Just over a year ago, I spoke with a Hong Kong-based British writer who was researching an article about the extent to which Cantonese was an endangered language.

I told her that ironically, any perceived subtle and not-so-subtle attempts to undermine Cantonese had provoked such strong reactions in Hong Kong society that, in many ways, Cantonese was in robust good health.

I explained to her that there was a far greater awareness that Cantonese, a vital and integral component of Hong Kong’s culture and identity and one of its official tongues, was something to be treasured and defended.

cantonese mandarin traditional hong kong
File photo: inmediahk.net.

I was seeing a lot more written Cantonese texts online and in print, used in ever more creative ways. I noticed the government – anxious to reach out to younger people – was posting in written Cantonese on its social media accounts.

And the tide was turning in the number of schools using Putonghua to teach Chinese language, with some who had made the switch to Putonghua switching back again.

So when the Education Bureau posted an article written by a former State Language Commission official that accompanied a set of teaching materials for primary school Chinese language teachers earlier this year, the backlash was as strong as it was predictable.

The article suggested that Cantonese could not be a mother tongue because it was a dialect.

As if that wasn’t inflammatory enough, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor refused to answer a lawmaker who asked her what her mother tongue was in light of the controversy, dismissing it as a “frivolous” question during a question and answer session in the Legislative Council.

It was in this context that RTHK presenter Che Shuk-mui asked Education Secretary Yeung Yun-hung whether his mother tongue was Cantonese or Putonghua, during a radio show on Sunday. His answer sparked headlines saying the Education Secretary suggested Hong Kong’s insistence on using Cantonese to teach Chinese could hold the city back in the long run and ran counter to the global trend of learning Chinese in Putonghua, which could mean that we’d “lose our edge.”

Kevin Yeung
Kevin Yeung. File Photo: GovHK.

For defenders of Cantonese in Hong Kong, these were fighting words. Some saw it as a denigration of Cantonese and a sign that the city’s top education official wanted to further blur the distinctions between Hong Kong and the Mainland.

Yeung responded by saying he’d been misunderstood. On Monday, he told reporters that he had in fact spoken about the edge that Cantonese gives Hong Kong and then suggested there should be more research into the long-term impact of teaching Chinese in Cantonese when the rest of the world was doing so in Putonghua.

Yeung stressed that he drew no prior conclusions and there was no change in the government policy that left it up to schools to decide on whether to teach Chinese in Cantonese or Putonghua. He made those points a second time on Tuesday.

simplified chinese
Photo: CleverClaire, via Flickr.

So, was Yeung right, had he been quoted out of context? Here is my translation of what he said on Che’s show:

Che: Secretary is your mother tongue Putonghua or Cantonese?

Yeung: In Hong Kong, you know people are always saying I’m elusive [on this]. I’ve said my mother-tongue is Cantonese. It’s very simple.

Often the debate in the academic sector is whether Chinese should be learnt in Cantonese or Putonghua. My view is that Cantonese gives Hong Kong an edge. Many people have pointed out that the charm of ancient poems can often only be discerned when reading out in Cantonese.

But at the same time in our daily speech and in our daily lives, would it be better to use Putonghua more to express ourselves, to learn? The whole world is learning Chinese; think about which places [are doing so] in Cantonese? There aren’t any, right? At most, maybe Macau.

That means the future development of Chinese around the world will mainly focus on Putonghua. So in Hong Kong we – with a population of 7 million – learn Chinese in Cantonese. Will we in the future, I’m talking about the distant future, will there be a difference which will make us lose our edge? This is something we need experts to investigate.

putonghua teaching

Yeung did, in fact, talk about Cantonese having an edge. He does also pose the hypothesis that sustained teaching of Cantonese in Chinese could make Hong Kong lose its edge in the long term, as a question that needs to be investigated by experts.

However, the real problem as I see it is how he frames his arguments. Cantonese does convey the rhythm and sounds of ancient poems in a way that more closely matches how they were intended to sound when they were written.

But the real “edge” of teaching Chinese in Cantonese in Hong Kong is that it’s the mother tongue of the majority of Hongkongers, and academic research overwhelmingly supports the educational benefits of learning in your mother tongue.

The “edge” Cantonese gives Hong Kong as a whole is that it’s both an engine and a vehicle for the city’s creativity and unique culture, a source of civic pride. Yet these are the very qualities that those who seek greater social and cultural integration with the Mainland may find unpalatable.

Hong Kong China flag
Hong Kong and China flag. Photo: inmediahk.net.

To be honest, I don’t see why learning Chinese in Cantonese would hold back Hong Kong’s development despite a worldwide trend of learning it in Putonghua. Hong Kong school children now learn Putonghua from an early age, and that’s a good thing.

From my own experience as a parent and teaching Hong Kong university students, I find that today’s young people speak much better Putonghua than Hongkongers of my generation. Few would object to the learning of Putonghua but that does not mean it has to be the medium for teaching Chinese.

When I wrote about the difficulties I had encountered while searching for a suitable primary school for my daughter that taught Chinese in Cantonese in July 2015, I mentioned that overall, the evidence did not show any advantage in learning Chinese in Putonghua.

However, I noted the results of a long-term study on the issue commissioned by the government had yet to be relesaed. What I didn’t know then was that the report was in fact completed in February 2015, but the findings weren’t released until June 2016 and that was only because i-Cable News had managed to get hold of the data and reported the findings.

The report found no clear overall evidence that teaching in Putonghua helped Hong Kong students to learn the Chinese language better.

Primary school students.
Primary school students. File

Despite this, teaching Chinese in Putonghua remains the government’s stated “long-term goal”. When Yeung says there’s no change in government policy, it also means there’s no change in this goal.

Clarifications aside, his comments were not made in isolation. In an unusual move in 2016, Hong Kong and Macau were included in a directive issued by the Ministry of Education’s Party Group that called for patriotic education to be incorporated into every aspect of schooling.

It called for support and services to help Hong Kong students learn the “common language and script of the country.” This would mean Putonghua and simplified Chinese characters.

Hong Kong officials have tried to couch teaching Chinese in Putonghua in terms of the purported educational benefits. Yeung has now introduced the idea that Hong Kong is bucking a global trend and that this could have potentially harmful long-term consequences. I’m not sure what the basis for this idea is, as many studies point to the benefits of multilingualism.

What the government has not said is that the reason for promoting teaching Chinese in Putonghua is neither educational nor related to some vague idea of an “edge” but rather, it is political. This wouldn’t be popular, but it would at least be honest.

Yuen Chan is a journalist who has worked in print, television and radio as a reporter, anchor and presenter and columnist in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. She previously taught journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where she oversaw the practicum magazine Varsity. Chan is also a founding member of Journalism Educators for Press Freedom. A native of Hong Kong and London, she loves Hong Kong and Canto culture.
Follow Yuen's blog here.