The Cantonese are unlike other Chinese. This is largely the natural result of their history, which is one of wars, rebellions, and the grand adventure of settling a wild frontier.
Two thousand years ago their homeland was inhabited by savage tribes who were not part of the empire until general Ma Yuan (馬援 maa yuen
) subjugated Nanman ( 南蠻 naam maan
, "southward barbarians") and Jiaozhi (交趾 gaau ji
, "intersecting footprints": extreme southern Kwantung and northern Viet) during the Han (漢朝 hon chiu
206 BCE – 220 CE).
[南蠻: The Nanman tribes included the Bai (白族 baak juk), Kinh (京族 king juk, Vietnamese), Miao (苗族 miu juk, Hmong), and Tai (傣族 daai juk. Thai and Tai), who at that time inhabited Kweichow (黔 Qian, 'Kim'; 貴州 kwei jau),Yunnan (滇 Dian, Tin; 雲南 wun naam), and Szechuan (蜀 Shu, Suk; 四川 sei chuen).]
The two Guangs (兩廣 leung gwong
; twin expanses), which are modern-day Guandung ( 廣東 gwon tung
; eastern expanse) and Guangxi ( 廣西 gwon sai
; western expanse') provinces, along with Fujian (福建 fuk kin
'; fortunate builds) and most of Chekiang (浙江 jit gong
; twisty river) were at that time considered to be Viet (越 yuet
). The term 'Viet' did not then refer to a people -- the Vietnamese are 'Kinh' -- but to a geographic area ('the boundary'), inhabited by various ethnicities of which fairly little trace remains, due to their having been overrun, outnumbered, and co-opted. Both the natives and their area were Sinified over a span of several centuries.
[越: Yuet means 'frontier', and is the first part of Vietnam (越南 yuet-naam, south of the border). The homophone 粵 is cognate, and refers to matters Cantonese. The various ethnicities were Fan (番), Man (蠻), Mang (芒), Mieu (苗), She (輋), and Yao (猺), among others.]
Nevertheless, elements of their cultural traits, and their genetic stock, contributed mightily to the "Chinese" who are today's 'Cantonese'.
The population in Lingnan (嶺南 ling naam
; south of the five mountain ranges, in a narrow sense only the Cantonese area) shows a large proto-Thai genetic inheritance, and though they speak the cleanest descendant of the old Tang koine, and do have ancestral roots in the Central Plains (中原 jung yuen
), they represent a long stabilized mixture of barbarian racial stock with Han (漢 hon
), much like most of the north shows a similar leavening with Turk, Mongol, and Tungusic strains. Their language has been likewise enriched by locutions and phraseology which reflect the ancient tribes, whose racially and culturally mixed descendants were perhaps inclined to express themselves better than the rude colonialist.
All of this, of course, is ancient history. Though their DNA proves the past, in the present they are entirely Chinese. Except for the unassimilated Li (黎 lai
) and Zhuang (壯 jong
), in Guangxi and Hainan.
The accusation by snooty Mandarin speakers that the southerners are 'not really true Chinese' is as foundationless as the northern assertion that they themselves are 'pure'. Certain surnames betray barbarian ancestors in the heartland, and many dynasties and ruling houses were either part Turk, or entirely foreign; their blood flows in every vein north of the passes.
Like all metropolitan civilizations, China represents an amalgam of genes drawn inward by the magnetism and vigour of a succesful central society.
[Note: The written character for the Zhuang people was originally 獞, composed of the signific 犭(dog) and the phonetic 童 (boy, servant). After the Communists took over, this name was considered demeaning, and first changed to 僮, in which the dog ( or 犭) has been changed to a human (人or 亻). Later it was replaced entirely with a homophonous character (壯) meaning 'strong'.]
For the first several centuries of Chinese rule in the southlands, the barbaric tribes on the frontiers were becalmed by canny administrators who rewarded chiefs with trinkets, status objects, and official ranks, offered to educate the sons of local notables -- thus giving them a language in which they were more literate than they could ever be in their tribal tongues -- and shared the benefits of more efficient rule generously. By the time of Tang (618 to 906) the territories had long been tranquilized, and though still sparsely settled by peoples now wholly 'sinicised' despite their barbarian ancestry, the region presented an inviting prospect for people desperate to get away from excessive taxation, corvee, overpopulation, and the far-too-frequent all-encompassing corruption and moral rot of the central areas.
Lingnan was flooded by smugglers, pirates, dissidents, tax-dodgers, whores, incendiarists, and entrepreneurs, in a stream that continued nearly unabated till the fall of the Ming (朙朝) in the seventeenth century. As they acclimatized, they furthered the co-optation and absorption of whatever tribal elements still remained. Large parts of the southern coast were still barbaric five centuries ago, presently all is "Chinese". Though a few people are only ten or eleven generations descended from a dubious ethnic minority, they are racially and culturally quite indistinguishable from their peers, who often represent older strains of creolization and a longer history of genetic mixing.
Canton and the Cantonese are a cocktail. The dominant liquor is Chinese, but the Vermouth is something other.
["Who considers the girl from Viet ("粵女") with the jade-like face, washing her silk in solitude at the stream?"]
That line from a poem by Wang Wei (王維 wong wai
, 692 - 761) written over a thousand years ago is, perhaps, peculiar today, given that it speaks of a looser and far less Chinese period in Chinese history. The ruling dynasty in his day was half Turk, as were many of the scholar-officials and notable families of the empire, yet many of the natives of the vast southland were never the less considered not quite 'us' by the myopic upper classes.
Wang Wei's metaphor of separation, wildness, and humble circumstance belies the truth that the south was richer and more verdant, and historically the source of luxuries much envied in the arid regions anent the Turco-Mongol wastelands. Lichees and tangerines, as just two examples, were hastened to the imperial court by couriers on horseback, so that the effete aristocrats could indulge. Fragrant woods, pearls, exotic fabrics, and a multitude of culinary delicacies came from Lingnan and were highly prized. It is no wonder that when Tang's successor Sung bent to another barbarian onslaught, the imperial court fled ever south, at last falling to the enemy in the waters off Kowloon.
[When the Mongols invaded, officials took the nine year old prince Zhao Shi (趙昰 chiu si) and his seven year old brother Zhao Bing (趙昺 chiu bing) first to Fuzhou (福州 fuk jau) in Fujian (福建 fuk kin), where the older brother was crowned emperor upon the death of their father in the capital Linan (臨安 lam on, modern day Hangzhou (杭州 hong jau) in 1276. Then, when the Mongols broke through the Sung defences in 1277 and took that city, the court headed to Guangzhou (廣州 gwong jau), finally ending up at Matauwai (碼頭圍) in Kowloon (九龍 gau lung). Upon Zhao Shi's demise from a lingering ailment in 1278, Zhao Bing was enthroned. In 1279 the remnants of Sung perished in the Naval Battle of Yamen (崖山海戰 ngaai saan hoi jin) near Lantau Island (大嶼山 daai yü saan), the tides subsequently depositing hundreds of thousands of corpses on the shores up and down the coast. It is said that the body of the boy emperor was found near Shekou (蛇口 se hau) in Shenzhen (深圳 sam jan) north of Hong Kong, though it is not known where he is buried. There's a memorial rock-inscription commemorating the last two princes of Sung near Matauwai, which was severely damaged by the Japanese (倭 waai, another tribe of fractious barbarians) during WWII.]
Given that past, it should not surprise you that in the present the Cantonese are the most adventurous of the Chinese. Their cuisine is more varied and interesting than anything the north knows, their transplanted representatives have settled in the most distant lands, and their mode of expression veers lyrically between eloquent fantasy, sneering outrage, and ribaldly unprintable invention. The very first fluent sentence an outsider is likely to learn is either a statement regarding the reproductive organ of someone's mother and its noteworthy olfactory characteristic, or a phrase containing an action verb and an elderly maternal relative.
[Such linguistic aptitude is often the reason that the Chinese subtitles for Mandarin speakers underneath Hong Kong movies seem unusually short; was everything even translated, or is Mandarin able to get by with less? The answer is no. The vast toxic flow of verbal filth will have been rendered into the northern tongue with one oblique three word phrase, representing not one whit of the colour and verve with which the native speaker expresses himself. It's rather sad.]
One imagines that the rebels who populate the pages of Cantonese history probably utilized those locutions, as well as ever more creative variants, in their long resistance to all manner of invaders and tyrants from the north. The Canton area has been the birthplace of more revolutionaries and disturbers of faecal matter than anywhere else in the country, and the heroes still sung about today were all at one point wanted men. Perhaps that was inevitable, when for centuries the imperial court used the place as a dumping ground, exiling scholars and officials who did not toe the party line to the far south to succumb to malaria and other tropical diseases.
Su Tungpo, to name just one famous example, was sent south in 1094. After six years during which he did not die, he was finally pardoned - only to perish on the road home. His accomplishments were myriad, his poetry and prose have been a treasure for all the generations since.
The near-constant fertilizing of the territory with literate men who failed to bend has left a tradition of obstinacy and stubbornness in Canton that outshines any amount of pig head rigidity elsewhere. And yet these are the most flexible of individuals, infinitely adaptive to circumstance.
The population of Guangdong are by long inheritance smugglers, scholars, brigands, poets, and pirates. And, it must be said, often remarkably casual about decorum, public order, and legal niceties.
If a crowd of northerners is a mass or a mob, a collection of Cantonese is, quite naturally, a conspiracy.
The typical Cantonese person does not whine about getting caught breaking the law - instead, they'll resolve to be a far better criminal next time.
And, if you're Cantonese, there's ALWAYS a next time.
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