Cantonese people

Last updated

廣府人 / 广府人
Cantonese Han noble lady with her servants in 1900s.png
Cantonese noblewoman and servants, c.1900s
Total population
c. 66 million [1]
Regions with significant populations
China (Guangdong, Guangxi, Hainan, Hong Kong and Macau )
Southeast Asia (Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Singapore, Indonesia and Philippines)
Western world (United States, Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, Peru, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand)
Cantonese, Taishanese and other Yue languages (native languages), Southwestern Mandarin, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Filipino and Indonesian, Hong Kong English, Macau Portuguese
Predominantly Chinese folk religions (which include Confucianism, Taoism, ancestral worship) and Mahayana Buddhism
Minorities: Christianity, Atheism, Freethought, others
Related ethnic groups
Hong Kong people, Macau people, Taishanese people, other Han Chinese subgroups

some population totals are based on speaker counts and may not reflect the total population with ancestry
Cantonese people
Traditional Chinese 廣東人
Simplified Chinese 广东人
Literal meaningGuangdong people

The Cantonese people (廣府人; 广府人; gwong fu jan; Gwóngfú Yàhn), or Yue people (粵人; 粤人; jyut jan; Yuht Yàhn), are a Yue-speaking Han Chinese subgroup originating from or residing in the provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi (collectively known as Liangguang), in Southern Mainland China. Although more accurately, "Cantonese" refers only to the people from Guangzhou and its satellite cities and towns and/or native speakers of Standard Cantonese, rather than simply and generally referring to the people of the Liangguang region. [2]


Historically centered on and predominating the Pearl River Basin shared between Guangdong and Guangxi, the Cantonese people are also responsible for establishing their native language's usage in Hong Kong and Macau during their 19th century migrations within the times of the British and Portuguese colonial eras respectively. Today, Hong Kong and Macau are the only regions in the world where Cantonese is the official spoken language, with the mixed influences of English and Portuguese respectively. Cantonese remains today as a majority language in Guangdong and Guangxi, despite the increasing influence of Mandarin. Taishanese people may also be considered Cantonese but speak a distinct variety of Yue Chinese, Taishanese.

There have been a number of influential Cantonese figures throughout history, such as Yuan Chonghuan, Bruce Lee, Liang Qichao, Lee Shau-kee, Ho Ching , Flossie Wong-Staal and most notably Sun Yat-sen, Chinese revolutionary and first president of the Republic of China.


"Cantonese" has been generally used to describe all Chinese people from Guangdong since "Cantonese" is commonly treated as a synonym with "Guangdong" and the Cantonese language is treated as the sole language of the region. This is inaccurate as "Canton" itself technically only refers to Guangdong's capital Guangzhou and the Cantonese language specifically refers to only the Guangzhou dialect of the Yue Chinese languages. David Faure points out that there is no direct Chinese translation of the English term "Cantonese". [3]

The English name "Canton" derived from Portuguese Cantão [4] or Cidade de Cantão, [5] a muddling of dialectical pronunciations of "Guangdong" [6] [7] (e.g., Hakka Kóng-tûng). Although it originally and chiefly applied to the walled city of Guangzhou, it was occasionally conflated with Guangdong by some authors. [8] [10] Within Guangdong and Guangxi, Cantonese is considered the prestige dialect and is called baahk wá [pàːk wǎː] ( 白話 ) which means "vernacular". In historical times, it was known as "Guangzhou speech" or Guangzhounese (廣州話, 广州话, Gwóngjāu wá) but due to Guangzhou's prosperity it has led people to conflate it with all Yue languages and many now refer to "Guangzhou speech" as simply "Guangdong speech" (廣東話, 广东话, Gwóngdūng wá). Similar cases where entire Chinese language families are thought to be a single language occur with non-specialists, conflating all Wu Chinese languages as just Shanghainese and its different forms, as it is the prestige dialect (although historically Suzhounese was) or that Mandarin only refers to the Beijing-based Standard Chinese and that it is a single language rather than a large group of related varieties.

There are many other Chinese languages spoken by the Han Chinese in these areas. In Guangxi, Southwestern Mandarin is spoken as are other Yue Chinese languages apart from Cantonese. In Guangdong, aside from other Yue Chinese languages, these non-Cantonese languages include Hakka, Chaoshan, Leizhou Min and Tuhua. Non-Cantonese speaking Yue peoples are sometimes labelled as "Cantonese" such as the Taishanese people (四邑粵人; sei yāp yuht yàhn), even though Taishanese (台山話) has low intelligibility to Standard Cantonese. Some literature uses neutral terminology such as Guangdongese and Guangxiese to refer to people from these provinces without the cultural or linguistic affiliations to Cantonese.


Pre-19th century: History of Liangguang

Nanyue (Nahm Yuht) Kingdom Nam-Viet 200bc.jpg
Nanyue (Nàhm Yuht) Kingdom

Until the 19th century, Cantonese history was largely the history of Guangdong and Guangxi provinces. What is now Guangdong, and later Guangxi, was first brought under Qin influence by a general named Zhao Tuo, who later founded the kingdom of Nanyue in 204 BC. [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] The Nanyue kingdom went on to become the strongest Baiyue state in China, with many neighbouring kingdoms declaring their allegiance to Nanyue rule. Zhao Tuo took the Han territory of Hunan and defeated the Han dynasty's first attack on Nanyue, later annexing the kingdom of Minyue in the East and conquering Âu Lạc, Northern Vietnam, in the West in 179 BC. [16]

The greatly expanded Nanyue kingdom included the territories of modern-day Guangdong, Guangxi and Northern Vietnam (Tonkin), with the capital situated at modern-day Guangzhou. The native peoples of Liangguang remained under Baiyue control until the Han dynasty in 111 BC, following the Han–Nanyue War. However, it was not until subsequent dynasties such as the Jin Dynasty, the Tang Dynasty and the Song Dynasty that major waves of Han Chinese began to migrate south into Guangdong and Guangxi. Waves of migration and subsequent intermarriage meant that existing populations of both provinces were displaced, but some native groups like the Zhuangs still remained. The Cantonese often call themselves "people of Tang" (唐人; tòhng yàhn). This is because of the inter-mixture between native and Han immigrants in Guangdong and Guangxi reached a critical mass of acculturation during the Tang dynasty, creating a new local identity among the Liangguang peoples. [17]

During the 4th–12th centuries, Han Chinese people from the central plains migrated and settled in the South of China. This gave rise to peoples including the Cantonese themselves and other dialect groups of Guangdong during the Tang dynasty. [18] There have been multiple migrations of Han people into Southeastern and Southern China throughout history. [19]

The origin of the Cantonese people is thus said to be Northern Chinese peoples that migrated to Guangdong and Guangxi while it was still inhabited by Baiyue peoples. [20] During Wang Mang's reign in the Han dynasty (206BC-220AD), there were influxes of Han Chinese migrants into Guangdong and Guangxi, western coast of Hainan, Annam (now Northern Vietnam) and eastern Yunnan. [21]

19th–20th century: Turmoil and migration

Cantonese bazaar during Chinese New Year at the Grant Avenue, San Francisco, circa 1914. Names of shops are in Cantonese and there are four daily newspapers printed in the Cantonese language at that time, as there were already a significant number of Cantonese people who had been there for generations. The Chamber of commerce handbook for San Francisco, historical and descriptive; a guide for visitors (1914) (14589349060).jpg
Cantonese bazaar during Chinese New Year at the Grant Avenue, San Francisco, circa 1914. Names of shops are in Cantonese and there are four daily newspapers printed in the Cantonese language at that time, as there were already a significant number of Cantonese people who had been there for generations.

During the early 1800s, conflict occurred between Cantonese and Portuguese pirates in the form of the Ningpo massacre after the defeat of Portuguese pirates. [22] The First (18391842) and Second Opium Wars (18561860) led to the loss of China's control over Hong Kong and Kowloon, which were ceded to the British Empire. Macau also became a Portuguese settlement. Between 1855 and 1867, the Punti-Hakka Clan Wars caused further discord in Guangdong and Guangxi. The third plague pandemic of 1855 broke out in Yunnan and spread to the Liangguang region via Guangxi, killing thousands and spreading via water traffic to nearby Hong Kong and Macau.

The turmoil of the 19th century, followed by the political upheaval of the early 20th century, compelled many residents of Guangdong to migrate overseas in search of a better future. Up until the second half of the 20th century, the majority of overseas Chinese emigrated from two provinces of China; Guangdong and Fujian. As a result, there are today many Cantonese communities throughout the world, including in Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, the Americas, the Caribbean and Western Europe, with Chinatowns commonly being established by Cantonese communities. There have been a large number of interracial marriages between Cantonese men and women from other nations (especially from Cuba, Peru, Mexico ), as most of the Cantonese migrants were men. As a result, there are many Black Caribbeans and South American people who of Cantonese descent including many Eurasians and people Cantonese ancestry. [23]

Unlike the migrants from Fujian, who mostly settled in Southeast Asia, many Cantonese emigrants also migrated to the Western Hemisphere, particularly the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Many Cantonese immigrants into the United States became railroad labourers, while many in South America were brought in as coolies. Cantonese immigrants in the United States and Australia participated in the California Gold Rush and the Australian gold rushes of 1854 onwards, while those in Hawaii found employment in sugarcane plantations as contract labourers. These early immigrants variously faced hostility and a variety of discriminatory laws, including the prohibition of Chinese female immigrants. The relaxation of immigration laws after World War II allowed for subsequent waves of migration to the Western world from southeastern mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau. As a result, Cantonese continues to be widely used by Chinese communities of Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong and Macau regional origin in the Western hemisphere, and has not been supplanted by the Mandarin-based Standard Chinese. A large proportion of the early migrants also came from the Siyi region of Guangdong and spoke Taishanese. The Taishanese variant is still spoken in American-Chinese communities, by the older population as well as by more recent immigrants from Taishan, in Jiangmen, Guangdong.

Cantonese influence on the Xinhai Revolution

Cantonese uprising against feudal China in 1895 let to its naming as the "cradle of the Xinhai Revolution". [24] [25] [26] Revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen was born in Zhongshan, Guangdong. [27] [28] Hong Kong was where he developed his thoughts of revolution and was the base of subsequent uprisings, as well as the first revolutionary newspaper. [29] [30] Sun Yat-sen's revolutionary army was largely made up of Cantonese, and many of the early revolutionary leaders were also Cantonese. [31]

Cultural hub

A Cantonese gentleman in Qing-era traditional attire, c. 1873-1874 CANTONESE GENTLEMEN 2.jpg
A Cantonese gentleman in Qing-era traditional attire, c. 1873–1874

Cantonese people and their culture are centered in Guangdong, eastern Guangxi, Hong Kong and Macau.

Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton), the capital city of Guangdong, has been one of China's international trading ports since the Tang dynasty. During the 18th century, it became an important centre of the emerging trade between China and the Western world, as part of the Canton System. The privilege during this period made Guangzhou one of the top three cities in the world. [32] Operating from the Thirteen Factories located on the banks of the Pearl River outside Canton, merchants traded goods such as silk, porcelain ("fine china"), and tea, allowing Guangzhou to become a prosperous city. Links to overseas contacts and beneficial tax reforms in the 1990s have also contributed to the city's ongoing growth. Guangzhou was named a global city in 2008. The migrant population from other provinces of China in Guangzhou was 40 percent of the city's total population in 2008. Most of them are rural migrants and they speak only standard Chinese. [33]

Hong Kong and Macau are two of the richest cities in the world in terms of GDP per capita and are autonomous SARs (Special Administrative Regions) that are under independent governance from China. Historically governed by the British and Portuguese empires respectively, colonial Hong Kong and Macau were increasingly populated by migrant influxes from mainland China, particularly the nearby Guangdong Province. For that reason, the culture of Hong Kong and Macau became a mixture of Cantonese and Western influences, sometimes described as "East meets West".

Hong Kong

Hong Kong Island was first colonised by the British Empire in 1842 with a population of only 7,450; however, it was in 1898 that Hong Kong truly became a British colony, when the British also colonised the New Territories (which constitute 86.2% of Hong Kong's modern territory). It was during this period that migrants from China entered, mainly speaking Cantonese (the prestige variety of Yue Chinese) as a common language. During the following century of British rule, Hong Kong grew into a hub of Cantonese culture, and has remained as such since the handover in 1997.

Today Hong Kong is one of the world's leading financial centres, and the Hong Kong dollar is the thirteenth most-traded currency in the world.


Macau native people are known as the Tanka. A dialect similar to Shiqi (石岐話), originating from Zhongshan (中山) in Guangdong, is also spoken in the region.

Parts of Macau were first loaned to the Portuguese by China as a trading centre in the 16th century, with the Portuguese required to administrate the city under Chinese authority. In 1851 and 1864, the Portuguese Empire occupied the two nearest offshore islands Taipa and Coloane respectively, and Macau officially became a colony of the Portuguese Empire in 1887. Macau was returned to China in 1999.

By 2002, Macau had become one of the world's richest cities, [34] and by 2006, it had surpassed Las Vegas to become the world's biggest gambling centre. [35] Macau is also a world cultural heritage site due to its Portuguese colonial architecture.


The term "Cantonese" is used to refer to the native culture, language and people of Guangdong and Guangxi. [36]

There are cultural, economic, political, generational and geographical differences in making "Cantonese-ness" in and beyond Guangdong and Guangxi, with the interacting dynamics of migration, education, social developments and cultural representations. [37]


The term "Cantonese language" is sometimes used to refer to the broader group of Yue Chinese languages and dialects spoken in Guangdong and Guangxi, although it is used more specifically to describe Gwóngjāu wah (廣州話), the prestige variant of Cantonese spoken in the city of Guangzhou (historically known as Canton). Gwóngjāu wah is the main language used for education, literature and media in Hong Kong and Macau. It is still widely used in Guangzhou, despite the fact that a large proportion of the city's population is made up by migrant workers from elsewhere in China that speak non-Cantonese variants of Chinese and Standard Mandarin. [38] Though in recent years it is slowly falling out of favour with the younger generation [39] prompting fears in Cantonese people that the language may die out. Cantonese language's erosion in Guangzhou is due to a mix of suppression of the language and the mass migration of non-Cantonese speaking people in to the area.

Because of its tradition of usage in music, cinema, literature and newspapers, this form of Cantonese is a cultural mark of identity that distinguishes Cantonese people from speakers of other varieties of Chinese, whose languages are prohibited to have strong influences under China's Standard Mandarin policy. The pronunciation and vocabulary of Cantonese has preserved many features of the official language of the Tang dynasty with elements of the ancient Yue language. [40] Written Cantonese is very common in manhua, books, articles, magazines, newspapers, online chat, instant messaging, internet blogs and social networking websites. Anime, cartoons and foreign films are also dubbed in Cantonese. Some videogames such as Sleeping Dogs, Far Cry 4, Grand Theft Auto III and Resident Evil 6 have substantial Cantonese dialogues.


A statue on the Avenue of Stars, a tribute to Hong Kong Cantonese cinema Avenue of Stars Statue crop.jpg
A statue on the Avenue of Stars, a tribute to Hong Kong Cantonese cinema
Statue of Cantonese martial artist Bruce Lee at the Avenue of Stars, Hong Kong Hong kong bruce lee statue.jpg
Statue of Cantonese martial artist Bruce Lee at the Avenue of Stars, Hong Kong

Cantopop during its early glory had spread to Mainland China, Taiwan, (South) Korea, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Well-known Cantopop singers include Andy Lau, Aaron Kwok, Joey Yung, Alan Tam, Roman Tam, Anita Mui, Danny Chan, Leslie Cheung, Jacky Cheung, Leon Lai, Sammi Cheng and Coco Lee, many of whom are of Cantonese or Taishanese origin.

The Hong Kong movie industry was the third-largest movie industry in the world (after Hollywood and Bollywood) for decades throughout the 20th century, with Cantonese-language films viewed and acclaimed around the world. Recent films include Kung Fu Hustle , Infernal Affairs and Ip Man 3 .

Cantonese people are also known to create various schools or styles of arts, with the more prominent being Lingnan architecture, Lingnan school of painting, Canton porcelain, Cantonese opera, Cantonese music, among many others.


Cantonese dim sum Dumplings-AH.jpg
Cantonese dim sum

Cantonese cuisine has become one of the most renowned types of cuisine around the world, characterised by its variety of cooking methods and use of fresh ingredients, particularly seafood. [41] One of the most famous examples of Cantonese cuisine is dim sum, a variety of small and light dishes such as har gow (steamed shrimp dumplings), siu mai (steamed pork dumplings), and cha siu bao (barbecued pork buns).


According to research, Cantonese peoples' paternal lineage is mostly Han, while their maternal lineage is mostly Nanyue aboriginals. [42] [43] Speakers of Pinghua and Tanka, however, lack Han ancestry and are "truly, mostly pureblood Baiyue". [44] [45] These genetic differences have contributed to Cantonese differing from other Han Chinese groups in terms of physical appearance [46] and proneness to certain diseases. [47] The genetic admixture of the Cantonese people clusters somewhere between the Zhuang people (Tai) and the Northern Plains Han Chinese people.

Notable figures

This is an incomplete list of notable Cantonese people.


"Portrait of Sun Yat-sen" (1921) Li Tiefu Li Tie Fu Sun Zhong Shan 12345.jpg
"Portrait of Sun Yat-sen" (1921) Li Tiefu





Arts and Photography

Martial artists




Other notable figures

See also

Related Research Articles

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Sze Yap Cantonese represents the second largest Han group in Hong Kong after the group of people (Punti) originating from the Guangzhou-Sam Yap region. The Sze Yap Cantonese comes from a region in Guangdong in China called Sze Yap, now called Ng Yap, which consists of the counties of Taishan, Kaiping, Xinhui, Enping, Heshan and Jiangmen. The Sze Yap Cantonese group have contributed much to what makes Hong Kong a success. Hong Kong people of Sze Yap origin represented about 18.3% of Hong Kong's total population in 1961, and 17.4% in 1971; today this population still increases as more immigrants from the Taishanese-speaking areas of Guangdong in mainland China continue to immigrate to Hong Kong.

Lingnan architecture Overview of Cantonese architecture

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  14. Zhang and Huang, pp. 196–200; also Shi Ji 130
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  19. Jacques Gernet (31 May 1996). A History of Chinese Civilization . Cambridge University Press. pp.  8–. ISBN   978-0-521-49781-7. On the other hand, the diversity of the southern and south-eastern dialects, and also the archaic character of several of them, bears witness to the relative stability of the peoples established in these regions.
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Further reading