The Importance of Cantonese Preservation in Hong Kong
When one thinks about the Chinese language, Mandarin is usually the first to come to mind. Mandarin is currently used for many international business affairs, the national language of mainland China, and the native tongue of many Chinese emigrants around the world. However, it is important to acknowledge that Mandarin is not the only Chinese language. In some parts of the world, Cantonese is the most prevalent Chinese language. One place in particular that proudly speaks the Cantonese language is Hong Kong. Amongst its extensive history and blending of cultures, Cantonese has remained an important part of the identity of Hong Kongers. Since the sovereignty of Hong Kong was handed over to China twenty five years ago, there is no doubt that efforts to popularize Mandarin into the region are far and wide. While some are in favor of these changes, many opposers fight to keep the Cantonese language and tradition from becoming a language of the past. Cantonese is an important language to preserve in Hong Kong in order to illustrate its unique culture and history, and differentiate and maintain its independent identity from mainland China.
The Cantonese language has an extensive history, and many believe that the language became recognized way back in the Tang dynasty. It is said that it was spoken by many people moving to the southern regions of China. (Lo). These southern regions were very popular in international trade and business, and therefore became an important language to speak and quickly popularized. Cantonese became the dominant language in Hong Kong as immigrants closely migrated from these southern areas, bringing along many aspects of that region such as the bustling lifestyle and of course the Cantonese language. Throughout British rule from 1841 to 1947, Cantonese remained the dominant language along with English. In modern times, Cantonese is still spoken primarily in the Guongzhou region of China, Macau, and Hong Kong. There are roughly 60-100 million Cantonese speakers in the world today, including the diaspora of Chinese immigrants (Li).
In Hong Kong today, Cantonese remains the dominant native tongue. It is spoken by 96% of the population (“Mandarin Noted”). However after the Chinese handover, many are concerned that Mandarin will slowly overtake Cantonese as the primary language. Mandarin is becoming much more popular as the main language of instruction and formal language classes are common in almost 70% of primary schools (Kuang). On the other hand, formal Cantonese classes are lacking in the Chinese curriculum. While still spoken at home, the language is not supported by the Education Bureau who instead focuses its Chinese language courses on Mandarin. This lack of formal education worries some residents, who claim that the lack of formal education is a strong deterrent in trying to maintain the teaching and importance of Cantonese to the younger generations.
Amongst these changes come the fight to preserve and keep alive the language in Hong Kong despite the ever-growing popularity of Mandarin. One reason why Hong Kongers believe that their native language is so important to preserve is because it preserves the unique culture of the region. Many enriching poetry writings and paintings are done in traditional characters. One important difference between written Cantonese versus written Mandarin is the fact that Cantonese is written in traditional characters compared to the simplified characters of written Mandarin. The arts scene is especially prominent and important in Hong Kong, and traditional opera, films, and more use Cantonese. The language captures the feeling and history of Hong Kong and can be best enjoyed when performed, listened to, and viewed in the native tongue (“5 Reasons”).
Hong Kong cinema was extremely influential after the second world war, with a majority of these successful films being in Cantonese. From martial arts films to romance films, there was no shortage of Cantonese cinema. Popular stars such as Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee were native Hong Kongers and their Cantonese language on film provided authenticity to the films. One of the most famous directors, Wong Kar-Wai, who moved to Hong Kong as a child also chose to use Cantonese in many of his films in order to capture his history and memories of growing up in Hong Kong. Using the region’s native tongue, the films were really able to encapsulate the culture, history, and emotions of Hong Kong at this time. If Hong Kong films were spoken in anything other than the dominant language, it would not have been as authentic and real. While the Hong Kong cinema industry is not as prominent as it was before the handover, these films remain extremely popular even today and capture the culture of Hong Kong during these periods with the important factor of language (“Movies and Film”).
Cantonese is known as a very vernacular language and therefore reflects the history and changes throughout time. The language has lots of slang and spoken words which can really show the culture of specific times throughout culture (“5 Reasons”). Specific Cantonese idioms and proverbs are common and showcase the values, attitudes, and cultural importance of the people of Hong Kong (“Is the Cantonese”). Furthermore, Cantonese is a language with many tones and expressions, and the sing-song sound of the language reflects the energetic, free, and diverse lifestyle and culture (Li). It is important to maintain this important attitude to encompass the traditional feeling of Hong Kong when bargaining at night markets or sharing a meal over dim sum. Today, many young Hong Kongers speak what they call “Kongish”, which is a mix of English and Cantonese. This mix represents the history of the region and provides a unique identity for younger generations. This mix of English could be seen as another way that Cantonese is losing its authenticity, but while there is a mix of the two languages, young locals create their own mixes and therefore a unique culture and identity as opposed to completely cutting off Cantonese altogether.
Lastly, one of the most important reasons why Cantonese should be preserved as the main language of Hong Kong is because it differentiates itself from mainland China. While there are continuous debates over how much control China has and should have over Hong Kong, there is no denying that the lifestyle, attitudes, and personality of the region is unique and differs from the mainland. Many Hong Kongers continue to protest and fight for limited mainland control, and the push towards Mandarin worries people that the loss of Cantonese will inherently represent a loss of independence. They fear that a loss of the language will signify that their culture and freedom will be taken too, and instead conform to the homogeneous culture and law of the mainland.
One might argue that because sovereignty of Hong Kong was handed over to China, Mandarin is necessary to learn for the future of the region. However this argument goes against many local Hong Kongers who continue to fight for independence and autonomy instead of trying to homogenize with the mainland. There is no denying that Mandarin is an important language to learn especially with the significance of China’s global business influences and Hong Kong’s general relations with mainland China, however there are ways to promote the education and preservation of the native language while also teaching Mandarin as any other foreign language. It becomes much more of a concern when the emphasis is put on Mandarin instead, signifying it as a large shift and more important language than Cantonese in Hong Kong which alters the culture and history of the region. Amongst the resentment and fight for political and economic freedom, this fight for language is a large symbol of independence that crosses many fields.
Overall, Cantonese holds much more importance in Hong Kong than one might think. Although it is still the primary language spoken by Hong Kongers, Mandarin is quickly spreading in popularity and locals fight to prevent their native tongue from being taken from them. They were able to maintain the language throughout British rule, and hope to maintain it throughout the future as well. Not only is Cantonese important to preserve because it represents their unique culture and history, but it also allows Hong Kongers to differentiate themselves from mainland China. There are many different ways that Cantonese can be preserved in Hong Kong. One main way is to create mandatory formal education classes in school just as Mandarin classes have been seen increasingingly in recent years. An emphasis on modern pop culture including films and music being produced in the native language can continue to emphasize and appreciate the language not only with locals but also the international community. Lastly, preserving Cantonese shows Hong Konger’s strength, pride, and passion for continuing to fight for individuality and independence in order to fully embrace its unique characteristics.
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