Kung Hei Fat Choi, Tikoy, and Dim Sum: Insights on Chinese Language and Culture

by Louie Dy (Class 2021)

During every Chinese New Year celebration, we often hear the Chinese greeting “Kung Hei Fat Choi”, sometimes with the characters 恭喜發財.

“Kung Hei Fat Choi” is actually very different from how “恭喜發財” is normally read in Mandarin – “Gong Xi Fa Cai”, because “Kung Hei Fat Choi” is actually in Cantonese. What’s odd is that the most of the Filipino-Chinese population speak Minnan Hokkien (Fookien). In Minnan Hokkien, the greeting should be read as “Kiong Hee Huat Tsai”.

When we speak of the Chinese Language, we’re actually referring to a group of languages. Some consider these to be “dialects”, but if these were dialects, different people-groups should be able to understand each other even if they speak their own tongues, which never happens.

Therefore, even though we have the exactly the same characters “恭喜發財”, the Mainland Chinese who speaks Mandarin can never understand the Filipino-Chinese who greets in Hokkien. With that said, these should be called “distinct languages”.

The most commonly spoken one is Mandarin, which recently became China’s lingua franca since rule of the Manchus from Manchuria (Northern China) during the the Ming Dynasty (明朝, 1368-1644 AD), hence its name. It is also called the Putonghua (普通話; lit. “Standard” or “Ordinary” language), and Guoyu (國語; lit. “National Language”).

Mandarin used to be the language of the officials, hence its name Guanhua (官話; “language of the emperor’s subjects”). During that time, Northern China mostly spoke in Mandarin, while Southern and Southeastern China, including the overseas Chinese in the Southeast Asia (Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia, etc.), mostly spoke in Cantonese (廣東話) and Hokkien (福建話). Because the central government could not understand the local languages, from the dynastic times up to now, they issued decrees and policies that would secure the domination of Mandarin as the lingua franca so that there would be integration and unification.

This has been quite successful. A classic image I saw in Taiwan is a Taiwanese grandmother speaking in Minnan Hokkien to her grandchild, and her grandchild only replying back in Mandarin. With Mandarin having five tones and a more organized phonetic system that is easily taught from generation to generation among both the ruling and working classes, Minnan Hokkien, with its over 10 tones, more difficult pronunciation which involves nasal sounds, and hardly a systematic phonetic system with few people conversing, is at a gross disadvantage, thus ending up as dying language.

Cantonese is the language spoken in Canton (廣東; “Guangdong” in Mandarin), China, and in Hong Kong (香港; “Xianggang” in Mandarin”) as well as in Malaysia and Singapore. Since the British colonization of Hong Kong in 1898 until 1997, Hong Kong is able to thrive independently of China, hence allowing the preservation of Cantonese. On top of that, with Hong Kong being an important economic center with many influential businessmen speaking Cantonese, the constant usage of it allows it to thrive even up to this very day.

Chinese merienda (點心), popularly known as “Dim Sum” is actually in Cantonese. In Mandarin, it is read as “dian xin”. In Minnan Hokkien, it is read as “tiam sim”. Most of the delicious Chinese dishes are made by good chefs who by the majority come from Canton, Chna; thus, most of the Chinese dishes we know are actually Cantonese dishes, except for Xiaolongbao (小籠包; lit. “Little Dragon Wrap”), which is in Mandarin.

Hokkien (福建; Mandarin: Fujian) is in fact a group of languages, and the one specific to Taiwan, Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries is Minnam (閩南; Mandarin: Minnan; lit. “southern Min, with “Min” being the abbreviation for Fujian Province in China). Its history dates way, way back to Tang Dynasty (唐朝, 618-907 AD), the Golden Age of culture in Chinese history. Tang Dynasty was also when Li Po (李白) lived; in fact, it is said that Li Po’s poems sound even better when read in Minnan language.

During this time, Japan and Korea were influenced greatly by China, hence the elements of Chinese culture are also present in them, such as the drinking of tea, the use of chopsticks, the use of Chinese characters in Hanja (Korean), and Kanji (Japanese), among others.

For example, “Thank you!” in Mandarin is “gan xie” (感謝), but in Minnan, it is “kam sia”, which uncannily matches the Korean greeting 감사합니다 (“kamsa-hamnida”, with “hamnida” being an honorific). “Time” in Mandarin is “shi jian” (時間), but in Minnan, it is “si kan”, which is uncannily similar to the Japanese word for time – “jikan”, with the exact same characters (時間).

Tikoy, the local Chinese delicacy eaten during Chinese New Year, is derived from the Minnan “ti ke” (甜糕; lit. “sweet cake”), which is Filipinized into “tikoy”. In Mandarin, it is called “nian gao” (年糕; lit. “new year cake”). The Mandarin word for “year” (年, “nian”), however, is pronounced exactly the same as the word for “sticky” or “glutinous” (粘, “nian”). Eating the “sticky cake” means the wish, hope, and intent to “stick together” as a family during New Year.

The movie Crazy Rich Asians has been criticized because the characters, especially the grandmother, spoke in Mandarin, which shouldn’t be the case, since they should normally be speaking in Minnan Hokkien or Cantonese. While the popular song “Wo Yao Ni” (I Want You) is sung in Mandarin, the saying “Ka Ki Lang” (Our Own People) at the end of the film is in Hokkien.

With all of these said, the main point is this: The Taiwanese, the Filipino-Chinese, the Malaysian-Chinese, and the Hong Kong Chinese are all distinct from the Mainland Chinese. Beyond linguistics, the cultural background of non-mainland Chinese people abroad greatly differ due to incorporation of one’s Chinese heritage into the local culture. A common complaint of first-generation immigrants from Mainland China to their children is not only do they incorporate the local culture into their Chinese culture, but the local culture begins to be the more dominant force in the lives of the next generations.

China (中國; “zhongguo”, lit. “Middle Kingdom), with its over 5000 years of history, is 1.6 million sq.km. wide with over 1.3 billion people (around one-sixth of the world’s population) living in the Mainland, and probably even more overseas (in Chinatowns across the world). It is composed of 56 tribes, with the Han (漢) being the majority (at least 90%). It’s not surprising that there would be several languages with varying histories, accents, and usages.

Mandarin Chinese in Beijing, with lots of contractions and /r/ slurs, is spoken at a dramatically faster pace that the Mandarin Chinese in Taipei. An example of a contraction is saying “In this way…” in Chinese: In Taiwan and other provinces in China, they say “zhe yang zi” (這樣子), but in Beijing, they speak so fast that the phrase becomes “jiang zi” (醬紫), which is currently a commonly used slang. On the other hand, Beijing Mandarin often fuses the /er/ (兒) sound with the last word of the sentence. An example is saying “Over there!”: It is normally spoken as “nei bian” (那邊), but in Beijing dialect, it is “nei bar” (那邊兒!), a contraction of “nei bian er”. Still, the central government even attempts to assimilate other local Mandarin accents by dubbing even local television series with the Beijing accent.

Aside from the spoken languages being different, even the written language differs. There is the Traditional Chinese, which is used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other Southeast Asian countries as well as some Japanese Kanji. On the other hand, there is the Simplified Chinese, which is mostly used in Mainland China, some of which are derived from Japanese Kanji.

For example, the word for love, “ai”, is written as 愛 in Traditional Chinese, with the heart (心; “xin”) in it, but it is written as 爱 in Simplified Chinese, with the heart obliterated and changed into friend (友; “you”). For this reason, I consider Simplified Chinese a “mutated” form of Chinese. The original meaning and depth of the Chinese character has been eroded, just as Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution has eroded the Traditional Chinese Culture.

Nevertheless, does this mean that the current Mainland Chinese culture is “fake” or “illegitimate”? While many of the overseas Chinese believe that the true Chinese are the ones living outside the Mainland, such as in Taiwan, we cannot deny that the modern-day Mainland Chinese (which I call as “dystopian China”, but I shall discuss this more on a separate article) constitute a distinct and new culture that should eventually be acknowledged (but not necessarily integrated into the rest of the overseas Chinese).
Still, with strong political and economic forces at play, the impetus for all the overseas Chinese right now is to learn Mandarin Chinese in addition to their mother tongue, and understand Simplified Chinese characters in addition to Traditional Chinese characters. There might come a time when Mainland Chinese would just permeate every sector of every society in the world, and Mandarin Chinese will no longer be a foreign language, but a lingua franca, to the futility of local language campaigns such as the Speak Hokkien Campaign.

2 thoughts on “Kung Hei Fat Choi, Tikoy, and Dim Sum: Insights on Chinese Language and Culture

  1. It is good to see an article like “Kung Hei Fat Choi, Tikoy, and Dim Sum: Insights on Chinese Language and Culture” by Louie Dy in UP Medics on the occasion of Chinese New Year. The article revolved around the topics of language, culture, and the Chinese, which all happen to be topics in which I have great interest. I share here some comments and clarifications, and I apologize for the length.

    Guanhua 官話 literally means “speech of officials”, not “language of the emperor’s subjects”. The Portuguese in the 16th century translated it as “falla mãdarin” (modern Portuguese “fala mandarim”), because the Portuguese “mãdarin”, derived from the Malay “menteri”, meant “government official” or “bureaucrat”. The Jesuit missionaries who first studied Guanhua referred to it using the Portuguese term or the Spanish “lengua mandarina”. This is why Guanhua came to be called Mandarin in English. Guanhua was the speech of the imperial court in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and the Manchu Qing dynasty (1636-1912). Guanhua was based on the dialects of northern China. The standard pronunciation of Guanhua was at first a composite system based on the sound systems of certain dialects in the Central Plain (Henan province) and in the lower Yangzi valley, including the dialect of Nanjing city (which was the capital of China from 1368 to 1421). The standard pronunciation shifted in the mid-19th century to the Beijing pronunciation.

    In the early 20th century, the Qing government designated Guanhua as Guoyu 國語, meaning “national spoken language”. This designation was continued in the Republican period (1912-1949). Putonghua 普通話 literally means “common speech”, or in other words, “lingua franca”. Used by the Communist Chinese government since the 1950s as the official designation for Modern Standard Mandarin, it came to be regarded as a name for the language, such that in English it is now written with a capital “P” like a proper noun. The government of the Republic of China, which retreated to Taiwan in 1949, continues to use the name Guoyu for Modern Standard Mandarin.

    The English term “Mandarin” therefore has four different senses: (1) Modern Standard Mandarin or Putonghua, the current lingua franca in China, (2) Guanhua, the koiné spoken by officials and educated persons during the Ming and Qing periods, in a sense the “ancestor” of Putonghua, (3) Guanhua fangyan 官話方言 (“Guanhua topolects”) or Beifanghua 北方話 (“northern speech”), the group of dialects spoken in northern and southwestern China on which Putonghua is based, and (4) the previous stages of Beifanghua, dating to as early as the 12th century.

    Minnanhua (in Putonghua) or Banlam-ue (in Hokkien) means the speech of southern Fujian province. The name of the province 福建 is Fujian (/fu t͡ɕiɛn/) in Putonghua, Hokkien (/hɔk kiɛn/) in the Hokkien variety of Minnanhua. “Min” was an old name of the Fujian area and of its inhabitants, and even after the area came to be called Fujian, “Min” persisted as its alternative or “simplified” name. The differentiation of speech varieties in Fujian into Minbei (northern), Mindong (eastern), and Minnan (southern) dates to circa 589 CE during the Sui dynasty. Minnan speech has spread to southern Zhejiang, eastern Guangdong, Hainan, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. The variety spoken in the Fujian cities of Quanzhou, Zhangzhou, and Xiamen (“Minnan proper”) is commonly called Hokkien, and this is also the variety spoken in Taiwan, in the Philippines, and in many Chinese communities in Southeast Asia. The majority of Philippine Chinese can trace their ancestry to Jinjiang and Shishi, both administratively under Quanzhou.

    The different varieties of Minnan do have systematic phonetic systems. If the Minnan varieties did not have systematic phonetic systems, it would mean that Minnan is still in the primordial stage of development (like “apeman’s language”), with words not yet having fixed sounds (for example, “nine” 九 may be uttered as “kau” by one person, “ko” by another person, and “gui” by a third person). The reasons for this misconception could be the fact that Minnan, unlike Putonghua, is not usually taught in schools in a systematic fashion, and the fact that compared to resources for Putonghua, learning materials (books, dictionaries, etc.) for Minnan which describe the tones, initials 聲母, and rimes 韻母 in detail are very few.

    Minnan so far is not a “dying” language, but it is true that all Chinese speech varieties are being heavily influenced by Putonghua, with speakers of these varieties frequently code-switching between their native variety and Putonghua, and using only Putonghua in formal situations. However, the influence is not just one-way. Regional speech varieties have influenced Putonghua, mostly manifested as local terms being adopted into Putonghua. The Putonghua spoken in each place is also influenced by the local speech variety, with the phonology and sometimes even the grammar of the local speech seeping into Putonghua. For example, people in Fujian and Taiwan speak Mandarin at a slower speech rate due to the influence of Hokkien, which is “syllable timed”. They also often pronounce the retroflex consonants (tʂ, tʂʰ, ʂ) like alveolars (ts, tsʰ, s), because there are no retroflex consonants in Hokkien.

    “Canton” is from the Portuguese “Cantão”, which was an approximation of the local pronunciation of the name of 廣州 Guangzhou city. Canton referred to Guangzhou city, but it was also used by some to refer to Guangdong province, where Guangzhou is located. What is now Hong Kong was an area of farming and fishing villages on the southern coast of Guangdong. Hong Kong came under British rule in stages, through land cessions in 1842 and 1860, and a lease in 1898, with the lease terminating on June 30, 1997.

    The ubiquitous “tikoy” is 甜粿 ti ke (/tĩ ke/, with a nasal “i”) (“sweet glutinous rice cake”) in Hokkien, 年糕 niangao (/niɛn kɑʊ/) (“New Year cake”) in Putonghua. The Tagalog “tikoy” may not necessarily have been a “Filipinized” rendering of “tĩ ke”. The common pronunciation /tĩ ke/ is the Jinjiang pronunciation, whereas the Zhangzhou pronunciation is /tĩ kue/. It is possible that the Tagalog “tikoy” was derived from “tĩ kue”.

    The meaning of xiaolongbao 小籠包 is not “little dragon wrap”, but rather “small basket bun”. The “long” 籠 is a small bamboo steaming basket (like the ones used for dim sum), and is different from “long” 龍, the character which is usually translated as “dragon”.

    The characters 恭喜發財, commonly pronounced in the Cantonese way as kung hei fat choi (/kʊŋ hei faːt t͡sʰɔːi/), can of course be pronounced in the Hokkien way (/kiɔŋ hi huat tsaɪ/), Putonghua way (/kʊŋ ɕi fa t͡sʰaɪ/), etc. However, northern Chinese do not usually greet each other “kʊŋ ɕi fa t͡sʰaɪ” during Chinese New Year. What they say is 過年好 guo nian hao (/kuɔ niɛn xɑʊ/).

    The character of the grandmother in the film Crazy Rich Asians speaks in (fluent) Mandarin because, according to the novel, her family migrated to Singapore from Beijing. This would mean that their family is quite special, as most Chinese migrants to Singapore originated from the southern provinces (Fujian, Guangdong, Hainan).

    Government promotion of Putonghua is only one of the reasons for the prevalent practice of dubbing in China. If the Putonghua of an actor falls short of the standard, or if the voice of an actor is deemed not pleasing enough or not appropriate for his/her character in the film or TV series, a professional voice actor who speaks impeccable Putonghua is employed to dub or revoice the actor’s lines. Of course, films and TV series in foreign languages are also dubbed into Putonghua by voice actors.

    Despite the best efforts of archaeologists, so far the earliest decipherable Chinese writing discovered date from 1400-1200 BCE. This means that Chinese history is 3200 to 3400 years old (not 5000 years). However, the Neolithic did begin in China 11,000-12,000 years ago based on evidence of plant domestication, or probably 20,000 years ago if the invention of pottery is used as the marker for the Neolithic.

    The Chinese government officially recognizes 56 ethnic groups (not “tribes”). However, linguists and anthropologists think that there could be hundreds of ethnic groups in China, since many groups were lumped together into the 56 recognized ethnic groups. Groups like the Miao, Yao, Zhuang, and Dai comprise subgroups which are not linguistically or culturally related.

    In Korean, the verb “hada” (“to do”, from verb stem “ha” + ending “ta”) can be appended to a noun to create a new verb. For example, the popular word “sarang” means “love”, and “saranghada” means “to love”. The verb “kamsʰahada” (“to thank”) is formed from Chinese 感謝 “kamsʰa” (“thankfulness”), while “kongbuhada” (“to study”) is formed from Chinese 工夫 “kongbu” (“learning”). The form “hamnida” (from “ha” + “-pnida”) indicates formality, whereas the infix “si” is an honorific. (Speech levels reflect the respect towards the person spoken to or reflect the formality of the situation, whereas honorifics reflect respect towards the person being spoken about.) The form “kamsʰahamnida” shows respect towards the audience, “kamsʰahasinda” shows respect towards the person being talked about, and “kamsʰahasimnida” shows respect towards both the audience and the person being talked about.

    Now, on to the more complex and controversial issues. Are Chinese speech varieties dialects of a single language, or separate languages? According to the criterion of “mutual intelligibility/unintelligibility”, if people from two places can understand each other’s speech, then the speech varieties are dialects of one language; otherwise, they are different languages. Applying this criterion, many linguists consider Mandarin, Shanghainese, Cantonese, Minnan, etc. as distinct languages belonging to the Sinitic family of languages. However, the actual application of the criterion is not as simple as it seems. For starters, how is “intelligibility” to be defined and quantified? If a person understands 50% of what another person said, and vice versa, does that count as mutual intelligibility? Should the threshold be 60%, or 70%…or 95%? A bigger problem is the existence of dialect continua or dialect chains. In a hypothetical dialect continuum, people in locality A and B can understand each other’s speech, people in B and C can understand each other, and people in C and D can understand each other, but people in A and D cannot understand each other. The speech varieties can be considered four separate languages, but since there is no break in intelligibility, they can also be considered one single language. Examples of dialect continua are the Western Romance continuum (from Portugal to Italy), North Germanic continuum (Scandinavia), and the Indo-Aryan continuum (Pakistan and north India). The Sinitic speech varieties also form a dialect continuum. So are the Sinitic varieties a single language, or separate languages? Perhaps the question itself is wrong, because the very basis for the delineation of languages–the criterion of mutual intelligibility–is flawed.

    Are overseas Chinese the “real Chinese”? Or, to restate the question: Have the overseas Chinese preserved the “genuine Chinese culture”? This idea of a genuine culture likely stems from the notion that Chinese culture is immutable. In reality, Chinese culture has been constantly changing throughout history. The Chinese culture during the time of Confucius (6th-5th century BCE) was different from the culture during the time of the poet Li Bai (8th century CE), and different from the culture of the Ming and Qing periods. Here is an interesting bit of history: in the 1630s the Manchus were forcing Korea to switch its allegiance from the Ming dynasty to the Qing, but the Koreans were reluctant to do so because they considered the Manchus as barbarians, and with the collapse of the Ming, the Koreans considered themselves to be the bearers of the “true” Chinese culture (which means that in the view of these Koreans, Chinese culture in China had disappeared or had been corrupted since the Qing victory in the 17th century!). This sounds like the idea often heard nowadays that the overseas Chinese are the guardians of Chinese culture because the Communists have destroyed Chinese culture in China. While the overseas Chinese may have preserved some customs which are no longer practiced in China, they have also adopted the language and other cultural elements of their countries of residence. I think we could say that the culture of China today is no longer the culture of pre-Communist China, just as the culture of the overseas Chinese is no longer that of the pre-Communist era.

    Finally, about the article’s main point. The statement that “the Taiwanese, the Filipino-Chinese, the Malaysian-Chinese, and the Hong Kong Chinese are all distinct from the Mainland Chinese”, while technically not incorrect, is nevertheless vague. First, these groupings are based on political administrative boundaries, but similarities and differences among people can cut across such boundaries. Second, various parameters of differentiation will result in various sortings of groups. For example, using language as the parameter, the people of Fujian, the Taiwanese, the Philippine Chinese, and many Malaysian, Singaporean, and Indonesian Chinese are more similar to one another than to Chinese in the rest of China, because they all speak Hokkien, and at the same time use other more prestigious official or national languages (Putonghua in Fujian and Taiwan, American English and Tagalog in the Philippines, British English, Malay, and Putonghua in Malaysia and Singapore, Malay in Indonesia). On the other hand, people in Guangdong, Hong Kong, Macau, and some Malaysian, Singaporean, and Indonesian Chinese are more similar to one another because they all speak Cantonese, and use other official languages. Using diet and costume as parameters, the Chinese from the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia would cluster together, those from Taiwan, Fujian, Hong Kong, and Macau would form a cluster, people from central China would form a cluster, and people from northern China would form a cluster, since differences in diet and clothing roughly follow the latitudinal gradient from tropical to subtropical to temperate zone. Using the urban-rural divide as the parameter, the Chinese in Metro Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, Shanghai, Beijing, and other large metropolitan areas in China are more similar to one another, since they all have a hectic urban way of life (commuting to and from work, living in high-rises, struggling to pay the rent or mortgage, communicating more with people online than with next-door neighbors, etc.). The way of life of a middle-class Chinese person in central Beijing would be more similar to that of a Chinese in Manila or in Singapore, than to that of someone living in a farming village just beyond the outskirts of Beijing. In terms of language, diet, clothing, and other cultural parameters, the “Mainland Chinese”, because of their sheer number (1.4 billion people), are not a homogeneous group. It is thus difficult to treat the “Mainland Chinese” as a single collectivity with “common traits” that can be compared to those of other groups.

    1. Thank you very much for your wonderful and knowledgeable clarifications and input. I apologize for the misinformed insights I have, and will keep those said points in mind. 🙂

Leave a Reply