Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Mandarin Preferred for the 2010 Asian Games?

Within less than a month, there have been more than 10,000 attendants on a Facebook Fan Page titled “Defense for Cantonese” Petition, even though Facebook is blocked in Mainland China. The Facebook fans are just a small portion of people who are actively voicing opinions and defending their mother tongue—Cantonese.
Rally image created by Cantonese protestors; the poster states Speaking Cantonese is every Guangzhou resident's right and duty.
Rally image created by Cantonese protestors; the poster states speaking Cantonese is every Guangzhou resident's right and duty.
In June 2010, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) Guangzhou Committee brought forward a proposal to improve the environment for the Guangzhou 2010 Asian Games which will take place in Nov. 12 to Nov. 27. The proposal requires major channels of Guangzhou TV station to produce more Mandarin programs and to cut Cantonese ones during prime time. Guangzhou is the capital city of Guangdong province in Southern China.
As the news spread out, Chen Yang, a popular Cantonese TV host, commented on his microblog that Cantonese began to lose the battle against Mandarin. Soon after, his message appeared on more blogs, microblogs, and forums.

Media played an important role in triggering a bigger wave of nationwide discussion. By frequently using sensational titles and expressions for this issue, traditional media added to the anxiety and anger of Guangzhou residents. For example, Guangdong Yangcheng Evening News (羊城晚报) published a feature story about a primary school in Guangzhou offering “Mandarin-only” study environment for students, which contributed to a language gap between the elder generations who can only speak Cantonese and the younger generations who can only speak Mandarin.
Although the government tried to explain via major news programs in Guangzhou TV station that it has no plans to cancel every Cantonese program but to add more Mandarin programs for visitors during the Asian Games. However, few local residents seem to be convinced.
According to an online survey conducted by the local government before the proposal was released, 80% of the respondents thought Cantonese TV programs should be kept during the Asian Games. However, the survey results failed to change the mind of the policy makers.
Cantonese is in Danger!
In the eyes of many people in Guangzhou, replacing Cantonese TV programs with Mandarin ones is a sign of stifling the prosperity of the Guangzhou dialect and Lingnan (岭南) culture.
Lingnan culture is referred as one major culture of China in Southern China, which is quite different from the culture in Northern China in terms of the speaking and written language (Mandarin in Northern China and Cantonese in Southern China), traditions, architecture, etc. Many people in Southern China were raised by this culture for generations since the Ming dynasty (late 14th century).
Many local residents believe that even though the environment might be improved by launching Mandarin TV programs during the Asian Games, the event would be less impressive; because Guangzhou would lose its uniqueness without Cantonese!
“There are many people come to live and work here. They want to learn Cantonese,” A local resident Mr. Li said directly. “If local TV programs can put subtitles for every Cantonese program, people who cannot speak Cantonese may watch the programs and learn some Cantonese at the same time.” This can be an alternative means to keep both the local uniqueness and the national standard in peace.
Yu Qiao, who moved to Guangzhou a decade ago, saw no need to add Mandarin programs for Guangzhou TV station. After all, as he commented, there are only a few Cantonese channels in China; and people could watch CCTV or other channels for Mandarin programs.
Wang Yan, host at Guangzhou TV station, shared the same opinion with Chen Yang that language is a reflection of culture. Therefore, residents in Guangzhou should defend Cantonese together.
Ji Keguang, who was working on outlining the proposal, was targeted and criticized bitterly by netizens. Although he described himself as a supporter of Cantonese and Cantonese culture, his poor explanation and the proposal made him an “enemy” for the Cantonese supporters.

Time for Defense or for Reflection?
There are some local residents that have a different view of the situation. Zhang Jiemin thought that it was irrational to correlate Cantonese and Mandarin in an antagonistic way. After all, the promotion of Mandarin does not mean the government intends to kill a dialect within the country.
Foshan Daily (佛山日报)discussed this issue from a similar prospective. The news article looked back into the history of the economic, social and cultural development of Guangdong province since the Reform and Opening-Up Policy in the 1980s. As more and more people came to Guangdong from places outside the province, Cantonese would naturally evolve as it absorbed other dialects and languages.
Han Zhipeng, a member of CPPCC Guangzhou Committee, had some insights about this. Born and raised in Guangzhou, he could not imagine life without speaking Cantonese. “Life would be different if Cantonese were to die,” he said. As he suggested, the TV station could try to add one Mandarin program while keeping the Cantonese programs. In the meantime, he commented that the anger of the local residents also reflects people’s poor practices in terms of language and culture preservation.
Differences between Cantonese and Mandarin
Cantonese is a Chinese dialect that has been widely used in Southern China, namely Guangdong (广东), Guangxi (广西), Hong Kong and Macau. Quite a number of overseas Chinese all over the world also speak Cantonese. Guangzhou dialect is regarded as the standard for Cantonese.
It is estimated that about 67 million people speak Cantonese worldwide. As mentioned above, the Lingnan culture is closely associated with Cantonese. In addition, behind the cultural and language ties, there is a huge and strong business circle in which Cantonese-speaking people run businesses with each other. The businesses, in return, prosper Lingnan culture.
In contrast, there is a strong political implication for the promotion of Mandarin. Mandarin did not come into being until 1955 when the central government decided to promote the Beijing dialect as the national standard. The whole country was required to learn and speak Mandarin since then.
Government departments, state-owned enterprises, schools and other public-service agencies have to use Mandarin as the only working language. Schools in mainland are required to teach in Mandarin. That is why younger generations cannot speak Cantonese in Guangdong, which makes it difficult to communicate with the elder generations in their families.
To some extent, Mandarin is a simplified version of Cantonese. In many cases, it is not difficult to grab the general idea of an article written in Mandarin for Cantonese, and vice versa. However, grammars of these two languages are quite different. Mandarin is more modernized, while Cantonese keeps more classical Chinese grammar and language usages.
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