BEIJING –"Say no to Mandarin!" thousands chanted in Cantonese in a busy district of Guangzhou, capital of China’s southern Guangdong province, Sunday afternoon.
Residents of southern China have long been known for being vocal about their opinions – from mass protests against a local chemical plant in Fujian province three years ago to a series of strikes by migrant workers calling for higher wages in Guangdong earlier this year.
But Sunday’s protest was unique – Guangzhou citizens were walking in the street to protect their native language:Cantonese.
It was sparked by an announcement earlier this month by the local China People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a political advisory body, encouraging the local government to promote Mandarin language content on Guangzhou’s prime time TV news programs.
With Cantonese serving as the primary language in Guangdong province, as well as Hong Kong and Macao, it’s spoken not just by millions locally, but also by millions of Chinese emigrants around the globe.
Dialect equals identity
Mandarin, China’s official language, is based mainly on northern dialects, primarily, the Beijing dialect. It was not adopted as the country’s national language until the1950s, when the fledgling Communist government took power and began to enforce it as the standard language to be used in education, media and by the government.
But in a country as large and geographically diverse as China, promoting one standard dialect has been no easy task. It’s not uncommon for villagers living just 30 miles away from each other to speak different dialects – particularly in the south where the mountainous terrain helped lead to linguistic differences.
Many people living in southern China have been speaking local dialects for centuries – the only time they even hear Mandarin is when they watch TV or listen to radio (assuming they watch or listen to either). As a result, the central government has gone to great lengths to try to unify what people speak.
"When I was in elementary school 11 years ago, we were not allowed to speak any Cantonese," said a native Guangzhou girl who spoke to NBC News by phone and asked to be identified by her Internet chat room alias, Yinghuochong.
"We were only allowed to speak Mandarin in the school, otherwise your daily achievement score would be deducted by teachers. They say it’s not civilized to speak Cantonese. I don’t understand. Why is it so civilized to speak Mandarin? What about English? Is it more civilized to speak English then?" said Yinghuochong.
Yinghuochong was not the only one angry about the CPPCC’s proposal. She joined thousands of other young people, mostly in their 20s, wearing white tee-shirts that said "I love Guangzhou" as they walked through the city’s streets to show their support for their dialect.
"Support Cantonese!" "Let’s speak Cantonese!" "Say no to Mandarin!" were a few of the slogans shouted out by the crowds.
The march reached a climax when a chorus of protesters sang "Glorious Time," a hit song by the former Hong Kong band Beyond, in Cantonese.
"Among dozens of the TV channels we can receive, only five or six are Cantonese channels. They are for people like my mom, who doesn’t speak Mandarin at all. She doesn’t have many options when she watches TV," said Yinghuochong. "This is just not necessary at all."
Su Zhijia, the deputy mayor of Guangzhou, denied that Guangzhou TV was planning to switch from broadcasting in Cantonese to Mandarin. In an interview with a local media he stressed that "the government has never thought about doing anything to weaken Cantonese."
Su also argued that promoting Mandarin doesn’t necessarily mean Cantonese has to be eliminated. But his promises didn’t seem to calm the doubts and complaints from many Guangzhou citizens.
A form of ‘cultural deprivation’
Michael Anti, an active blogger and analyst, explained why he believes Cantonese is so symbolic in this region, which is one of just two places in China that is still permitted to broadcast television in its own dialect; the other is Shanghai.
"The official promotion of Mandarin is a sort of cultural deprivation," Anti said. "The majority of the protesters are young people, who cannot afford to buy any property in this weak economic environment. They already feel economically disadvantaged and now they are more afraid of losing what they are proud of."
And the outrage over the Mandarin proposal is not limited to the activists marching last weekend. The CPPCC’s web site sponsored an online survey asking respondents if they should add more Mandarin TV programs. The survey received a resounding "No" from 80 percent of respondents. The overwhelmingly negative results quickly became a major point of discussion in the blogosphere and on Internet chat rooms.
"Shame on a city without dialect," said Feng Xincheng, an editor of a magazine based in Guangzhou. "Save Cantonese!" soon turned into the most used slogans on many microblogs.
Despite the outpouring, Yinghuochong is still worried. "The last time when 80 percent of people surveyed voted ‘No’ the CPPCC still said people needed to be guided. We only have one purpose: We don’t want them to crack down on Cantonese."