Eva Lv was trying to sell a dress to the one hundred viewers watching her livestream on Douyin, TikTok’s sister app in China, when the stream abruptly ended. According to the livestreamer, a message had popped up on her screen seconds before, telling her that the app was unable to recognize the language she was speaking. Lv wasn’t speaking in Mandarin, China’s official language; she was talking in her mother tongue, Cantonese, a language widely used in southern China and Hong Kong.
Many livestreamers — from tea vendors to musicians to health influencers — use Cantonese almost exclusively to appeal to audiences in Guangdong, the country’s richest province, home to the metropolises of Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Since late September, some of these creators have accused the platform of cutting off their livestreams because they were speaking Cantonese, prompting an outcry from the wider Cantonese community on China’s most popular video app.
Cantonese is spoken by over 80 million people worldwide — more than the population of France or Italy. The language is widely used across the manufacturing hubs in southern China, including Guangzhou, Foshan, and Zhuhai. It is also the primary language spoken in the former colonies of Hong Kong and Macao, constituting an essential part of their local cultural identity.
Over the past two weeks, dozens of other creators have made videos protesting what they say is discrimination against their mother tongue, attracting tens of thousands of likes and comments. “Guangdong may give up Douyin, but it mustn’t give up Cantonese,” said a comment that was liked more than 1,000 times. On the microblogging site Weibo, some users said they had uninstalled Douyin in protest.
Chen Jiayao, a 30-year-old health influencer from Guangzhou, told Rest of World that he also received the “language unrecognizable” warning in the middle of a Cantonese livestream last month, although the show then continued as usual. Chen said he had begun conducting his daily livestreams in Cantonese to capture the lucrative southern Chinese market, and also to encourage young people to speak the language. “It wouldn’t make sense banning us from speaking our mother tongue,” he said.
A spokesperson for the ByteDance-owned Douyin told Rest of World that the platform does not prohibit speaking Cantonese during a livestream, although some hosts have been restricted for using vulgar and abusive language. “Douyin continues to take steps to improve its moderation capabilities for numerous local dialects and languages including Cantonese,” the spokesperson said.
Defining exactly what makes a language or dialect is tricky, and, depending on that definition, there are anywhere from dozens to hundreds of languages spoken across China. For decades, the Chinese government has promoted Mandarin as a way to forge national unity, making it the official language for teaching, government agencies, and most state-owned TV channels. Despite their dwindling popularity among the younger generations, however, some regional tongues, including Cantonese, are still commonly used in informal settings.
Social media companies in China have come under increasing pressure from the government to control speech online, and having more languages to monitor only complicates their efforts. On Douyin, for example, Cantonese users sometimes get away with saying the equivalent of the F-word on camera — similar swearing in Mandarin is unlikely to pass censorship. In September, residents from Guangzhou protested strict Covid-19 lockdowns by posting a variety of Cantonese references to genitalia on Weibo, many of which remain uncensored to this day.
Given the shortage of moderators and algorithms that can recognize other Chinese languages, some platforms have told users to stop speaking them. A former ByteDance employee told Protocol in 2021 that Douyin streamers had been told to switch to Mandarin because content moderators couldn’t understand what they were saying. Since as early as 2020, Douyin creators have complained about getting cut off for speaking Cantonese or Uyghur during livestreams. Users of video-sharing platform Bilibili also said they have noticed the site banning Uyghur, Tibetan, and Mongolian scripts in the comment sections.
The suppression of minority languages in education and mass media has, in the past, led to backlash, especially in places where languages are closely tied to cultural identities. Gina Anne Tam, a professor at the San Antonio-based Trinity University, who studies Chinese history and languages, told Rest of World that the wealth of the Cantonese community, along with their connections to Hong Kong as well as overseas speakers, also gave them strength to advocate for their mother tongue.
But the restrictions on non-Mandarin languages online showed how they were being starved of the support they needed to remain functional, living languages, Tam said. “Ultimately, languages are made to die when they are actively denied structural support to serve as a core way to both express our own identities and connect with others,” Tam told Rest of World. “This would, obviously, include video and livestreaming content.”
Many livestreams and videos conducted in Cantonese and other non-Mandarin languages can still be found on Douyin, but the fear of getting banned again is prompting some Cantonese livestreamers to switch to Mandarin. A Douyin customer service representative also told news outlet HK01 that hosts were advised to speak Mandarin so they could be understood by a national audience.
Despite their discontent, creators say they have no choice but to comply with Douyin’s rules in order to profit from the country’s most popular short-video site that has 600 million daily active users.
Lv, the livestream clothing seller from Guangdong province, told Rest of World she had been trying to make her sales pitches in Mandarin to avoid future bans, even though she struggled to express herself in the language. She said her Mandarin was so heavily accented that viewers told her she was funny. “I’m not able to capture the essence of the products in Mandarin,” she said. “I would completely lose my words. It felt like they came to my mouth but I just couldn’t utter them.”