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Hong Kong and China: The Language Barrier

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China Power

Hong Kong and China: The Language Barrier

Hong Kong’s Cantonese differentiates it from mainland China, where Mandarin is the lingua franca.

Hong Kong and China: The Language Barrier
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Eckhard Pecher

Pro-Beijing political veteran and former president of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, has said that the tense relations between the mainland and Hong Kong are partly due to mainland envoys’ lack of understanding of the lingua franca of Hong Kong, Cantonese, and an unwillingness to venture away from their Mandarin-speaking bubbles and into the public sphere of Hong Kong.

“You have to live in Hong Kong to understand Hong Kong, you cannot just stay at home all the time, you should be going out to feel the social sentiment,” said Fan, during a live online interview with current Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing on Wednesday.

Fan is the city’s sole deputy on China’s de facto legislative body, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. She said that envoys such as the Beijing Liaison Office only communicate in Putonghua (“common language,” the name used by China for Mandarin Chinese) which prevents them from having a comprehensive understanding of the social sentiment in the city.

“You need to feel how the people feel. You need to feel and understand what makes them happy and what makes them unhappy,” Fan said. “But first, you need to speak Cantonese, otherwise it will be very difficult.”

A Mandarin speaker would find spoken Cantonese virtually incomprehensible, and vice versa. However, the languages generally use the same characters for the same words and share the same sentence structure, so that they are mutually intelligible in written form. However, the fact that the Chinese government has implemented a simplified version of Chinese characters, which renders them significantly different from the traditional script still used in Hong Kong and Taiwan, makes communication even more difficult between Hong Kong and China.

Cantonese is a considerably older language than Mandarin, with over 1,000 years of history, and is considered by academics as a purer form of the Chinese language. By contrast, Mandarin is a bastardized version of the ancient Han language, with considerable borrowings from China’s once northern neighbors, such as the last imperial Qing dynasty, which had its own distinct Manchurian language and script.

In August 2015, central government authorities called for Putonghua to be adopted by all television stations in the southern province of Guangzhou, the birthplace of Cantonese. Being China’s third-largest, and richest, city and the provincial capital of Guangdong Province, the city draws in many migrant workers from around China, diluting the use of Cantonese in the region. Today, Cantonese is the first language of roughly half the population of Guangzhou.

The adoption of Mandarin across China has long been used by ruling powers as a means of weakening regional parochialism and forging of a sense of common identity. This has been most evident in places such as Xinjiang and Tibet.

Victor Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, told Business Insider that national authorities had been promoting Putonghua for around 100 years with the primary aim of unifying the country’s language. Cantonese had been “tremendously weakened” in Guangdong since the People’s Republic was established in 1949. “If it weren’t for Hong Kong, Cantonese would soon cease to exist as a significant linguistic force,” he added.

Earlier this year, Antony Leung Kam-chung, the former financial secretary and former chairman of the government’s Education Commission from 1997 to 2001, suggested that students in Hong Kong schools should be taught Putonghua in their Chinese language classes. Leung told an education conference that he believed the use of Putonghua as the medium in which Chinese is taught could help improve the Chinese writing skills of students. However, a study commissioned by the Education Bureau found no evidence that the use of Mandarin would be advantageous over Cantonese. The Bureau tried to suppress the study in September 2015 and only released it in May 2016 after strong public pressure. It intends to press on with the adoption of Putonghua.