Writing Chinese: A challenge for Chinese and South Asian Hongkongers

Chor Shing David LI

Research output: Contribution to conferencePapers


Effective governance cannot take place without a citizenry being reasonably literate in the designated national and/or regional language(s). In Hong Kong, where over 93% of the population is Cantonese-dominant ethnic Chinese (2011 census), the postcolonial language-in-education policy after 1997 came to be known as biliteracy and trilingualism: the ability to read and write Chinese and English, and understand and speak Cantonese, English and Mandarin (Putonghua). This policy has been implemented for over 15 years; research shows that the language learning outcomes of school-leavers and university graduates alike leave much to be desired. Employers’ concerns for their (prospective) employees’ linguistic competence, echoed by educationalists and other commentators (including letters to the editor), are periodically heard and amplified in the local media, print and electronic, in Chinese as well as English. This paper focuses on the nature of the linguistic challenge for Chinese (majority) and South Asian (SA) Hongkongers (minorities) to develop a grade-relevant level of Chinese literacy. Modern Written Chinese (MWC) is largely based on Mandarin (Putonghua), the national language of China. Cantonese, being a ‘dialect’ (albeit the most prestigious in Greater China), is not part of school literacy and, like other Chinese ‘dialects’, is unworthy to be represented in writing (officially banned in China except the two Special Administrative Regions, Hong Kong and Macao). Such a belief is perpetuated through education. In the process of schooling, vernacular forms are systematically purged and Mandarin-based standard forms hammered into children’s minds. What this means for Cantonese-dominant Hongkongers is that a state of diglossia prevails whereby they cannot write the way they speak. In addition, since ancient times Chinese is written with a logographic, nonalphabetic script, making Chinese characters difficult to learn, and easy to forget. There is some indication that, compared with children whose first language follows an alphabetic script (e.g. Korean), Chinese children take longer time to develop a norm-relevant level of literacy in their national/regional language. Literacy problems in Greater China are getting more acute in the e-era, when Chinese text consumption and production in all kinds of electronic communication are mediated by egadgets and facilitated by various inputting methods. All this explains why Cantonese-dominant Hongkongers, regardless of age groups, have to put up with social stigma or even ridicule when their written Chinese performance is assessed or under scrutiny. If Chinese Hongkongers find literacy development in their ‘native’ language a problem, one can easily imagine the challenge faced by minority SA Hongkongers who do not use Cantonese as a home language and who have no support for learning written Chinese beyond formal instruction. The paper will present empirical evidence showing why and how a lack of a grade-relevant level of Chinese literacy is a major source of social inequality for SA Hongkongers.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - May 2014
EventThe Workshop “Beyond the tyranny of writing” - University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg, Luxembourg
Duration: 26 May 201426 May 2014


WorkshopThe Workshop “Beyond the tyranny of writing”


Li, D. C. S. (2014, May). Writing Chinese: A challenge for Chinese and South Asian Hongkongers. Paper presented at the Workshop “Beyond the tyranny of writing”, University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg City, Luxembourg.


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