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.