Preserving Cantonese Television & Film in Guangdong: Language as Cultural Heritage in South China's Bidialectal Landscape

By Rona Y. Ji
2016, Vol. 8 No. 12 | pg. 1/3 |

Abstract

The sheer number of distinct dialects present within the country has long complicated Chinese standardization and language policy. Furthermore, China’s history with colonial powers throughout the past three centuries has led to a distinct divide between language standardization in Northern and Southern China. Despite the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to promote Mandarin as the primary language of the People’s Republic of China, Cantonese has been one of several dialects that has experienced special allowances from the Chinese government due to the colonial economic and political history in South China. In particular, Guangdong Province’s motion picture industry has maintained strong historical ties to Hong Kong’s sector, which has prompted the continued use of Cantonese in the private sphere. However, with Hong Kong’s return to Chinese control and China’s move into a new post-colonial trajectory, Cantonese’s economic significance has declined. The pressures for language homogenization and Mandarin-only media that other mainland Chinese provinces experienced in the 1950s-1960s has become apparent in Guangdong province in recent years, and Cantonese may be on the path to language death.

China possesses a linguistic history complicated by the diverse mix of ethnicities within the country’s borders, a situation that has been amplified in South China by the region’s long-term contact with colonial powers and the ensuing political-economic ramifications. Cantonese’s presence in Guangdong’s broadcasting media today is due in large part to the province’s history of unbroken commercial contact with foreign powers, a unique situation not replicated in other parts of mainland China. Guangdong Province’s history of trade relationships with Western colonial powers dates back to the Qing dynasty, during which Canton ports were known throughout the region as one of the major hubs for coastal trade.

The Guangdong region thus began developing a cultural identity tied closely with its use of Cantonese, a language of high economic utility at the time due to its unique trade status. Even after the People ’s Republic of China selected Mandarin, or Putonghua, as the official national language in 1956,1 Cantonese is currently the only non-standard Chinese dialect with state-mandated broadcasting time in mass media.2 In comparison, Shanghai, which was the center for all Chinese dialect films in the 1920s-1930s, became closed to foreign influences during the first few decades of the PRC’s rule and adhered closely to the policies of Mandarin standardization.3 In the mid-twentieth century, Shanghai residents focused on developing heavy industry to increase “national wealth” and limited dialect-based cultural products, since the arts invited a stigma of “bourgeois .”4 Similarly, in Singapore, the 1979 “Speak Mandarin” campaign used and radio extensively to promote a “proper” attitude towards Mandarin at the expense of other Chinese dialects, which were spoken by more than 92% of Chinese-Singaporean families at the time.5

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), notorious for its propaganda campaigns and media controls for promoting state consolidation, pushed for the development of strong Guangdong Cantonese television and film industries during the late twentieth century to compete commercially with Hong Kong’s Cantonese media market. Due to Deng Xiaoping’s reforms and opening up in the late 1970s, which reestablished strong Chinese export markets in coastal regions, Guangdong Province has seen economic advancements well in excess of other Chinese provinces.6

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.

Shenzhen, China

The city of Shenzhen in Guandong province, home to at least 10 million speakers of Cantonese.

While Mandarin standardization in most regions of the world meant strictly controlling the presence of dialects in media, language policy in Guangdong made the province a unique exception. The combination of the public recognition of Cantonese legitimacy in state-owned television networks, private autonomy of entertainment choice in television in the family home, and legacy of overall economic superiority in the region has allowed for the continued prominence of Cantonese in Guangdong.

Since reclaiming Hong Kong in 1997 and Macau in 1999, the Cantonese media scene has consolidated economically from a fragmented regional industry into one controlled more centrally by the Chinese government. Thus, China’s economic trajectory in the region has increasingly turned to a new post-colonial objective: establishing a strong image of Chinese unity in order to take charge of today’s globalizing world. This ambitious goal has translated into a resurgence in language standardization practices in an effort to establish Mandarin as the language of highest socio-economic utility.

Additionally, Cantonese’s history as Guangdong’s “provincial-city speech” (省城话)7 meant that the dialect’s prominence centered on the province’s urban landscape. In recent years, Guangdong’s growing urban migrant worker population and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) changing stance towards Mandarin imposition in South Chinese film and television has created challenges for Cantonese preservation. One branch of the CCP’s efforts for language standardization has thereby led to a push to reduce Cantonese in Guangdong television and film. The social upheavals and CCP responses following recent announcements to the removal of Cantonese television and film from broadcasting media highlight the macro-micro tensions in promoting a standard language’s economic utility over its dialect counterpart’s emotional value.

Diglossia with Chinese Characteristics

Greater China, the region including Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, holds more than 2,000 distinct dialects and subdialects,8 making it difficult for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to govern efficiently without some baseline for shared communications between provinces. China’s enormous population, topping 1.3 billion people, only exacerbates the need for the central government to promote a national language that standardizes seven mutually unintelligible dialects of Hanyu, the language of the largest ethnic group in the county.9

The complicated linguistic situation has led to a delicate balance between the promotion of Mandarin as the national standard and the preservation of regional dialects’ cultural importance. Moreover, the language standardization policy has also been designed to send a strong political message. In Western linguistic analysis, two languages with mutually unintelligible phonology are regarded as subsets of a single language family, but in Chinese policy, all Han dialects are considered part of the same Chinese language due to shared political affiliation and orthography.10 Specifically, the Chinese Language Law of 2001 took a two-pronged approach to uniting Chinese language: in writing for businesses, public administration, and , as well as in standardizing pronunciation to achieve interregional mutual intelligibility.11

Therefore, the emphasis of the Chinese language policy has been to promote a sense of pride in an overarching Chinese identity based on shared history such that regional dialectal differences do not undermine political authority and social stability. Hence, at the same time that Putonghua was being promoted as the national language in the 1950s, the PRC also maintained that the goal was not to “wipe out dialects artificially.”12Although the adoption of a single standard language helped the CCP achieve political-economic unity over China’s many ethnic groups, the challenge was to do so without alienating those speakers who took pride in their regional dialects and would create social unrest over language tension.

China’s policies have produced a unique diglossia situation, where two languages vie for primacy in the public and private spheres, in South China where Mandarin is the state-sanctioned public language, while Cantonese is the primary language for cultural products. Mandarin and Cantonese’s shared orthography means that dialect hierarchy for Guangdong, Macau, and Hong Kong’s seventy million Cantonese speakers13 manifests in speech—centered around community life and media—rather than in literature. When China began pursuing policies for economic reopening in earnest in the 1980s, Hong Kong, a mere river channel away from the mainland, had already become a cosmopolitan metropolis of six million residents under British rule.14

Most notably, major Guangdong televisions had, until recent years, been run almost exclusively in Cantonese.15 When China began pursuing its policies for economic reopening in earnest in the 1980s, Hong Kong, a mere river channel away from Guangdong and the mainland, had become a cosmopolitan metropolis of six million residents under British rule.16 Having never been under the laws of Mandarin standardization until its return to the PRC in 1997, Hong Kong’s historically Cantonese-speaking population was both an asset and threat to South China’s entertainment industry. Hong Kong was both a potential consumer base for the mainland’s South Chinese cultural products and home to robust television and film sectors that competed for Guangdong’s Cantonese consumers. In the 1980s, the CCP encouraged Guangdong broadcasting institutions to use both Cantonese and Mandarin,17 which helped the province maintain a financial foothold in the Cantonese motion picture industry.

The public aspects of the television and film industries have legitimized Cantonese’s usage, cultural value, and prestige in the Guangdong, as the dialect’s cultural products were able to successfully pass through the CCP’s media censorship and to willing consumers. With the plethora of widely consumed Cantonese pop songs, motion picture offerings, and radio broadcasting that came from decades of competing with Hong Kong’s strong media market, old and young Cantonese residents alike have formed a consistent market for the province’s traditionally weakly regulated Cantonese television industry. Although the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television controlled all media outlets, Cantonese television became financially independent from the government in the post-Mao Economic Reform era and began focusing on producing commercially successful shows.18

Provincial television outlets sought to satisfy local consumers by mainly focusing on Cantonese cultural content, which was permitted under the PRC’s communist media regulations. Up until 2007, four channels in Guangdong TV, four channels in Southern Television, and many provincial-based television channels such as Guangzhou Television’s channels, chose Cantonese-only broadcasting.19 Popular Cantonese-dubbed versions of Mandarin dramas and home-grown sitcoms such as Guangdong Television’s Local Husbands and Migrant Wives, which has aired over 1,000 episodes since its debut showing in 2000, provided the financial backbone for many television stations.20 The show, centered on the struggles of South Chinese in a globalizing economic climate, demonstrates how Cantonese television offers a common cultural identity for Cantonese speakers who struggle to contextualize their unique language heritage within the broader scheme of Chinese development as a global export powerhouse.

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