Introduction to the Chinese “Dialects” (1) Cantonese v. Mandarin

‘Do you speak Chinese?’ ‘Do you speak Mandarin or Cantonese?’

In the years I have spent living in the UK, this is a question that I’ve often come across.

And when you can answer confidently ‘YES’ and ‘BOTH’ to the admiration of my friends, it’s a question that I rather like answering!

just to trick you

As China becomes increasingly important in the international stage, interests of all things Chinese has likewise soared. The issue of Chinese language though, it’s a very, very complicating one. Mandarin and Cantonese are only two of the many Chinese dialects spoken in China: in fact, whether you should classify them as “dialects” or not is also under dispute.

The years I’ve spent responding to this question has helped me craft an answer: hopefully this will solve some of your confusion!

(Allow me to insert a disclaimer first: to discuss any Chinese-related issues in any (relative) depth inevitably ventures into politics. My background and upbringing will have influenced what I write, however, impartial I try to be. Read at your own “risk” :P)

The Chinese language is categorised in a completely different way to European languages. “Chinese” is, in fact, merely an umbrella term on all the languages and dialects that is spoken among the ethnic Chinese population. Depending on who you ask, there are at least seven sub-groupings of Chinese languages, of which Mandarin and Cantonese (a branch of “Yue” Chinese) are only two of them.

from Wikipedia

What is the relationship between all these languages and dialects? The best European analogy that I can come up with is Spain. Mandarin, like Castilian Spanish, is spoken natively by a large majority of the population, However, in certain frontiers (and they tend to be coastal) regions, regional languages takes precedence. Cantonese, for example, is mainly spoken in Guangdong province, Hong Kong and Macau. However, Cantonese-speaking people (at least from our generation onwards) would have learned how to speak Mandarin at school as well. Hence depending on which part of China you (or your family) are from, you possibly can speak two, or even three, Chinese!

(The situation is further complicated by the non-ethically Chinese population. Languages that are not in any way related to Chinese dialects, such as Mongolian, is also spoken within the borders of China)

The differences in these languages vary. Cantonese and Mandarin, for example, are dissimilar enough to not be “mutually intelligible”. That means if I can only speak one of them you can only speak the other, we would not be able to communicate with each other. In fact, the spoken variation can be wider than some different European languages, despite all being called ‘Chinese’.

(This only relates to the spoken form; there is another whole story to tell about the written. Oh, ideas for new blog posts!)

As you can see from the map above that I blatantly stole from Wikipedia, Cantonese trails behind Mandarin and Wu (Shanghaiese) in terms of numbers of speakers worldwide, only constituting about 5% of all Chinese speakers. You might be quite surprised by this, given that, well, you’ve heard of it.

Cantonese enjoys a significant, and arguably disproportionate, position within all Chinese languages in the West because of it is the main language in most overseas communities, of which politics played a major part.

The Cantonese-speaking region had, for various reason, been the region with most interest and contact from outsiders. For much of history, Canton (now Guangzhou) has been the most prominent, and at times only, port open to foreign trade. At the aftermath of the First Opium War (1840), Britain coerced China into ceding a small island in southern Guangdong as a colony: Hong Kong, and would rule it until 1997.

Way of the Dragon (1972), Starring Bruce Lee. I’ve actually seen this…

The fact that Hong Kong speaks Cantonese is why westerners have some knowledge of the language. It became the point of contact between Chinese and Western culture, especially after the proclamation of a communist China in 1949. With the link between communist China and the outside world effectively severed, the Culture of Hong Kong flourished and became the ‘China’ known to the West: Bruce Lee; Jackie Chan; Dim Sim; Fishing boats next to High-rise apartment blocks, these are all Cantonese culture icons that were exported from Hong Kong.

Another major result of Colonial rule is emigration. Ever since the 19th century, southeast China has been the major source of emigration from China, a lot of whom speaks Cantonese as their mother tongue. Recently, though, it was the end of colonialism that brought a massive emigration wave from Hong Kong. Insecurity of the end of British rule exacerbated by the Communist crackdown in Tiananmen Square. 1989 convinced a lot of Hong Kong people that their future is best continued elsewhere. Perhaps as many as 1/6 of Hong Kong people emigrated, most to the West with Vancouver as the most popular destination. (Ask your Canadian friends, you can easily get by in Vancouver while only speaking Cantonese: my grandma proved that)

This emigration wave considerably strengthened the use of the Cantonese language in overseas communities, and if you’re my age living in the Anglophone countries (especially CANADA), there’s a good chance that your Chinese friends speak Cantonese at home.

(In recent years, though, emigration from the Mandarin-speaking part of China and Taiwan are slowly changing the demographics of the overseas communities, but Cantonese remains popular)

Tl;DR: Cantonese and Mandarin are both subgroups of Chinese; there are many more subgroups; Mandarin is far more popular in China but due to historical reasons Cantonese is perhaps more well-known in the West.

Next time we’ll tackle a more controversial issue, the classification of Chinese languages. Are the dialects? Or are they separate languages?

Guess what? It depends on politics.