The symbolic imposition of Mandarin in Hong Kong

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Do not speak Mandarin



It’s been a busy week for China, although the Chinese people probably haven’t noticed due to something called censorship: the Panama Papers featuring Xi Jinping’s inner family circles, the Chinese’s “Great Firewall” being registered by U.S. trade officials as a trade barrier, China picking up Russia’s mess in Kyrgyzstan, and they even kidnapped 45 Taiwanese citizens from Kenya using tear gas to force them into a plane going to China, claiming that they are Chinese and, thus, they are the property of the People’s Republic of China. As I said, a very busy week, easy to deal with when you have Alibaba’s AI to assist you in your world domination predictions.

On this side of the border things are not better. There was a time when you couldn’t move around Hong Kong without Cantonese or English. A friend explained to me the other day that, when her parents flee from China when she was a kid, she had to improve her English in less than one year and learn Traditional Chinese characters in less than one month. This was all required by her school, and she successfully managed to do so. But Hong Kong today is a very different story. I have friends in Hong Kong whose Mandarin is better than English and thus, the only way we can communicate is by using Mandarin mixed with basic Cantonese. A lot of young people have problems communicating in the language of Shakespeare and, to be fair, some of them got an accent that is strikingly similar to the English accent of Chinese people –instant head-ache if your native language is not English–. And the surprise comes when you tell someone that you want to learn Cantonese –the most common response you get is “What for? You should learn Mandarin!”. And hence, as English fades away in the most international city of the world, Mandarin crawls out of the pit.

Yuen Chan, a Hongkongese mother who was looking for a Cantonese-friendly school for her daughter not so long ago, found that 71% of primary schools and 25% of secondary schools in Hong Kong use Mandarin language for instruction for Chinese language, instead of Cantonese. It is true that, if you wish to hijack today’s market, learning Mandarin will increase your chances of success (if you believe the Chinese Communist Party propaganda, that’s it). Hong Kong’s big error before and after the handover has been to rely too much on the English language for business, instead of effectively promoting Cantonese.

But, do you know where does the term “Mandarin” come from?

Although the voice “Mandarin” has its origin in the Malay word for “minister”, “menteri”, it was widely believed that it came directly from the Portuguese “mandarim”. This is highly symbolic, because “mandarim” means “He who orders or bosses around”, and recalls the idea, in Roman languages, of some kind of dictator (“mandador”) who boasts about his power despite being a little nobody (thus, the suffix “-im”). Oh, what? Are you thinking about Xi Jinping?

By the 16th century, the official language spoken in China was called “Mandarin language” by the Jesuit missionaries, that is, the “language of the ministers”, but also “the language of those in power”, the language of the mandadores.

So what does this mean for Hong Kong? Every time you speak Mandarin instead of English or Cantonese, you are submitting to the “little nobodies” in China, accepting an imposed language that, actually, even Mao Zedong couldn’t speak. As it usually happens throughout history, Communist leaders are the only ones who do not comply with their own policies.

Do not speak Mandarin. Be free.

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