The Surprisingly Complex Politics of Being and Speaking Chinese

Speaking and Being Chinese - Beijing drivers
Rickshaw drivers in Beijing, circa 2011. They’ve upgraded to electric since then.

“It’s disgusting.” I overheard someone at the next table say in Tim Ho Wan, a popular dim sum spot in Hong Kong. “It’s so different now.”

What was he talking about? The food? The service? What was “so different”? I tried drawing a cue from what he looked like: Asian, presumably Chinese descent given I was in Hong Kong. Around 50 years old. He and his friend (also Asian) were speaking mostly Dutch to each other, with some English. They used the Cantonese names of dishes when ordering from the menu, lo mai gai, siu mai and so on. I had my suspicion about what was bothering him, but wanted to confirm.

Then it happened again. A server spoke to the man, and like the last time, the server spoke in Mandarin. The man flinched visibly and gestured mutely with his hand as his reply, not even making eye contact.

He caught my eye and, in a flash, I knew. I confirmed when I engaged him on the subject. The man found it confronting that on a visit to his homeland, at an eatery with roots in traditional local culture he was not getting to speak his native language.

I had already thought it was weird that server staff were speaking to me in Mandarin. Firstly, I’m not ethnically Asian, and I’m used to people assuming I don’t speak any Chinese language (fair enough, on the balance of probabilities). Secondly, I’m in Hong Kong, and thirdly, I’m in a dim sum restaurant. Why are they speaking to me in Mandarin? It had never happened on previous visits.

Then I noticed: the server staff were speaking to each other in Mandarin as well. It was their native language.

Turns out the man wasn’t alone in feeling this way.

The Many Voices of China

Speaking and Being Chinese - Temple in Beijing
Temple view in Beijing

“I can’t read Mandarin.”

This is how non-Chinese sometimes put it when they’re trying to be politically correct. I understand the intention, even though it comes out strangely, because you only read and write Chinese, not Mandarin.

Or: “What do you mean when you say you speak ‘Chinese’?” someone might tell me authoritatively. “There are many languages in China.”

This is all true. I’ve learned, over time, that who and what is “Chinese” is a complex and contested topic in a shifting landscape. It depends on who’s saying what to whom.

For example, a Chinese mainlander speaking English to a non-Chinese person will ask “Do you speak Chinese?” and be referring to Mandarin. A Hong Konger or Taiwanese may use the word “Chinese” to refer to the language, but would also be likely to say “Mandarin”. Similarly, if a Hong Kong local says “Chinese”, they may be referring to Cantonese.

Speaking Mandarin, a mainland Chinese person might use the words “中文” (zhong wen), “汉语” (han yu) or “普通话” (pu tong hua) to refer to Chinese. These words loosely translate to “Chinese language”, “Han language” or “Standard speech”.

But a Hong Kong or Taiwanese local speaking to a non-Chinese person in Chinese will say “你會講國語嗎?”, using the word “國語” (guo yu) which literally translates to “Can you speak the National language?” 

Or the Hong Kong local might ask in Cantonese if you speak Chinese, if you’re of Asian descent like Jo is, with “你識唔識講中文啊?” (lei sik-m-sik jong zung man ah), again using the characters “中文” (here pronounced zung man) to refer to Chinese. But here they’ll almost definitely be referring to Cantonese, even though it’s using the same characters.

In Hong Kong or Taiwan, “National language” (國語, guo yu in Mandarin, gwok yu in Cantonese) is the word used to differentiate Mandarin from local dominant languages, including Cantonese in Hong Kong and Taiwanese languages (the local flavours of Hokkien and Hakka) in Taiwan.

In short, the same collective of words can refer to multiple languages, and understanding what is intended is an exercise in contextual awareness.

The Problem with the “National Language”

Is your head spinning yet? There’s more, but I’ll stop with more variations of how to say “Chinese” (language), before this guide becomes a four-dimensional table that can exist only in hyperspace, with axes for language spoken, language to which one is referring, person speaking and person to whom that person is speaking.

Language is tied strongly to identity in every region. In Hong Kong extremely so. While Cantonese is spoken all over the south of China, Hong Kong is a strong cultural anchor point because of the dominance of its film and TV industry and also its economy. Over the last few decades, internal migration throughout the Guangdong province has meant that the lingua franca of major cities like Shenzhen and Guangzhou has become Mandarin, rather than Cantonese as it once was.

Mandarin is the national language of China and Taiwan, as well as of Greater China (encompassing Hong Kong and Macau). But what does it mean? Again, it depends who you are, and who you’re asking.

To the majority of people living in the north of China or in the south west, the problem is not as evident. In these regions, people have been speaking a version of Mandarin for generations, if not longer. Mandarin, or putonghua, came to be the national language because it was spoken by the majority of China at the time of the formation of the PRC. While Mandarin is spoken in a number of closely related ways (mostly accents and local vocabulary, just like how English varies between major countries), the Beijing version was accepted as the “standard”, because that’s where the capital was.

Ask a Beijinger and they’ll unabashedly tell you that they speak standard Chinese. Much like how someone from the Castilian region of Spain will tell you that they have “no accent” in Spanish. (To which I always wanted to respond: “Are you kidding? Can you not hear yourself saying thththththt?”)

But if a Northerner opens their mouth in Taiwan or Hong Kong, they’ll immediately expose themselves as being from the north of China. And with this, unfortunately, comes all the political baggage. To many, speaking with a Northern Chinese (or indeed any mainland Chinese) accent will also bring strong cultural implications, brought on by the media blowing out of proportion some isolated incidents. The accent can cause one of the following assumptions about the speaker innocently using their mother tongue:

  • Assumptions that they are wealthy, newly rich, and like to throw their wealth about.
  • Assumptions that they are uncultured and ignorant of social norms.
  • Assumptions that they believe in the supremacy of the government of the PRC on that region.
  • Assumptions that they believe Mandarin is the only language they need to speak.

We heard these assumptions expressed in both Taiwan and Hong Kong. You may have too, if you spent any time there. There’s nothing new about xenophobia, gentrification and cultural colonialism; it has happened with many cultures around the world.

The unique thing about the China situation is the role of the media. In the mainland, Facebook and other social media (for the vast majority who don’t avail themselves of a VPN) don’t exist, and many foreign news sources are blocked (including the South China Morning Post, the Hong Kong’s main news outlet[1]). People do have local social media (WeChat) and of course there is a large amount of discourse in academic circles. However, in a world where social communication is monitored, activism against the policies of the Party prohibited and the vast majority of newspapers state-owned, the national papers and policies expressed therein have an out-sized influence on domestic opinions.

Outside Mainland China (including in Hong Kong and Taiwan), Facebook, foreign newspapers and all other forms of social media are freely available and broadly used. And while this is great, it comes with a cost: for all the benefits of freedom of expression and association, social media platforms can also be echo chambers for hateful views.

Speaking and Being Chinese - Beijing drivers - Anti-Mainland sentiment
One example of an anti-mainland Facebook group.

The events of the last few years have only added to this tension. I don’t want to make this into a political analysis, just one of people. But the decision of the PRC in 2014 to limit the scope of free elections in Hong Kong to a few candidates approved by the PRC (when they had previously indicated that Hong Kong would be on a path toward universal suffrage), and the construction of a high-speed rail and bridge directly connecting Hong Kong to the Mainland in 2018, bringing with it a massive influx of tourists, have together added to the tension.

Probably the most alarming thing to happen recently was when a Hong Kong celebrity, Ella Koon, tried to dissuade hatred towards mainland Chinese visitors… for which she was pilloried on social media. While many might agree with her view of “We Are All Chinese” generally, she was so distraught by the reaction that she all but withdrew from social media afterwards.

One Hundred Chinese Faces

Speaking and Being Chinese - Uyghur

Being “Chinese” is just as complicated as speaking “Chinese”.

Firstly, if you’re not Chinese (or generally Asian), it’s hard to get this right. It took me probably a decade of bouncing around Asian countries before I got a sense of it. In Western societies, for those of us who are not of Asian background, we’re discouraged from asking people where they’re “really” from (and you’d never phrase it like that). The implication when one asks that question is that one is looking for differences against which to juxtapose oneself, rather than commonalities one might share. So we say “ABC” (American-Born Chinese), “BBC” (British), “CBC” (Canadian) and “ABC” (Australian, this time), or various other variants for other backgrounds, and are sensitive to the fact that people might look Chinese but have been born in Lubbock, Texas and grown up in Orange County, California. 

Otherwise we might come across like this:

Not really. But I love this video.

But after a while in Asia one learns that really, there are many kinds of Chinese (let alone people from elsewhere in Eastern Asia), and knowing a bit about where someone’s from helps you understand where they’re coming from.

Let’s take a few examples.

If someone was born in China and grew up in the Mainland, they’re almost definitely Chinese ethnically, culturally and by nationality. Ethnically they’re either of the Han Chinese majority, or one of the minorities like Uighur, Korean, Russian, or maybe even the extreme minority of Persian in the case of one of my friends. Culturally, anyone who grows up in the Mainland has some inescapable aspects of Chinese culture. On a superficial level, this manifests in things like a feeling one should remove one’s shoes at the door (common to anyone in continental Asia and San Francisco), then proceeds through to a few culturally entrenched beliefs like the importance of hard work and giving gifts in the form of red packets or moon cakes, and goes all the way up to a generally abstract and usually non-religious but highly philosophical perception of the world. People who grew up in this environment are highly aware of the dominance of the Chinese government (whatever they think of it), are cognizant of the fact that their parents or grandparents experienced the Cultural Revolution and the incredible tragedy that brought upon the country—whether or not they speak about it—and generally feel lucky to have what they have. In terms of nationality, they’ve got an id card or passport that says “People’s Republic of China” on it.

If born in the west (the US for example), someone of Chinese descent is likely to identify as Western (e.g. American, or French or whatever) in most circumstances. But to some, they’re still Chinese, despite their passport, despite views on the world and despite even their own will. To other Asian friends who grew up in the west, they’ll share a lot, but share a lot more with those of Chinese background—regardless of what kind of Chinese background that is. It’s hard being even vaguely Chinese and visiting any Chinese country. People would speak to you in Chinese languages and expect you to understand. Since not all people born and raised in western countries speak Chinese languages fluently, this situation can raise judgment, a few insecurities, and sometimes guilt. It’s a very different experience to visiting a country in Greater China as another kind of Asian (like Jo, who is of Korean background) or a total foreigner (like me). The expectations are different. (We’d feel the same pressure if we visited Korea or Iran.)

Being Chinese - Hong Kong - Subway
Hong Kongers of all forms on the Subway. Side note: they call this crowded in Hong Kong, while Beijingers look on and laugh.

The people of Hong Kong are different again. They’ll share a lot of views common to most of China and even Asia. Views like the importance of deference to elders, modest dress (an evolving definition) and belief in at least one form of traditional Chinese medicine are common. Hong Kongers will even call themselves Chinese. But that doesn’t mean they’re part of the PRC, and (as I indicated above) they may strongly assert that they are not. Their passports will attest to this. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Passport is a passport issued only to the permanent residents of Hong Kong who also hold Chinese citizenship. Note that last bit. It gets quite complicated! But basically, you get one of these passports if you have one parent who also has Chinese nationality and you were born in Hong Kong. I don’t know if the parents had to have claimed their Chinese nationality at the time of birth, but I wouldn’t want to dive into that bureaucratic black hole.

In Taiwan, being of Chinese descent ethnically differentiates you from the Aboriginal people of Taiwan, but could still mean you have ancestry from anywhere over the island of Taiwan or elsewhere in China. Chinese people in Taiwan probably speak Mandarin, though not always as the dominant language, which might be Taiwanese, also known as Taiwanese Hokkien (locally referred to as 臺語, Tai yu in Mandarin pronunciation). I spoke to some people in Mandarin and then only half-understood the reply, because they responded to me in Taiwanese—a strategy that would work with most locals (and maybe other Mainland visitors who have more of a knack for other Chinese languages). At other times, I’d say something in Mandarin (like numbers, or the names of foods when buying things) and then be taught the local Taiwanese words for them. Using local words subsequent times always got a better response.

And beyond the boundaries of where the PRC asserts its authority, you can also be Chinese and be Malaysian, Indonesian, Thai, Singaporean or Filipino (or a national of a few other countries). In those countries, there have been immigrant Chinese populations for a number of generations, the descendants of whom still identify as Chinese. The implied language spoken varies dramatically. It’s pretty common for someone who’s Malaysian Chinese to speak five languages: English, Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese and Malay… not to mention Hakka, Teochew and a few others (but generally not more than a few Chinese variants at a time). People in Thailand who identify as Thai Chinese, on the other hand, may speak no Chinese languages at all. They might tell you they’re of Chinese descent, or they might not—regardless of how much it changes (basically nothing, except maybe an understanding nod to the fact that their great, great grandparents escaped poverty from the south of China), the way they identify is highly individual.

Overall, I would never suggest putting people in a box. Every individual has exceptions. The above is just a quick glimpse into the complexity of Chinese “identity”, itself a fluid construct. But understanding some cultural background helps us feel more at home with people without having to go over many basic questions. Even just knowing that someone is only one generation away from poverty can help many of us with similar backgrounds feel like we have something important in common. So take the above as a glimpse into a rich world that I’d invite everyone to explore for themselves.

Who are we?

These days, when people ask us where we’re from, we assume good intentions: That they’re trying to connect with us. I tell them I’m from Iran (I’m really not… but it’s why I’m brownish), and Jo says she’s from Korea. They may have follow-up questions, but usually this is enough to satisfy the asker. Worst case, we’re doing a pretty good job at representing those two countries, and let them have it for free.

What we’ve learned so far from travelling is not just who we are, but the importance of the nuance of where other people are from. We’re looking forward to diving deeper into what makes people tick in more parts of the world.

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