about the arbitrary decision to make Mandarin the official tongue back in 1913, and local advocates have resisted the suppression of mother tongues. 

In Cantonese-speaking Guangdong province, many believe the local tongue is more authentic than Mandarin, and some even believe Cantonese nearly became China’s official language.

Many Chinese revolutionaries who overthrew the Manchu-led Qing Dynasty were born in Guangdong. The founding father of ROC, Sun Yatsen, for example, a Cantonese and Hakka native, was born in Guangdong. He started drawing plans to overthrow the Qing Dynasty in Hong Kong as a member of the Cantonese-speaking Four Bandits. After Sun formed the China Revolutionary Alliance in Japan, he raised funds from overseas Chinese in Nanyang (Southeast Asia countries including Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines) to sponsor the Chinese Revolution. The Nanyang overseas Chinese are mostly Cantonese and Hokkienese-speaking. 

Cantonese or other languages from southern China were hence regarded as the more politically correct choice, as Mandarin was spoken by the Qing Imperial court, which the Chinese revolutionaries planned to revolt against. That’s likely why the ROC’s “standardization of pronunciation committee” could not reach a consensus on the official tongue, though eventually, the board reached a decision largely driven by the Chair.

Aside from political consideration, from the view of many southern Chinese, Mandarin is considered a “foreignized Han tongue” 胡化漢語, as the northern part of China was under the rule of foreign tribes throughout Chinese history.

According to Yuan Tengfei, a famous Chinese historian and history teacher, Mandarin was a creole language spoken by foreign tribes in the northern part of China centering around Beijing. The historian pointed out in one of his books on Chinese history:


Beijing was the capital of Khitan-led Liao Dynasty (916 and 1125),  Jurchen-led Jin Dynasty (1115–1234), Mongolian-led Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), Han-led Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), and Manchu-led Qing Dynasty (1636–1912). Apart from Ming Dynasty, Liao, Jin, Yuan and Qing were ruled by non-Han minority ethnic groups. Speaking of Beijing, this place has always been resided by a mixture of Han and foreign tribes; the time Beijing was under the rule of foreign tribes is probably longer than by Han Chinese. 

On the other hand, other southern Chinese languages, particularly Cantonese, are considered more authentic.

The myth about Cantonese is that the language was spoken in Tang Dynasty and preserved in southern China after the An Lushan Rebellion (755–763) as the emperor fled to Sichuan and a large number of literati also fled to southern China. 

While it is impossible to trace the pronunciations of Chinese during Tang Dynasty, the Cantonese myth is backed by numerous examples that show how the language’s expressions are based on classical Chinese literature, like the expression of “love” as “jung1-yi3″ (鍾意) in Cantonese rather than “xi huan”; (喜歡) in Mandarin is traced back to Water Margin of Northern Song Dynasty, and the expression of “how many/much” as “gei2-do1″ (幾多) in Cantonese rather than “duo shao”; 多少 in Mandarin is traced back to the poem “Lady Yu, the royal beauty (虞美人)” written by Li Yu (李煜 937–978), an emperor of Southern Tang Dynasty.

Claims are also made that Tang’s poems rhyme better in Cantonese. One often cited example is Wang Zhihuan's (688–742) “Climbing Stork Tower” (登鸛雀樓). The translation below shows how the poem rhymes when pronounced in Putonghua and Cantonese:

白日依山盡 | The white sun sets behind the mountains
黃河入海流 | The Yellow River flows into the sea
欲窮千里目 | To see a thousand mile further
更上一層樓 | Ascend another floor

Mandarin: Bái rì yī shān jìn
Huánghé rù hǎiliú
yù qióng qiānlǐ mù
gèng shàng yì céng lóu

Cantonese: baak6 jat6 ji1 saan1 zeon6
wong4 ho4 jap6 hoi2 lau4
juk6 kung4 cin1 lei5 muk6 
gang13 soeng56 jat1 cang4 lau4

Yet, as pointed out by some scholars, the authenticity debate reflects the local reaction to the cultural encroachment of a central authority. Since the passage of the law regarding the Standard Spoken and Written Chinese Language in 2000,  residents from Guangdong province have expressed strong opposition. Within two decades, public communications inside government organizations, schools, commercial businesses, restaurants, and more, have shifted from Cantonese to Putonghua within the province.

As for Hong Kong, since 1999, the city's government has drawn a plan to implement the policy of teaching the Chinese language curriculum in Putonghua rather than Cantonese, in addition to the Putonghua curriculum in primary and secondary school education. However, the plan was met with strong opposition from the education sector as research showed that children would have difficulty comprehending written Chinese expressions if explained in Putonghua. The authenticity of Cantonese has also been cited as a key argument against the standardization language policy. The plan was on hold until 2008. 

By 2020, more than 70 percent of the primary schools and about 30 percent of the secondary schools in Hong Kong have shifted to Putonghua when teaching the Chinese language curriculum. 

After the crackdown of the 2019 anti-Chinese extradition protests and the implementation of the National Security Law in 2020, the push to fully implement Putonghua teaching in the Chinese language curriculum has grown stronger. Wong Ching-yung, a pro-establishment scholar, for example, argued in the think-tank magazine Bauhinia that the shifting of Putonghua as the standard Chinese language in Hong Kong should be a significant part of the city’s “national education” and backs its argument with Putonghua’s international status, including the United Nation’s adoption of Putonghua as an official spoken language.

The UN Chinese Language Day on April 20 would likely become another occasion to push the standardization of spoken Chinese in Hong Kong. It is quite an irony that the day is originally dedicated to celebrating the diversity of languages. 

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