83 Cantonese Proverbs

Cantonese Comic by Ah To

For those who equate ‘Chinese’ with Mandarin, Cantonese can often seem like an extremely stilted version of ‘Chinese’. It was only recently that I learned that Cantonese is closer to Classical Chinese though, so I can understand this approach when I always simply thought Cantonese was another of those dialects you hear of, like Taishanese and Hokkien, and on some occasions even explained it in that way to some acquaintances.

Cantonese has a much longer history than Mandarin however, which only has been used for some 400 years. Yet, there is still preconception that Cantonese is not a ‘real’ language, is a dialect (as I mistakenly also thought), and ‘slang’ (equally guilty). It is a “vivid, imaginative language full of colorful [sic] expressions that cannot be found in other Sinitic languages”, as written by Victor Mair of Language Log.

Yet it seems this remnant of Classical Chinese is in danger of disappearing, as even the greatest population of Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong are pushed heavily to switch to Mandarin.

Cantonese is dying out even in Hong Kong. Chinese classes are taught in Mandarin instead of Cantonese in 70% primary schools. The government is trying to convince the population not to speak Cantonese to their kids. We are trying very hard to fight back. It's good to know that we are not alone. (Comment by Chaaak)

Fighting back colourfully

A graphic designer and part-time cartoonist called Ah To (阿塗) recently published a comic called “The Great Canton and Hong Kong Proverbs” on a Hong Kong independent media site and covers 81+ colourful Cantonese sayings that an ABC like myself had difficulty in identifying.

Someone has helpfully translated the Chinese text on the image itself for you to understand some of the context. Yes, I need to study written Chinese again or I shall not be able to live with my Chinese roots…

“The Great Canton and Hong Kong Proverbs”
In 1559, Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel created the oil painting “Netherlandish Proverbs” which illustrates many Dutch proverbs to praise the Dutch culture. In 2014, Ah To imitated the idea and created “Great Canton and Hong Kong proverbs” illustrating 81 Cantonese proverbs to propagate the Cantonese culture and defend Cantonese. (From writechinese8)

Writechinese8 has also provided a comprehensive list with clips and explanations of each proverb which has been helpful for even my parents who have not heard of some of the proverbs featured in this image. It’s an educational experience for all young Chinese and Chinese people born overseas for them to learn more about their roots and keep this colourful and vivid language alive.

Although I thought, and still do think, that Mandarin is a smooth and musical language, I’ve gained a better appreciation for my language over this last few years. I still feel there’s a need to learn Mandarin in order to communicate these days, as further emphasised yesterday when my family and I dined at a Chinese restaurant where a majority of the staff (minus one) spoke only Mandarin. But that’s no reason to not also keep Cantonese alive, and keep it withstanding the rigours of time, I only hope it won’t be a case of 拉牛上樹 [lāai ngàuh séuhng syuh] (ie. a vain attempt).

Even if you’re not Chinese, I urge you to check out this colourful artwork and see what kinds of proverbs there are in Cantonese. Better yet, check out the artwork that inspired this one as well as I shall be doing shortly. Some seem to make no sense at all! Yet some just make perfect sense once you’ve thought about it. I suppose you could say the same for English, or any other language.