Cantonese and Mandarin – Identity Politics in China

Compared to America, China appears to be a more homogeneous country. Government propaganda portrays the 55 different ethnic minorities as a “harmonious” and “united” bunch that love the idea of belonging to China. However, people who have heard of or visited Tibet and Xinjiang know that reality differs from official intentions. Last month, for example, the local government of Yining Xinjiang started a campaign that discouraged people from wearing headscarves or growing beards.

Even among the hegemonic majority Han, linguistic differences exist. While the stereotypical the Chinese person in American pop culture is the Cantonese speaker who lives in Chinatown, Mandarin Chinese is mainland China’s official language. Tension exists where there is difference. Recently, Hong-Kongers staged an incredible protest in Dolce & Gabbana, accusing the luxury brand for targeting Mandarin-speaking customers, mostly from the mainland, while discriminating against Cantonese speakers. My initial reaction to this piece of news included scoffs and a snide comment—the Hong-Kongers’ “need” for luxury goods and first-rate services caused a rather large commotion, while many other urban cities around the world have harbored Occupy movements. This trifle problem of the privileged class was worth of a spot on


However, I then considered the many Cantonese speakers in mainland China that have protested against the Chinese government’s linguistic and educational policies. On July 25th 2010, young urbanites of Guangzhou mobilized each other through social media to demonstrate their Cantonese pride as well as anger against reductions in Cantonese broadcast channels. One writer of the Economist’s Banyan blog observed that “the protest in Guangzhou seems more to reflect youthful resentment at interfering bureaucrats.” Banyan also argued that this incident showed that Guangzhou citizens could demonstrate for more political causes in the future, a suggestion with which I wholeheartedly agree. Still, police forces detained a few protestors. At the same time, Hong Kongers also rallied in support of their neighbors’ Cantonese pride.

Viewed in this light, Hong-Kongers’ demonstrations against Dolce & Gabbana show that they are laudable citizens of their democratic polis. Not only do they have political awareness and a strong sense of identity, they also have the right to demonstrate against authorities of all kinds, be it a crucial component of consumer capitalism (luxury goods) or the symbol of communism (“The mainlanders are coming!”). As a former resident of mainland China who only speaks Mandarin, I might be just a little jealous when I scoff at Hong-Kongers’ fuss over Docle & Gabbanna.


About Adrian

formerly published under the name Wendy Qian at the Atlantic, China File and Tea Leaf Nation.
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