At the heart of the current friction between Hong Kong and mainland China isn’t just Hong Kong’s autonomy and political freedoms. It’s the territory’s language.
Though they share many of the same Chinese characters, Mandarin and Cantonese use them in such divergent ways—in terms of both grammar and vocabulary—that they constitute two different writing systems. A Mandarin-only reader can’t understand written Cantonese; and a Cantonese-only reader would struggle to make sense of written Mandarin. The two also have distinctive pronunciation rules, which make the same characters sound different when said out loud by a speaker of each.
China’s government has tried to insist that Cantonese isn’t really a language, and to suppress its use. But as with Bengali in the independence movement for Bangladesh, and the Soweto uprising against the imposition of Afrikaans in apartheid South African schools, Cantonese is beginning to take on a central role in Hong Kong’s resistance to the authority of mainland China.
And a telling example of this is in the very name of the “Umbrella Movement,” as the protest movement has come to be called.
Hong Kong protesters frequently write “Umbrella Movement” using the Mandarin word for “umbrella” (雨傘), because they grew up learning the Mandarin writing system, known colloquially as zhongwen, in school. They will also frequently write it with the Cantonese word 遮, since they casually picked up the Cantonese writing system pretty much everywhere else in Hong Kong.
If read as Mandarin rather than Cantonese, the characters 遮打 are pronounced zhe da (pronounced “juh da”). Both are usually verbs; zhe means ”to obscure” or “cover,” while da means ”to hit” or “fight.” So to a Mandarin-reader, the Cantonese phrase doesn’t make much sense—it’s the ”Cover-Hit Movement.”
In Hong Kong Cantonese, however, those same two characters, while pronounced similarly to Mandarin—ze daa—mean something quite different: they’re the Cantonese transliteration of Chater Road, one of the downtown Hong Kong streets where the protesters camp out. The second character, 打, also means “to fight” in both Cantonese and Mandarin, notes Tammy Ho Lai-Ming, a literature professor at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU). And it carries yet another layer of meaning, Ho explains: “The ‘打’ would, to a Cantonese speaker’s mind, mean ‘to attack’ or ‘knock down,’ and the target would be [Hong Kong chief executive] CY Leung or the HK government.”
In short, when a Mandarin-reader looks at the Cantonese words for ”Umbrella Movement,” she sees a fairly innocuous and somewhat nonsensical phrase. When a Cantonese-reader looks at them, the same set of characters are a play on words meaning both “Chater Road Movement” and, literally, “Umbrella Fight Movement”—or, more abstractly, “Umbrella Fight-Against-CY Leung Movement.”
This distinction, so layered with meaning, is just one of the myriad differences between Mandarin—which is the name used by Western scholars for Chinese government’s official national language, both its speech and its writing system—and a slew of regional writing systems using standard Chinese characters, of which Cantonese is a major example. And it runs contrary to Beijing’s long-standing insistence that Cantonese isn’t a real language, but a mere dialect of an older form of Han Chinese, from which the government’s official national language derives.
The frequent and deliberate use of 遮 and other Cantonese phrases in Umbrella Movement slogans therefore symbolizes not just Hong Kong’s resistance to the Communist Party’s political values, but the defense of its distinct cultural identity, as well as the history of the autonomy Hongkongers are fighting to defend.
Dialects differ from accents in that they have their own distinct grammar, word choice, and common expressions (e.g. Glasgow English vs. Jamaican English). Languages, on the other hand, must be mutually unintelligible, even if they’re closely related—think Spanish and French.
What China’s government calls “dialects” of the Chinese language family are not mutually intelligible in spoken form. A Mandarin-speaker can’t understand someone chatting in Cantonese or Hokkien (what’s used in Fujian Province), or vice versa. But because these seven dialects—Yue (e.g. Cantonese), Hakka, Min (e.g. Hokkien, Taiwanese), Mandarin, Wu, Xiang, and Gan—stem from the same ancient Chinese language, argues Beijing, they share a common writing system—which means they are mutually intelligible.
Even that, however, isn’t strictly true in the case of Cantonese. Though it uses Chinese characters, the Cantonese lexicon—its commonly used vocabulary—and grammar constitute a writing system different enough from Mandarin that they’re mutually unintelligible, says Robert Bauer of the University of Hong Kong, a leading expert on Cantonese linguistics.
“If you were to show a colloquial text of written Cantonese to a [Mandarin reader] who knows no Cantonese, he or she would find most of it unintelligible,” says Bauer. “They are as different from each other as Portuguese and Italian.”
But if Cantonese is clearly a language, why does the Chinese Communist Party so rigorously deny it?
As in Napoleon’s France and Franco’s Spain, the Chinese government’s assertion of a national language is a tool not just for national unification but for undermining regional identities that could foment resistance. The key isn’t just getting people to use spoken Mandarin, or putonghua; by forcing everyone to use zhongwen, the written form, the government could eventually blot out enough of the written record of regional Chinese languages that future generations will struggle to use them.
This policy has been highly successful in mainland China. Hong Kong, however, is proving trickier.
During their colonial tenure, the British saw Cantonese as a useful barrier to communication between Hong Kong and the mainland, says Bauer. ”As a consequence, Cantonese has thrived in Hong Kong and was not in competition with putonghua as it certainly has been on the mainland,” he says.
And though Hong Kong students have long learned to write zhongwen, the Mandarin writing system, in school, the Cantonese language—spoken and written—is nonetheless “intimately interwoven with” the uniquely Hong Kong sociocultural identity that has emerged in the last three or four decades, says Bauer.
Since 1997, when the mainland regained control of Hong Kong from the British, the pressure to abandon spoken Cantonese in classrooms has intensified. Hong Kong’s education bureau recently sparked outrage (paywall) when it declared Cantonese ”a Chinese dialect that is not an official language.”
The status of Cantonese is now debated fiercely in Hong Kong society, says George Chen, a Yale world fellow and author of This is Hong Kong I Know. It has become part of a larger conversation about what the “mainlandization” of language, culture, education, and governance means for the territory.
“Many young Hongkongers consider Cantonese as a language, a strong signal of how much the younger generations care about their unique Hong Kong identity,” says Chen. “The Hong Kong identity problem has attracted attention from Beijing, which has repeatedly said Hongkongers should recognize themselves first as ‘Chinese,’ not ‘Hongkonger.'”
Hongkongers are right to worry: The government’s control of education and the media have caused Cantonese to dwindle in the mainland region north of Hong Kong’s border. Even on the internet and mobile phones (link in Chinese), the government polices the use of anything besides putonghua/zhongwen.
“This is why the battle for true autonomy in Hong Kong is so important,” says Victor Mair, a sinologist at the University of Pennsylvania, and one of the foremost experts on the history of Chinese languages. “It is not just a matter of politics; without guarantees of relative freedom, Cantonese language and culture will quickly wither.”
But for the moment, Cantonese is actually flourishing—thanks in no small part to social media, says Mair. In the past, Hongkongers had few opportunities to write in Cantonese, says Mair. Now they use it all the time on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites.
HKBU’s Ho and Yale’s Chen both note that this explosion of modern Cantonese use on social media is only reinforcing a shared Hong Kong identity. And this Cantonese consciousness has only become more overt during the Umbrella Movement protests—as embodied by the embrace of the Cantonese ze daa for “umbrella.”
Chen cites another example—a pro-democracy slogan popular on social media—that embodies this linguistic defiance even better: 冇民主 冇公義. Non-Chinese readers would find it puzzling: It uses 冇 (mou, meaning “to lack”), a character that in zhongwen doesn’t exist. But to a Cantonese-reader, its meaning is clear: “Without democracy, there can be no justice.”