Both city and nation must preserve Cantonese language

Obligation to protect intangible cultural heritage applies to minorities and their languages

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 April, 2014, 4:17am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 April, 2014, 9:31am

A recent controversy over the Education Bureau's mistaken claim that Cantonese is not a language has highlighted the continued use of Cantonese in the city.

Languages can easily be lost, especially if a government encourages the use of one language within a state. For example, the British government attempted to eliminate Irish Gaelic in 19th-century Ireland as part of its campaign to eradicate resistance to British rule. Schools could teach only in English.

As English was the language of commerce at that time, the campaign was aided by Irish parents realising their children's future prosperity required them to speak English, especially if they were trying to flee the hardship of post-famine Ireland and start new lives in America, or even England.

It was only towards the end of the 19th century that the Irish realised they risked losing such a valuable element of their cultural heritage and began a campaign to encourage the teaching of Gaelic in schools.

Although there is no determined campaign to eliminate Cantonese, Hong Kong gives little encouragement for children to study Cantonese when Putonghua is seen as one of the main languages of business today. The city's laws provide scant protection for Cantonese.

However, China's international commitments may be interpreted as obliging the protection of Cantonese and encouraging its study and dissemination. The country has been at the forefront of world recognition of the value of intangible cultural heritage - which may be thought of as ideas representing the manifestations of human achievement that should be passed on, such as folk songs, poetry, stories, rituals, festivals, skills and language.

In 2003, Unesco adopted the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, which is intended to safeguard, ensure respect for, and raise awareness of intangible cultural heritage, which includes the "practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills … that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage". Specifically, this includes "oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage".

China ratified the convention in 2004. The obligations of state parties are to identify and safeguard intangible cultural heritage, particularly through education. Contracting states have to maintain a list of intangible cultural heritage.

China also supported and voted for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 2007, which ensures that all UN states must recognise and uphold the rights of indigenous peoples, meaning those who have historic links to a territory, such as the Cantonese of Canton, or Guangdong province. These rights include the right to recognition and protection of their language.

Beijing has proudly announced that China is rich in intangible cultural heritage, with 38 elements inscribed on the world list, including dragon boat racing and Beijing opera. The national list is even more extensive - in 2011, it featured four elements from Hong Kong, including the Cheung Chau Jiao Festival and the Tai O dragon boat water parade.

The Hong Kong government shares this commitment to the recording, preservation and dissemination of the intangible cultural heritage of Hong Kong and is now concluding a draft survey of the city's heritage.

Cantonese is an important part of the intangible cultural heritage of Hong Kong and vital for the preservation of its cultural identity. Hopefully, the survey will identify Cantonese as worthy of protection, not just as a vehicle for communication of other elements such as Cantonese opera, local festivals and rituals, but as an element in its own right.

Steven Gallagher is a professional consultant and assistant dean (undergraduate student affairs) with the faculty of law, Chinese University