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opinion

Lew Liu-wang, an actor with the Lung Tan Yin Cantonese opera troupe applies his make up backstage as he prepares for the first in a series of Cantonese opera performances to be held over a five-day period, in Sai Kung town in Hong Kong's New Territories, May, 2000.ANAT GVION/The Associated Press

Cantonese is a vigorous language, not a mere dialect, and about a thousand protesters in the city of Guangzhou were right to object last weekend to a proposed shift toward Mandarin, China's official language, in television programs in the region.

The Han ethnic majority in China speak a range of different, though kindred languages, some of them not easily understood by speakers of others in the group. Together with the languages of other ethnic groups such as the Uighurs and Tibetans, the country has great cultural and linguistic diversity.

Written Chinese, by contrast, is essentially uniform, with both ideographic and phonetic elements that can be understood across the whole country. Mandarin, based on the local speech of Beijing, is the language used in schools, having been promoted by Chinese governments for a century. Consequently, there is a considerable degree of linguistic unity, as well as variety.

The protest was a response to a proposal by the Guangzhou committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference to broadcast some major TV programs in Mandarin.

There is a vigorous popular culture in Cantonese, particularly in movies and in popular music heard throughout China and the Chinese diaspora. Cantonese is far from being a dying language; on the contrary, some young Mandarin-speakers in Guangzhou have adopted Cantonese, thinking it more hip.

Moreover, Cantonese serves a connection to the rest of the world, since it is the main Chinese language in the diaspora, including Canada. According to the 2006 census, it is the mother tongue of 361,450 Canadians; probably the real figure is much higher, as many simply said, "Chinese."

The authorities in Guangzhou have denied any attempt to weaken Cantonese, yet in the same breath recommended more use of Mandarin in public places. A long-term undermining of Cantonese would culturally impoverish China, and should be resisted.