Cantonese is just a dialect… or is it?

In his last post, Wes asked: when you believed it was true that Cantonese is a dialect, not a language, what did that mean to you?  What was the truth that sentence got at? Honestly, before we had this debate that spanned across multiple drinking sessions and all-day iMessage arguments, I had never even thought of it.  It was always something I knew, something I never questioned.  The Anglo-Canadian part of my brain has been probed throughout my life- through education, media and talking to people like Wes.   On the other hand, the Chinese side of my brain has been left uneducated and uncritical.   Having left Asia at a young age, with Mandarin not being my dominant language, whatever I picked up in Asia as a child and whatever attitudes or opinions my parents have on topics that are not directly related to the “western” part of my brain, have been absorbed without question. So here is me unpacking why I agree with the statement: Cantonese is not a language, it’s just a dialect.

When I think about the above statement logically, it sounds ludicrous. Of course Cantonese is a language, in the literal sense. It is a system of communication used by humans in a particular region of the world.  When Mandarin or Cantonese speakers agree to the above statement we are not agreeing that Cantonese is not a system of communication used by a particular group of Chinese people. Rather, it is a reflection of how Mandarin Chinese plays a role in our collective psyche, no matter which part of China, or which Chinese language speaking country we are from.

My family is Taiwanese.  My ancestors moved from southern Fujian providence to Taiwan during the Qing Dynasty, specifically, in 1762.  People who moved to Taiwan during this period brought Min Nan with them, which is the language commonly spoken in southern Fujian.    It became one of the main languages of Taiwan, in addition to Hakka.  (The aboriginal people of Taiwan also spoke their own languages that are not related to any Chinese languages, how those languages are perceived and what happened to them is a whole different discussion.)   When the Communists took over China in the late 1940s, the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan.   They called themselves the legitimate government of China.  Since then, they have been “reforming” Taiwan.  One of the things they did was to make Mandarin the national language.   I remember my parents saying that when they were growing up in Taiwan in the 60’s, they weren’t allowed to speak Min Nan- Hua in school.  If someone was caught speaking it, this person was punished and publicly humiliated.  Generations of people were discouraged from speaking it in public.  Growing up, my parents spoke a mix of Min Nan-Hua, Japanese, and Mandarin at home and I developed an ear for Min Nan-Hua at a young age.   When I moved to Taichung, Taiwan with my family at age 6, the only language I spoke was Japanese. As a first grader, I was taught to speak Mandarin even though at home, my parents hardly ever spoke that. As a child, I was stressed out enough learning the new language, and I didn’t even think that it was an entirely different language I was learning.  My brother, who is a two years younger than me, stayed home more, and he learned to speak Min Nan-Hua from the family cook, who only spoke Min Nan-Hua.  Min Nan-Hua was reduced to a mere dialect 方言– associated with the uneducated and the lower class, inferior to Mandarin.

Do I believe this is right?  Of course not.  It is a reflection of Kuomintang imperialism, and I didn’t even realize that I had such a bias until recently.  My people were oppressed by members of the  Kuomintang, our national language reduced to a mere dialect… and yet, it clearly worked.  I am a well-educated individual who has lived and worked in many different parts of the world.  I like to think that I am worldly and open-minded… Yet, I am not immune to truthiness  – Go ahead Wes, make your point already.

Oh, I suppose I should explicitly answer the original question: “When you believed it was true that Cantonese is a dialect, not a language, what did that mean to you?  What was the truth that sentence got at?”

My answer is, there is no truth to this statement.  This is what the Chinese brain thinks:

Mandarin = Language

Everything else = Dialect

Is this right?  No.   What Wes struggled to understand is that there is no logic to this.  Of course we, the Western educated Chinese speakers, know the definition of language.  But when we agree with statements such as the one above, we are not thinking about the actual definition of language, we are thinking about language from an emotional place, from the depth of our collective psyche.  We are just repeating something that was told to us… like we are brainwashed to think this way.   Like I said before, it’s certainly a bias I had never thought about before.

You gotta give it to the Hong Kong people though.  Cantonese is still the primary language in Hong Kong.  They are still fighting… but I am afraid it is a losing battle.  I fear that one day, Cantonese will indeed be reduced to a mere dialect, like Min Nan Hua in Taiwan… Have you heard that they are teaching Chinese language classes in public schools in Mandarin these days?  I work in a supposedly English speaking university- instead of lecturing in English, a lot of professors are teaching their classes in Mandarin.   What I am observing, is that instead of coercing the Hong Kong people, they (Beijing) are just making small changes here and there.  Soon Hong Kong will become something that none of us recognize.

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