Comparing Cantonese and Mandarin languages

Hong Kong Vs China

Mandarin is the official national language in the Peoples’ Republic of China. The unofficial language is Cantonese which is widely spoken. From the outsider’s point of view, this may be confusing. Why? When you go to school, you learn “Chinese”. But the Chinese you are learning is normally Mandarin not knowing that there are more than ten indigenous languages spoken in China. The two, (Mandarin and Cantonese) are the most widely spoken and acknowledged. The two are similar and dissimilar is some major and minor respects. This article brings you what we have found so far about the two.

Historical aspect

To understand the history of Cantonese language, we should look at its people. Most of these are settled in Hong Kong and Macau also known as the center for the Cantonese Language. This is where in China where the people embrace Cantonese as the official language in business and education. Cantonese history is thought to begin in some 2000 years back in Guangdong, Guangxi and partly Northern Vietnam provinces which were under the control of general Zhao Tuo. As Nanyue kingdom expanded, more immigration continued displacing the existing inhabitants and leading to more intermarriages. This created a population explosion and subsequent emigration. However, many remained and created a new identity for themselves. Between the 6th and 12th century, these people migrated south and settled in the southeastern shores giving rise to the Cantonese people. Conflicts between the 1800s and 1900s led to the loss of control in Hong Kong and subsequent emigration to the western hemispheres. These people settled in South Americas as coolies and farm hands while in North America as hired hands participating in the infamous Gold-rush. As a result of this emigration is that most major “China town” residents speak Cantonese rather than the official language Mandarin.

Mandarin is the official Language in the Peoples’ Republic of China. It has been so since 1982 in mainland China and 1932 in Taiwan. A fascinating fact is that the Republic has never had a national language since its inception in 221 B.C until 1912. Also as a fact is that Mandarin has no native speakers. It is simply a language modeled on the other Chinese languages. Its structure began in 1913 as a form of the academic move to create a national language that is both easy to speak and learn to the majority who were illiterate. A commission was formed and linguists from the major provinces in China were elected to form the new language. They chose to have a fixed character system called the Zhuyin alphabet and by the end of 1932 they had already established a new language and published its dictionary. The language was officially adopted in mainland China in 1982 when the constitution was amended.

Related: The History of Chinese Film

Art perspective

Art is the expression of the people. It is also the application of human creativity and imagination in the day to day activities so as to raise the emotional nature of man to perceive the world and its beauty. The Cantonese know how to do this. Cantonese art has been refined in the 1500 years of its existence to produce artful expressions that will leave you wanting more. Anyone who has a taste of Cantonese embroidery will admit that they are a thing to behold. The subject is usually birds, fruits, and flowers. This is one of the four classes of embroidery in China and it is usually done by two or three artists taking months at a time to complete. All this is done by hand using needles and thread by masters. As a result of its spectacular finishing, it has been adopted as a cultural heritage in China. Another form of Cantonese art is the opera. Despite the stiff competition it faces from the modern flicks and cheap internet videos, it is still attracting crowds. This art is so rich and respected that it was protected by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage of humanity. The opera consists of flashy colored clothing with the dramatization involving intricate gestures, singing, gongs and amazing sets. Anyone can get entertained from this but to understand and appreciate the beauty of it, you need to be knowledgeable about the Chinese legends and history. Not surprising that the opera was used to teach morals and loyalty to the emperor before formal education was introduced.

Mandarin is a very new language just starting to build up. There are no much artworks from it but from those works considered Mandarin are usually based on the urban culture. Perhaps because Mandarin has its speech heavily borrowed from Beijing. In paintings, most focus on towns and its surroundings. The most visible and expressive form of Mandarin art is Mandopop. This essentially refers to Mandarin popular music. The most notable development started in Taiwan in the 1940s where the Mandarin songs were the just adaptation of the Japanese songs. After Japanese was forbidden, Mandopop notably developed as a blend of Chinese, Japanese and Taiwanese. After the government relinquished its restriction in music, Mandopop flooded the market and continues to grow with heavy western influences.

Related: Chinese Characters and the Chinese Art of Calligraphy


Yue or Cantonese cuisine is the most widely known in the world. However, due to its distance from the homeland, most of the food served in many restaurants from around the world are different from the true nature of the style. Cantonese food involves a wide variety of ingredients and not just the popular rice and noodles. This is to say that dishes may contain snakes, snails, dogs, and mice. Food is normally prepared fresh and the chef’s objective is to make sure that the ingredients preserve their natural taste. This means little frying and more steaming and double steaming. Also, the food has very little spices added apart from the occasional sliver of garlic and clover.  Sometimes an occasional pinch of sugar is added to give the food the widely known sweet taste. Something to note is that to a Westerner, the food might taste bland and because of its very fresh nature, you might end up feeling hungry after eating. Given its freshness and lack of grease, it can be a very good diet to try on.

Mandarin cuisine, on the other hand, is spicier. Northerners focus on developing aromas than the original taste of the dish. While the south is blessed with the climate that supports rice abundantly, the north is dominated by wheat. This is to say that noodles are plenty of cuisines. Also, other products include stuffed buns, dumplings, and steamed bread. Mandarin cuisine is more liberal and incorporates all the food in the north. This ranges from the Mongolian mutton to the vegetarian variety from Tianjin that has dehydrated soybeans and wheat gluten.

Related: Chinese cuisine is introduced -Guangdong Cuisine


Chinese attire has changed over the times. In this comparison, we are going to assume that since Cantonese is a historical language, it has seen the change in fashion while the Mandarin which is relatively new has not seen much change. The Chinese attire had not changed much since 256 B.C. the attire consists of a blouse-skirt that has been improved over the time. the blouse was usually worn on the collar, the right wrapping the left worn together with a gown. Also, the color and design changed with time and social status. Dragon embroidery was worn by emperors as well as bright yellow clothing to show off their status. Han Fu (clothing) is the most popular clothing that has changed a little since the Yellow Emperor. Since the abolition of imperial China, the fashion statement has changed. The last fashion for the Cantonese can be arguably said to be the cheongsam. This was a tight fitting gown that essentially revealed the woman’s body, unlike the original qipao which was to conceal the form. Cheongsam was therefore worn by socialites and other female celebrities in the city. This had long slits and was originally worn with trousers but with time those have been discarded except in Vietnam. Cheongsam did not lose its trend in the 1920s as it is still worn today by restaurant staff, airline staff and also in beauty contests.

For the Mandarin clothing, this can be said that it has adopted the western attire. Also, the introduction of Mao suits fits in this category. Mao suits, however, are worn by both genders. Most of Mandarin speakers wear suits to offices and also incorporate the modern fashions in the Cheongsams that they wear. Since more young people are spending more on fashion than before, they opt for little freshness (Xiao Qinxin) or heavy flavor (Zhong Kouwei) as popularized by Mandopop.

Related: Han Chinese Costume

Cantonese fallout in the education system.

In Hong Kong, Cantonese is the official language. This is the same language used in the formal education in the city. However, other the past years, there has been friction with the communist government officials that feel that this bilingual nature of the state is not bringing the desired unity. As a result, it has made plans to scrap it off from the mass media such as television networks by September 1 and also from the formal teaching practice. Already there are schools adopting to use English and Mandarin for their preschoolers. This is ironic for a city having over 40 million Cantonese speakers. This change has not been welcomed by the Hong Kong residents with most protesting in the streets and students at the school. However, the situation seems to persist and eventually, Cantonese will be spoken only by the illiterate and the remaining bilinguals in the city.

Related: Advantages of learning Cantonese over Mandarin