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Mandarin Hegemony: The Past and Future of Linguistic Hierarchies in China

April 18, 2024

Mandarin Hegemony: The Past and Future of Linguistic Hierarchies in China

Gina Anne Tam

‘Speak Mandarin!’

At a concert in Macau in the autumn of 2023, Cantopop superstar Eason Chan used an interlude to talk about his songwriting process. Suddenly, shouts from the audience interrupted his soliloquy, as a few fans demanded that he shift from speaking in his native Cantonese, the majority language in Macau, to Mandarin, the Chinese national language. Chan stopped and quickly launched into a multilingual lecture, reprimanding those who deigned to tell him what to speak. In English, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Thai, he defended multilingualism for the freedom it grants: ‘I love speaking in whatever way and language I want’ (Huang 2023).

Chan noted that these demands dripped with a sense of entitlement. ‘You can ask nicely,’ he quipped. ‘Would you ask David Bowie to speak Mandarin or Cantonese?’ This entitlement, Chan implies, is emboldened by presumptions of power. Instinctively, both he and his audience know that most of them would not feel entitled to shout at a native English-speaking performer for the language they chose to speak. But to these members of Chan’s audience, Cantonese speakers should speak the common and official Chinese language. Cantonese, in their world view, is a lesser, local variant of Chinese, whereas the official language should be the presumptive language of communication in Chinese-speaking spaces.

This entitlement—which empowers Mandarin speakers to expect to hear Mandarin when they travel throughout the Chinese-speaking world, to speak it in their workplaces, to have it taught to their children in schools, or see it represented in Chinese-language media—is not just personal, but also structural. These expectations are set by a network of institutions, laws, and powerful narratives that uphold and reinforce Mandarin as the ‘sole’ Chinese language. Certainly, Mandarin is not the only language spoken in China. The country is home to dozens, if not hundreds, of distinct Chinese dialects and languages, each with their own grammar, vocabulary, and cultural significance, not to mention the numerous other non-Chinese languages, such as Mongolian, Tibetan, and Uyghur. But none of these tongues is given the structural status given to Mandarin. It thus makes sense to many speakers of Chinese languages that all Chinese people should speak Mandarin. They are told in numerous direct and indirect ways that Mandarin is the sole representative Chinese language and all others are less important, less powerful, and less alive—significant only as relics of local heritage, not as a living thing people use to communicate and express themselves.


The structures that uphold Mandarin as the presumed Chinese language and empower its speakers to demand that it be treated as such represent what I call ‘Mandarin hegemony’. Hegemony is a wideranging term, but a hegemon or hegemonic entity—be it a nation, a language, or an identity—is widely agreed to be dominant and able to wield unrivalled influence. American hegemony, for instance, refers to the United States’ unparalleled ability to pressure most of the world’s sovereign nations to bend to its will. Hegemonic masculinity refers to the kinds of masculine traits that best allow men to maintain dominance over both women and men who exhibit their masculinity in a less powerful way. Ultimately, hegemony at its core is about power—the power it affords, protects, and maintains. It is also structural. It concerns less the power individuals have over other individuals than the systems that ensure that the dominance of certain groups over others remains both pervasive and normative.

In discussions of linguistic hegemony, the most referenced language is English. English hegemony is truly global. As Minae Mizumura (2015: 40) writes: ‘[T]here has never been a universal language of this scale, a language that is not confined to any geographical location, however vast, but sits atop all other languages and circulates throughout the entire world.’ As a result, English speakers have an unparalleled ability to navigate the world, gain material benefits for simply being English speakers, and insist that institutions and individuals cater to their linguistic whims. As Jacob Mikanowski (2018) writes, English

is aspirational: the golden ticket to the worlds of education and international commerce, a parent’s dream and a student’s misery, winnower of the haves from the have-nots. It is inescapable: the language of global business, the internet, science, diplomacy, stellar navigation, avian pathology. And everywhere it goes, it leaves behind a trail of dead: dialects crushed, languages forgotten, literatures mangled.

English hegemony is also buoyed by other systems of power. It is, for instance, reinforced by global white supremacy. It is a poorly kept secret that English teachers in China, Korea, and Japan who are white are often in much higher demand and can demand better pay than teachers who are not, even if the non-white teachers are native English speakers. English hegemony is also reinforced by American hegemony. Hollywood movies carry extraordinary influence due to their proximity to English and American-ness.

English Hegemony versus Mandarin Hegemony

English hegemony differs in important ways from Mandarin hegemony. Mandarin hegemony is not global; remarkably, there are as many people learning English in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) right now as there are learning English in the United States. And because the hegemony of Mandarin is more geographically limited, the languages and dialects over which it wields power are more limited as well.

Yet, the example of English hegemony is useful in understanding how Mandarin hegemony functions. First, like English hegemony, Mandarin hegemony is structural. Mandarin is the sole language of instruction in schools across the PRC. Standard Mandarin is, with few exceptions, the language of television, radio, and, often, social media. Many jobs in mainland China require Mandarin fluency, none more so than teaching, and teachers must achieve high marks on Mandarin exams to find gainful employment (Wang and Yuan 2013). And the PRC’s vast censorship apparatus also works to ensure Mandarin hegemony, cracking down on news anchors who speak other Chinese languages or warning social media users to speak Mandarin (Borak 2020). Importantly, these structures are global. Institutions around the world, from major universities to the United Nations, reaffirm the PRC state’s position on which Chinese languages matter (UN n.d.). The result is that the structural can quickly become personal: those who speak Mandarin as their native language are, on a national scale, often able to take advantage of certain privileges born of the structures listed above, including ease of access, prioritisation in certain professions, and fewer communicative barriers than speakers of other Chinese languages.

Moreover, as is true for English hegemony, the way that Mandarin’s power and influence functions is dependent on context. It is certainly true that the societal power of Mandarin speakers depends on region or the situation in which communication is happening, as well as other personal characteristics such as their socioeconomic class, their accent, or the regional variation of Mandarin they speak, their hometown, age, or gender. In some contexts, the broad sociopolitical power of Mandarin finds limitations; for instance, in some regions, particularly in the south, Mandarin speakers who do not speak the local Chinese language can face distrust or discrimination by locals who deem them ‘outsiders’. More broadly, Mandarin hegemony functions differently in the so-called Han heartland—where the most common languages are often other Chinese languages like Shanghainese, Cantonese, or Fujianese—compared with how it works in western territories, where a plurality of the population speaks languages that are not Chinese at all. In those western regions, Mandarin hegemony is enforced not solely through education or media, but also through violent crackdowns. In places like Mongolia, Tibet, and especially Xinjiang, non-Han people who speak their native tongue are often met with suspicions of political disloyalty or subversion (Roche 2024; Çaksu 2020; Buckley 2018; Shepherd 2023). Advocating for structures to support those languages often results in arrest and detention. Expressions of Mandarin hegemony are particularly violent in Xinjiang. There, Mandarin education is used as a tool of violent colonial dominance, as the tens of thousands of detainees in the territory’s extrajudicial detention camps are forced to learn Mandarin and punished for speaking Uyghur. These examples also show us just how racialised is Mandarin hegemony. Its power is enforced differently against those who are Han Chinese than against those who are not.


Just like English hegemony, however, Mandarin hegemony has not gone unchallenged. Throughout the Chinese-speaking world, we see pushback against the idea that Mandarin is the only important Chinese language. Some of this resistance comes in the form of outright protest. In early 2024, award-winning director Lulu Wang, when discussing her Hong Kong–based series Expats, starring Nicole Kidman, said that her Mandarin fluency gives her an ‘insider perspective’ on Hong Kong since she is privy to everyday conversations on the street (Deng 2024). When criticised for ignoring the overwhelming prevalence of Cantonese in the city, she tweeted that Cantonese was a ‘dying language’ whose significance paled in comparison with Mandarin. Cantonese speakers responded in outcry, not only challenging her lack of knowledge of Hong Kong’s linguistic landscape, but also emphasising the individuals, institutions, and structures attempting to ensure Mandarin hegemony does not overtake the city (Tsui 2024). The Cantonese movie industry is thriving, some pointed out. The number of Hong Kong schools that privilege Mandarin over Cantonese has dropped precipitously over the past several years, writer Aaron McNicholas (2024) noted, making Cantonese once again the primary language of instruction in the region. And around the world, higher education institutions are institutionalising Cantonese-language programs, from Stanford University to the University of British Columbia and the City University of San Francisco (Selig 2023). And Cantonese-speakers are not the only ones protesting Mandarin hegemony. Protests exist even in places where challenging Mandarin hegemony is deeply dangerous, such as the 2020 protests against the scaling back of Mongolian-language education in Inner Mongolia (Watanabe 2020; Atwood 2020).

There are other, more subtle ways people both inside and outside China push back against Mandarin hegemony. In the PRC, despite the potential of internet censorship, people continue to produce content, videos, and music in languages other than Mandarin (Zhang and Guo 2012; Chu 2022). And outside China, more and more media are showcasing linguistic authenticity. The Academy Award–winning movie Everything Everywhere All at Once shows a family who slip in and out of Cantonese and Mandarin (Kwan and Scheinert 2022). A new Netflix show about a family living between Taipei and Los Angeles, The Brothers Sun,has characters who intermix Taiwanese and Cantonese with Mandarin (Wu and Falchuk 2024). These representations showcase the true multilingualism of the Chinese-speaking community, despite what official rhetoric may present.

De-Normalising Linguistic Hegemony

Nonetheless, Mandarin hegemony remains pervasive. And with a powerful government as invested in its maintenance as is the Chinese Communist Party, it remains difficult to challenge. Yet, it is important to recognise that while hegemony is structural, it is not outside our control. Humans create structures. We all have agency, big or small, in how we respond to hegemonic structures, linguistic hegemony included. As Mikanowski (2018) reminds us, linguistic hegemony is normalised by one dangerous idea: ‘[T]hat a single language should suit every purpose, and that being monolingual is therefore somehow “normal”.’ We all have a role to play in ensuring that this is a normal that we will not accept.

This essay draws on the author’s research in her book Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860–1960 (Cambridge University Press, 2020), and her article ‘Our Roots Are the Same: Hegemony and Power in Narratives of Chinese Linguistic Antiquity’, published in Comparative Studies in Society and History in 2023.


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Gina Anne Tam is an Associate Professor of Modern Chinese History and the co-director of Women and Gender Studies at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. She has been a Public Intellectual Fellow at the National Committee on US–China Relations and a Wilson China Fellow. She is the author of Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860–1960 (Cambridge University Press, 2020), winner of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Best Book Prize, and her writing has appeared in several peer-reviewed journals as well as mainstream publications such as Foreign Affairs, Dissent, Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Nation. She is writing a book about women and activism in postwar Hong Kong.
Trinity University, San Antonio