Cantonese isn’t dead yet, so stop writing its eulogy

June 29th, 2017 by When I decided to start studying Mandarin as a teenager, friends and family approved. China was enjoying explosive economic growth, so speaking the country’s lingua franca was sure to open doors. But when I moved to China after college, I ended up in one place where Mandarin doesn’t get you very far: Hong Kong. The majority of the city’s 7.3 million people speak Cantonese, a Chinese dialect mutually unintelligible from Mandarin. And while I’ve thrown myself into learning Cantonese with just as much passion, I do not get the same reaction that I did with Mandarin. Instead, I’m told Cantonese is on its way out the door. Hong Kong’s English and Chinese media pin the blame on Mandarin. Local officials began stressing Mandarin-based education following the city’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, and now 70% of Hong Kong primary schools use Mandarin to teach Chinese classes. There are also plenty of Mandarin speakers coming from across the border; since 1997, 150 mainlanders have been able to obtain residency each day. But the data tell a different story. Cantonese has actually experienced a slight growth in the proportion of speakers since the handover. According to the 2016 Hong Kong by-census, 88.9% of the population claim to speak Cantonese as their usual language, compared with 88.7% in 1996. Over the same 20-year span, the percentage of residents who primarily speak Mandarin rose from 1.1% to 1.9%. So how can a language appear robust on paper, yet inspire death knells from the general public? It’s the sort of linguistic paradox that could only happen in Hong Kong. Read more: Quartz

Manchu, Once China’s Official Language, Could Lose Its Voice

May 30th, 2017 by Tao Qinglan can still speak her mother tongue, Manchu, but everything else has changed since she was born 72 years ago in Sanjiazi Village. She now lives with her Manchu daughter and Han son-in-law in a modern brick house, and they speak Mandarin at home. None of the houses in the village have preserved the traditional Manchu feature of a kang stove-bed surrounding three sides of the room, and almost all their traditional clothes and books were wiped out during the Cultural Revolution. “The clothes we wear, the house we live in, and the language we speak are now no different from those of the Han people,” Tao sighs. At the Two Sessions political meetings earlier this year, policy advisors proposed multimedia and educational strategies to protect ethnic minority languages, which they say are disappearing at an alarming rate. Manchu is one of 15 languages with fewer than 1,000 speakers. Read more: Sixth Tone

Science fiction’s new golden age in China: what it means to the authors, many female, leading the way

May 15th, 2017 by The science-fiction genre in China was little known before Liu Cixin was honoured with the Hugo Award for best novel in 2015 for The Three-Body Problem. The first book in Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, it tells of an alien invasion during the Cultural Revolution and has sold more than a million copies in China alone. The English translation was recommended by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to members of his book club, and praised by former US president Barack Obama as “wildly imaginative, really interesting”. Last year, Liu’s compatriot Hao Jingfang earned a Hugo Award for Folding Beijing, in which the city is divided into zones, each with a different number of hours in the day. Liu has been nominated for another Hugo Award this year, for the final episode in his trilogy, Death’s End. The two winning books are now being adapted for the big screen in China, marking a turning point for Chinese sci-fi and potentially expanding the genre’s exposure globally. Read more: South China Morning Post

The Disappearing Dialect at the Heart of China’s Capital

November 24th, 2016 by BEIJING — To the untutored ear, the Beijing dialect can sound like someone talking with a mouthful of marbles, inspiring numerous parodies and viral videos. Its colorful vocabulary and distinctive pronunciation have inspired traditional performance arts such as cross-talk, a form of comic dialogue, and “kuaibanr,’’ storytelling accompanied by bamboo clappers. But the Beijing dialect is disappearing, a victim of language standardization in schools and offices, urban redevelopment, and migration. In 2013, officials and academics in the Chinese capital began a project to record the dialect’s remaining speakers before it fades away completely. The material is to be released to the public as an online museum and interactive database by year’s end. Read more: NY Times

Last words: language of China’s Manchu emperors in peril

June 28th, 2016 by It was the language of China’s last imperial dynasty that ruled a vast kingdom for nearly three centuries. But 71-year-old Ji Jinlu is among only a handful of native Manchu speakers left. Traders and farmers from what are now the borders of China and Korea, the Manchus took advantage of a crumbling Ming state and swept south in the 1600s to establish their own Qing Dynasty. Manchu became the court language, its angular, alphabetic script used in millions of documents produced by one of the world’s pre-eminent powers. Now after centuries of decline followed by decades of repression, septuagenarian Ji is the youngest of some nine mother-tongue speakers left in Sanjiazi village, one of only two places in China where they can be found. “We mostly speak Chinese these days — otherwise young people don’t understand,” he said, in his sparsely furnished hut beside cornfields, before launching into a self-composed Manchu lullaby. Manchu is classed as “critically endangered” by the United Nations’ cultural organization UNESCO, which says that half of the more than 6,000 languages spoken worldwide are threatened with extinction, a major loss of knowledge and diversity for humanity. But plans to save Manchu are spreading as ethnic consciousness grows among the 10-million-strong minority. Read more: The Japan Times

Tagore Translation Deemed Racy Is Pulled From Stores in China

February 8th, 2016 by BEIJING — More than 80 years after his death, Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet and Nobel laureate, still has a huge following in Asia. Outside India and Bangladesh, perhaps nowhere is his legacy more alive than in China, where his works have been part of the middle-school curriculum for decades. This month, to commemorate the 155th anniversary of his birth, the People’s Publishing House will release “The Complete Works of Tagore,” the first direct translation of his entire output from Bengali into Chinese. The project took a team of translators nearly six years. But Tagore has also been at the center of a controversy here, after another, more racy new translation of some of his poems by the writer Feng Teng, called “Stray Birds,” set off a storm of criticism. The furor was so intense that the Zhejiang Wenyi Publishing House pulled the volume from stores. Read more: NY Times‎

Tibetan Language Made Equal With Chinese in County in China’s Qinghai

January 14th, 2016 by The Tibetan and Chinese languages will now be given equal status in Rebgong (in Chinese, Tongren) county in Qinghai’s Malho (Huangnan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture after a storm of protest erupted online following a local hotel’s attempt to prevent Tibetan workers from speaking their native tongue. In a Jan. 11 notice written in Chinese, county authorities have directed government offices, schools, and state-owned businesses to use both Tibetan and Chinese on official seals, signboards, letterhead, and other forms of communication. According to the notice, a copy of which was obtained by RFA, the Tibetan language will also be given prominence in some cases, for example when used on a signboard or official letter. The notice also instructs people to print Tibetan and Chinese characters in the same size. It was not immediately clear whether the new directive is intended also to apply to private businesses or shops. The government action comes after the Shang Yon hotel in Rebgong on Jan. 7 forbade Tibetan workers from speaking their own language on the job, threatening them with a 500 yuan (U.S. $76 approx.) fine for noncompliance, according to social media accounts. Read more: Radio Free Asia‎

Manchu, Former Empire’s Language, Hangs On at China’s Edge

January 12th, 2016 by QAPQAL XIBE AUTONOMOUS COUNTY, China — Loyal to the core and prized for their horsemanship, several thousand Manchu soldiers heeded the emperor’s call and, with families and livestock in tow, embarked in 1764 on a trek that took them from northeastern China to the most distant fringes of the Qing dynasty empire, the Central Asian lands now known as Xinjiang. It was an arduous, 18-month journey, but there was one consolation: After completing their mission of pacifying the western frontier, the troops would be allowed to take their families home. “They were terribly homesick here and dreamed of one day going back east,” said Tong Hao, 56, a descendant of the settlers, from the Xibe branch of the Manchus, who arrived here emaciated and exhausted. “But sadly, it was not to be.” Two and a half centuries later, the roughly 30,000 people in this rural county who consider themselves Xibe have proved to be an ethnographic curiosity and a linguistic bonanza. As the last handful of Manchu speakers in northeast China have died, the Xibe have become the sole inheritors of what was once the official tongue of one of the world’s most powerful empires, a domain that stretched from India to Russia and formed the geographic foundation for modern China. Read more: NY Times‎

China Tests First Tibetan Language Search Engine

January 12th, 2016 by BEIJING: China has begun the trial of its first Tibetan language search engine, putting it on course for release in the second half of 2016, the developer said today. "Cloud Tibet" has news, pictures, video and audio search options, state-run Xinhua news agency reported. Development head Tselo said the database and the semantic unit function were both up and running. It also has news, pictures, video and audio search options, state-run Xinhua news agency reported. The project was launched in April 2013. A team of more than 150 people from a Tibetan language research centere in Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai Province, northwest China, led the project. "The recognition rate of the system is over 95 per cent," Tselo said, adding that around 1.2 million people would use the search engine. Source: NDTV‎

The Fight For Cantonese

November 27th, 2015 by We all know that language is more than just a set of words. It's the backbone of an entire population, providing an identity, connection to history and a togetherness. So it's no surprise that many Hong Kongers are feeling adrift right now. Cantonese, the language of Hong Kong natives (and smaller populations in Southern China), is at risk of becoming obsolete. The reason? In simple terms, China's forceful push of Putonghua (or Mandarin, as it's known in the Western world). This particular struggle isn't new. China has long deemed Cantonese a 'colloquial dialect' rather than a sophisticated, solid language, even though it's steeped in 3000-year-old history. For many Cantonese-speakers, that's the real kicker. "Putonghua is an artificial language imposed by the Chinese Communist Party, not a naturally evolved language," Dr Chen, an etymologist, told HK Magazine. Read more: Huffington Post‎

Chinglish is at its best when it transcends the language barrier

October 15th, 2015 by Asia is where it’s at these days. Who hasn’t heard this little nugget of wisdom before? The once mighty West is now falling over itself to do business with growing Asian economies – especially China. The interest that the United States and China have in each other gave award-winning Asian American playwright David Henry Hwang the idea for Chinglish, currently staged by Singapore’s Pangdemonium! at the Drama Centre Theatre. Performed in both English and Mandarin, the play follows Daniel Cavanaugh, an American businessman who goes to China in the hopes of reviving his family’s flagging signage company by scoring a contract to provide the signs for an upcoming cultural centre in Guiyang. Knowing next to nothing about China or the Chinese, Cavanaugh muddles his way through, learning about guanxi and the convoluted relationships between Chinese business and politics. Cue the predictable language gags, complete with three outrageous translators (all played by Audrey Luo). A preliminary meeting between Cavanaugh, his consultant Peter Timms and the Culture Minister and Vice-Minister of Guiyang is full of awkward grins – you know, the one you use when you have no idea what the other person is saying but don’t want to be rude – and terrible translations, leaving the audience roaring with laughter. Read more: The Online Citizen