Chinese Corner

Not Mandarin

An invitation to speak other Chineses – Will Sack

Imagine if all of Germany spoke Shanghainese. Or if a population bigger than Britain spoke Cantonese. Wouldn’t we treat them as more than just sideshows? With 80 and 70 million native speakers respectively, Shanghainese and Cantonese are massive in both use and importance. So why do we so seldom teach them or other non-Mandarin Chineses? Why aren’t we curious what one third of China – a politically and culturally marginalized, but not always economically marginalized, third – has to say and think on their own terms?

Chinese Corner


Expressing misfortune, and resistance, in Mandarin – Anne Henochowicz

Strunk and White’s classic textbook Elements of Style taught us to avoid the passive voice in our writing. Our verbs should take action, not a back seat, whenever possible. (This advice is not universally accepted.) In Mandarin, however, the passive voice packs a real punch. When something is done to you, the passive evokes your great misfortune.

Chinese Corner

Triad and Tested

Start talking like a Hong Kong gangster – RS

It’s an open secret in Hong Kong that both triads (haak1 se5 wui5 黑社會) and local police worship the same deity, Guan Gong, for upholding brotherhood, loyalty and righteousness. It may be odd for organizations that represent opposite ends of the morality scale to both honor righteousness, but it’s this blurred space between right and wrong that is so fascinating about the triads of Hong Kong.

Chinese Corner

Mother Tongue

Cantonese is no mere “variant” of Mandarin – Gina Tam

In May, a packet of supplementary information promoting Mandarin in the classroom was sent to schools in Hong Kong. This collection of new research on effective language pedagogy included an explosive piece by Song Xinqiao, a consultant at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Research and Development of Mandarin Education, in which he claimed that it was incorrect to call Cantonese the “mother tongue” of Hong Kongers.

He premised his argument on a selective interpretation of the UNESCO definition of “mother tongue.” According to UNESCO, Song reasoned, “the mother tongue does not only belong to a person but an ethnic group”; Cantonese does not denote an ethnicity, but only a “Chinese dialect,” and therefore should not be called a “mother tongue.” Rather, Cantonese is one “variant of Mandarin,” which Song claims for the Chinese ethnic group as a whole. For Song, this was not up for debate – it was scientific fact. Chinese is an ethnic group, represented by Mandarin. Cantonese is not.