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.

Chinese Corner

One Language, Two Systems

Traditional vs. simplified characters – Ash Henson

As if learning to write Chinese characters isn’t enough of a headache already, there are two character systems in common use in the Sinosphere. “Traditional” characters, also known as “complex” characters, have been in continuous use for 1,500 years, and are the standard in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and many diaspora communities. “Simplified” characters are the result of script reforms made in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) primarily in the 1950s and 1960s, and are also used in Singapore. It's an emotional topic for a lot of native speakers, not to mention a source of great strife for students of Mandarin. There’s something offensive for everyone.

Chinese Corner

Radical Characters

The real building blocks of the Chinese writing system – John Renfroe

If you’re learning to write in Chinese, you’ve probably been advised to learn the 214 standard “radicals,” those alleged “building blocks” of the character system. Perhaps you’ve tried to discern the meaning of an unfamiliar character through dissection, prying the “roof” 宀 off the “house” 家 to see what’s inside. Perhaps you haven’t gotten very far.

There’s a reason for your frustration: what you’ve been taught is all wrong.

Chinese Corner

How June 4th Became May 35th

Evading the censors with a bit of math – Yakexi

May 35th. It may look like a typo to you, but it is a real thing on the Chinese internet. It is one among a long list of code words used by netizens referring to June 4th 1989, when the Chinese government brutally cracked down the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. Nearly 30 years later, people use courage, creativity and a bit of math skills to commemorate this tragedy.

China is home to nearly 800 million internet users and an ever more powerful censorship machine, locked in a linguistic game of cat-and-mouse. May 35th (wǔ yuè sānshíwǔ rì 五月三十五日) originated in the early days of Chinese social media.