Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying takes oath in front of Chinese President Hu Jintao during the inauguration of the new government in Hong Kong, July 1, 2012.
Bobby Yip / Reuters

In 2012, C. Y. Leung was sworn into office as chief executive of Hong Kong after a controversial campaign. Because of Hong Kong’s unique “one country, two systems” arrangement with mainland China, he was elected to the territory’s highest office not by the direct vote of the citizens of Hong Kong but by an election committee of 1,200 members, widely viewed as a political cabal with economic and political ties to Beijing. Leung’s online critics nicknamed him 689, a reference to the actual number of votes that he received from the group of Beijing insiders out of the city’s 3.5 million registered voters.

Leung’s inaugural speech, delivered in Mandarin—the official language of mainland China—only further alarmed the city. It was the first time since Hong Kong’s 1997 handover from British control that a chief executive did not give his address in Cantonese, the dominant language in the city he was elected to represent. This entrenched a growing belief in Hong Kong that he was nothing more than a puppet of the Communist Party.

The symbolism of this moment was not lost upon Hong Kong’s citizens, particularly those who took to the streets two years later in what became known as the Umbrella Revolution. The movement championed greater autonomy from mainland China, not only politically but also culturally, with language at the heart of the fight. Activists emphasized the primacy of the Cantonese language, which nearly 90 percent of the city’s inhabitants speak. During the Umbrella Revolution, the streets of Mong Kok buzzed constantly with the popular 1990s Canto-pop band, Beyond, which was blared from stereos on repeat. Cantonese slang covered the posters that lined the walls of the pedestrian walkways in Admiralty. Activists used the term jyuze (雨遮), the Cantonese word for “umbrella,” not the Mandarin yusan (雨伞), for the name of their revolution.

Pride in the Cantonese language and palpable concern that it is under threat still guides Hong Kong politics and culture. The 2015 dystopian indie film Ten Years, which was a hit among the city’s disgruntled youth, expressed all the typical anxieties about state surveillance and violence. It featured a Hong Kong only a decade in the future that is controlled by the mainland: there are staged assassinations to terrify Hong Kong residents into obedience and children trained to serve as thought-control watchdogs. And yet what troubled Hong Kong citizens most was a law in the movie that punished city residents for speaking anything other than Mandarin. Beijing’s cultural hegemony, not merely its capacity for surveillance and violence, weighs heavily upon Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and other officials at a flag raising ceremony in Hong Kong, October 1, 2014.
Bobby Yip / Reuters

Certainly, the use of Mandarin in Hong Kong is increasing at a rate that is alarming to many citizens. Over half of the city’s residents speak the language, in contrast to only 30 percent a decade ago. Since 2012, it has surpassed English as the second-most-common language spoken in Hong Kong. This trend is driven both by the increasing presence of mainland sojourners—immigrants and travelers alike—and the Hong Kong government’s growing relationship with Beijing.

Protests against such trends can sometimes manifest in subtle, or even overt, discrimination. YouTube videos compare mainland visitors to locusts, and vigilantes often take videos of mainland Chinese visitors whose behavior they find uncouth and shame them online. But it seems that many Hong Kong residents are simply wary that their local language may be under attack. Hong Kong students at City University successfully challenged requests by mainland classmates to switch languages of instruction from Cantonese to Mandarin. Hong Kong gamers boycotted Nintendo for dropping Cantonese names for Pokémon in its central database, and the local news channel TVB found itself flooded with complaints by locals angry at its decision to drop its Cantonese programming. Occasionally, residents’ anger over the increased hold that Beijing has on Hong Kong erupts. Even two years before the Umbrella Movement, Hong Kong teachers took to the streets to rail against suggested curriculum changes by the Hong Kong government, to offer civic classes that emphasized love of China and a single-party communist system. During these protests, teachers also expressed dismay and frustration that Mandarin is increasingly replacing Cantonese as the language of instruction in Chinese language classes.

That is why the Umbrella Movement’s message continues to resonate in Hong Kong: the version of Chinese identity that Beijing advocates, which includes speaking Mandarin, not only fails to represent theirChinese identity—their Chinese-ness—but it threatens it. Even today, while Hong Kong residents are split upon how they identify themselves, almost three-quarters say they are Chinese—they identify as either “Chinese,” “Hong Kong Chinese,” or “Chinese from Hong Kong.” But the question on the minds of many of the Umbrella protestors was how the city might retain its unique linguistic and cultural identity in the face of eventual reunification with the mainland or whether it will face cultural assimilation. Some of this sentiment stems from Hong Kong’s experience with colonialism, in which it was given a certain amount of autonomy. The British governed in English but, unlike mainland China, did not expect assimilation, and did not try to interfere in the city’s social and cultural development.

The Mandarin language, and resistance to it, has a long history in China that dates back to the waning years of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). After a series of humiliating military defeats in the mid-nineteenth century, Chinese elites sought desperately to understand their own country’s shortcomings. Sluggish rule by the dynastic leadership fostered further desperation among elites, leading officials and scholars to question whether military and technological modernization would be enough to thrust China into the modern world. This convinced them that China’s backwardness was rooted in something more intrinsic: its culture.

And so, language was central to Chinese reinvention. At the time, the Chinese spoke hundreds of local languages, called fangyan, that had no commonalities. By the turn of the century, as political turmoil threatened to rip China apart at the seams, this changed. On top of creating a national flag and emphasizing a shared national history, the state went about promoting one national language.

Through state-sponsored committees, scholars met throughout the first two decades of the twentieth century to craft and promulgate this language. While some suggested that China follow in the footsteps of Japan and adopt the language of the capital to serve as its national standard, many others pressed for an amalgamation—a language that included phonological characteristics of Chinese languages, past and present. In 1913, a committee agreed on such an amalgamation, but the realities of teaching such a language proved impossible. As one of these lingual architects joked years later, “I was the sole speaker of this ‘idiolect,’ meant to be the national language of four, five, or six hundred million speakers.” Those who dreamed of a language that embraced China’s linguistic diversity conceded defeat. In 1927, when the Nationalist Party launched its northern expedition to bring all of China’s territory under one central government, it adopted Mandarin—based on the language spoken in Beijing—as the national tongue. The rest of China’s local languages, including Cantonese, were deemed dialects—a subordinate linguistic entity. They were defined, as the adage goes, by their lack of an army and a navy.

An instructor points out mandarin characters on a whiteboard, September 1, 2009.
Vivek Prakash / Reuters

After 1949, in Chairman Mao’s China, the Communist Party judged every thought and behavior by its adherence to national goals—and it considered speaking the language of Communist China a productive, revolutionary behavior. Local educational bureaus invited students, teachers, and bureaucrats to participate in “Promulgate Mandarin” rallies, where they were told that their very thoughtshad to be completed in the language of revolutionary China. A keynote speaker at one of these events proclaimed, “To obey the party is never wrong. To speak the national language is to obey the party.” In such an environment, using an alternative language was subversive.

Certainly, Hong Kong was somewhat shielded from the political upheaval in China, given its status as a British colony. But it is aware of this history, and since the handover in 1997, it has been particularly sensitive to the dominance of Beijing’s national language over regional fangyan. For example, Pang Ho-cheung, a Hong Kong movie director, received a dose of unexpected fame a few years ago when he brashly insisted on speaking Cantonese at a book fair event, despite the interviewer’s insistence that he speak Mandarin. Hong Kong netizens praised him for “defending the dignity” of Southern China, comments that intimate that speaking in fangyan is a bold political act.

In 2010, a group of protestors gathered in Canton’s People’s Park singing Canto-pop songs and wearing T-shirts printed with slogans that expressed pride in their region, such as “Sing Praises for Canton.” One man proudly held a poster that read “I love Cantonese; I don’t speak stewed winter melon.” The term “stewed winter melon” (bodonggwa 煲冬瓜) is commonly used derogatory slang homophonous in Cantonese for putonghua (potongwa in Cantonese), which means “common language” and is synonymous with Mandarin.

The adversarial use of language at this protest, as well as with the Umbrella Movement that followed, was a resistance to mainland China’s stubborn insistence on one unified identity. By speaking Cantonese, the people of Hong Kong drive home the point that Chinese identity remains contested, a battle in which the Chinese state and everyday people from Harbin to Hong Kong battle over the right to define what is Chinese.

Correction (April 23, 2018): A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to "Beyond" as a song. It is a Canto-pop band.

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  • GINA ANNE TAM is an Assistant Professor of Chinese History at Trinity University. She received her Ph.D. from Stanford in 2016, and is currently writing a book on the role of dialect in the making of modern China.
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