Meet the Cantonese activist fighting to keep the language alive in its southern Chinese heartland

  • Until recently the idea that the language was at risk of dying out in Guangzhou – the city formerly known as Canton – would have seemed laughable. But now its advocates have a fight on their hands
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 October, 2018, 1:47pm
UPDATED : Monday, 22 October, 2018, 11:30am

For the past 18 years, 39-year-old Cantonese cultural activist Lao Zhenyu has been running a website to protect his native culture and linguistic heritage amid fears that the language – once spoken by more than 60 million people around the world – is slowly dying in its birthplace., set up in December 2000, has attracted 1 million followers online – mostly native Cantonese speakers – as he seeks to promote and keep the Cantonese identity alive in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong.

Twenty years ago, the idea that Cantonese might be at risk of dying out sounded like a joke to anyone living in the provincial capital Guangzhou – formerly known as Canton – and the wider Pearl River Delta as the dialect was a basic element of the 2,000-year-old city’s culture and history, Lao said.

“It was there like the sun and air in our life.” he said.

But Lao said a series of incidents drove him and other residents of the city to notice that the Cantonese dialect and traditions that locals took for granted was were under threat.

He and his team believe they must stand up for the dialect and the culture that they love and argue there is no contradiction between using Cantonese and Mandarin, the official language in mainland China.

In 2008, Lao’s website started campaigning to defend Cantonese heritage when the government planned to demolish the 270-year-old Tianzi Pier, located on the northern bank of Pearl River, to make way for a tourist attraction for the Asian Games in 2010.

Inspired by the campaign in nearby Hong Kong to save the Star Ferry and Queen’s piers, asked its readers to upload a picture of their eyes to express their concern over the fate of the pier.

Over one night, more than 3,000 citizens flooded internet discussion forums to express dismay.

While the Hong Kong campaigners failed in their efforts to save the piers, the campaign in Guangzhou was successful as city officials were forced to back down.

But despite this success, by the summer of 2010 Lao first began to sense that Cantonese was facing a crisis.

The city government proposed that its two main television stations switch from broadcasting in Cantonese to Mandarin – a move that brought thousands of people into the streets in protest.

The authorities moved to appease public anger with the party secretary at the time Wang Yang, now one of the country’s top leaders, saying no one would dare marginalise the province’s mother tongue.

Hong Kong means Cantonese, and we can’t follow Guangzhou in the march of Mandarin

However, in the following years the number of television channels and programmes using Mandarin has continued to increase.

Lao said the reasons why Cantonese was being marginalised were complex and linked to political and economic changes over the past decade.

One reason was the rapidly diminishing popularity of films and television dramas from Hong Kong – another hotbed of Cantonese culture, he said.

But this coincided with a rapid influx of millions of non-Cantonese migrant workers lured to China’s economic powerhouse from other parts of the country.

But Lao also blamed the local education authority because it decided to marginalise Cantonese by making Mandarin – officially known as Putonghua or “common speech” – as the primary medium of instruction in schools.

Increasing numbers of Guangzhou primary school pupils are now reportedly refusing to speak to their parents and grandparents in their mother tongue.

Not only have they become accustomed to speaking Mandarin at school, but they can even face punishment if they are caught speaking Cantonese in the classroom or playground.

The Ministry of Education and the State Language Commission said last year they wanted 80 per cent of China’s population to be speaking Mandarin by 2020.

As of 2015, about 73 per cent of Chinese people could speak Mandarin Chinese, up from 53 per cent in 2000, according to official statistics.

 “I think many local schools and officials misunderstood the main point of Beijing’s push to promote Mandarin,” Lao said.

“Ensuring everyone can speak Mandarin does not mean they need to force everyone to speak only Mandarin in daily life … there is no contradiction between [speaking] Cantonese and Mandarin.”

Lao also said that officials did not seem to be aware of the need to protect Cantonese culture.

“Political and economic achievements are always first for them, rather than our beloved culture.”

The future of Cantonese, he said, lay in the hands of the people of Guangzhou.

Dictionary adds oil to use of Cantonese has been looking for creative and funny ways to attract children and teenagers post born after 2000 to use Cantonese.

Since 2015, it has designed and printed hundreds of thousands of “lucky” red envelopes with Cantonese slang terms expressing express happiness or positivity, to encourage grandparents to teach their grandchildren Cantonese during Lunar New Year.

But the cultural battle continues in the city.

Late last month, Woshan primary school in Baiyun district sent a letter to all pupils and their parents, urging the youngsters only to communicate with their parents and grandparents in Mandarin at home.

While Cantonese and Mandarin both use the same characters, pupils were urged to report any shops and schools in the province that continued to use traditional Chinese characters – which are still used in Hong Kong – rather than the officially promoted simplified characters.

Last year, Lao’s team also published a book designed to teach children to recite classic Chinese poems in their native Cantonese.

His message to Cantonese speakers is: don’t wait until our dialect is heading for extinction. Do something and do more.