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Residents oppose rumored move to Mandarin

Updated: 2014-08-26 04:51

Residents oppose rumored move to Mandarin
Pedestrians walk past the headquarters of Guangdong Television Station in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, on Aug 11. [Photo/Agencies]

Free-wheeling and business-oriented, the southern city of Guangzhou is a long way from Beijing physically, culturally and linguistically.

It's also here where hackles have been raised by reports that authorities are demanding local television drop Cantonese in favor of Mandarin.

Throughout China, Mandarin, with its roots in Beijing's northern dialect, is the medium of government, education and national official media.

But according to a Ministry of Education statement last year, 30 percent of Chinese — 400 million people — cannot speak Mandarin.

Cantonese is the mother tongue of about half the population of Guangzhou, China's third-largest city and the provincial capital of Guangdong. For many elderly residents, Cantonese is their only tongue.

Nonetheless, reports in neighboring Hong Kong said the province's official broadcaster, Guangdong TV, was planning to quietly switch most of its programming from Cantonese to Mandarin on Sept 1.

On the Chinese mainland, the two dialects generally use the same characters for the same words. They are mutually intelligible in written form, but unintelligible verbally.

"I oppose them changing it all to Mandarin," said Huang Yankun, a 17-year-old student, walking past the television station's headquarters. "It's wrong for them to try to restrict the dialect in this way.

"Speaking Cantonese is a Guangdong custom; it's a tradition that we need to support."

Cantonese is spoken by more than 60 million people in China, on a par with Italian in terms of native-speaker numbers.

But some in Guangzhou worry that as young people and their parents focus on Mandarin for academic and career reasons, Cantonese may fall by the wayside.

"A lot of kids speak only Mandarin at school," said Huang Xiaoyu, a 28-year-old media worker. "And at home, their mom will speak to them in Cantonese, but the kids will respond in Mandarin.

"Very, very few little kids these days speak Cantonese. How are old people going to communicate with their grandchildren if they don't use Cantonese?" she added.

A spokesperson for Guangdong TV said they were unaware of any coming change.

As China's richest province, Guangdong draws migrants from all over the country, and some of them would back the television switch.

A 58-year-old woman surnamed Yang from Shandong province said: "I don't understand a word of Cantonese. It's very annoying! Everyone can understand Mandarin; it's widespread."

Zhang Yiyi, 72, a professor of French from Nanjing, Jiangsu province, has lived in Guangzhou since 1988.

"I speak Mandarin; I'm a professor," he said. "Kindergarten, primary school, middle school, high school, college: What we use for education is Mandarin. Cantonese is a regional dialect."

Cantonese has a greater range of tones than Mandarin, as well as a choppier sound to an untutored Western ear.

But Cantonese activist and editor Lao Zhenyu said the dialect was "rich in sounds, and sonorous".

"Relative to Mandarin, the history of Cantonese is more profound, it has nearly 1,000 years of history, and Mandarin has only around 100. When we read ancient poems in Cantonese, we find they still rhyme. Cantonese has a more abundant vocabulary than Mandarin, and its expression is more vivid."

Now, though, it was becoming "increasingly marginalized", he said.

"Cantonese is not just a dialect, for native speakers, it is part of our identity."

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