Limiting Cantonese May Smother the Culture, Experts Say

October 8, 2010 9:12 pm Last Updated: October 1, 2015 6:50 pm

Chinese characters.  (Wikimedia Commons)
Chinese characters. (Wikimedia Commons)
HONG KONG—Efforts by Chinese Communist Party bureaucrats to consolidate, centralize, and control local languages around China—in particular, Cantonese and its popular uptake—may instead have the effect of suffocating cultural development, experts say.

June and August 2010 were devoted to grassroots movements in Guangdong and Hong Kong to defend Cantonese—this prompted reflection and discussions on other local languages, and their relationship to both local culture, and Mandarin, the official spoken language.


Language and Culture

China speaks mainly nine different languages, including Mandarin, Hakka, Min, Cantonese (Yue), and others. All use the same set of Chinese characters as the written script. Each region has its own unique culture, important aspects of which are the language and local customs.

Local languages are a common bond, allowing people to communicate intimately and fostering millennia-old artistic and cultural traditions: such is the cradle for art forms like the Shandong Clapper Ballad, the Tianjin allegro, Beijing Dagu, Cantonese Opera, Shanghai Huju Opera and more.

Professor of foreign languages at Kumanoto Gakuen University, Shi Rujie, said that dialect is the primary carrier of local culture, and the most direct and detailed record of local traditions and customs, in an interview with Suzhou Daily Newspaper.

Hard to Recover

Professor Shi draws a contemporary parallel to the destruction of a language: “Once the Taliban had dynamited and destroyed the monumental Buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan there was no way to restore these lost images to their ‘original look.’ The copies are fake antiques, though they do remind people of what they had lost. One can do that with a structure, but what about language, including dialects? Once they are destroyed there is no way to restore them.”

Professor Shi believes dialects to be the most bountiful source for Mandarin, China's official spoken language. “The various dialects are the real spoken languages; they can comprehensively reflect every tiny piece of real life,” he said. “If these true spoken languages are lost, then Mandarin will lose its foundations and will become like a rootless plant, like water without its source.”

Feng Xingyuan, researcher at the Rural Development Institute of the China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), said at a forum that local culture profoundly impacts economic development. He pointed out that from 2006 to 2008, the liquidity of capital in Guangdong ranked second in the country.