The Cantonese Language

The Peoples of China

The Peoples of China


China although predominately populated with the Han Chinese, has over 100 million people identified as belonging to other ethnic minorities. However these people are concentrated in the less densely populated 'fringes' of China so may form the majority in certain areas. Tensions with other peoples has been a cause of troubles throughout China's long history and continue to this day in Tibet and Xinjiang.

Many people think of China as a united country with a single language; however, the situation is more interesting than that. Unusually China is unified by a single written script rather than a single spoken language. This is a rather strange situation because most languages are phonetic, it is not usually possible to speak the same written language in different ways.

Guangdong, Guangzhou
Guangzhou TV & Sightseeing Tower, seen from front entrance of Hongcheng Park, Ersha Island, Guangzhou, China. July 2010. Image by Kxx available under a Creative Commons license .

Chinese languages

Chinese has a number of spoken languages, far beyond minor differences of accent and dialect. There are nine main groups of Chinese language and although 70% of Chinese can speak Mandarin Chinese this is not necessarily used for day-to-day speech.

The modern dialects are split up into: Northern dialect or mandarin or putonghua (Most of northern and central China); Wu (Jiangsu, Zhejiang); Xiang (Hunan); Gan (Jiangxi, Hubei); Northern Min (north Fujian); Southern Min (south Fujian; Taiwan; Guangdong); Yue or Cantonese (Guangdong, Guangxi) and Hakka or Kejia (Guangdong; Sichuan).


One of the most familiar Chinese words that has entered the English language is the word ‘wok’ and this is the Cantonese word for ‘cooking pot’ rather than the mandarin pronunciation 'guō' for the same written character . Quite a few other food related Cantonese words may also be familiar to you, including: Kumquat; Bok choy; Chop suey; Loquat; Lychee; Kowtow and Sampan. ‘Ketchup’ may also be of Cantonese origin, although some say it is Malaysian.

One key feature of Cantonese is the number of tones used for vowel sounds, Cantonese has nine tones where Mandarin has only four. A Westerner usually finds it hard enough to master four tones, distinguishing and producing nine different tones is pretty impossible for anyone not brought up alongside Cantonese speakers. A phonetic spelling would need to use nine different tone marks to put over the vowels and this is not feasible and so romanized forms of Cantonese do not use tone marks; instead some representations use numbers after the vowel to indicate the tone number. A Mandarin speaker will take a long time to learn to speak Cantonese well as it has to be learned as if it were a new language. In some ways this is similar to comparing the Italian and Spanish languages, they both share common roots in Latin but have developed into quite different languages.

Guangdong, Guangzhou, modern housing, road
Modern highway and buildings, Guangzhou, Guangdong

Cantonese is spoken in southern China (Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong and Macau); but because there has been widespread emigration from these provinces there are a surprisingly large number of Cantonese speakers worldwide. In 2007 there were an estimated 59 million native Cantonese speakers; this is the same number of speakers as Turkish or Italian. Historically Cantonese is considered to be based on the Tang dynasty pronunciation that was used everywhere in China at that time and so may have older roots than Mandarin Chinese. Cantonese people consider themselves ‘people of Tang’ contrasting to the ‘people of Han’ who live in northern China.

Wed 17th May

Belt and Road Initiative

Spending a trillion dollars (yes $1,000 billion) is a serious investment. China’s big idea is to open up the country for much wider trade. The primary focus is to develop stronger links with Central Asian countries on the route of the old Silk Road. However the initiative seems all embracing as even New Zealand, hardly on the Silk Road is keen to be involved. The idea is for both an overland ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ (China to Europe) and a ‘21st century Maritime Road’ (China through the Indian Ocean to Africa and then north to Egypt). This has been shortened to ‘One belt one road’ or ‘Belt and Road’ or just ‘OBOR’ for short.

It is hard to work out exactly what the initiative is all about, there seem to be several factors and motives. One is that President Trump has continued to threaten China with extra tariffs to protect U.S. jobs from cheap Chinese imports. If China can open up new markets for her exports she will not be as badly hit by any protectionist measures. The U.S. continues to have a huge balance of payments deficit with China, in March 2017 the U.S. exported $9.6bn but imported $34.2bn. China’s heavy dependence on sales into the U.S. is a problem that needed to be fixed. In 2015 China’s main trade partners were: United States $457bn, Hong Kong $273bn, Japan $152bn, Germany $97.4bn and South Korea $90.1bn. Shifting trade to new countries will strengthen and stabilize China’s economy.

Many analysts also point to the problems of over-capacity in China. Just looking at total imports and exports is too crude a measure, the real problem is that China’s growth rate has slowed and the excess capacity in building related industries (steel, cement, construction) need new markets. If China can kick-start economic development elsewhere in the world she solves two problems at once - over-capacity at home and opening up new markets abroad. The China Communications Construction Group has already agreed deals worth up $40 billion in contracts with ‘Belt and Road’ countries. Sinking so much money in loans that may never be repaid is quite a risk. Venezuela now owes China $65bn and is not in a position to repay. Analysts consider such a huge project will be impossible to manage effectively and huge amounts are likely to be misappropriated.

The initiative comes at a particularly opportune time for the U.K.. Always keen on free trade and instinctively anti-protectionist the U.K. has more to gain than most other countries. With difficult talks ahead on exit of the E.U. trading block the opening up of possible deals with China all over the world is very appealing. U.K. politicians have been very keen to promote the initiative and use its undoubted trading expertise to jointly open up new markets.

The initial proposals centered on the countries of central Asia - along the route of the old Silk Road out of China. The initiative is therefore a way of re-invigorating trading links that were active for a thousand years before trade moved to China’s southern ports. The vast bulk of Chinese development had been along the south and eastern coasts, the poorest inland provinces have been left well behind. Of particular importance is the troubled province of Xinjiang. Positioned on the fringes of China the province is more Central Asian than Chinese with a Muslim majority. With frequent terrorist attacks by separatists in the province, China struggles to keep tight control. Recently China has banned Muslim parents from giving their children Muslim names and is embarking on a system of DNA profiling of every citizen. With the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative deals with neighboring Central Asian states (Takjikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan) the increased economic activity should lessen instability in the region.

The key point is that China is changing from an inward to an outward-looking nation, no longer putting internal development as the top priority. With increased economic involvement comes political power too, and some hawkish observers see this as the first stage in the building of a new Chinese Empire.

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The name Cantonese comes from the Portuguese romanized spelling ‘Cantão’ for the name of the province Guangdong (Gwong d-owng in Cantonese). Subsequently ‘Canton’ came to refer only to the city of Guangzhou rather than the whole province. The name for the language in China is yuè which is the same as the shortened name for the province of Guangdong

Here are some of the basic characters we have covered in Mandarin Chinese with the Cantonese equivalent. In some characters you can see similarities between Cantonese and Mandarin, for example here are the first ten numbers:

yut1; one
èryee2; two
sānsaam3; three
say4; four
ng5; five
liùluk6; six
chut7; seven
baat8; eight
jiǔgau9; nine
shísup10; ten

And here are some common characters that you might hear in basic conversation.

daaibig; large
xiǎoseeusmallThere is no 'hs' sound as there is in mandarin
yutsun; day
yuèyu-eetmoon; month
rényunperson; man ; woman
yu-eerainThis is one that is clearly similar
yur-eehe; him
yur-eeshe; herMale and female people are pronounced the same as in pinyin
hǎohogood; OK; yes
mmno; notThe sound 'mm' is made without opening the mouth. The character is not used in Mandarin Chinese
buhno; notThe Cantonese specific form 'mm' is more frequently used colloquially.
shìhaiyes; is; correct
běibucknorthFrom common root in Ancient Chinese 'bek'.
dōngd-owngeastSomewhat similar to mandarin
zhōngj-owngcenter; middle
gor'of'General measure word
guōwokcooking potOne Cantonese word that made it into English

Because the written script is the same as in Mandarin, all the rules for writing Mandarin apply equally to Cantonese. So there are no strange rules for plurals and genders as there are in other languages. There are some characters specific to Cantonese and some differences in meaning in the written form when used colloquially. A full guide to Cantonese is beyond our remit; we hope this section has given you a rough idea of the language. Except for this section we use Mandarin (pinyin) spelling throughout. To learn more Cantonese please try these web sites Cantonese Sheik ; Learn Cantonese or this one Learn Cantonese .

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Citation information: Chinasage, 'The Cantonese form of the Chinese language', last updated 22 Nov 2016, Web,

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