Preserving Cantonese Television & Film in Guangdong: Language as Cultural Heritage in South China's Bidialectal Landscape
Uphill Battle in Cantonese Television Preservation
Advocates for the preservation of Cantonese in the motion picture industry are facing an increasingly uphill battle against a central government eager to move forward with language standardization in post-colonial South China. On June 30, 2014, Guangdong Television Station’s primetime Cantonese news channel, “On-time News Report’ (正点报道) suddenly changed all programming to Mandarin.60 The move by the television station elicited only a series of online criticisms, a much weaker response from the general populace than the 2010 incident. After two weeks of social media activity, a portion of the previous Cantonese programming returned to “On-Time News Report.”61 Even so, Guangzhou author Ye Du cautioned, “The conflict over Putonghua and Yue dialect has a big presence in blogs, Wechat right now, so there is some pressure. So now the government’s actions on not butting heads directly is a tactic. Once the issue is no longer a hot topic for the masses, it is highly likely that Mandarin-only broadcasting with return.”62 Although Cantonese preservation through local dialect television and film is still a focus issue in Guangdong, the reduced fervor within the Chinese population is apparent.
In fact, the CCP’s new approach to the issue, maintaining social stability by not broadcasting their controversial policies in Guangdong media, has actually managed to reduce the total amount of Cantonese news coverage in the region without severe backlash from Guangdong citizens. Many netizens who closely followed the 2014 Cantonese television conflict equated the CCP’s tactic this time around to “boiling a frog in warm water” (温水煮青蛙), intended to demolish the Cantonese dialect step by step.63 Indeed, the image of boiling frogs, which die when placed in cool water and slowly boiled because they cannot identify the changes in temperature, provides a stark outlook for the future of the Cantonese motion picture industry. In this case, netizens’ comparison of resisting language homogenization in Guangdong to slowly boiling a frog to death reveals the difficulty of mobilizing individuals against state institutions.
In the 2010 incident, Ji Keguang’s public announcement drew the attention of all Cantonese families and provided a centralized call to action against Putonghua language homogenization. In this case, the internet connected activists of all ages. However, the lack of a public announcement about the 2014 change in Guangdong television language policy meant that only the most invested youth in the Cantonese-preservation community took to the internet. The overall community response was not as prominent because Cantonese families that were less involved in the dialect preservation movement were not drawn into the online debate, and were hence not inclined to join the resistance movement. Without further activism, the Cantonese television protection movement and, by extension, the future of Cantonese socialization in the home, may eventually fall prey to the CCP’s Putonghua standardization tactics.
The growth of Cantonese language television and film in South China was a result of colonial political-economic legacies that pushed the Chinese government to promote a more lenient language policy. Despite sixty years of Putonghua standardization policy, Guangdong Province has been able to maintain its dialect’s prominence in the private sphere through Cantonese television socialization. In the twentieth century, when Hong Kong’s Cantonese motion picture industry transcended political boundaries and began capturing Cantonese viewers from mainland China, the CCP’s liberal media policies in South China helped Guangdong maintain a foothold in the regional television sector.
However, the return of Hong Kong and Macau from its colonial rulers in the late 1990s means that their media sectors are no longer in direct competition to that of mainland China’s. Recent attempts by the CCP to repress Cantonese television represent China’s post-colonial trajectory, which no longer requires a divided state-level language policy, but is instead pursuing a centralized Chinese image to sell to the world. The 2010 and 2014 incidents are both defensive stances taken by local Guangdong communities to resist national mandates for language standardization.
Although individual adolescents may feel positively about Cantonese’s cultural value, more may choose to disengage if there is no public effort to protect dialect media in Guangdong. In the face of state power and national agendas, local linguistic pride often takes a secondary role, as individuals find it more difficult to band together without institutional support. As the CCP’s promotion of the China Dream supersedes the central government’s needs for Chinese dialect preservation, and as regional activism dies down, Cantonese may begin treading the path to language death.
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