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Chinese Is Not Just Mandarin

Recently, to mark Chinese New Year, one of my favourite bookshops — Foyles — presented a selection of Chinese language books in the main area of the language section. It was fantastic — resources and books to get people interested in learning Chinese. Only, there was one problem.

They’d been banking on people learning just one version of Chinese, no plural. All of the books they’d proudly presented were in or about Mandarin. There was no Cantonese (only a handful on the shelf, not display). I’ve already discussed the very real problem of Mandarin being seen (thanks to a political push) as ‘Chinese’ and Cantonese getting the lesser label of a ‘dialect’, but I didn’t realise how widespread this understanding really was. If we were to view both Mandarin and Cantonese as dialects under the ‘Chinese umbrella’, it would be slightly less insulting, because they would be seen as equally important. But that isn’t what’s happening.

My father is Chinese and, if you were to generalise, speaks Chinese. But more specifically, he speaks Cantonese. This doesn’t make him any less Chinese.

I recently wrote a piece about how being mixed race can sometimes mean being invisible in society, making you feel like the ‘foreign half’ of you is unacknowledged and unsupported. This notion that ‘Chinese’ exclusively means you live in or are from Mainland China or just speak Mandarin has the same damaging consequences for those who are from Hong Kong or speak Cantonese. An entire population, shrugged off or brushed over; unseen.

After seeing this display in the bookshop, I scoured language forums. I was in for a rude awakening. I already knew that there were almost no Cantonese learning resources online or in bookshops. This is partly because there’s no one, universal romanised system for learning Cantonese (although Jyutping — the system of using words and numbers for tones is very popular). But I believe it’s mostly because of the Mandarin push.

Apple, as in, the world-dominating technology behemoth, does not have any Cantonese/Jyutping options within its software. It can give you Mandarin pinyin, Cantonese characters, and languages from all over the world — but no Jyutping. Encouraged by other disgruntled members of a Cantonese forum, I recently wrote to Apple via an online form asking for some form of romanised Cantonese.

Because without it, learning the language has been made harder. Which means that it will become even less talked about. Which means that it will soon be seen as irrelevant or unimportant. And we know what that means in the end.

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