Pharaohs, Cantonese and the Gang of Four

Was Mubarak Egypt’s last pharaoh? Maybe only if Putin is Russia’s last tsar. Names for strong men may say as much about public expectations as they do about a leader’s style.

There is a comfort to thinking of the year of your country as the father or mother of the nation. And it’s not just countries with dictators that name their leaders in this way. Britain’s Margaret Thatcher was the Iron Lady (soon to be a biopic of the same name starring Meryl Streep). Finland’s President Tarja Halonen is often referred to as Moominmamma— partly ironically, but also out of pride. (The Moomins are a cartoon strip and set of children’s fantasy stories that are as big as Disney in Finland).

In Mubarak’s case, the pharaoh moniker is an insult.  It’s shorthand for absolutism, state violence and destruction.

“If we go back four thousand years pharaohs were kings that ruled for life and built grand monuments to themselves,” says Joshua Stacher of Kent State University. “It’s not a good term.”

It wasn’t always that way. A few decades ago, the pharaohs were remembered proudly as demi-gods who “ensured the provision of water to the Egyptian peasants in the Nile Delta and upper Egypt,” says Tarek Osman,  author of Egypt on the Brink. That is “an extremely positive role in the deep Egyptian psyche.” Maybe that sense of the pharaohs will return, now that Mubarak is gone.

Check out this post on Language Log for Chinese signs held by protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Were these people protesting Mubarak, or sending a message to China’s Communist rulers?

Also in the podcast, fears for the future of Cantonese, once the lingua franca of many Chinatowns around the world.

Beijing is stepping up its efforts to establish Mandarin as the official tongue of China. As a result, Cantonese is spoken by fewer people — and in fewer situations outside the home — even in Cantonese-speaking parts of China. There have been protests in the cities of Guangzhou and Hong Kong about proposals to expand the use of Mandarin on TV and in other public settings.

In the rest of the world, students of the Chinese language and their teachers see the writing on the wall: they are choosing to learn Mandarin rather than Cantonese.

These days in New York’s Chinatown,  a mix of dialects is spoken. That means people often fall back on the common dialect Mandarin.  But not Kim Mui. She teaches a Cantonese class. It’s going to take many people like her to ensure that Cantonese survives in the long term.


Finally, British cultural revolutionaries Gang of Four talk about their name, which derives from a group of notorious Chinese cultural revolutionaries. The bandmembers also talk about their new CD, and about phrases that include the word farm.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Pharaohs, Cantonese and the Gang of Four

  1. Kristina Clingaman

    That is an interesting thing to talk about since this whole blow out with Egypt is going on. I like to believe that Egypt will return to its old way with Pharohs. Many people visit Egypt to learn about the Pharohs and to experience a once in a life time visit in history. I also agree that Mubarak’s term was not a good one and he could have destroyed Egypt, but luckily he is being thrown out of office.
    It is always sad to see languages die and get lost in time. Latin is just like Cantoneses. It is becoming lost in the time and if it is taught they might be able to save it. All languages are important, it is our history and it makes up a part of our culture. If i had a say in saving the language, I would take immediate action so years later people will still know it.

  2. Patrick,

    I really enjoyed Nina Porzucki’s piece on Cantonese featured on the podcast this week, but I thought it was worth mentioning a couple of other things about America’s changing Chinese population. The report mentioned that Chinese has many spoken dialects, but the written language is universal. This is not entirely true, as there is classical and simplified Chinese script, and we can see the changing dynamics in America’s Chinatowns in the signs as well as the spoken language. Mainland China has adopted the simplified script, but classical Chinese writing holds on in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and many other parts of the Chinese diaspora beyond the reach of communist authorities. As the older population of Chinese in America – who came predominantly from Cantonese-speaking areas like Guangzhou and Hong Kong, as well as Taiwan – is supplanted by a newer generation of people from the mainland, simplified Chinese has become far more common on signs and advertisements. I live in Brooklyn, and our borough’s Chinatown – in a neighborhood called Sunset Park – is of relatively recent vintage. Nearly the entire population of the neighborhood is Fujianese, and there is barely a classical script sign in sight.

    I really enjoy the podcast – keep up the great work!

    – Andrew
    Brooklyn, NY

  3. Trang Vo

    I am Trang Vo, a student at NOVA CST229-001
    I think it is very interesting how the Egyptian people compare Mubarak to the ancient Pharohs. Mubarak saw this as a sign of power and saught to centralize authority over Egypt to himself.
    I never knew that China has so many local languages that it can be compared to Europe. Also, I never knew that Cantonese and Mandarin share the same written language but at completely differnt spoken languages. This can make communicating somewhat easier for busness purposes in Chinese society. It’s fascinating to think about how Cantonese is the most widely spoken form of Chinese in China Town in New York City. It’s also disturbing how the Gang of Four in the early years of communisum in China sought out anyone who even had capitalistic thoughts or ideas.

  4. Natalya Nesbitt

    I am a student in the CST 229–01 course.
    Egyptian citizens put forth historical efforts to help their president step down from his subjective rule of thirty years. It was exposed, that the term pharaoh, holds a traumatic implication and Egyptian citizens denounce the use of the term. The traditional dialect of Cantonese is being replaced by Manderin. Although, volunteers have stepped forward to preserve the sensational dialect.

  5. Joel Kellogg

    I am a student in the CST 229–01 course.
    China has changed its official language to Manderin from Cantonese. i think this is incredible that a country is able to just slowly change their dialect. it is also cool that one what that the dialect is changing is through students choosing to learn manderin over cantonese. i was amazed at how many languages there were in china, and it made me think about if the US were that way. i think it is wrong of Mubarak to call himself a pharaoh, when i think of a pharaoh i think of someone who is ruling for the best interests of the country. from what i have heard mubarak is not doing that.

  6. Ling

    I found this trailer for “Speaking In Tongues” along with others that talk about language and globalization.
    http://vimeo.com/pwfilms

    Speaking In Tongues focuses on English only rules, assimilation and its effects http://speakingintonguesfilm.info

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