• Sun
  • Dec 28, 2014
  • Updated: 2:54am
NewsHong Kong

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



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This article is now closed to comments

When 100 million people speak Cantonese in the home and at work it is highly unlikely the language will disappear. This article, by an academic, poses a purely academic point and the language needs no protection.
Ivory tower idiots, Cantonese is nowhere near endangered; in both business and culture, the language is firmly entrenched in HK, Guangzhou and SE Asia.
Hear hear! Bo Wai Kwangtung Wa!!
"However, China's international commitments may be interpreted as obliging the protection of Cantonese and encouraging its study and dissemination."
An interesting statement. The reality is, that local parents put their kids in english teaching, private schools, no costs feared, additionally learning Putonghua as foreign language. At the same time we always hear that the common "English level" in HK is on the decline. Perhaps it is the same situation as in Ireland in the 19th century. I don't see Cantonese on the decline or on the extinct level. Instead of lamenting about language preservation, there should be an attitude of embracing a multi-language culture - at least English, Cantonese and Putonghua - in HK. Only with these three languages spoken and written fluently, HK can preserve its position and competitiveness in business and culture.
I might be mistaken but I don't remember the Education bureau to have said Cantonese is not a language, only that Cantonese is not an "official language" of Hong Kong. And, legally speaking, it is (unfortunately) true.
Hong Kong should take note of what happened in the former Soviet Union where the Communists forced their satellite countries to not only learn, but teach ONLY Russian in their schools; because of these requirement many lost their roots to their country and it's History. Today the situation in the Ukraine are a perfect example of what happens when you replace the national language with those of the conqueror!
Southern China, with the Cantonese the "gentler" of those who inhabit China, are a people who immigrated and spread throughout the World, bringing trade to every backwater of the World. Forty years ago my Cantonese Mother in Law was surprised to find that a local storekeeper from Southern China, a Dr. Hay, in John Day, Oregon had "saved" most of the population of that small town from the Influenza Epidemic in the early 1900s with traditional Chinese Medicines! When he died, he left his store and it's contents as a living Museum to that small town! This scenario has been repeated over and over again not only in the USA but throughout the World. NO, it was NOT the Northern Han, but the Southern Cantonese who influenced most of the World!
Cantonese can/will continue to fluorish and so can the northern or any other Chinese dialects, and the latter doesn't have to come at the expense of the former. It's not binary.
I'm aware that the government of mainland China go through significant lengths to preserve "real ethnic minority" dialects/languages (i.e. Buyi, Daur, Nanai, Mongolian, Tibetan, etc.). The Cantonese language and the people who speak it have about as many native speakers as all the ethnic minorities combined. Cantonese had a 100+ year "privilege" that can be stemmed from the democratic-nationalist movement that fomented primarily in southern China by the likes of Yeung Ku-wan, Tse Tsan-tai (co-founder of SCMP in 1902 in its more pure and original form), Dr. Sun Yat-sen, etc., and propagated as "the Chinese language" overseas with the bulk of the emigration representing the goldrush and railroad-workers of 19th century USA; in fact, as a child born and raised in NYC in the 1980's, "Cantonese" represented the well-established middle-class and modern+pop cultural "elite", while those Taiwanese (and Mainlanders) were typically viewed as lowly bumpkin-types. Indeed, the "Chinese culture" was centered around all things Cantonese (and to a lesser extent, Fujianese/Fukienese). My how times have changed in a mere 2 decades. Now with the "northern exposure" from China, and increased cultural awareness, the huge rainbow of China's cultural and linguistic myriad is becoming ever-increasingly noticeable. The indigenous speakers of "Mandarin" from the northern heartland tend to have more agglutination and consonants, which I find to be better "musical instruments" in the art of the song.
There is a reason why the Northern Chinese have been regarded as "bumpkins" throughout the World, it is because they are low-class "barbarians"! In a recent trip to Xian, I watched about 100 Northern businessmen and women eat breakfast as our hotel; as an American farmer, I opined that I had pigs, who had better table manners, shoving and even fighting over food that I wouldn't even feed to my animals! Both myself and my entire family were so disgusted with their behavior, that we left the hotel and ate elsewhere! Possibly in another two or three generations, they may be domesticated enough for polite society! Money does NOT buy class, even Canada has come to that conclusion!
I believe the only time your pigs got anywhere close to your dinner table would be cooked. And therefore i'd tend to believe you're right: that your dead pigs would have good manners. But, evidently, i can't say the same for you. For, here, you manifest all the manners and lack of culture of a village farmer.



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