Tuesday, August 3, 2010

What it means to speak Cantonese (and dance Tango)

Sometimes you have to be able to tell yourself: "F*** it! I'm going to go and dance Tango!"

But if the Communist party in China has its way, everyone in China will be obedient and submissive and not say "F*** it!" to anything - not to injustice, not to social inequities, not to rampant corruption, not to Orwellian mind control - no, no more "F*** it!" to anything.

The central government has been giving orders for the local media in Guangzhou to stick with Mandarin and to phase out Cantonese in its programming and broadcasts. Cantonese is a dialect spoken by around 26 million people, most of whom live in the Guangzhou/Hong Kong/Macau area of southern China.* Protests have erupted both in Guangdong (the main city of Guangzhou) and in Hong Kong against these measures.

* We, as Hong Kong expatriates, speak Cantonese too.

Here's an article by Kent Ewing at Asia Times Online regarding the protests and the controversy. Many of the articles and commentary on this issue, including the one by Ewing, have aptly zeroed in on one peculiar catchphrase being used by the pro-Cantonese protestors:

Radical Hong Kong legislator "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung, never one to pass up a protest, was also on the scene, at one point leading demonstrators in an obscene chant that had been the battle cry of a famous Cantonese general in late Ming Dynasty against his Manchu counterpart:

"F**k his mother! Hit them hard!"

The same chant was heard on Sunday in Guangzhou before police silenced it.

For seven years, until last month, a plaque carrying the battle cry had been placed at the base of a statue honoring the Ming general Yuan Chonghuan (1584-1630), in his native city of Dongguan in Guangdong. When local authorities removed the plaque, it sparked an online protest that was then greatly exacerbated by a proposal, made by the Guangzhou Municipal Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a political advisory body to the city's party committee. The municipal committee proposed that Guangzhou TV's most popular channels start broadcasting in the central government-designated national language of Putonghua, also known as Mandarin, rather than in Cantonese.

Protests in Hong Kong

The Cantonese general and his soldiers ran into every battle yelling and screaming this desperate feisty war cry - and soundly trounced their enemies on the battlefield. It may appear strange to be so uncouth at such a critical time - but if you think about it, can there be a more suitable or more courageous cry in the face of death and the absurdity of war?

For Cantonese speakers, swearing in foul, forceful and creative ways has always been a cornerstone of Cantonese culture. The upper and middle classes hide it (my university-educated parents never swore), but many a time I have sat at a table in restaurants surrounded by Cantonese speakers who "didn't give a damn" for a peek at the other side. The conversation ran like a Tarantino movie script... multiplied by TEN THOUSAND.

Don't be mistaken, it's not the disgustingly inventive ways that Cantonese speakers can string together references to private parts, animal functions and "your mother"** that bothers the central Communist government - it's the thought processes that go behind it. It's too cheeky. Too sneaky. Too angry. Too subversive. It resists categorization, definition and control... and therefore it must be crushed.

** deeply contrasted with the milder official "Mandarin" language common obscenities that aren't even obscene: "Damn your mother!" and "Yellow Eight Egg!" How can anyone get mad enough to take action uttering these wishy-washy phrases?

Totalitarian regimes throughout history have tried to commit cultural genocide (and just plain genocide) in order consolidate their power over people, thoughts and ideas that they don't understand and/or couldn't control. The Cantonese dialect and culture, with its Cantonese "lunfardo", is the next target of the Chinese Communist cultural war machine.

Tango is reactionary - Tango is subversive. Tango is hand-in-hand with outlawed lunfardo. We don't dance it, sing it, play it, listen to it, think about it, talk about it, write about it or feel it to be "good" and "obedient". Tango is not sheepish conformity. Tango is angry protest. Tango is a battle cry against status quo, and life itself: "I will dance - and when I dance, I am myself. I am free."

That's why today, and on every day until my dying day, I will treasure what I can say to myself - in Cantonese, no less:

"F*** it! I'm going to go and dance Tango!"***

*** Irene and Man Yung's Tango Blog - still banned in China. We must be doing something right!


Dieudonne Dang said...

Yeap me too F*** I am going to go dance Tango, work is getting on my last nerve!

Irene and Man Yung said...

Dear Dieudonne,

My sentiments exactly! The rat race is so frustrating that all I want to say is &#$@!!!@@!!! (and then go and dance tango)


Tangocommuter said...

Thanks for that. It's great that the 'close-hold community' can't pass a day without talking to each other about tango - and about everything and anything else too!

Your story about the attempt to ban a very expressive language rings a bell, but I can't remember when this has happened before. But I'm sure it's been tried many times before, with many languages, and it's always failed miserably. It seems there's nothing that really makes people wilder than trying to ban their language. Just shows the stupid ignorance of the 'banners'.

I look forward to celebrating the appearance in China of Irene and Man Yung's Tango Blog!

Irene and Man Yung said...

Dear Tangocommuter,

Thank you for your words of hope and encouragement! We heard that a senior Guangzhou government official came forward in the past few days announcing that he is implementing a cantonese learning program for himself and his staff - no doubt a symbolic gesture directed by the central authorities for damage control purposes.

However, the culture and language eroding continues...we have discovered that people are pronouncing some cantonese words with "reverse intonation" on tv programs on Hong Kong's main tv channel, TVB. It sounds extremely weird - perhaps the communists are trying to make Cantonese so ridiculous that we would gladly abandon it and get assimilated?

Whoops! We should really stop putting "Communist" with "Ridiculous" in the same sentence if we want search engines in China to be able to find us...

All the best,

Irene and Man Yung

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