With a population of 1.3 billion and counting, China constitutes just under 20% of the world's inhabitants. Making up the vast majority of residents (91.59%) are the ubiquitous Han, leaving just a little over 8% to the 56 ethnic minorities officially recognized by the People's Republic. In Minority Report, we explore the colorful characters, customs and cultures of these fascinating peripheral groups.
I wonder how many foreigners actually speak Cantonese. In all my years hiding out in China, I have never met a single foreigner who could say more than a few simple phrases in Cantonese. I would welcome meeting you, whomever you are, wherever you are. Because together, perhaps we could begin to penetrate and understand the Yue (Yuè, 粤) culture. Guangdong's local Yue culture is interesting, proud and resilient. Throughout the centuries, Cantonese have maintained their language, many of their customs and, most importantly, held on to their land as wave after wave of plains farmers moved in with aims to conquer or assimilate. Why is this? How could it be that Yue people flourished while the Miao, Yi and others were relegated to minority status?
The Yue people are actually divided into several different kingdoms and polities, stretching from Shanghai to Vietnam. There is not much evidence linking all of these peoples together into one group, save for central Chinese references to Baiyue (Bǎiyuè, 百越) barbarians. Typical of central perception of the periphery, all of the Yue peoples south of the Yangtze were for centuries considered to be inferior and in need of civilization. In this particular essay, I am going to focus on the Yue people of Guangdong Province, also known as Nanyue (Nányuè, 南越), which refers to a powerful kingdom that ruled northern Guangdong south to Vietnam from the end of the Qin Dynasty to the beginning of the Han Dynasty. The character for Yue is still used throughout Guangdong to define the language and the cuisine. Yue is also the character on all Cantonese license plates. Other Yue peoples to the north in places like Zhejiang identify themselves as members of the Yue or Wu tribe, within the Han rubric. Cantonese also consider themselves to be Han... the fine lines between political, national and ethic identities are very fine indeed when it comes to the Yue of Guangdong...
An Island in a Sea of People
In previous Minority Reports, we briefly discuss some of the migration (and outright fleeing) patterns of the many tribes of south China. If we look at a few maps from the Warring States and Qin Dynasty periods, we can see that the first large kingdoms associated with the Chinese nation as we know it today were based in between the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers.
South of the Yangtze, tribes like today's Miao, Yi, and Zhuang and ruled over the mountainous areas while the Yue established themselves along the coasts and the Pearl River Delta. It wasn't until the Han Dynasty that some of these peripheral areas came under centralized control. The Hakka are an example of a tribe that may have wandered south from the Chinese heartland to escape wars, famine and persecution; each movement south or west pushed the original inhabitants further out toward the periphery until the Miao, for example, moved into the hills of Southeast Asia and became the Hmong. Many smaller tribes, such as the indigenous peoples of Guangxi, eventually formed one loosely connected entity, like today's Zhuang.
When different peoples diffuse over an area, some spread out and expand their influence, others disappear and still others are reduced to tiny islands in a sea of peoples. Only the Yue seem to have survived centuries of invasions and successive dynasties with their identities and language intact. Today's Cantonese seem to be one of the few indigenous tribes that were neither fully assimilated nor diluted into a shadow of their former selves—why?
The Lure of the Ocean
One explanation might be the Yue people's access to the Pacific Ocean. While other tribes were landlocked and forced to flee ever southward or into the hills, the Yue could count on the protection of the Pearl River, the mountains that run down Guangdong, and the open gate into the sea. The ports along the coast also gave the Yue people a lifeline of trade with other cultures in times of war and famine. The cities of the Pearl River delta were trading with far-off kingdoms during the Tang, Song and Ming Dynasties and the area was home to a large population of foreign merchants for centuries. This set-up allowed for an autonomy from the center that also helped to strengthen Yue identity.
Instead of facing a relatively similar people in the northern Han, the Cantonese (Yue) people dealt with Arabs, Persians, Malay, Thai, Portuguese, British and others—such interaction may have helped to preserve the traditional languages, customs and social mores. Cantonese were also among the first Mainland Chinese to leave and emigrate to other countries. Overseas Cantonese may have been more inclined to hold onto their traditional identities (i.e. Chinatowns), especially in the heart of established, non-Chinese cultures. Not only were they morally and emotionally tied to an idea of the Yue, but the overseas populations did quite well for themselves. Their economic clout stretched across the Pacific, into Southeast Asia and eventually as far away as North and South America; a web of wealth that contributed much to the preservation of the Yue in the face of repeated incursions from other Mainland tribes.
Guangdong's century-long state of semi-autonomy has given rise to a unique culture within China. The Cantonese language is completely and utterly unintelligible to all other Chinese. Cantonese speakers in Guangxi, Jiangxi and Hainan can communicate with Cantonese speakers in Guangzhou and Hong Kong, but that's it. Mandarin and Cantonese are as dissimilar as Dutch and French. It would be wonderful if any of you readers could weigh in with a little more first-hand knowledge of Cantonese. Please, I beg of you, leave a damn comment.
Cantonese cuisine is famous for its delicate flavors: light, clean, and sweet. It's a seafood-based cuisine, which means the ingredients are usually allowed to speak for themselves. Cantonese are also famous for their willingness to eat pretty much anything. In my few visits to Guangzhou, I have had some of the best shellfish in my life, the sweetest pork ribs on a bed of greens, excellent roast duck, and a pretty tasty rat kebab. Rumors persist about monkey dishes, various illegal delicacies, and the list keeps getting longer: one Guangzhou market reportedly serves koala. Cantonese also love to drink gong fu tea, which is basically tea out of a classic pot and cup arrangement. It's a great way to enjoy the aromatic oolongs of eastern China—a nice, small clay pot with tiny porcelain cups and a bamboo stand and the time to sip and sit back and dwell on the good things in life; true culture often stems from leisure.
Yueju Opera is associated with the entire Yue region—from Zhejiang south to Guangdong—but the style of opera originated in Zhejiang. So, although Canton does boast its own style of opera—in Cantonese as well as Mandarin—the Yueju style is barely a century old and reflects regional influences, as opposed to the Pearl River Delta specifically. Guangdong's slightly "elevated" status in China has also given rise to a more vibrant media, civil society and political tradition than in other areas. Certain ideas that would never enter the public realm in other parts of the country are routinely debated in Guangzhou.
The flip-side of this development is a heavy-handed approach to justice and social upheaval that reflects the center's willingness to stomp down on true dissent, no matter how "special" the Yue consider themselves to be. There is a limit to the region's autonomy and that limit is drawn up in the offices of the capital.