By Chapman Chen, Ph.D.
Recently, Leung Man-tao published in Appledaily a Chinese article titled “From City-state to Orthodox Chinese Culture”, which attacks Professor Wan Chin’s city-state theory and Orthodox Chinese confederation theory. It denies Hong Kong’s status as the inheritor of Orthodox Chinese Culture; queries whether Hong Kong Cantonese represents proper Tang pronunciations; alleges that the sole purpose of many a Southern province in China claiming their dialect to be closely related to ancient Chinese is to raise the position of their own town; and condemns Wan Chin for stressing the racial difference between Cantonese and Mandarin (Putonghua) in order to push independence of Hong Kong.
However, four years ago, Leung Man-tao himself loudly pointed out that what is unique about Hong Kong Cantonese is that in Hong Kong, the Chinese subject is taught in Cantonese so that Hongkongers can read aloud serious Chinese written texts and think in Cantonese. Moreover, according to phonological studies, although Cantonese is not identical to middle ancient Chinese phonetics, there is a systematic shift in between. In addition, Orthodox Chinese culture hinges on culture rather than race. And although a culture may be diversified, it cannot be without a mainstream.
First of all, Leung Man-tao asks:
On what ground can we say that Hong Kong Cantonese is orthodox refined Chinese?… No doubt, in terms of pronunciation, Cantonese is close to middle ancient Chinese, and that is why Tang poetry as recited in Cantonese sounds almost rhymed. But this does not mean that Cantonese is the lost Tang tradition. For instance, voiced consonant is totally absent in Cantonese.
Doubtlessly, Cantonese is not equal to middle ancient Chinese; the loss of voiced consonants of Tang Dynasty is the general tendency in different communities in China with the only exception of Suzhou. Nonetheless, there is a systematic shift from middle ancient Chinese to modern Cantonese. For example, level-tone voiced vowels have become corresponding voiceless aspirated vowels; oblique-tone voiced consonants have become corresponding voiceless unaspirated consonants (“corresponding” means bilabial to bilabial; labial dental to labial dental; affricate to affricate). Also, present affricates (e.g., z, chi) were pronounced as dental stops (d, t) in ancient China.
Meanwhile, amidst the many Han languages of China, Cantonese vowels are closest to Tang sounds, completely retaining the three nasal sounds m, n, and ng, plus the oblique sounds, p, t, k (cf. David Wong’s oral conversation of 10.5.2015 with the writer of this article). And precisely because the shift is systematic, reciting Tang and Sung poetry in modern Hong Kong Cantonese still fits the original rhyme schemes.
Leung then asks:
The old dialects of some places in Hunan still preserve ancient voiced consonants as a sort of relic. Don’t tell me that based on that, Hunan people can claim that only what they speak is the refined language of ancient China… Ever since late Ching Dynasty, scholars of many a place in China, especially Canton and Fukien, have liked to search for the connection between their own mother tongues and ancient Chinese with a view to boosting the position of their home towns… Apart from phonetics, it is also possible to dig out semantic and grammatical clues from various Southern dialects of China to prove their so-called elegance, orthodoxy and legitimacy.
Admittedly, besides Cantonese, many Southern dialects contain elements of the ancient Han language. In his preface to Poon Wing-keung’s Colloquial Cantonse (Yuet-ju Zuk-waa), Wan Chin (2010) says,
”When traditional Chinese culture is lost, look for it in less developed regions.” Throughout history, central China time and again fell into barbarians’ hands, and Han pronunciations and Han writings have been preserved in Southern China, especially Canton. For instance, Cantonese preserves Han and Tang pronunciations (and in some cases even Chin pronunciations); Fukien and Wu preserve Jin pronunciations; and Hakka preserves Sung pronunciations. The preservation of ancient sounds, phrases and grammar by various Han languages is crucial to the healthy development of the Chinese language. A map of various Han languages of different places in China plus traditional Chinese characters equals the cultural heritage of China since Chin and Han Dynasties. How spectacular it is! This is unique to China, not to be found in any other nation.
However, on 2nd August 2010, Leung Man-tao himself said in a TV program of PhTV :
Fukien, like all the other dialects of China, is not the medium of instruction at school. In this way, China people are unable to read aloud certain conceptual, refined and less frequently used words in written texts. Shanghainese are probably unable to read aloud any Chinese classic from beginning to end. But let me tell you, many Hongkongers are able to do so. Why? It is because in the last few decades, Cantonese has been used as the medium of instruction of the Chinese subject at school. And our Cantonese has preserved quite a few ancient words that cannot be found in any other dialect, including Putonghua.
Right, the key factor that makes Hong Kong Cantonese culture the genuine inheritor of Han civilization is: Only Hong Kong, thanks to the British Hong Kong Government’s policy of segregating Hong Kong from China, has preserved ancient Han pronunciations (Cantonese), ancient Han grammar, ancient Han phrases (cf. Chapman Chen’s online programme, Cantonese and Tang Writings), traditional Chinese characters, ancient Han customs and ethics, studies of Chinese ancient civilization, which are all, alas, fully modernized and organically merged with Western civilization.
Finally, Leung questions:
This trend is also suggestive of a struggle for independence akin to that of the Han people towards the end of the Ching Dynasty, as if everybody is looking for an uncontaminated racial political standpoint outside the Northern official language. In order to establish Hong Kong’s status as a Han State, Wan Chin places a special premium on the racial difference between Cantonese and Putongua, claiming that the latter is mixed with barbarized elements from the Altaic language system. However, how come a scholar embracing the ideal of the Orthodox Chinese world takes racial differences so much to heart?
In reality, the theory that Cantonese is the heir to the refined language of Central China was first put forth by neither Han people towards the end of Ching for the sake of overthrowing the Manchurian rule nor by Wan Chin now for the sake of nation-building for Hong Kong. Chu Hei (1130-1200), the renowned Confucian scholar of Southern Sung Dynasty, already said a few hundred years ago, “The accent of many places is already contaminated, while the Cantonese still speak Chinese well.”
It is of course problematic to take the kind of Han language spoken by Manchurians or Mongolians as the official language, which is as absurd as taking the strongly accented Cantonese spoken by Westerners to be the standard of the original language. Nonetheless, the Ching Government only required scholar-officials moving around in the forbidden city to speak the official language.
Moreover, all the scholars in those days were well versed in elegant Chinese writing and ancient phonetics. And all provinces, all towns, and all villages in China then taught their students in their own mother tongue, unlike contemporary China, where all nationals are forced to learn and communicate in the artificial language, Putonghua, and in the artificial writing system, simplified Chinese.
Wan Chin (2011) has explained that the Orthodox Chinese world refers to wherever the orthodox Chinese culture reaches and is not confined to any single race:
The orthodox Chinese world is more important than the State…The State is the domain of a political regime, whereas the orthodox Chinese world is the territory where a common system of culture and belief is spread.
Admittedly, orthodox Chinese culture is very tolerant. For instance, traditional Chinese phonology is influenced by Sanskrit and Tang poetry by Indian phonetics (cf. Wan Chin, Facebook post, 26.1.2015). And orthodox Chinese culture in Hong Kong is deeply influenced by the West. However, orthodox Chinese culture has its own mainstream, i.e., Han Confucianism, which leads to the line of demarcation between orthodox Chinese culture and barbarian culture. This is why orthodox Chinese Buddhism is so localized that it differs significantly from Indian Buddhism.
Analogously, although American culture advertises itself as diversified, the Americans insist on Christianity as their mainstream culture. Almost every President of the United States uttered “So help me, God” when they took the oath of office. The United States, in view of the fact that it has a history of only two hundred years or so, even claims itself to be the heir to the Holy Roman Empire, in order to highlight its legitimacy and authority.
In conclusion, four years ago, Leung Man-tao upheld Hong Kong Cantonese as an elegant language, stressing the difference between it and other Han languages of China. Now he actually contradicts himself and questions the significance of local Cantonese to the resuscitation of Orthodox Chinese culture, going against common phonological knowledge. One may wonder whether this is politically motivated. In an article titled “Serving China with Cantonese” and published by himself last year in Appledaily, Leung says, “Talking about the strength of the dialect, Cantonese, we must bear in mind that dialect is not a clear-cut linguistic concept, that it is a political product.”
In face of the 1.3 billion population of China and its policy of recolonizing Hong Kong, if Hongkongers do not emphasize the fact that Hong Kong is the heir to Orthodox Chinese tradition, it will easily be swallowed by Communist China!