This is not quite a question about Mandarin, but what is the historical reason why the written language (書面語) in Hong Kong is almost the same as Mandarin, provided that the simplified/traditional character conversion is considered.

I wonder about this seemingly miraculous match because Hong Kong, where Cantonese is widely spoken, was separate until 1997, and is somewhat separate from places where Mandarin is spoken, has had the same written language (書面語) for a long time, way before 1997.

I'm guessing there might have been some standardization of the written language in Qing Dynasty but I'm not sure.

I'm aware of the following question, but my question is rather about the historical context:

Why does Hong Kong use a different spoken and written language?


2 Answers 2


Prior to explain the situation in Hong Kong, here’re some presumptions; roughly:

Before 1919, the official written language is Literary Chinese; separately, individuals used their mother tongue for spoken language depends on the region (Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Teochwo, Mandarin, etc.)

After may 4th movement, the official written language changed to vernacular Chinese, one of the argument is “我手寫我口”, which hoped to “unified” the written aspect & spoken aspect of the Chinese language. and, the political centre of Chinese empire was in Peking for many centuries, naturally, the vernacular Chinese was based on the mandarin.

What is the historical reason why the written language (書面語) in Hong Kong is almost the same as Mandarin

After the Opium War, Hong Kong became a British colony. the education system changed many times.

Au début, schools were taught in English (all subjects except Chinese), the subject “Chinese” was taught in Cantonese. There are private schools (私塾), taught in cantonese, or rarely, in Mandarin. the students of these private schools would attend the imperial examination in the Chinese empire.

After 1911 (I’m not sure the exact time), schools in Hong Kong taught in Chinese; adopted system and materials from KMT China, till 1950. That vernacular Chinese based on Mandarin was used, but conducted in Cantonese.

Only in 1974, Chinese became an official language in hong kong. before, students studied in Chinese (all subjects except English) had no prospects locally. that, after high school, their options were:

Further study, or work

  • in Chinese empire (before 1911)
  • in KMT china (1911 - 1949)
  • in Taiwan (1949 onward)
  • in Communist China (1949 onward)

That, in all circumstances, literary chinese, or vernacular chinese based on mandarin are needed.

Have fun :)

P.S.: you might interested in these:

A book named 香港中文教育發展史


A PDF named 香港中文教學發展述評

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Chapter 8 “教育” of the book 香港百年史


Have fun :)

  • 1
    Indeed: despite the 1913 Education Ordinance, which was "aimed at curbing political activities in schools and was the first act of the colonial government systematically to have impinged on the [...] 私塾 in the territory", they did not "sever or reduce the cultural or educational continuities between Hong Kong and China. [...] In fact, [...] the free interflow of teachers, students, books and ideas [...] across the border increased". (Luk, 1991)
    – Michaelyus
    Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 13:18

For starters, simplified vs traditional characters doesn't change the way how Chinese is written.

In Hong Kong, there are three ways to write in Chinese: classic Chinese (文言文), modern Chinese (白話文), and Cantonese. In fact, until recently (up to the 70s maybe), classical Chinese was the preferred way and was taught in school. The wuxia novels by Jin Yong et al are written more or less in classic Chinese.

I think the reason behind this is most people who knew how to write were taught in the old school way, the 5.4 movement notwithstanding. This division is reinforced by the fact the Hong Kong was a British colony during the 5.4 movement and a small divide developed.

  • Belatedly: Not sure that it would be accurate to say Jin Yong (金庸) (新派』武俠小說, 梁羽生) or the earlier 王度廬,還珠樓主 wrote in classical Chinese. These novels are even more colloquial than "7 Heroes and 5 Gallants" (三俠五義) or Water Margin (水滸傳), and were serialised to sell mass market newspapers. It is true that they were often (re-)written in a high register and contain quotes from classical literature and poetry. But that is a feature of traditional oral culture for (illiterate) villagers. In any case, I was an avid fan of Jin Yong in primary school before formally learning any classical Chinese. Commented Jun 17 at 10:45
  • Well, there is no clear border between classic Chinese and modern Chinese. Personally, I'd rank 水滸傳 to be more colloquial than the wuxia novels. Commented Jun 18 at 6:47
  • I agree with your general point: it is difficult to draw hard lines in linguistics. Nevertheless Jin Yong's novels are in the mainstream of modern rather than Classical Chinese. Even degenerate hybrids found in formal letters/notices in HK omit copulas (是) and use different pronouns (吾) and honorifics, for example. Classical epigraphs in Jin Yong (like Latin or Greek!) serve rather as a mark of his erudition, and Classical quotes are often introduced with 所謂. In genre, Jin Yong consciously based his novels on Western models especially Dumas, inhabiting a world familiar to a modern audience. Commented Jun 19 at 9:59
  • I have become more aware of this helping a young reader with beginners / intermediate Chinese read Jin Yong's "The Legend of the Condor Heroes" (射鵰英雄傳). The difficulties fall more or less into three categories: (1) Generally difficult writing in a high literary register (霎時間) (2) unfamiliar and archaic genre terms ("武林", "說時遲那時快"), four Chinese characters "Chengyu"; but also (3) utterly incomprehensible poetry and prose in Classic Chinese (See 常言道得好:為人切莫用欺心,舉頭三尺有神明。若還作惡無報應,天下兇徒人吃人 in Chapter one for an example). When I read this as a 10 years old, I just skipped past the difficult parts :-) 😛 Commented Jun 19 at 10:14

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