Cantonese as Written Language

The Growth of a Written Chinese Vernacular


Don Snow

ISBN : 978-962-209-709-4

Language, Linguistics, Reference

October 2004

332 pages, 6″ x 9″, 5 b&w illus.; 5 tables

  • HK$295.00
No longer available

Cantonese is the only dialect of Chinese which has developed a widely known and used written form. It has played a role in publishing in the Guangdong region since the late Ming dynasty when various types of verses using Cantonese were published as mu yu shu (‘wooden fish books’). In the early twentieth century these dialect texts were joined by Cantonese opera scripts, published as popular reading material. However, it was only after the end of the Second World War that written Cantonese came to be widely used in popular newspapers and magazines, advertising, and in the private communications. Cantonese as Written Language examines this development in the broader context of diglossia, and also of the patterns by which spoken vernaculars have developed written forms in other societies.

Based on primary source research, including interviews with publishers and writers who played an important role in the growth of written Cantonese, the author argues that this move of Cantonese into the realm of written language is closely associated with Hong Kong’s distinct local culture and identity. The growth of the written vernacular also reflects the territory’s evolving cultural distinctiveness from mainland China, first as a British colony, and now as a Special Administrative Region of China.

Don Snow is a professor in the Department of English at Nanjing University, China.

Cantonese as Written Language is the first comprehensive account of the little understood but pervasive use of written Cantonese in Hong Kong and southern China. The historical depth of the research is impressive, ranging from 19th-century poetry to contemporary Hong Kong culture. A fascinating study in vernacular literacy.” —Stephen Matthews, Associate Professor, Department of Linguistics, The University of Hong Kong

“A scholarly but eminently accessible account of written Cantonese, Cantonese as Written Language is a remarkable synthesis of research and learning that should receive the notice of both Chinese specialists and laymen alike. It should become the standard work in English on the topic for years to come.” —Herbert Pierson, Associate Professor, St. John’s University, USA

Cantonese as Written Language is a most welcome contribution to Cantonese studies and takes the field one great leap forward. Comprehensively researched, skillfully organized, and richly informed, it has immediately and deservedly become the definitive reference. The must-have book on written Cantonese.” —Robert S. Bauer, Associate Professor, Department of Chinese and Bilingual Studies, Hong Kong Polytechnic University