“Characters Under the Cantonese Umbrella” — ASIAN CHA Issue 33 Editorial

‘The umbrella’s enigma remains unsolved.’
—Jean Baudrillard, Fragments, p. 79.

In If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, Italo Calvino wrote of “this world dense with writing that surrounds us on all sides.” This was an apt description of the experience of having visited the Umbrella Movement protest sites in Hong Kong in 2014. Writing, drawings, signs, symbols could be seen “on all sides.”

Much of the writing was in Chinese. Cantonese, to be specific, which is the native language of the vast majority of Hongkongers, even though the city itself, as the linguist Lisa Lim points out, ‘hosts myriad communities, each with its own heritage languages’.[1] Hong Kong people traditionally speak Cantonese but read and write a Chinese that closely follows the language that most people call Mandarin. Starting in the 1950s, however, the single set of Chinese characters that existed at the time diverged dramatically into two related, but different forms of writing, when the Communist Party in China—as part of its break with history and of its ideology of creating a more egalitarian society—introduced a “simplified” set of Chinese characters, which featured fewer strokes and were thus supposedly easier to read and write.[2] While these simplified characters became the standard in Mainland China, they were not adopted in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and many Chinese communities throughout the world, which continued to use “traditional” characters.

Although these two forms of written Chinese are related, they are not always mutually intelligible, particularly as traditional characters tend to be more complex and retain many of the intricate pictorial elements on which Chinese writing is based. In fact, traditional characters, first codified over 2,000 years ago, is so complicated that the French philosopher Montesquieu, writing in 1777, believed that the difficulty in writing “wholly employs their attention” during the greatest part of Chinese people’s lives. This is of course an exaggeration but it does speak to the challenges associated with mastering just one set of Chinese characters, let alone two.

Returning to the present day, difficulties in universal understanding between users of traditional and simplified characters may be further complicated by the fact that the written language is often adapted to meet the needs of different spoken forms, and much of the Chinese in Hong Kong uses characters and word orders which correspond more closely to the way people actually speak in Cantonese (as opposed to Mandarin). Hong Kong has even invented new characters, which are particular to the language of the city (c.f. “Spoken Hong Kong Cantonese and written Cantonese” in Language Log). Contrary to much conventional wisdom, therefore, not all Chinese text is intelligible to all Chinese people.[3]

I wonder what Chinese characters—especially traditional ones—with their elaborate and intertwined strokes look like in the eyes of those who can’t read Chinese. Do they represent an impenetrable code? Are they like the graffitied signatures that Bruce Davidson saw on the wall of the New York subway as “ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics”?[4]

For those of us who speak and breathe the language, Cantonese is not “ancient” at all. It is living, evolving. It is an energetic, expressive, sometimes dignified vernacular. There’s a time and place for everything, they say. In school, students are told not to write in Cantonese: it’s inelegant, it’s “too spoken.” On the streets, however, Cantonese is central to Hong Kong’s unique identity. And it certainly was during the Umbrella Movement protests.

An article by Gwynn Guilford in Quartz published during the protests explored how protesters used Cantonese as a form of political, ideological and linguistic resistance.[5] The piece pointed out, for example, that “Umbrella Movement,” a term referring to the occupy movement and the protests was being written as 遮打運動, which is distinctively Cantonese (for this, see also Lucas Kleins’s “Occupy Translation”). However, “Umbrella Movement” was also being rendered as 雨傘運動, especially in writing. While 遮打運動 has a strong local Hong Kong flavour, 雨傘運動 can be readily understood by Mandarin speakers. Still, even if 傘 was used instead of 遮, Hongkongers were also setting themselves apart from the Mainland by using the traditional character for “umbrella” (傘) instead of the simplified (伞). It was exactly this umbrella, written in the traditional form, that inspired some cases of the most creative uses of Cantonese writing during the protests.

Take, for example, the banner below, in which Guan Gong (關公), a Chinese figure famous for his legacy of loyalty, integrity and bravery, is seen holding a paper and silk umbrella. Christopher Hutton, a language and linguistic professor at the University of Hong Kong, has remarked that the Chinese character next to him combines the existing characters of “support” (撐) and “umbrella” (傘)—which rhyme in Cantonese. A new meaning is born: to support through holding up an umbrella. This term may gain currency and be adopted into the Cantonese vocabulary, even though it currently exists only in the form of a pictograph.

Untitled1.pngSeen in Mong Kok; photo by Jason S Polley, 2014.

Another example can be seen in “A cartoon showing Chinese chess board with regular chess pieces on top arrayed against a sea of [yellow] umbrellas on bottom.” —Kerim Friedman

untitled2Credit: Kerim Friedman

This illustration plays on the visual similarity between 卒 (“pawn”) and 傘 (“umbrella”), which in turn is a metaphor for a protester holding up an umbrella. In one interpretation, the protesters may thus be seen simply as pawns—powerless and expendable. But a more optimistic interpretation suggests that they—not the opposite side (which is composed of a marshal, officers, ministers, horses, chariots, cannons and soldiers)—are an overwhelming and powerful majority, as they fill up the entire lower section of the board.

A final case of creative Cantonese protest art played on one of the important differences between the traditional characters still used in Hong Kong and the simplified ones used in Mainland China—that traditional characters have preserved many pictorial elements and possibilities that have disappeared in simplified characters. The protest image below clearly shows the difference. In the traditional form of “umbrella” (傘), four “yan” or “persons” (人) find shelter and protection under a shared canopy. The simplified version (伞), on the other hand, is devoid of any humans. One can draw from that what conclusions one wishes.

untitled3沒有傘,如何撐 Without people How to support

Postcript: Two years on, the place of Cantonese in the city is increasingly threatened. It is even being “squeezed out” in Hong Kong classrooms, where Mandarin is considered “superior.” This active process of diminishing and battering Hong Kong’s own language—essential to the city’s identity and the people’s expression—is not subtle, and it is being implemented from the top down by the government. Last year, the University of British Columbia, Vancouver started offering courses in Cantonese. One hopes that Cantonese in Hong Kong does not one day become a specialised topic to be studied only at the university level, like an archaic artefact, but is continued to be actively spoken, with new expressions added daily to it. One can also hope that all “persons,” be they users of traditional or simplified characters, will recognise the fact that in both forms of Chinese, the character for “person” is the same: 人.

Tammy Ho Lai-Ming / Co-editor
10 September 2016

Editors’ note: An earlier and shorter version of this article was published in the “Letters from Hong Kong” column on Asian Review of Books; the column was co-curated by Tammy Ho and Peter Gordon.


[1] Lim, Lisa. “Cantonese dominates, but Hongkongers speak myriad of languages – old and new”. South China Morning Post. 1 July 2016.

[2] Although there had been attempts to simplify Chinese characters before the 1950s, the first official documents promulgating them appeared in 1956 and 1964.

[3] In Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016), a character who studied the traditional Chinese script in Hong Kong finds it difficult to read a letter written in simplified Chinese, which she had never learned. ‘She said it was like reading a letter from the future, or talking to someone who had turned their back on her.’ (p. 8)

[4] Dividson, Bruce. “Train of Thoughts: On the ‘Subway’ Photographs”. The New York Review of Books. 1 December 2011.

[5] Guilford, Gwynn. “Here’s why the name of Hong Kong’s ‘Umbrella Movement’ is so subversive”. Quartz. 22 October 2014.

One thought on ““Characters Under the Cantonese Umbrella” — ASIAN CHA Issue 33 Editorial

  1. Pingback: Sociopolitical meaning of Mandarin-Cantonese code-switching - VientianePost

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