By Kent Ewing      Asia Times     August 4, 2010

"Fuck his mother! Hit them hard!" is a chant that had been the battle cry of a famous Cantonese general Yuan Chonghuan袁崇焕(1584-1630) in late Ming Dynasty against his Manchu counterpart.  For seven years, until last month, a plaque carrying the battle cry had been placed at the base of a statue honoring Yuan Chonghuan, in his native city of Dongguan in Guangdong.

When local authorities removed the plaque, it sparked an online protest that was then greatly exacerbated by a proposal, made by the Guangzhou Municipal Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a political advisory body to the city's party committee. The municipal committee proposed that Guangzhou TV's most popular channels start broadcasting in the central government-designated national language of Putonghua, also known as Mandarin, rather than in Cantonese.

Yuan Chonghuan's statue at his ancestral home
Yuan Chonghuan's statue at his ancestral home

Yuan Chonghuan's famous slogan FUCK HIS MOM! HIT THE HARD!

Yuan Chonghuan (袁崇焕) was a Ming Dynasty general famous for defeating Nurhaci at the Battle of Ningyuan, which put a temporary halt to the Manchu invasion. Yuan's ancestral home in Dongguan, Guanggdong, has been turned into a memorial park. Inscribed on the base of a stone statue of Yuan is his battle-cry, shown in the above photo. The text: 掉哪媽!頂硬上! FUCK HIS MOM! HIT THE HARD! “頂硬上”成了輕騎護京的主旋律,“掉哪媽”成了眾人罵昏君的助語詞。 "Hit the hard" as the main melody of Yuan's army when they hurried to the capital to rescue the country, And "fuck his mom" became the starting word for cursing fatuous emperors. The translation isn't perfect, but the profanity is entirely appropriate. "掉哪妈" (diu na ma) is a widely used colloquial Cantonese expression that has a variety of written forms. The character 掉 is used in place of 屌 (diu2, "penis" as a noun, and "fuck" as a verb), but is now a far less common substitute than 丢 or 刁. (In Hong Kong, the recent construction [門+小] is often used.) Here's how the Cantonese Profanity Research Web explains the phrase: As written, it literally means "fuck your mother" (那 na is a fusion of 你阿 nei a: 你阿媽 nei ama, "your mother"), but it is not ordinarily meant as an insult, but is mainly used instead to express anger, displeasure, astonishment, disappointment, and so forth...the tone is similar to the Mandarin 他妈的 (tamade, "His mother's...") or 他奶奶的 (tanainaide, "His granny's...").

"Hit the Hard," on the other hand, is a simply a mechanical mistranslation of an exhortation to forge stubbornly onward. The phrase has been called an encapsulation of the "Cantonese Spirit," and it appears in a coolie chant cited in various places online: 嗨呀嗨哟,顶硬上啰,鬼叫你穷啊 Hi-yo, hi-yo. Go all out! No one told you to be poor!

So Yuan Chonghuan's battle-cry, supposedly uttered when his superiors ordered a general retreat to Shanhaiguan as the Manchu armies were closing in on Ningyuan, could conceivably be translated as "Fuck that! We'll give it all we've got!"

How do you stop 50 million people from speaking in their native dialect? The answer is that you cannot.

The Chinese nation, or more exactly the Han majority, has had a unified written language for more than 2,000 years. However, the same characters can be pronounced very differently in over 100 dialects. A Beijinger may not understand what a Shanghainese says. And a Shanghainese may not understand the Cantonese dialect spoken by people in an area from Guangzhou to Hong Kong.

In the past two weeks on both sides of the border separating Hong Kong from the mainland, protesters who feel that their Cantonese dialect and heritage are under threat by the Chinese leadership's obsession with national unity in nearly everything have taken to the streets to make it perfectly clear that nothing can force them to give up their native dialect.

Just this Sunday, hundreds of people staged parallel rallies in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, provincial capital of Guangdong, demanding space - and lots of it - for the Cantonese dialect and culture in China's national life.

In Hong Kong, where freedom of speech and assembly are a way of life, the demonstration attracted media attention not for its size - only 200 or so protesters turned out - but for the solidarity demonstrators expressed with their brothers and sisters across the border in Guangzhou, the traditional center of Cantonese culture once known as Canton.

Sunday's pro-Cantonese Guangzhou demonstration, the second in a week, took place under much different conditions than the Hong Kong rally. It went ahead, in the People's Park, despite a government ban and media gag. But it was quickly shut down by police, who scuffled with protesters and wound up arresting about 20 people, including four Hong Kong journalists.

At the same time, 200 demonstrators, watched but unimpeded by police, made their orderly way from Hong Kong's Wan Chai district to government headquarters in Central.

Media accounts took note of the youthfulness of the demonstrators, many of whom were twenty- and thirty-somethings suffering from what sociologists call "identity anxiety".

Radical Hong Kong legislator "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung was also on the scene, at one point leading demonstrators in the chant "Fuck his mother! Hit them hard!" that had been the battle cry of the famous Cantonese general Yuan Chonghuan in late Ming Dynasty against his Manchu counterpart. The same chant was heard on Sunday in Guangzhou before police silenced it.

Those virtual protests turned real on July 25, when more than 1,000 people showed up for a pro-Cantonese rally at a Guangzhou metro station. In an attempt to thwart that protest, police blocked Jiangnanxi Road, which was its gathering point, and also stopped a local band from playing Cantonese songs. But the defiant protesters continued, shouting slogans such as "Support Cantonese" and "Shut up, Ji Kekuang."

It was Ji, a member of the CPPCC Guangzhou committee, who offended Cantonese pride when he motioned for the language change for Guangzhou TV. His argument - presumably filtering down from provincial Communist Party chief Wang Yang, an appointee from the north - was that the switch would make Guangzhou a more hospitable place for visitors from other provinces when it hosts the Asian Games in November.

Ji may have won favor among his Putonghua-speaking superiors in Beijing for his proposal, but it has also turned him into to the whipping boy for a growing pro-Cantonese movement that now has spilled across the border into Hong Kong.

For the people of Hong Kong and Guangdong, of course, there is great irony in all this. Cantonese has a much older linguistic history than Putonghua and, indeed, could well have become the national language after the founding of the Republic of China (ROC) by Guangdong native Sun Yat-sen in 1912. But the subsequent civil war and the establishment in 1949 of the People's Republic of China under Mao Zedong made that impossible.

Still today, besides being the native tongue of more than 50 million people in China, Cantonese is also spoken by 20 million members of Chinese diaspora.

In today's China, however, Putonghua, a standardized form of Mandarin based heavily on the Beijing dialect, is the language of the country's schools, state media and government departments, which has inevitably led to a decline in local languages and dialects. In Guangdong, some schools have reportedly punished students for speaking Cantonese instead of Putonghua.

In the same way that many middle-class parents in Hong Kong, a former British colony, speak English to their children at home in the hope that it will advance their educational and career prospects, upwardly mobile Guangdong parents teach Putonghua to their offspring.

Now it appears a younger generation of Cantonese speakers is starting to balk at what they see as the marginalization of their language and culture. Ham-fisted responses to their anxiety - like the ugly suppression of the protest in Guangzhou on Sunday - only heighten their fears.

China's 30-year economic boom was fueled by the manufacturing industry in Guangdong's Pearl River Delta, and in the 1980s and early 1990s the province was also a cultural hub. But those were the early years of China's economic miracle. Guangdong, helped by its proximity to Hong Kong, was the first province to open up to foreign investment and also the first to get rich; meanwhile, the nation became fascinated with the slickness and sophistication of Hong Kong television, films and popular music, almost all of it in Cantonese.

But Guangdong's manufacturing prowess is being threatened by cheaper set-up and labor costs in other provinces, and China's entertainment industry is much more talented and diverse, as well as more united by the common language of Putonghua. Beijing and Shanghai, not Guangzhou and Hong Kong, are now the nation's cultural hubs.

Sensing this loss of position, Guangdong authorities recently set aside 25 billion yuan (US$3.7 billion) to promote local culture over the next five years. But these are the same officials now snuffing out protests rooted in Cantonese pride, who accuse rally organizers of having "ulterior motives".

The good news for the demonstrators is that, despite their worst fears, Cantonese culture will continue to thrive. While it may not claim the same prominence it enjoyed early in the nation's economic boom, it is simply too big and richly embedded in Chinese history to be suppressed.

That said, the pro-Cantonese campaign should serve as a reminder that China is a land of 160 dialects and 130 minority languages, many of which truly are endangered. While there is nothing wrong with having a national language, suspicion and suppression of minority languages and cultures is another story - one that has produced a backlash of violent revolt among the Uyghur people in the northwestern Xinjiang region and also in neighboring Tibet.

China's linguistic and cultural diversity is surely a strength, not a weakness.


Hit the Hard: Cantonese Preservation Campaign in Hong Kong

August 1, 2010

Before the Asian Games Starts, a member of Political Consultative Conference suggests to lengthen the duration of Mandarin programs in the Cantonese-speaking channel.

protestors with a banner that bears the following slogans:

"Say no to one party dictatorship, No Mandarin-monoply"
"Defend Cultural Freedom, No more Thought Suppression"

Many protestors express their anger on the Beijing regime. A trend that is more common in Hong Kong's protest.

About 150 protestors took to the street in Hong Kong on 1st August to voice out the support to similar campaigns in Guangzhou and their fear on the rumor that the Beijing regime is going to replace Cantonese with Mandarin.

Cantonese is a language spoken by about 54,150,000 people around the world and carries a lot of phrases from ancient Chinese which is disappeared in Mandarin.

The Hong Kong people's fear is based on the fact that some schools had already replace Cantonese with Mandarin in Chinese language classes. Anti-Chinese Communist Party slogans can be heard throughout the protest.



Cross-border Protests Aim to Save Cantonese
August 2, 2010

Guangzhou and Hong Kong, two of southern China’s most prosperous cities, are connected by the Cantonese dialect but separated by the political boundaries of one country, two systems. On Sunday, more than 1,000 demonstrators in both cities tried briefly to bridge that gap with simultaneous protests over the need to protect their common tongue.

The catalyst for the protests was a recent proposal made by the local committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Guangzhou to replace some Cantonese prime time TV shows with Mandarin programs on Guangzhou TV. The move was ostensibly aimed at catering to visitors from abroad and elsewhere in China who don’t understand Cantonese ahead of the Asian Games to be held in November.

More recently, Su Zhijia, a deputy party secretary of Guangzhou, told Global Times on July 26 “the city government has never had such a plan to abandon or weaken Cantonese,” but that didn’t stop Sunday’s protests.
In this Youtube video taken Sunday, hundreds of mainland police officers were seen marching into the People’s Park in Guangzhou and forcefully carrying protesters away as the crowd chanted “Say No to Mandarin!” Some have argued that the protest, along with an earlier one that took place on July 25 where a few thousands of people chanted offensive Cantonese slogans outside a subway station exit, might be the two most significant rallies in Guangzhou since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976.

In Hong Kong on Sunday, the scene was far less dramatic as around 200 activists marched to the central government offices. During the four-hour march, reporters might have accounted for one in four of the attendees.
Cantonese, still widely spoken by majority of the city’s population and used as the dominant teaching medium at local schools, isn’t under an immediate threat in the territory. This made the reasons for staging a “pro-Cantonese” rally a bit obscure, although some saw it as a show of support for fellow Cantonese speakers across the border.

“Hong Kong and Guangzhou have different political system, but they share the same cultural roots and a similar kind of frustration towards their under-represented governments,” said Choi Suk-fong, one of the organizers of the march and a Hong Kong-based journalist-turned-activist who covered the Tiananmen massacre in Beijing in 1989. “After watching the videos on YouTube that showed how [people in Guangzhou] displayed their anger and passion, I was motivated to organize a march here as well, while I still have the freedom of speech.”

Others speak of a common Cantonese political heritage. “If you look into the history of China, from the controversial self-proclaimed “Father of the Nation” Sun Yat-sen, to the leaders of the Taiping Rebellion, Cantonese people have often made up the most liberal community in China,” said Chip Tsoi, a current affairs commentator and radio show host for RTHK, a Hong Kong broadcasting corporation. “Historically, Cantonese-speakers from the south have been the revolutionaries.”

“The issue here is respect,” said Kevin, a 30-year-old Canadian-Chinese who grew up in Guangzhou and refused to give his family name. “If you don’t respect their languages, how can you respect their voices?”


保衞大粵語 Protect our Cantonese

陳雲 Wan Chin  2010年7月20日
我是客家人,憂心客家話失傳,但我熱愛粵語。保衞粵語,固可從政治平權、從文化權利去講,但保衞粵語、保育粵語,更應從中文保育來講。I am a Hakka people. I am worried about the extinction of Hakka language. But also, I love Cantonese. We can discuss the importance of Cantonese from the prospectus of political equality, as well as cultural rights. But I think it is better to review this issue from the angle of preservation of Chinese language.

Cantonese is the reservoir of elegant and refined Chinese language. Even if there were only a few hundred people using Cantonese, Cantonese is worth being preserved and taught at school. The former British colonial government in Hong Kong unintentionally preserved the traditional Chinese characters and using Cantonese to teach Chinese. Hong Kong people should treasure, and mainlander should respect, this coincidental cultural miracle. Chinese people have a different point of view. They have their own value judgment whether to preserve Cantonese or not. But they should not prohibit the use of Cantonese in public space and educational organization.

漢音唐話 文化集成 Cantonese is the collection of ancient Chinese culture and language

陳存仁醫師《閱世品人錄—章太炎家書及其他》記載,劉半農(劉復)倡導白話文,求教於章太炎。章說,白話文不自今日始,《毛詩》就是白話詩,《水滸》、《老殘遊記》,用蘇白寫的《海上花列傳》,也是白話文。但是你們寫的白話文,是根據什麼言語做標準的。劉半農侃侃而談:「白話文是以國語為標準,國語即是北京話。」章師聽了大笑,問劉:「你知不知道北京話是什麼話?」劉半農不假思索答說:「是中國明清以來,京城堣H說的話。」章質問:「明朝的話你有什麼考據?」劉半農無言以對。章以明朝音韻誦讀文天祥《正氣歌》,發音與北京話迥異,說道:「現在的國語,嚴格地說來,含有十分之幾是滿洲人的音韻,好多字音都不是漢人所有。」此話一出,劉半農啞口無言。Nowadays, many people suppose that Mandarin is the most common dialect in Beijing, the Capital of China since Ming Dynasty (14th Century). Zhang Binglin (章太炎 December 25, 1868 — June 14, 1936), an anti-Manchu activist and scholar specialised in Chinese philosophy and phonology, stated that Mandarin was derived from Manchus. The pronunciation of many words in Mandarin was not derived from ancient Chinese.

廣東人源自古代越族,在漢唐期間接受中原文化,此後關山障隔,免受胡人沾染,邊陲之地,反留有漢音唐風,德國民俗學稱此為文化孤島(德文Kulturinsel),猶如今日要親見唐代之淳厚,宋代之雅緻,要參訪日本京都。又因文人雅士來嶺南施教者,多因貶謫,如韓昌黎、蘇東坡、屈大均,故粵人之文風,最重氣節,常懷整頓中原、匡正天下之心,此洪秀全、康南海、孫中山之義事也。The ancient Bach Viet, the ancestor of Cantonese, was influenced by the Chinese culture, in particular, the Han culture, in the period of 2nd century BC to 9th century AD. Bach Viet was then geographically isolated by the Nanling Mountains, and free from the influence of barbarians. German describe this as “Kulturinsel”, which means “cuture island”. For example we can only observe the architecture features of Tang and Son Dynasty (6th to 13th century) in Kyoto of Japan. And therefore, Cantonese is not only a set of pronunciation, but also the vector of the Chinese Lingnan Culture, which is derived from the ancient Chinese culture. Also, many literary giant , such as Han Yu 韓愈(768—824 ) and Su Shi 蘇軾(January 8, 1037 – August 24, 1101), came to the southern part of the country because of political relegation. Their writings emphasize moral courage and integrity. And this certainly influenced the great educator Kang Youwei and the southern China's warlord Sun Yat-sen.

清末民初,又與西洋接觸,因此廣東話的語音和詞源最為豐富:古代南方民族土語、漢唐中原雅言及西洋翻譯借詞。中文與土語混同千年,修成正果,復加西洋新語,更見活潑。In the early 19th century, Cantonese communicated with the foreigners, so that Cantonese language consists of a wide variety of pronunciations and vocabularies. In particular, ancient Bach Viet language, elegant ancient Chinese language, and loanwords from west and Japan comprise the modern Cantonese. The forming process can be dated back thousands years ago.

北方白話,乃至共產中國推行的普通話,語源是明清江浙官話、蒙古滿洲胡音及蘇俄翻譯文體,只混了幾百年,而且混得蕪雜。「我的車讓他給砸了」(我的車被他毀了)。這是北京土話,不是通用中文,今日也成了普通話、白話文了。以北方普通話做中國語文典範,乃是近世中國語文之大災難;中共簡體字那一筆混賬,且不說了。Dialects of the northern Chinese, as well as Putonghua which is promoted by the Chinese Communist Party, are derived from the official language of Yangtze River Delta in Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty, Manchu and Mongol languages, and loanwords from Soviet Russian. The resulting dialect is disordered, confusing and can be dated back a few hundreds years only. Nowadays, the local dialect in Beijing is recognized as official Chinese. This is a disaster in the Chinese language. And now I am not going to discuss how the simplified Chinese characters spoil the Chinese culture.

文書方面,由於粵語語音豐富,聲母二十個,韻母有八十八個(介音三十五個),聲調有九聲(或十聲)。比諸粵語,普通話聲母之數相若,但韻母及聲調少了一半,是故粵語辨義能力大,口語可用單音節詞,不必複音化,文書也隨之簡潔。There are 20 initials, 88 vowels and 9 tones in Cantonese, while there are similar numbers of initials, half numbered vowels and tones in Mandarin. As a result, Cantonese enables a wide variety of single-syllable vocab. And thus Cantonese can be more concise.