Opinion | Save Cantonese at Stanford: A language, not a dialect

Opinion by Gina Tam
Feb. 8, 2021, 9:44 p.m.

What does it mean to learn the Chinese language? 

Schools across the globe have generally presumed a consistent, straightforward answer to this question: it would mean learning standard Mandarin, called Putonghua, or the “common language” in the People’s Republic of China, or Guoyu, or “national language” in Taiwan. From the university where I teach in Texas to schools and universities in St. Petersburg, Singapore, or Addis Ababa, “Chinese classes” often exclusively teach Mandarin. Stanford University, on the other hand, has set itself apart by recognizing the academic value of other Chinese languages. In addition to its offerings in Mandarin, it has offered instruction in Cantonese and Southern Min, two other Chinese languages spoken widely across southern China and throughout the global Chinese diaspora.

That is, until this year. Within the past few months, Stanford has indicated that its offerings in Cantonese are under threat when it terminated the contract of its sole Cantonese instructor. Others have noted the personal reasons for why this loss would be imminently felt; indeed, in a different way, it is personal for me, too. Because Stanford offered these classes when I was a graduate student, I was able to acquire skills and knowledge central to the completion of my first book — a history of the relationship between Chinese national identity and Chinese languages like Cantonese that are decidedly not the national language. But rather than retread this ground, I thought I would ask a different question: why does Cantonese, a language spoken across the globe by tens of millions of speakers and that serves as the primary language of, among other cities, Hong Kong, seem dispensable — when Mandarin is not? While I am certainly not privy to Stanford’s internal discussions, generally speaking, the broader invisibility of Cantonese in U.S. language curriculums stems in part from how Cantonese is designated. In China, Cantonese is considered one of many Chinese fangyan, a term that is most frequently translated into English as “dialect.” Dialects are subordinate — a dialect only makes sense if it is a dialect of something — and are mutually intelligible. And at a university where resources are always limited, it makes sense to teach a core language over dialects.

These commonly accepted criteria, however, do not apply to all, or even most, Chinese fangyan, including Cantonese. Cantonese and Mandarin are by no means mutually intelligible, as dissimilar to one another as French and Portuguese. Nor would it make any linguistic sense to say that Cantonese is a variant of Mandarin. Nonetheless, this has not stopped powerful forces, including though not limited to the current government of the People’s Republic of China, from insisting that Mandarin is the “common language of the Han people” and Cantonese is nothing more than a “variant” of Chinese. The implication of these claims is not limited solely to translation. Across the United States, the hierarchy between Mandarin and other Chinese languages is embedded in educational, cultural and political structures. Indeed, the very idea that to learn Mandarin is to learn “Chinese” is emblematic of this implicit hierarchy, as it presumes that Mandarin encompasses and represents all Chinese languages.

As my research shows, this presumed hierarchy between Mandarin and other Chinese languages was not historically preteremined. The idea that Mandarin, based upon the language spoken in the capital Beijing, is a language while other Chinese languages are nothing more than variants, was the result of complex historical processes that unfolded during the 20th century. After language reformers decided to make the language spoken in Beijing the national tongue in the 1920s, multiple groups within China worked hard to reinforce its status as sole representative of the nation. From an educational system that emphasizes Mandarin at the expense of all other languages to censorship infrastructures that flag or block content in other Chinese fangyan, numerous, overlapping structures within the PRC reinforce the presumption that there is one Chinese language. Yet despite the power of these forces seeking to emphasize the hegemony of Mandarin, fangyan remain important. They often still serve as the languages of everyday life, critical to lived experiences of hundreds of millions of people around the world. This is particularly true of Cantonese, the Chinese language that embodies the Hong Kong protest movement, the Chinese language that voices the mesmerizing films of Wong Kar Wai or pulses through the epic rock ballads of Beyond. It is even the most common Chinese language in Stanford’s backyard, spoken by thousands throughout the Bay Area.

While my book is a work of history, there are contemporary, real-world consequences of presuming that Mandarin is a language and Cantonese is nothing more than a dialect. It makes normative the suppression of other Chinese languages and the silencing of their speakers. And when educational institutions like Stanford presume that Mandarin represents the entirety of “Modern Chinese,” they not only become complicit in this broader oppression of minoritized languages — they also directly contradict the core mission of the American academy. There is clearly intellectual value in studying and learning a language spoken by tens of millions of people, its speakers holding knowledge and truth that can otherwise not be accessed by Mandarin. Moreover, diversity and inclusion efforts must recognize that any presumption that an identity like “Chinese” can be defined by a set of homogenous traits ultimately essentializes, flattens and silences diverse voices spoken in diverse tongues. As the historical actors featured in my book make clear, their native languages are part of who they are, and a hegemonic force like a powerful government or a world-class university presuming that these languages are nothing more than variants or dialects denies their subjectivities.

Ultimately, institutes of higher education like Stanford should be at the forefront of efforts to celebrate linguistic diversity and critically question problematic assumptions that underlay linguistic hierarchies. By undermining its Cantonese program, it does the opposite: it uncritically upholds a stark hierarchy among “Chinese” languages and the hegemonic forces that benefit from that hierarchy. To save it is to acknowledge the constructedness of this hierarchy, recognize the prominence and significance of minoritized Chinese languages, and elevate the subjectivities and lived experiences of its speakers.

Gina Tam is an assistant professor of history at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and a 2016 graduate of Stanford University’s history Ph.D. program.

Contact Gina Tam at gtam ‘at’ trinity.edu.

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