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Bruce Lee‘s whispered threats in Fist of Fury or Chow Yun-fat‘s tough but emotional dialogue in Hard Boiled were all delivered in Cantonese, the dialect of Chinese spoken by the globalized, entrepreneurial southerners in the country’s Guangdong province, not the Mandarin of the northern rulers in Beijing.
Indeed many of the finest moments in Chinese cinema were delivered in Cantonese.
However, in recent years the rise of the market in mainland China has seen Hong Kong’s finest movies dubbed into Mandarin, China’s official language, to be screened across the border.
Now, under the terms of a supplement to the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) between the mainland and Hong Kong, Cantonese-language films will no longer need to be dubbed into Mandarin before being shown across the border in mainland China and can instead be screened with subtitles in simplified Chinese characters.
“This is encouraging news for the healthy development of the industry,” said Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper in an editorial.
Since the mainland film industry became so important to Hong Kong, many of the territory’s actors have learned Mandarin and use it in films, though you will hear mean-spirited northern audiences scoff at their accent in theaters on occasion.
There is some debate about numbers, but there are an estimated 70-80 million Cantonese speakers in China, Hong Kong and Macau. This is around the same number as German speakers in Germany or twice the number of Americans who speak Spanish at home in the U.S.
But around 800 million Chinese people speak Mandarin out of a population of 1.3 billion.
Mandarin and Cantonese are both tonal languages and have many similarities, and they also share a written script, although the characters used in mainland China were simplified under the Communist government, while Hong Kong and Macau use traditional Chinese characters, which have more strokes than the simplified version.
In recent years, the government has been keen to push Mandarin because it is the official language, and it wants to standardize communication as much as possible.
Since Hong Kong was handed over to China by the British in 1997, the number of Mandarin speakers has increased significantly.
However, people in Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau remain fiercely protective of their language. China’s economic strength is built on the efforts of the southern part of the country, and it remains the most dynamic part of the country. Why should they adopt a northern dialect to communicate, when Cantonese is the language of the country’s economic engine, they argue.
There were protests three years ago when the government proposed that Guangdong’s main television company, Guangzhou TV, should broadcast primarily in Mandarin.
There are fears that Cantonese could be on the way out. In Shenzhen, the boomtown across the border from Hong Kong in mainland China, most people speak Mandarin because they are mostly migrants from other parts of China, and Mandarin is the language they all share.
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