Fans of Chinese soccer team Guangzhou Evergrande hold up banners during its AFC Champions League match with Hong Kong's Eastern at Mong Kok Stadium in April last year.

The activist fighting to keep Cantonese alive in its homeland

Oct 29, 2018

Guangzhou is known as the birthplace of Cantonese, but among the city’s younger generation, it’s quickly losing favor to Mandarin, the official national language.

Some grandchildren have reportedly refused to speak in Cantonese with grandparents who can only communicate in it, while young parents often switch between Cantonese and Mandarin when talking with their children.

“It’s a pity, but it’s necessary because most kids nowadays don’t like speaking Cantonese even though they were born here and are growing up here,” says Luo Bihua, the mother of an 8-year-old boy. “The schools and government have been discouraging Cantonese in the community for a long time.”

Cantonese is widely spoken in Guangdong province—where Guangzhou is the capital—and the surrounding region, which includes Hong Kong and Macau. It’s also dominant in many overseas Chinese communities, with an estimated 60 million speakers across the world.

But because it is mutually unintelligible with Mandarin, the Chinese government has been discouraging its use.

Late last month, a primary school in Guangzhou sent a letter to students and parents, urging them to only communicate in Mandarin at home. In school, children are incentivized not to use Cantonese, and can even face punishment if they are caught speaking it in the classroom or playground.

A sign in Guangzhou encourages people to speak Mandarin and write in simplified Chinese characters, adding, “Use civilized language – Be a civilized person.”
A sign in Guangzhou encourages people to speak Mandarin and write in simplified Chinese characters, adding, “Use civilized language – Be a civilized person.” / Photo: SCMP

Tensions over language policy date back to 2010, when the city government proposed that its two main television stations switch from broadcasting in Cantonese to Mandarin. The move drew thousands of people to the streets in protest. One of them was Lao Zhenyu.

Lao, a self-proclaimed Cantonese culture activist, runs a website aimed at preserving the local language. His website,, has been looking for fun and creative ways to get children born after 2000 to use Cantonese.

Lao Zhenyu is a self-proclaimed Cantonese culture activist.
Lao Zhenyu is a self-proclaimed Cantonese culture activist. / Photo: SCMP

During Lunar New Year, the group prints hundreds of thousands of red envelopes with Cantonese slang and encourages grandparents to teach their grandchildren Cantonese. Last year, Lao’s team also published a book to teach children how to recite classic Chinese poems in Cantonese.

Lao says the reasons for Cantonese’s marginalization are complex and linked to political and economic changes over the past decade.

From the early 1990s to late 2000s, millions of migrant workers flocked to Guangdong from Mandarin-speaking provinces.

The new arrivals were keen to learn Cantonese, viewing fluency as a way to get ahead in business. Films and television shows from Hong Kong became popular as a result.

“At that time, speaking Cantonese made us feel more international and that we had more in common with international cities like Hong Kong or New York than with people from the hinterlands who could usually only speak Mandarin,” says Jade Xu, a 36-year-old teacher in Shenzhen, a city just north of Hong Kong.

But economic development in other regions of China has made Cantonese less influential and necessary for business.

The Chinese government has been keen on making Mandarin the primary medium of instruction in schools.

Last year, the Ministry of Education and State Language Commission said they wanted 80 percent of China’s population to be able to speak Mandarin by 2020.

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

But Lao says the push to promote Mandarin should not mean the demise of Cantonese.

“Ensuring everyone can speak Mandarin does not mean they need to force everyone to speak only Mandarin in daily life,” he says.

In Hong Kong, where Cantonese remains the primary medium of instruction in schools, there was similar controversy earlier this month when the city’s education secretary said the “future development of Chinese language learning” depended on Mandarin.

After facing public backlash, he was forced to clarify that he was not casting any doubt on the utility of learning Cantonese.

Adapted from an original article first published in the South China Morning Post.

CantoneseChinese languageLanguage policyCultural Preservation