By Research Scholar Keith Tse
Cantonese means a lot to me. My interest in it is twofold: academic and personal. As I do research in Linguistics and I frequently analyse my native language (Chinese), I am naturally interested in Cantonese and its reception in the West. I also come from Hong Kong, China, and Cantonese is my native tongue as it is for the vast majority of people there.
I joined the Saving Cantonese at Stanford project formally in January 2021 after seeing a post about it on Facebook. Their petition convinced me to join their Slack workspace that now includes several hundred members from all around the world, many of whom are in North America and have Cantonese heritage. Other members are from Hong Kong/China and are native Cantonese speakers.
This project originally stemmed from an announcement in 2020 that Stanford University would not continue the full-time Cantonese teaching position for their long-serving Cantonese lecturer, Dr. Sik Lee Dennig, who is affectionately known to her students as Zeong Lousi (張老師), which literally means ‘Teacher Zeong’ (her Chinese surname). This controversial decision drew the ire and widespread disapproval from former and current students of Dr. Dennig who started an online petition which received thousands of signatures from people at Stanford and beyond.
The original team of former and current students of Dr. Dennig worked tirelessly and voluntarily on building momentum for this campaign. What began as an intent to preserve Cantonese education at Stanford has since developed into a movement of global reach powered by social media. The campaign now has a big following on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and a website containing all the information and regular updates. It has also gained important allies and sister campaigns, such as Save Cantonese at the Community College of San Francisco (CCSF), which also has its own social media channels on Twitter and Instagram, as well as updates posted on Google, and BLM Cantonese, which shares the common goal of promoting and preserving Cantonese in the US.
This rapid development is testament to Dr Dennig’s contributions to teaching Cantonese at Stanford… It also shows the importance of Cantonese to Chinese Americans who have felt it their duty and responsibility to preserve this language that they clearly so dearly love.
Earlier this year, it was announced that the campaign had received an endowment of $1M to support Cantonese language classes at Stanford University, a major step in achieving the intended goal of preserving Cantonese education at the said university. Since then, the campaign has been renamed Save Cantonese in recognition that it is no longer about preserving Cantonese courses at Stanford University but instead has a more general, greater goal of promoting awareness of Cantonese language, history and culture in the West.
This rapid development is testament to Dr. Dennig’s contribution to teaching Cantonese at Stanford, which has instilled interest and passion for all things Cantonese among Stanford students and alumni. It also shows the importance of Cantonese to Chinese Americans who have felt it their duty and responsibility to preserve this language that they clearly so dearly love.
As a group that consists of numerous teams working on different aspects of the campaign, there are many channels on our Slack workspace that are thematically arranged (website, social media, media coverage, pics, videos, events etc). I am a professional/academic linguist and I have been a regular participant in the #translations channel. I have translated numerous documents and public announcements from English into Chinese (Mandarin/Cantonese), including the press release for the endowment. I am also a freelance journalist for Asia Times Online where I regularly contribute op-ed’s on Chinese language and sociolinguistics. Indeed, I have written an article on our campaign where I provided academic and sociolinguistic arguments in support of our project.
A few things need to be said about the relationship between Cantonese and Mandarin and Chinese dialects in general which, as I have argued before, is more complex than commonly (mis)conceived. It is widely known that Chinese is a language of many varieties, but the West conceptualizes Chinese as consisting of two mutually exclusive languages (Mandarin vs Cantonese), which is far too simplistic. In fact, it is outright wrong. Chinese consists of many regional varieties known as topolects (方言), i.e. speech of the region. Given the enormous size of China, Chinese dialectal (sub)varieties easily number in the thousands, which form a continuum throughout the entire country, as shown in the following map:
Traditionally, Chinese dialects are classified into seven major dialectal families: Mandarin, Yue (Cantonese), Wu, Hakka, Min, Xiang, Gan, which are distributed throughout the country as represented by the different colored regions on the map above.
While dialects give variety and local identity to many regions in China, the standard language binds all Chinese people together… which has created a balance between diversity and unity. Such is the complexity of Chinese dialects which belies common misconceptions of a bipolar dichotomy and distribution between Mandarin and Cantonese.
However, despite this enormous array of dialectal variation and differences, China also has a sociolinguistic system which is typical of diglossic societies around the world. Mandarin is taught in schools as part of the literary education and used in formal contexts such as writing, public speaking, and ‘external’ contexts such as communication with foreigners and among Chinese compatriots not from the region. In contrast, local vernaculars are used in more private and intimate functions such as social events and day-to-day activities including ‘internal’ functions like chatting with family and friends or those from the same region more generally (Ferguson 1959, Fishman 1967). Many literate Chinese people are hence proficient in both standard Mandarin and their local variety and are able to code-switch according to sociolinguistic contexts. By these classic definitions, Cantonese is a dialect of Chinese, since it is regionally specific to the Canton province, even though it does have some characteristics of being a language in certain special administrative regions like Hong Kong and Macau.
While dialects give variety and local identity to many regions in China, the standard language binds all Chinese people together by enabling mutual mass communication, which has created a balance between diversity and unity. Such is the complexity of Chinese dialects which belies common misconceptions of a bipolar dichotomy and distribution between Mandarin and Cantonese. While Cantonese is a major dialect family of Chinese, it remains a regional dialect (not a language) among many thousands of sub-dialects in the Chinese-speaking world.
One may ask: why should we go to all these lengths in trying to preserve Cantonese, and if so, why should we not do the same for all varieties of Chinese?
Considering the longevity of the Chinese civilisation which goes back thousands of years and extends to numerous places abroad through waves of migration, Mandarin, while being the standard language in mainland China, is not always the default for Chinese immigrants. Instead, many immigrants of Chinese ethnicity have heritage in the south of China. They hence speak southern dialects such as Hakka, Hokkien, Teochow and, of course, Cantonese.
While Mandarin Chinese is a far-cry from being an international language as it is not the lingua franca of international exchange like English and Spanish (even though it has by some distance the highest number of native speakers in the world), the Chinese-speaking world extends beyond mainland China and has many pockets of settlements in different parts of the world. Some of these go back several generations, especially in North America where most Chinese immigrants speak Cantonese.
Cantonese… has the status of being a heritage language in the West… Cantonese is hence unique among Chinese dialects in terms of its international heritage distribution. It is also of deep cultural significance to overseas Chinese, as shown by the energy and enthusiasm of the many team members of Save Cantonese.
Indeed, one of the major arguments proposed by members of Save Cantonese for preserving Cantonese education at Stanford University is that the founder of the university (Leland Stanford) relied on the hard labour of Cantonese-speaking railroad workers in securing the foundations of the university. This, they argue, underlies the moral duty of the university to offer courses in Cantonese.
Cantonese, therefore, has the status of being a heritage language in the West. It is commonly used by new generations of American-born Chinese who speak Cantonese with their elders and seek to understand their cultural heritage through Cantonese. Cantonese is hence unique among Chinese dialects in terms of its international heritage distribution. It is also of deep cultural significance to overseas Chinese, as shown by the energy and enthusiasm of the many team members of Save Cantonese.
It is hence important that we do as much as we can to preserve this ‘special’ dialect of Chinese as it is not only a major and prominent dialect in China but also a highly influential one in the internationalisation of Chinese.
I have lent my support for Save Cantonese by signing the online petition and my biggest contribution to the campaign has been my writing in the form of translations of official statements and online blogposts. In light of the progress made in building the campaign and securing funding for Cantonese classes at Stanford, I would hope that my writings as an independent scholar/researcher have made an impact, however small, to our joint and common endeavours. I also hope that my expertise in Linguistics and native intuitions in Cantonese have served the campaign in a positive way.
In light of the progress made… I would hope that my writings as an independent scholar/researcher have made an impact… I also hope that my expertise in Linguistics and native intuitions in Cantonese have served the campaign in a positive way.
While my blogposts have not (yet) been cited in academic journal articles, it is heartwarming to have received queries from fellow academics on issues regarding Cantonese sociolinguistics. They have come to know my work through reading my blogposts and journalistic writings. I hope to continue my language advocacy for Cantonese and all languages as I hope to make a positive impact in the world.
This blogpost accompanies my Lightning Talk presentation at the Ronin Institute delivered on 28th February 2022. I thank the audience for their patience and feedback and the Ronin Institute for organising this monthly event, especially our hosts Stéphanie Cassilde and John LaRocco. As some of my blogposts referenced above have dead and outdated links, the reader is advised to check my Medium account to find the media content intact in my reposted materials. For those who read Cantonese Chinese, I have also written a blogpost for 港語學 which can be found here. Finally, my thanks and admiration to my fellow members at Save Cantonese, especially Dr. Jamie Tam, Maciej Kurzynski, Ryan Talvola, Kevin Hsu and Dr. Dennig (張老師), for welcoming me on board and making all of this possible. I shall continue to do what and all I can to further our campaign as we strive to preserve and promote Cantonese in the West.
Ferguson, C. A. (1959): ‘Diglossia’. Word 15(2):325-340. https://doi.org/10.1080/00437956.1959.11659702
Fishman, J. A (1967): ‘Bilingualism with and without diglossia; diglossia with and without bilingualism’. Journal of Social Issues 23(2):29-38. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4560.1967.tb00573.x
Keith Tse is a Research Scholar at the Ronin Institute (2018-) and he does research in Languages and Linguistics. He is also Community Journalist and Communication co-lead and is jointly responsible for internal and external communications in the Ronin community.
This post is a perspective of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Ronin Institute.