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Rao Yuansheng is trying to preserve the Cantonese language, but even he slips into Mandarin without really noticing.

Kevin Lee

At first, Rao Yuansheng didn't even realize he was doing it. He was sitting in the bustling newsroom of Guangzhou Television, worrying aloud about the declining use of Cantonese here in the land of its birth, and he was speaking in Mandarin.

"I guess I'm just used to it," he said apologetically to the translator, who was also a native Cantonese speaker. The translator, who had also slid into Mandarin, looked similarly embarrassed. "I think it's because we are in an office environment," she offered as a half-hearted explanation.

Though it is spoken by more than 70 million people worldwide, and is the third most-used language in Canada after English and French, Cantonese is in trouble here in the city formerly known as Canton.

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Five decades of Mandarin being promoted by Beijing as China's unifying common language - combined with the influx of millions of migrant labourers drawn to Guangzhou in recent years by the city's economic success - has helped Mandarin displace Cantonese as the lingua franca.

A similar shift has taken place in Chinatowns across North America, as communities once dominated by Cantonese speakers with roots in Hong Kong adjust to an influx of Mandarin-speaking immigrants from other parts of China.

In Guangzhou, however, Cantonese speakers are beginning to gently push back, hoping to preserve their mother tongue. The Latest Trends in Cantonese, a four-minute spot Mr. Rao hosts during the nightly news on Guangzhou Television, is part of the effort to save Cantonese from becoming just another dialect in the land of its birth.

"It's very important to promote Cantonese, because I'm afraid future generations soon won't know how to speak it," he said before taping a recent episode.

But Mr. Rao, author of a book on Cantonese idioms, admits he uses Mandarin - known in China as Putonghua, or "the common language" - every day. "When I'm at work, or somewhere like a taxi or a restaurant, I use Mandarin because it's not very convenient to use Cantonese."

The official push to promote Mandarin begins in kindergarten. While most natives of Guangzhou and surrounding Guangdong province grow up in Cantonese-speaking households, schools have for decades been Mandarin-only, and students are often punished for speaking Cantonese in class. "Speak Putonghua, write standardized characters, use civilized language, be a civilized person," reads a red banner that hangs outside many schools.

The switch to Mandarin accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s as China embraced market reforms and opened itself to the outside world. Because of its proximity to Hong Kong, Guangdong province was the first region opened up to international commerce, drawing an influx of Mandarin-speaking migrants from other parts of the country.

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As Guangzhou went through a prolonged economic boom, its population jumped from just over three million in 1980 to an estimated 12 million today, many of whom are migrant labourers from other parts of China. According to Mr. Rao and others, less than half that total speak any Cantonese.

But the past few years have seen the beginning of a backlash, with artists and writers making a point of recording or writing in Cantonese. A campus organization to promote Cantonese was recently formed at one Guangdong university, and the number of Cantonese-language websites has exploded.

"I don't want to criticize the government, but the culture of a city is the most important thing a city has," said Yao Zhuo, an artists' agent who is organizing what he believes is the first-ever Cantonese language cultural fair in Guangzhou next year. "Guangzhou has Cantonese culture. That's why people come here. If Guangzhou is the same as Shanghai and Beijing, who would come here? How can you be a famous city if you're the same as everywhere else in China?"

Cantonese advocates insist that, rather than just another of China's many dialects, their language is actually more flexible and precise than Mandarin, partially because it has 59 vowel sounds to Mandarin's 23. They also argue that classical Chinese poetry, much of which was written in Cantonese, only sounds right in its original Cantonese.

"Taking pride in speaking Cantonese has become trendy among teenagers. … Not only are people trying to protect Cantonese, they're discovering their culture," said Ching May-bo, a professor of local history at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou.

Though she teaches the history of the Cantonese language in her courses, Prof. Ching does so in Mandarin. "It would be more useful to also be able to teach students in their mother tongue," she said. "But it's more realistic to have teachers teach in Mandarin, and have parents teach their children their mother tongue."

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To officials in Beijing, the campaign to promote Mandarin - a mixture of Beijing dialect and the Manchurian-inflected language used in imperial circles during the Ming and Qing dynasties - was about more than trying to push the local lingo on the masses. Coming up with a national language was seen as critical to holding together a massive and disparate country that was home to 56 distinct ethnicities, according to the government's count.

Despite concerns over its future, Cantonese has actually fared better than dozens of other regional dialects, such as Sichuanese or Shanghainese. While broadcasts in most of the rest of China were Mandarin-only and the use of local dialects was actively discouraged, Guangdong residents were always able to receive Cantonese-language programming on state-owned local television and radio stations.

Though Mandarin is also on the rise in Hong Kong, its existence as a Cantonese-speaking mini-state next door has helped keep the language alive in Guangdong.

Ironically, some believe it could just as easily have been Cantonese that is now spoken by 1.3 billion people, with Mandarin on the ropes. Local legend has it that the leaders of the 1911 revolution that overthrew the Qing dynasty - many of whom were from Guangdong - had a heated debate over what should be the official language of the new republic. Cantonese is said to have lost out by only one or two votes.

Concerns over the fate of Cantonese and other regional dialects are today played down in the state media, which instead focus on the rising importance of Mandarin as an international language.

Many in Guangdong say they appreciate that, and are glad to see Mandarin spreading internationally. But they still worry that the campaign to promote Putonghua is on the verge of going too far.

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"My father didn't speak any Mandarin at all, and many people his age know only Cantonese. I speak half the time in Mandarin and half the time in Cantonese," said Mr. Yao, the organizer of next year's Cantonese festival.

"I'm worried that in another 20 or 30 years, Cantonese will disappear completely from Canton."

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