TikTok Users In China Temporarily Banned For Speaking Their Own Cantonese Language Instead Of Using The Official Mandarin

from the linguistic-censorship dept

Most people know about TikTok, from the company Bytedance, but not many know that it is the international version of the similar, but separate, Douyin app. The What's on Weibo site has a good explanation of why the two versions came about, and how they differ:

Why would Bytedance go through the effort to create two apps running on different systems? The answer partly lies in China's strictly controlled online environment, where (social) media companies have to adhere to local policies on what is and what is not allowed to be published on their (user-generated) platforms.

Having two distinct apps allows Bytedance to enforce China's strict rules for the domestic market, while granting foreign users more freedom in what they can post. Overt censorship is unacceptable in many other countries, and would probably have throttled TikTok's rapid rise. As a result of this split market, people outside China are generally unaware of the rules imposed on Douyin content. David Paulk is Head of News on the Sixth Tone site, which provides valuable independent news and commentary on the country. A recent Twitter thread from him offers a rare chance to see the kind of thing that happens on Douyin:

On Monday, the Guangzhou-based WeChat account Yangcheng Net posted an article detailing how several Douyin users had received 10-minute bans from the platform for speaking their native Cantonese during livestreams.

A pop-up notification told the streamers to "Please speak Mandarin to involve more users from other areas (of China)." Among the suggestions for "rectification" was "please speak Mandarin."

A person who manages a Douyin account promoting Cantonese culture to its 230,000 followers said he had received two bans and multiple warnings for using Cantonese. Clearly, using Mandarin instead of Cantonese would nullify the whole point of the account. Naturally, Paulk wanted to know why Cantonese was being discriminated against in this way:

When we contacted PR for ByteDance, TikTok's large & powerful parent company, they strongly advised us against pursuing the story. We said we were going to anyway, but they went over our heads to get it canned.

Paulk wrote that he suspected Douyin was under pressure from the Chinese government to make sure nothing "objectionable" was being said, and a Mandarin-only rule made that easier. His suspicions seem to be confirmed by a later comment from Douyin's PR:

Douyin is building out content safety capabilities for additional languages and dialects. As one of the most widely spoken dialects in China, Cantonese is a top priority, and we hope to have it fully supported in the near future.

Cantonese is already supported in livestreams -- you just start talking. In this context "support" clearly means censor. It's also interesting that Cantonese is dubbed a "dialect" in Douyin's statement. There are around 68 million native speakers of Cantonese -- more than most languages around the world -- notably in Hong Kong. Moreover, Cantonese is not merely a "dialect" of Mandarin, as Douyin implies when it talks of "languages and dialects": they are quite separate languages that derive independently from Middle Chinese. As Wikipedia notes: "Middle Chinese texts sounding more similar to modern Cantonese than other present-day Chinese varieties, including Mandarin." Maybe Mandarin users of Douyin should be told to speak in Cantonese so they can get closer to their language's ancient roots.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter, Diaspora, or Mastodon.

Filed Under: cantonese, censorship, china, content moderation, douyin, mandarin, tiktok
Companies: bytedance


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  • identicon
    ROGS, 4 Apr 2020 @ 8:31am

    the Kings English, then?

    I seem to recall a revolution fought somewhere, over taxation, and the Kings English, eventually.

    As I recall, there was some coded language involved. Not sure if that applies here or not, just sayin.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Samuel Abram (profile), 4 Apr 2020 @ 11:02am

    A linguistic analysis

    As a linguist, I can provide some insight here:

    Cantonese is not merely a "dialect" of Mandarin, as Douyin implies when it talks of "languages and dialects": they are quite separate languages that derive independently from Middle Chinese. As Wikipedia notes: "Middle Chinese texts sounding more similar to modern Cantonese than other present-day Chinese varieties, including Mandarin." Maybe Mandarin users of Douyin should be told to speak in Cantonese so they can get closer to their language's ancient roots.

    When I was majoring in linguistics at NYU, a question would frequently come up: "What's the difference between a dialect and a language?" The answer would frequently be "A language is a dialect with an army."

    While the Chinese dialects are unique in that are not mutually intelligible from each other, one person who writes down what they mean in Chinese characters can read what another person means in another. This is true not only in Mandarin and Cantonese, but also in Wu (Shanghainese) and Hokkien, among others. That's why they are considered dialects and not different languages (but like I said, the line is often blurry).

    Sometimes, the opposite would happen: two languages would sound similar but be written differently, such as Serbian and Croatian. For example, Alex Lifeson, the guitarist of Rush, was born "Aleksandar Živojinović" (and that's how his name would be spelled in Croatian) but since his parents are Serbian, his name would have been spelled in Cyrillic: "Александар Живојиновић". However, they are considered languages rather than dialects, because they are now two independent states with hostile relations rather than united under one Yugoslavia, despite them really being the same language.

    My point is this: there's no clear line differentiating what's a "dialect" and what's a "language". It's rather quite blurry.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      ROGS, 5 Apr 2020 @ 1:07pm

      Re: A linguistic analysis

      "Saussure insists that language is “form and not a substance”. Unlike speech, language is not a function of the individual speaker as it belongs in the public sphere where the speaker only passively assimilates it. As a social product, language is “a system of interdependent terms in which the value of each term results solely from the simultaneous presence of the others”. For Saussure, words are about ideas not objects, so a word as signifier does not name things but conveys a plurality of meaning that is both momentary and fluid."

      http://blogs.ubc.ca/dumelama1/2012/09/17/saussure-and-barthes/

      SO, are you in concurrence with Saussurean Structuralism then, by stating that Cantonese is a language, rather than a dialect, or am I misreading your position there?

      I am guessing the CPC is aware of that binary tension and is simply in payback mode for the "Flying Tigers" era of Chinese history, lol.

      "Saussure’s theory is based on binary oppositions or dyads, i.e., defining a unit in terms of what it is not, which give rise to oppositional pairs in which one is always superior to the other"

      Then, Derrida and Barthes steps in and argues for the neither are actually languages, because body issues*! Symbolic misrepresentations of co-opted identity!

      Or something like that. So, any "statements about any text subvert their own meanings," and the same for languages v dialect.

      I think you said it best here: "A language is a dialect with an army."

      Imagine if the Celts and Gauls ever figure out how to do that online?

      My guess is that the CPC is just practicing cancel culture for the masses now. What the hell, it works so well in the US/FVEYs, with its mobs and hordes, lets try it here!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Samuel Abram (profile), 7 Apr 2020 @ 9:08am

        Re: Re: A linguistic analysis

        are you in concurrence with Saussurean Structuralism then, by stating that Cantonese is a language, rather than a dialect, or am I misreading your position there?

        My point is that it's complicated and there's no easy answer. What seem like two different languages in one area of the world could be two different dialects in another. It's not clear cut.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Eww, 6 Apr 2020 @ 8:09pm

      Re: A linguistic analysis

      I am a native speaker in Cantonese and fluent in Mandarin. When speaking in Cantonese, we process it’s written form in Traditional Chinese, which might NOT be fully understandable by Mandarin speakers.
      In Hong Kong, the official language is Cantonese and people write in Traditional Chinese; in Mainland, civilians are forced to speak Mandarin and write Simplified Chinese; in Taiwan, they speak in Mandarin (while keeping and treasuring their own native “dialect”) and write in Traditional Chinese. There are too much dissimilarity between Traditional and Simplified Chinese characters, hence not be communicable. I would certainly treat Cantonese and Mandarin as two separated languages, as they have different spoken and written form. I am not a linguist, thus do correct me if I were wrong. I certainly object to distinguish languages based on nationality, boarders, or popularity.
      (Sidetracked information, Chinese Characters are also used in Japanese as “Kanji”, most Japanese Kanjis have the same written form as Traditional Chinese and carries the same meaning, but different pronunciations. Other than nationality concern, no one would say Japanese and Chinese are the same language or one being a dialect.)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Samuel Abram (profile), 7 Apr 2020 @ 9:01am

        Re: Re: A linguistic analysis

        while it is true that what Mainland China writes with Simplified Chinese Characters and Hong Kong writes with Traditional Characters, Taiwan and I assume Singapore write with Traditional Characters. Since you're a native Cantonese Speaker, please answer this for me: If you didn't know any mandarin and wrote instructions for someone from Taiwan or Singapore in Traditional Chinese Characters, would that person understand those instructions as if they were Mandarin in their own mind? That's what I mean by Mandarin and Cantonese being two dialects of Chinese if someone from Hong Kong and someone from Taiwan could understand each other despite not speaking each other's dialect if they had written everything down.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Samuel Abram (profile), 7 Apr 2020 @ 9:09am

        Re: Re: A linguistic analysis

        But as I said before, it's really difficult to mark out what's a "dialect" and what's a "language".

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        ROGS, 7 Apr 2020 @ 10:21am

        Re: Re: A linguistic analysis

        re: civilians are forced to speak Mandarin and write Simplified Chinese

        Any more, or less than students in the USA or Britain are forced to write English (the USA has many different ethnicities and several dialects too); or that Mayan or Quiche' people in Mexico and Guatemala are forced to learn Spanish?

        And I would certainly treat Cantonese and Mandarin as two separated languages

        Did you mean to say separated or separate?

        If the former, there is a good argument for that. If the latter, only time will tell, right?

        re:平民被迫說普通話和寫簡體中文

        更多或少於美國或英國的學生被迫 英語(美國有很多不同的民族和幾種方言);還是墨西哥和瓜地馬拉的瑪雅人或 奎奇人被迫學習西班牙文?

        你說:我一定會把粵語和普通話當作兩種分開的語

        你是說分開還是分開?

        如果前者,有一個很好的理由。如果後者,只有時間會 告訴,對不對?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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