The precarious balance between Cantonese and Mandarin in Hong Kong

As Hong Kong’s balance between Cantonese and Mandarin delves into riskier socio-cultural and political waters, where will Hong Kong turn?

Cantonese and Mandarin are today’s two most spoken Chinese languages, each rich with millennia of culture. In recent years, however, the tension between the two is simmering.

While Cantonese has been the de facto vernacular spoken in Hong Kong after the late 1900s, Mandarin has prevailed in the Mainland ever since the establishment of the Republic of China in 1911. The latter had become more widespread in Hong Kong since the 1997 Handover, a turning point which facilitated a rush of commercial activities and cultural exchange across the border.

However, due to the complex ebb and flow of Sino-Hong Kong relations in recent years, this cohabitation of languages has acquired new political, cultural, and social tensions in the city.

In 2013, an article sent out by the Educational Bureau classified Cantonese as a “dialect” rather than a “language”, provoking heated discussion to the standing of Cantonese on a global stage when placed in stark contrast to Mandarin.

According to Census Bureau surveys, the percentage of Hong Kong people aged six to 65 who reported using Cantonese at home, has declined from 90.3 in 2013 to 88.1 in 2016. Cantonese-concerned groups also estimate that 70% of all primary schools and 25% of secondary schools now use Putonghua to teach Chinese.

These statistics might forewarn a descend from glory. According to Professor Stephen Matthews from the University of Hong Kong, as Mandarin is increasingly adopted as Hong Kong’s medium of instruction, the decline in Cantonese’s intergenerational transmission may lead to a gradual endangerment of the language.

Moreover, as the bulk of Cantonese remains largely unwritten, except in modern, informal channels such as social media or instant messaging, the language is more susceptible to the threat of eradication if the number of speakers continues to dwindle.

Efforts have been made to embrace Cantonese in recent years, as seen from the creation of online crowd-sourced dictionaries such as, concern groups, such as the Societas Linguistica Hongkongensis, and comically illustrated Cantonese slang phrasebooks and dictionaries.

This arguably reflects the city’s insecurity towards the aim of preserving the local language, to which Mandarin may be construed as a palpable threat.

Furthermore, certain vocal sectors have politicized the usage of Cantonese in Hong Kong, holding it as an exemplification of the city’s identity in a bid against “Mainlandisation”, a potent anxiety that the city will gradually lose its unique characteristics, which are protected by the constitutional principle of “One Country, Two Systems”, and become just another Chinese city.

Last January, 30 students from the Hong Kong Baptist University protested against the school’s Language Centre over compulsory Mandarin tests. While Student Union leader Lau Tsz-Kei maintains that he has no negative feelings towards the language itself, the subsequent suspension of him and another student led to a further standoff between supporters and opposers, with Pro-Beijing demonstrators arguing that the students were being used as pawns for people with political motives.

On the other hand, Mandarin seems to be more widely accepted among the city’s youngest generation.

In recent years, there has been an influx of consumption of Mainland Chinese popular culture in the city, helping to swing Mandarin slang into the local vernacular.

Mainland TV dramas such as The Story of Yanxi Palace (2018), a historical drama, and Eternal Love (2017), which belongs in the fantasy-romance genre, were wildly popular in the city. The Mainland app “Tik-Tok”, which allows users to share short, often thematic videos of themselves online, has also proved to be a major hit among the youth, rising to become the most popular photo and video app in Hong Kong as of May 2018.

Many local, youth-targeted content creators also use Mandarin slang seamlessly in their work; Illustrator Joeie Chan Centers has created a comic centred on identifying “lu cha biaos”, a phrase recently borrowed from Mandarin denoting “pretentious girls”.

Schoolchildren have adopted Mandarin as their lingua franca in daily conversations as well. According to a study by academic Sze Wah-Sun from the University of Hong Kong, Mandarin is immediately being spoken in the playground among the first Mandarin-medium cohort of a primary school. Families without Mandarin native speakers have also reported some use of the language at home.

All in all, the younger generation seems to bear flexible attitudes towards learning Mandarin, pointing toward a willingness to acclimatise to shifting power balances.

This raises the question: in changing times, should one adapt, or preserve? Do we really have a choice? In a dynamic and diverse city, such as Hong Kong, perhaps only time will tell.

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