For me the most difficult thing about learning Cantonese has been that there are very few learning materials for foreigners (and I assume even for Chinese people). And even the materials that exist are all only regarding basic conversational topics. There is basically no Cantonese literature at all. When I learned French it was very helpful to be able to follow audiobooks of stories from writers like Voltaire. The closest thing is watching Hong Kong movies, but they speak quickly and the subtitles are in Mandarin not Cantonese.

Are there any Cantonese literature or audiobooks out there?

A question for those Cantonese of you out there: Why does it seem that Cantonese people are so unwilling the write their own language? I understand that if you write Cantonese then other Chinese will not be able to understand, but so what? That sounds like their problem.

For the Vietnamese we used to write everything in Classical Chinese (文言). Since then we've switched to writing in our own language. We like it and are not ashamed of it. I don't see why the Cantonese shouldn't do similarly.

I don't understand why Cantonese are fiercely defensive of their language and at the same time refuse to write it down.

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    You need to understand that (1) the status of the different Chinese "dialects" is different from that of the languages within a branch of e.g. the Indo-European languages, Cantonese and Mandarin are not comparable to Portuguese and Spanish, etc. (2) Historically, the written language was Classical Chinese, with some works in vernacular languages, but Classical Chinese dominated until the early 1900s. (3) Politically, Cantonese speaking areas were dominated by Beijing in a way Spain has never dominated Portugal. – imrek Apr 20 '16 at 7:46
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    (4) The writing system is pretty much pronunciation agnostic and helped the acceptance of a single written std. language throughout China in a way, French could never have replaced any other Romance lang. in Europe. The only comparable situation was Norway where Danish (East Scandinavian) was introduced as the written standard in the Middle Ages, even though the original Norw. dialects belong(ed) to the Western branch. To this day, there are two written varieties of Norwegian (bokmål & nynorsk) reflecting the language policy of the Danish rulers of Norway, analogue to Cantonese & Mandarin. – imrek Apr 20 '16 at 7:52
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    Ask a Bavarian/Occitan/Gallego if they are literate in their own dialect. Most likely not, and they won't really care. The concept you have to understand is that there is a difference in std. language that facilitates cross regional social/economic exchange, and home dialects that are restricted to people only who grew up in a certain area and it makes no sense to 99% of the pop. to be literate in their regional languages because it does not add anything to their social well-being. There is no point in attacking people why they don't want to write a language that is perceived less prestigious. – imrek Apr 21 '16 at 5:46
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    This is a valid question but it needs to be edited to make it less offensive. For the way it is written at the time of writing this comment (04/23/2016) I will flag it as being rude. – Cosmos Gu Apr 23 '16 at 23:35
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    I tried to keep the core question while removing assumptions about how Cantonese feel about their language. – Don Kirkby Apr 25 '16 at 4:12

Why not write in written Cantonese?

Cantonese speakers are not unwilling to write their own language. Nowadays, written Cantonese is often used in lyrics, instant messaging, social network, advertisements and billboards. It is also gaining public attention as the Government of China wants to ban it.

There is a Yue Wikipedia site containing 40,000+ articles written in Cantonese. However, written Cantonese is almost always used only in informal writings.

For formal writings, standard written Chinese is being used. It is taught in school to write in standard written Chinese (i.e. written Mandarin). It is because Mandarin was chosen as the basis for standard written Chinese as they had the largest number of speakers during the language reform.

No matter which dialect one spoke, one still wrote in standardised Mandarin for everyday writing. However, Cantonese is unique amongst the non-Mandarin varieties in having a widely used written form. (Wikipedia)

Standard written Chinese is understood by speakers of all varieties of Chinese. Even so, there are some variations in vocabularies in different countries (see example).

Standard written Chinese can be spoken in Cantonese.

(It is interesting to know that, historically, written Cantonese has been used in Hong Kong for legal proceedings in order to write down the exact spoken testimony of a witness, instead of paraphrasing spoken Cantonese into standard written Chinese.)

Side reading: Language policy of Hong Kong

The language policy of Hong Kong is 兩文三語 (Bi-literacy and Tri-lingualism), which includes:

  • Written: Chinese & English
  • Spoken: Cantonese, Mandarin & English

Standard written Chinese is normally referred as "Chinese" (中文) or "written Chinese" (書面語) instead of "Mandarin Chinese".

For spoken Chinese (口語), Cantonese (Yue Chinese, namely 廣東話 / 粵語) is the de facto official spoken variety of Chinese in Hong Kong & Macau. It is influential in Guangdong province, and is widely spoken among overseas communities.

On the other hand, Mandarin Chinese (namely 普通話 / 國語 / 華語) is the official language of China & Taiwan, and one of the four official languages of Singapore.

Further reading

Before the 20th century, the standard written language of China was Classical Chinese, which has grammar and vocabulary based on the Chinese used in ancient China, Old Chinese. However, while this written standard remained essentially static for over two thousand years, the actual spoken language diverged further and further away. Some writings based on local vernacular speech did exist but these were rare. In the early 20th century, Chinese reformers like Hu Shi saw the need for language reform and championed the development of a vernacular that allowed modern Chinese to write the language the same way they speak. The vernacular language movement took hold, and the written language was standardised as Vernacular Chinese. Because they had the largest number of speakers, Mandarin was chosen as the basis for the new standard.

The standardisation and adoption of written Mandarin pre-empted the development and standardisation of vernaculars based on other varieties of Chinese. No matter which dialect one spoke, one still wrote in standardised Mandarin for everyday writing. However, Cantonese is unique amongst the non-Mandarin varieties in having a widely used written form. Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong was a British colony isolated from mainland China, so most HK citizens do not speak Mandarin. Written Cantonese was developed as a means of informal communication. Still, Cantonese speakers must use standard written Chinese, or even literary Chinese, in most formal written communications, since written Cantonese may be unintelligible to speakers of other varieties of Chinese.

Historically, written Cantonese has been used in Hong Kong for legal proceedings in order to write down the exact spoken testimony of a witness, instead of paraphrasing spoken Cantonese into standard written Chinese. However, its popularity and usage has been rising in the last two decades, the late Wong Jim being one of the pioneers of its use as an effective written language. Written Cantonese has become quite popular in certain tabloids, online chat rooms, instant messaging, and even social networking websites; this would be even more evident since the rise of Localism in Hong Kong from the 2010s, where the articles written by those Localists media are written in Cantonese. Although most foreign movies and TV shows are subtitled in Standard Chinese, some, such as The Simpsons, are subtitled using written Cantonese. Newspapers have the news section written in Standard Chinese, but they may have editorials or columns that contain Cantonese discourses, and Cantonese characters are increasing in popularity on advertisements and billboards.

Written Cantonese advertising banner in Mainland China It has been stated that Written Cantonese remains limited outside Hong Kong, including other Cantonese-speaking areas in Guangdong Province; e.g., (Snow, 2004). However, colloquial Cantonese advertisements are sometimes seen in Guangdong, suggesting that written Cantonese is widely understood and is regarded favourably, at least in some contexts.

Some sources will use only colloquial Cantonese forms, resulting in text similar to natural speech. However, it is more common to use a mixture of colloquial forms and Standard Chinese forms, some of which are alien to natural speech. Thus the resulting "hybrid" text lies on a continuum between two norms: Standard Chinese, and colloquial Cantonese as spoken.

Some Cantonese Learning Resources

Other References

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    Thanks for the informative answer! It's interesting to see that the reason Chinese gave up 文言 was to use "a vernacular that allowed modern Chinese to write the language the same way they speak". The ironic thing is if Cantonese write in 文言, then they do not write the same way they speak and if they write in 白話 , then they still do not write the same way they speak! It truly sucks to be a Cantonese! – oceanus Apr 21 '16 at 13:52
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    @oceanus I disagree with the opinion you're putting forth. No, it doesn't suck to be Cantonese, and no, Cantonese speakers aren't "ashamed" to write the way they speak. Many users of this forum have provided you with excellent answers to your question as written. However, the way I've read your replies, it doesn't look like you are ready to accept any of these responses. It sounds like you firmly believe your perception, and you aren't ready to be convinced by anyone else. In that case, there isn't anything more anyone here can say to change your mind. – judester Apr 22 '16 at 12:19
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    Like you said audience size does matter, but consider that the population of Cantonese speakers is ~60 million. That is a huge audience! This is on a similar scale as Italian, French, Vietnamese, Korean, and Urdu. All of these languages have their own literature. – oceanus Apr 24 '16 at 15:58
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    One more thing, your comparison: "I wouldn't write the way I speak for an essay I'm handing in, or for an external-facing email to a third party business associate." is not correct because Mandarin and Cantonese are completely different (but related) languages. It's not comparable to writing in a formal tone or word usage differences. They are different languages. In fact the only reason Cantonese people understand written standard Chinese at all is because they learn that as a 2nd language in school. – oceanus Apr 24 '16 at 15:58
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    This is called diglossia. It is similar to how in England in the past formal writing was done in the "educated" languages of Latin and French. However there was still literature written in Anglo-Saxon and now English is the language of the world. As a thought experiment consider if every English speaker were taught Portuguese in school and all books, TV programmes, and radio broadcasts were only in Portuguese. English speakers would write in Portuguese for the audience size, but obviously they are not writing in their own language. – oceanus Apr 24 '16 at 15:58

It's not really that Cantonese people are unwilling to write the language; It's simply because the language is very oral-oriented where many slangs are involves mainly for effectiveness purpose.

It's similar to English when people use phase like "What ya'll doing?", which you won't see on most learning material for English or CNN news. In fact, written cantonese is commonly used in instant messaging tools, like what Mathaholic wrote in the comment.

Here's some learning material from another post:

As for being defensive of the language, it's because there are signs with chances of the language being...extinct. Just imagine when you speak English and your next generations are only lectured in French, whereas in a 100 years no one will speak English on Earth. It is a little exaggerating but it gives you an idea.

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    I understand what you're saying, but I really don't believe it because every language in the world has slang and that doesn't stop people from creating literature. How does a language having slang words mean that you can't write books in that language? There are many many American books with the word y'all in them. – oceanus Apr 20 '16 at 1:44
  • As far as the defensiveness, I understand why they are that way. The Chinese government seems to really want to kill the language. My point though is that if you are actually defensive and actually want to preserve your language, then you should use it in more environments like literature but the Cantonese actively REFUSE to use their language in literature at the SAME TIME want to preserve it. Sounds impossible to me. – oceanus Apr 20 '16 at 1:46
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    Before Chinese started writing in 白話, they wrote in 文言. So does that mean in the past 白話 was only slang words and wrong to write and only 文言 was correct to write and then magically somehow 白話 became a "proper" language. I really don't believe this at all. – oceanus Apr 20 '16 at 1:50
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    It is true that China government wants to kill Cantonese. While, people of Cantonese-speaking regions (Hong Kong & Guangdong) are fighting for Cantonese instead of refusing it. – wilson Apr 21 '16 at 2:38
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    @Alex No I am not referring to traditional and simplified scripts. I am saying that standard written Chinese (白話) is a standardised form of Mandarin speaking. Cantonese and all Chinese use 白話 as the standard written form which is different from the Cantonese language itself (粵語). For example in Mandarin you would write 我們 and in Cantonese you would write 我哋 to mean "we". My point is, how on earth can you hope to preserve the Cantonese language when you choose to write in Mandarin instead of the language you want to preserve? I think it is a road to failure. – oceanus Apr 21 '16 at 18:02

Awtho tradeetional Cantonaese haes been spaken fer a long tym, its spellin isna sae strict as in Mandarin, n aften hasna been teached at the schuil. Tradeeition haes it that the auld 文言文 was uised maist pairt in wrutten leid. Wrutten Cantonaese haes only been uised since the 20th yeirhunder, n resoorces aboot hou tae applee the leid in a conseestant mainer ar scairce. Wird order, dimeenuteeves n definit airtikils ar differin. Fer the maist pairt, thaim fowks that bruikit regional leid have haed no staudartised graimmar, leadin til mair speelin variation.

  • yur palaglah is a lit toe hard to readt! – Alex Apr 19 '16 at 21:30
  • +1 for the joke. – Enrico Brasil Apr 19 '16 at 21:54
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    @Enrico: not a joke, but an example of the situation for any language or dialect obscured by the majority tongue. I am sure the Scottish are as proud as the Cantonese, but they do well with a strictly spoken culture nevertheless. – user4452 Apr 19 '16 at 22:20
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    @倪阔乐 I appreciate the point you're making :). The thing is that the problem of standardisation exists in every language. In my opinion it is only natural to want to use your own native language. If the problem is there is no standard for Cantonese, then why not just start writing in it and a standard will naturally emerge. When Shakespeare wrote his work, English was not standardised and was looked down upon as uneducated. Now English is the language of the WORLD. – oceanus Apr 20 '16 at 2:01
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    @oceanus: So the Japanese do not write in their own language since they use Chinese characters? – user4452 Apr 20 '16 at 5:06

The modern written Chinese (白話文) is based on Mandarin, by the way of 我手寫我口 (I write what I say, 講乜寫乜).

Imagine a dialog:

we'll go for shopping, then have buffet, will you join?

no, my iPhone is dead, but i don't have money for repair, what can i do?

What do we say actually in Cantonese (講乜), if I write it down (寫乜):

我哋一陣去 shopping, 然後食 buffet, 你嚟唔嚟?

唔去啦, 部 iPhone 瓜咗, 又冇錢整, 點算?

Do you accept the above 2 lines as "written Cantonese"?

Then, is this an "English" sentence :-)

माफ गनुस्, why we need to pay for this haute-costume, cui bono?

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    Yes that is written Cantonese. I've seen this kind of writing casually. My question is why not write literature this way? Without doing this how can you preserve your language or teach it to foreigners? – oceanus Apr 20 '16 at 3:44
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    cantonese is a chinese language, which assume that the written form should be in chinese characters only. that's the reason why "written cantonese" is not used in any formal, official documentations. personally, i write in literary chinese, "written cantonese" for SMS & email. – 水巷孑蠻 Apr 20 '16 at 4:15
  • You said that the reason why written Cantonese is not used formally is because being a Chinese language it must be written in Chinese characters. Sorry but that statement lacks logic. You yourself demonstrated above Cantonese written in Chinese characters. Your reasoning is either wrong or you did not state it clearly. – oceanus Apr 20 '16 at 4:51
  • By the way you could say exactly the same thing about Mandarin. Before Chinese started writing in 白話, they wrote in 文言. Mandarin is a Chinese language and therefore must be written in Chinese characters, therefore Mandarin is not used in formal documents. Do you see how illogical that sounds? By the way I'm sure you know that in the time of 文言, Mandarin was not used in formal documents because Chinese characters were invented to write 文言 not Mandarin. There were many characters that were invented or repurposed in order to write Mandarin such as 那 (which actually is a name of a kingdom). – oceanus Apr 20 '16 at 4:57
  • ok, i skip several steps. let me try again. 1. according to the collins cobuild english language dictionary, language is "a system of communication which consists of a set of sounds and written symbols which are used by the people of a particular country or region for talking or writing in". 2. han (漢), and some ethnic groups; using the same set of written symbols, chinese characters(中文字) roughly (there're some chinese characters used by cantonese only). At the same time, each ethnic group has it own set of sounds. e.g.: cantonese (廣東話), min (閩南話). – 水巷孑蠻 Apr 20 '16 at 10:52

I'm a born Cantonese and I live in Hong Kong.

The simple answer for not writing in Cantonese is because: it is not as useful as writing in Written Vernacular Chinese.

The Brief History

It has been a custom to write in Literary Chinese in the ancient times as you know, and people used to speaking in their own dialects. Because written records were so well kept, Literary Chinese never changed much. While the most of the people, who didn't know how to read and write, changed the form of their spoken languages. The difference gap was originally small, but as time passed, illiterate people began to not be able to understand Literary Chinese. But Literary Chinese was still used, why? Because knowing it gained you social status and because it was the universal language which all dialects can use to communicate.

Eventually, Written Vernacular Chinese was used because the people wanted to use it, as they thought it was easier to use and to comprehend than Literary Chinese.

The Conclusion

Why not use written Cantonese?

  • Because writing in and comprehending Written Vernacular Chinese is not that frustrating. The contrast of Cantonese and Written Vernacular Chinese is not as much as the latter and Literary Chinese.
  • It has been a tradition to write in Written Vernacular Chinese and culture and politics say it is informal to write in Cantonese.
  • Written Vernacular Chinese has become the standard of communication, just like English in European countries.
  • Cantonese is oral-orientated, it might be harder to write when one is not trained to write it.

P.S. Even as a born Cantonese, because I learned to read in Written Vernacular Chinese, it takes more time for me to understand written Cantonese. On the other hand, I can instantly read out Cantonese from Written Vernacular Chinese.


I don't understand why you said Cantonese is not used in writing literature. You do understand that all written Chinese can be read using Cantonese orally?

If you are talking about historical literature, if you use Cantonese to read it, the poems would rhyme, but when you use Mandarin to read it, the poem for the most part will not rhyme.

Cantonese has a longer history in China than the current Mandarin taught in Mainland China.

With such limited time and if one were to learn how to read, it is better to write in proper Chinese characters with the correct grammar rather than using the Cantonese Oral to write, since you will need to know how to read the newspapers, and other official documents. This is similar to when you had to take English Literature in school, you would not read a book with no proper grammar and spelling in a English Literature class.

Jin Yong - the author who wrote the famous wuxia stories, he wrote it in Hong Kong for the Cantonese readers. However, as a novel, I would expect it to have correct grammar and poetic sentences and not a "Ya'll" or a "wussup" or a "betcha" in there.

  • You are confusing a couple issues here. Being able to read written Chinese in Cantonese pronunciation does not mean that what you are reading is Cantonese language. That is actually an instance of an acrolect. If I read a Chinese sentence in Japanaese pronuciation does it magically become Japanese language? No it doesn't. – oceanus Dec 13 '19 at 0:11
  • For example if I read "你今天会做什么?" in Vietnamese pronuciation as "nể kim thiên hội tố thậm ma?" is this sentence magically transformed into Vietnamese language? No it is still Chinese. A Vietnamese person would not understand this at all because it is a different language. – oceanus Dec 13 '19 at 0:11
  • Your answer has an assumption that Cantonese does not have "correct" grammar. This depends on what you mean by "correct" because before the May Fourth Movement (1919) 白話 was incorrect grammar and only 文言文 was correct grammar. – oceanus Dec 13 '19 at 0:11
  • If you really think that Cantonese has incorrect grammar you must ask yourself the obvious question which is why do Cantonese people speak incorrectly? Why don't they just speak with correct grammar? This is obviously a silly question because the answer is that Cantonese and Mandarin are different languages. That's why they have different grammar. – oceanus Dec 13 '19 at 0:11

I think the Beijing dialect of Haney uses slangs that sound like slurs; it is very hard to understand if you don't speak that dialect even for Mandarin speakers.

I think with Hanyu(the Chinese language) you can read, write, and speak it. But there is a huge problem with the reading and writing since most of the Chinese in the old days say 500 to 2000 years ago did not go to school--they were illiterate. They use slangs to talk to others; slang words were invented or borrowed from others. Hek, these slangs are still widely used in Cantonese which makes perfect since to a Cantonese person, but hard to understand for non-Cantonese person.

Slangs are not standard Hanyu (Chinese) that is why it is not used in writing; it is used only in a local area for speaking.

So what is Standard Hanyu? I would say these are the words found in the Hanyu or Chinese Mandarin or Cantonese dictionary. The Hanyu words has not changed in thousands of years; the meanings and usage has remained the same; but the pronunciations some are similar and some are different. Some people may think this pronunciation is a big issue; Since the writing words in both Cantonese and Mandarin are still the same and its meaning remain the same, I tink in the long run it is not an issue.

if I may add: In English, 1 + 1 + 1 = 3; In Cantonese 1 + 1 + 1 = 3; In Mandarin 1 + 1 + 1 still equal to 3.

the math meaning and concept has not changed. Each group of speaker can understand it. So the math language is still the same. Like wise, Hanyu (the standard Chinese language over the past couple thousand of years is still the same notwithstanding the slangs of course) is like this math, it just sounds a bit different when it is read out by each group.

Slangs was created because the older generation of people were working in the farms, they did not go to school, and most of them were wen mang. Yes, Cantonese people love to speak in slangs, which are passed down for generation to generation. I think the Chinese does not like people speaking in slangs because they don't understand it.

  • Actually what you are describing is not called slang, it is development of vernacular language. And in fact this statement is incorrect: "The Hanyu words has not changed in thousands of years; the meanings and usage has remained the same". The modern written Chinese used now is not the same as thousands of years ago. – oceanus Oct 10 '17 at 16:55
  • For example the word 那 actually is the name of a city, that's why it has a 邑(阝) in it. If you were using the real Chinese language of thousands of years ago you would say 彼 instead of 那, 汝 instead of 你, 何 instead of 為什麼, etc. So actually according to what you said using 那, 你, and 為什麼 to mean "that", "you", and "why" are all "slang" terms. If you speak Mandarin 白話文 is 我手寫我口, if you speak Cantonese 白話文 is 我手寫我口不講. – oceanus Oct 10 '17 at 16:55

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