30 Sep 2022

Why Chinese Language Week is causing angst

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 30 September 2022

There are about 260 Chinese languages and dialects - so why is Mandarin the main focus of Chinese Language Week?

Poster for Chinese language week

Photo: Screenshot/NZCLW

*Figures in this story were updated in September 2023, but will change again when this year's census data is released.

The "Chinese language" has been celebrated and promoted this week - but underneath the cool videos teaching us new phrases, there's a simmering resentment from a sizeable portion of Chinese New Zealanders.

There are about 260 "Chinese" languages and dialects. 

However it's the language of the People's Republic of China - Mandarin - that's emphasised during this event. 

In New Zealand, there are nearly quarter of a million people of Chinese descent.

Of those, 177,639 speak at least one Chinese language. 

It's hard to narrow down exact figures because of multiple and generalised answers but 144,921 spoke Putonghua (Modern Standard Chinese), which includes people who didn't specify which language (51,501) and people who spoke "Putonghua, Guoyu, Mandarin, Northern Chinese" (95,253). 

There were 52,767 Yue speakers, which includes Cantonese, of whom nearly one in five were born in New Zealand. 

Our Chinese forebears were mostly Cantonese, from the Guangdong province, which was then known as Canton. 

Until recently, most Chinese language speakers here spoke Cantonese - this is changing rapidly with a new wave of migrants. 

"It's a slap in the face," says Wellington publisher Jack Yan about the heavily Mandarin-centred cultural week. 

"It steps on 180 years of the mahi of Chinese New Zealanders." 

Another reason behind the discomfort is the efforts of the PRC to force Mandarin on all its citizens, in particular in Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong, where there have been protests over those moves and children have been punished at school for speaking their own language.

"It's kind of this Beijing hegemonic colonial project that's playing out in Hong Kong - and we seem to be repeating it here. Here's this Chinese language trust run by Pākehā - we're being told what is Chinese and which is the right Chinese language."

Yan has blogged about the frustration of "randoms" coming up to non-Mandarin speaking Chinese, and saying 'ni-hao'.

He's also highlighted the work of New Zealand poet laureate Chris Tse, who was approached by New Zealand Chinese Language Week to contribute a poem for the occasion. Tse declined, then wrote a scathing riposte.    

The Detail speaks to Jo Coughlan, the co-chair of the New Zealand Chinese Language Week charitable trust. She says the week was created in 2014 to encourage Kiwis to give Chinese language a go.

She'd been on a number of business delegations to China in her role as chair of economics for the Wellington City Council, and says it was a huge eye-opener going there not understanding the language or being familiar with the culture. 

She says Mandarin is taught in New Zealand schools and universities so it made sense to concentrate on it - that's where the resources are. 

"We're just trying to keep it simple," she says. 

There are other languages on their website, and messages from Cantonese speakers - "it doesn't mean that we don't recognise other Chinese languages. 

"Let's just get cracking with what is taught in our own school system first, and we can evolve and develop as time goes on." 

But Yan says non-Mandarin speaking Chinese New Zealanders have been asking for more inclusion for the last eight years. 

"It more came to a head this year than previous years, because so many of us had been saying these things individually, but the positive side of social media is that we all found each other. 

"It's frustrating to think we haven't been heard." 

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