Why ‘Save Cantonese at Stanford’ matters: A testimonial from an anthropology Ph.D. candidate

Opinion by Shan Huang
Jan. 21, 2021, 9:01 p.m.

“Wait … did you just say that you learned Cantonese in America? How possible is that?”

“Yes, actually I had taken two years of Cantonese classes at Stanford before I came to Hong Kong for fieldwork.” 

Conversations like this constantly occurred during my research in Hong Kong from 2018-19, when I studied contemporary Hong Kong’s political culture by immersing myself in a network of advocacy groups that aim at democratizing land-use urban planning. Every time I explained this to my friends and interlocutors, they were amazed by the vast array of language courses available at Stanford University. 

So was I proud and grateful for this experience offered by the Cantonese program at Stanford. From 2016 through 2018, starting from scratch, I took four Cantonese courses with Dr. Sik Lee Dennig, joined her during numerous office hours and had many off-hours meetings she kindly offered when I could practice my language skills and learned about Hong Kong from her. Without a wide range of Cantonese language classes, I would not have been able to carry out my ethnographic research that requires a high level of Cantonese proficiency in everyday settings. 

Beyond Hong Kong, I also conducted some research on a short field trip to Guishan Island in Zhuhai, Guang Dong Province in the summer of 2020. As the only one in a small team who could speak Cantonese, I facilitated an unexpected interview we originally prepared in Mandarin (the interviewer felt more comfortable in Cantonese). A month later, when I was wandering in a morning market in Ningde, Fujian (one of my hometowns in China where I am currently based for dissertation writing and exploring future research projects), I met a middle-aged woman selling Indonesian snacks in the street. I learned that she came from an overseas Chinese family, and then we ended up talking in Cantonese, her mother tongue. Both of us found it joyful — and surprising — to speak Cantonese in Fujian, a province outside the greater Canton region. 

A few weeks before I wrote this op-ed, I had dinner with a friend from Macau, the other Special Administrative Region of China with a majority of Cantonese-speaking residents. I learned about his first-hand experience of Macau’s social and political life during the COVID-19 pandemic, which gives me a useful reference to think comparatively about my ongoing project on Hong Kong. This kind of encounter wouldn’t be possible without the linguistic-cultural intimacy enacted by my proficiency in Cantonese. If English is the first language that prepares my career as a “transnational” scholar, Cantonese is definitely the second one that profoundly diversifies this trip with numerous nodes of inquiry that I previously hadn’t thought about.

I am therefore extremely distressed to learn that Stanford has decided to cut Cantonese from a variety of thoughtfully designed courses to an on-demand offering of language tutoring. The abrupt termination of Dr. Dennig’s current lectureship, in particular, is an institutional mistreatment to her 20+ years of service to the intellectual community of Stanford. Reading testimonials from numerous alumni whose learning experience at Stanford benefits from Dr. Dennig’s work, it is not hard to tell that what she has done is much more than teaching language as an easily replaceable employee (as the rationale of budget assumes), but as a devoted educator, well-respected facilitator and beloved member of the community. It is an ill-judged decision for Stanford to make major changes to the Cantonese program without substantially consulting with Dr. Dennig, not to mention ending her position in such an insensitive manner.

Beyond my experience of learning Cantonese at Stanford as a student, I would like to say a few words in support of the program as an anthropologist. It’s not uncommon to hear people say (especially in Mainland China but increasingly elsewhere) that Cantonese is just a dialect in China, downplaying its significance at a time when Mandarin Chinese becomes a dominant representative of Chinese languages. This is clearly a biased reading under what linguistic anthropology calls a monolinguistic, nationalistic language ideology. Here, this language ideology maintains that a nation-state should have what is in fact a most standardized “dialect” as its exclusive national language. 

Today, the strongest force that puts this language ideology into practice is the Chinese government. In recent years, ethno-linguistic diversity within a nation-state, once promised in China’s progressive socialist path and manifested most clearly in the Regional Ethnic Autonomy System backed by the state, is being considerably curtailed by the increasingly majoritarian, Han-Chinese centered cultural politics. In this politics, state institutions more vigorously enforce what might be called “Mandarin First” language policy. The enormous distress this kind of policy imparts on minority groups is, most recently, evident in the ethnic-Mongolians’ protest against curriculum reform in 2020.

Ironically, this tendency, with all its unfortunate outcomes, may be globally reproduced if institutions too quickly adopt the reasoning that “China is important, so we only need to learn ‘its language’ — Mandarin — instead of its ‘dialects.’” It would be particularly saddening if Cantonese, a recognized “global language,” as several pieces in the testimonial series and Stanford Daily op-eds have shown, receives the nationalistic treatment even outside China. With these reflections, I sincerely hope that as a renowned educational institution, Stanford could take the due responsibility and keep our Cantonese program. 

I call the readers of The Stanford Daily to support the Save Cantonese at Stanford petition. I urge the University to reevaluate the plan’s negative effects on both the local intellectual community and Stanford’s reputation as a top-tier institution and to make more sensible decisions regarding the Cantonese program. 

Shan Huang is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford, specializing in urban studies and political cultures with a regional focus on Hong Kong and Mainland China. 

Contact Shan Huang at shan5 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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