In this essay, I look back at a moment in Chinese literature and cinema, the 1930s and 1940s, when writers, filmmakers, and critics were driven by a series of political crises to conceptualize the relationship between “mother language” and “national language” from a very different perspective than Song’s. I do so by scrutinizing film and literary criticisms from this period. A national language, literature, and cinema are not static, unified, and internally coherent entities that naturally subsume their regional counterparts under them. While Putonghua 普通話 (literally, common language) required—and still requires—an ongoing process of putong hua 普通化 (communalization), regional topolects, for the writers, filmmakers, and critics in the 1930s and 1940s, also went through a continuous sociohistorical process of dazhong hua 大眾化 (massification). Massification is not the same as popularization. It implies that language is, by definition, a speech-act, which actively calls a group of individuals into a critical mass (Agamben 2000 [2005], 29–32). In other words, the act of speaking this language actively constitutes a sense of belonging or even sociopolitical consciousness, whilst the language is in itself constituted by this sense of belonging.

In my discussion, I demonstrate that in the 1930s, regional speeches and cinemas were considered a liability based on an anxiety about their ability to stimulate the senses in a direct and corporeal manner. In this light, regional speeches were regarded as a threat not only to the constitution of the national language, but also to the nation-state’s power to manage and control its subjects’ bodies and sexualities. In the 1940s, however, such a liability became an asset in the eyes of leftwing literary critics, who promulgated the use of such linguistic power as a revolutionary instrument. Both political positions, I argue, were driven by a presumption that political power—whether constitutional or revolutionary—is instantiated by a direct management or mobilization of the readers or moviegoers not as individual political subjects, but as bare or animal lives that either require state management or can exercise law-making violence to establish a new political order.

This debate on regional cinema and literature has been historically configured as an objet petit a that actively puts into question the ontological consistency of the nation-state, especially in a century during which the nation-state was conceptually, juridically, and sociopolitically on the move. Moreover, during this period, migrants from regions including Guangdong 廣東 (Kwangtung), Guangxi 廣西 (Kwangsi), Fujian 福建 (Hokkien), Shanghai 上海, and Beiping 北平 (Peking) moved to Hong Kong, who held mutually conflicting sociopolitical opinions. Yet, most of them settled down in Hong Kong, instead of staying in the Mainland or moving to Taiwan because their personal values did not necessarily conform to the official lines of either the Communist Party of China (CPC) or the Guomindang 國民黨 (Kuomintang, KMT, or Nationalist Party). In this intricate culturo-linguistic environment, Cantonese became not only a technic for communication among linguistically-diverse exiles, but also an instantiation of a difference between these exiles’ sociopolitical position in Hong Kong and their Mainland counterparts (Anon 1948, 4).