Guangzhou locals seek 'Cantonese Day' to help preserve mother tongue

While the street protests of 2010 are unlikely to be repeated, Cantonese speakers are wary of moves to marginalise their mother tongue

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 July, 2014, 4:15am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 July, 2014, 5:59pm

Supporters of the local dialect of Guangdong are campaigning to name today - and every July 25 - "Cantonese Day", it being the anniversary of boisterous street rallies four years ago in support of Cantonese.

The campaign follows reports the provincial television station plans to switch the language most of the original programmes on its news channel is broadcast in from Cantonese to Putonghua in September.

Lao Zhenyu, editor-in-chief of, a news and discussion website on Guangzhou lifestyle and culture, has launched an online campaign to encourage more locals to remember their mother tongue.

"We support the government policy to promote Putonghua, but it should aim at enabling everyone to be proficient in Putonghua rather than limiting them to speaking Putonghua only. Otherwise, it will destroy the diverse fabric of Chinese culture," said Lao.

Video: Keeping Cantonese alive in China's south with soccer and beer

Cantonese is regarded as a modern variant of the ancient Han language. It is a much older language than Putonghua, linguists say, with pronunciation, vocabulary and usage similar to the official language of the Tang dynasty (618-907).

Lao is not calling for a repeat of the protests in 2010. Instead, the Cantonese Day campaign will celebrate aspects of Cantonese culture on social media including WeChat, Weibo, websites and other online forums.

"For example, people can forward images such as posters to show support for Cantonese rather than taking action on the streets, so it won't be deemed a radical move in the eyes of certain people," Lao said.

"[The reason for choosing this day] goes without saying. I think we all understand why we picked [July 25]," he added.

On that day in 2010, thousands of Guangzhou residents came out on the streets to protest against a proposal by the Guangzhou People's Political Consultative Conference that Guangzhou Television should broadcast its prime time programmes in Putonghua for the duration of the Asian Games to be held in November that year. They said it would allow visiting athletes and spectators to enjoy programmes ahead of the event in a language that was more widely understood. The proposal was never implemented due to public opposition.

The then Guangdong provincial party secretary, Wang Yang , quelled locals' anger in 2010 when he said that he was learning Cantonese so no official would dare marginalise the mother tongue of local people.

But the progressive Wang has moved on since being promoted to vice-premier last year.

The call for a Cantonese Day follows recent media reports that Guangdong TV had decided in June to change the language for its hourly news broadcasts from Cantonese to Putonghua in September .

News of the plan again rankled with Cantonese speakers, and Hong Kong media speculated the move might spark rallies similar to those four years ago .

Bowing to the latest public pressure, Guangdong TV quietly brought back Cantonese-speaking anchors to its hourly news update programme, alternating with Putonghua updates every other hour.

It is understood that the plan for the network to switch its news channel to Putonghua has been shelved indefinitely due to opposition from a public who view the move as an attempt to marginalise the dialect.

Lao said his campaign aimed to promote Cantonese culture and history, and called on local parents to speak more Cantonese to their children. Public organisations and even the private catering industry could provide more Cantonese-speaking services.

In 1912, after the fall of the Qing dynasty, the founding fathers of the republic met to decide which language should be spoken in the new China. Mandarin - now known as Putonghua ("the common language") - was then a northern dialect spoken by the hated Manchurian officials, and many perceived it as an "impure form" of Chinese.

Many revolutionary leaders, including Sun Yat-sen, were from Guangdong. A great debate started between the delegates that eventually led to a formal vote. Cantonese lost by a small margin to Putonghua.

Cantonese is spoken primarily in Guangdong, Hong Kong, Macau and parts of the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, and is widely spoken by overseas Chinese.

Most mainland media outlets are banned from broadcasting in regional dialects as part of efforts to entrench Putonghua. Guangdong is an exception because it is so easy for local residents to tune in to Cantonese broadcasts from Hong Kong and Macau.

Tired of being swamped by the relentless tide of Putonghua, more and more Cantonese parents complain that their children are reluctant to speak their mother tongue even at home.

Liang Zhifeng, 34, a Guangzhou football fan, is one of them.

"My kid has spoken Putonghua since kindergarten and we speak Cantonese at home, but my child always mixes Putonghua in between," Liang said.

"I feel like Cantonese is being gradually washed away by the authorities. My cousin's son is not familiar with many allegorical sayings unique to Cantonese. Many of these sayings are lost on the next generation. I think local culture should be preserved."