Guangzhou,  Studying Chinese

Why did I come to Cantonese Guangzhou to study Mandarin Chinese?

Update from 2019: I’ve now been living in China for 9 years. I started teaching Chinese in 2014 and in 2017 I opened my own language center called Expat Chinese. We Specialize in teaching Chinese the Western way.  If you are interested in learning Chinese, check out our website:

Many foreigners don’t like Guangzhou. Many Chinese learners think there is no point to study Mandarin Chinese in Cantonese Guangzhou. It does make more sense to study Cantonese in Guangzhou (which I’m doing by the way), but Guangzhou isn’t a bad city to study Mandarin either.

I can answer in a simple way that in the first place I came to the south because my university back in Finland has an agreement with Guangzhou University and therefore it was easy and free to come to study here. First I planned to stay in Guangzhou for six months and then go to Beijing to do a Bachelor degree. But something happened and I am still here by the Pearl River.

My boyfriend happened. I fell in love with him. But that is only half of the story. I fell in love with someone else too, with Guangzhou. I guess there is a little bit of rebel in me. It is kind of cool to date Chinese migrant worker who doesn’t speak English. It is also kind of cool to like Guangzhou because most of the laowai’s are hating it.

Everyone now knows how southern my Chinese accent is (you can listen to it yourself!), but living in Guangzhou and studying Putonghua isn’t a bad match. People here do have a strong accent and I do hear a lot of Cantonese everyday, but they also speak the official language. I guess in a year I’ve met only few people who didn’t speak Mandarin and those were all small grandmas. (Don’t take it in a wrong way, I do like elderly people and can communicate with them well with a calculator!)

I have teachers from around the China and in the campus I am hearing quite good Putonghua all the time. My best Chinese friend is from Shanghai and her accent is really standard. We don’t speak any erhua here, but I don’t see any reason why my Chinese wouldn’t improve here as fast as it would in Beijing. Actually people don’t know much English down here which is great for my studies.

Guangzhou might be a crazy place and sometimes I wonder how student of humanities ended up in Guangzhou where the most important thing is to make money and make it fast. I would also like to point out that I have been living in China just for a year and it is a short time. But right now I like it in here and have no plans to move north.

I have one question for you in return. Why didn’t you come to Guangzhou?


  • T

    The idea that being in Guangzhou is somehow a disadvantage for Mandarin learners is frankly stupid. Sure, they have a local dialect there, but as you point out there is no shortage of people who speak the standard Mandarin there.

    In terms of your long-term career prospects, I’d even say that Guangzhou is a better place for you than Beijing because it’s right in the heart of the Pearl River Delta Region, China’s export hub and gateway to international trade. This is ideal for a loawai with multilingual skills such as yourself.

    Sara Reply:

    Thanks for your opinion T! Maybe the best thing would even be to study Mandarin in a few cities around China. Then one could get to know diferent places and different accents. Pretty much no one sounds like the textbook CD and you can’t go out and tell people their putonghua isn’t standard. It’s you, and me, who have to learn to understand.

    I hope you are right that living in Guangzhou will be an advantage for me!

    T Reply:

    You’re right. Foreign language learners often get caught up in the idea of learning the official standard variety of the language that they forget that the primary function of language is to facilitate the practical purpose of communication.

    If one restricted his/her exposure to Chinese to the variety spoken in Beijing, he/she risks not being able to communicate with Chinese speakers from other places in China due to regional variations. In which case, the practical purpose of learning the language would be defeated.

    Sara Reply:

    Really good points T! The most important things it to understand people from different parts of China and speak in a way they they can also understand you. That’s why learning outside the classroom is important, to get real life exposure.

  • Harrist

    Sara, I am happy that you like Guangzhou. in GZ there are many people who can speak Mandarin. I do think that you can improve your Chinese very good in GZ.

    Sara Reply:

    Yes, especially in the campus there are students from all over China and they speak putonghua in variety of accents. Many with a very standard one.

  • Sam

    well… my reason is that GZ is too close to Hong Kong , My home town….so i perfer to moving to the Beijing… And no chance for my mum sudden visit….LOL

    Sara Reply:

    I understand your reson very well Sam!

  • Sean

    I was born there so I didn’t have a choice but to be there. I love the food! There is nothing else better. =]

    Sara Reply:

    I just heard that one of my favourite dishes is really Cantonese. That’s 炒河粉,非常好吃!

  • ChineseScot

    That is not strange at all seeing all the chinese learning english in scotland! These chinese students will have an accent the english find difficult themselves. Seriously though I think the standard of mandarin in GZ will be poor but so what? Plus you get to learn canto too!

    Sara Reply:

    Can’t wait to start learning little bit Cantonese starting next Autumn and get to use it on the streets!

  • noora

    My reasons for choosing Beijing were pretty much the same as yours first choosing Guangzhou: my school had an agreement with universities in Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou. Guangzhou simply wasn’t on the list. For some reason, I ruled out Shanghai (maybe because I had heard all the stories about partying and I’m boring enough not to be interested in that), so what was left was Hangzhou and Beijing. Main reason for me choosing Beijing instead of Hangzhou was the fact that Beijing was harder to get in; it seemed logical to put Beijing first.

    I’m happy with my choice. I’ve been communicating with the chinese in Chinese since I came and for me it really doesn’t seem like people would know too much English in here either. Also there is a lot of migrant workers so not everyone speaks standard erhua. In smaller towns people would maybe be more interested in you and trying to start conversations more actively thus giving you even more chances of practicing, but that tends to get annoying quite fast too. But I think that’s the same for everyone – which ever city they have chosen to come to study Chinese to, they think that their city is the best one or the very least a really good choice.

    (Still, I also think that best would be to study in different cities, get used to different accents. Aside from Beijing, I’d like to study in Xian, Hangzhou, Taipei, Singapore (yeah, not even as much in China as the earlier one, but they speak mandarin! Plus, possibilities of traveling are great from Singapore) and maybe in Yunnan or Chengdu. Also I’d really love to learn Cantonese, at least enough to be able to bargain, so Guangzhou or Hong Kong would be interesting in that way. Assumed that you had limitless amounts of time and money resources, what places would make top of your list of cities you would like to study in?)

    Sara Reply:

    Thanks for a long comment Noora! I think Beijing is a great choise. I really like the city and hope to visit it again in the future. I understand that it can get annoying when everyone wants to talk with you, especially when they always ask the same questions. But sometimes it’s a good practice too.

    Interesting questions you asked! I have never really thought about that, but what if… My dream is to visit every province, but maybe it would be little bit too much to study in every one of them. Beijing would absolutely be on the list with Guangzhou. Then I would like to study for a while in some small village where no one speaks English. That would be a great way to force myself to study more. I can’t really make a better list right now, but maybe I’ll get to this later after thinking a little bit more.

    Anyone else want to tell their favourite places?

  • ordinary malaysian

    Sara, like I said before, it doesn’t matter whether you speak standard putonghua or not. The main purpose of learning and knowing how to speak a language is to be able to communicate. As long as people can understand what you say and you can understand what they say, that is all that matters. As for Guangzhou, I have never been there before, so I can’t say much. But from what I have read and heard about GZ, the place is more robust compared to other cities in China, just like Hong Kong. But if your heart is where GZ is, then it is as good as any other place to be. But like you said, it may be good to travel a bit to other cities in China since you are already there.

    Sara Reply:

    Traveling is absolutely good for language learning and to widen one’s knowledge. I have plans and next places I would like to visit are Yunnan and 土楼 tulou houses of Hakka minorities.

  • E.Woo

    I’m curious: Finland is soooo cold and GZ is like a sauna. How are you adapting? Btw, I’ve noticed that almost all mainlanders speak mandarin. The standard accent is an exception. Yes, Beijingers have a heavy “roll” accent, not standard.

    Sara Reply:

    I really like sauna, but sure it’s not so nice to be in a sauna most of the year 24/7! I really hate the summer in Guangzhou, it is way too hot for me and I’m sweating constantly. The late autumn is the best. No rain and not so hot anymore. Also winter is tricky because if it’s 10’C degrees outside, it’s the same inside too. No double-glazing in windows or central heating like back in Finland.

  • Simo

    I haven’t spent that much time in China myself either, just one year, and most of it in BJ but a short visit in GZ still left me with a positive impression of the city.

    GZ university was an option for me, but I chose BJ as my destination. Besides the obvious reason of BJ is supposed to be THE place to study mandarin, I was told that the GZ university doesn’t have a very central location. The universities in BJ are technically in the central area of BJ, but now I know in reality they are also not close to the so called “centre” of Beijing and it takes forever to go anywhere from them anyways =)

    I try to speak as much mandarin as possible while in China, only place where I’ve had trouble communicating so far has been Shanghai.

    Have you been studying cantonese? I find the language to be really vibrant with all the slang and stuff, too bad there’s a lack of resources to study it when compared to mandarin.

    Sara Reply:

    You are right, Guangzhou University is here on the island and it’s far from the city center. On the positive side there isn’t much traffic here and the air quality seems better. The quality of this university isn’t that good, so I think you made a good decision not to come here.

    I know only tiny bit of Cantonese, but will hopefully start studying it next autumn. People have adviced me that it’s good language to know if want to do business or work here in Guangdong province. It sounds interesting and little bit funny, but also really hard.

  • Katherine

    Plans really do get botched up and a new, much better alternative frequently replaces it! I’m glad to know that you’ve found your fit in you Guangzhou and your boyfriend!

    Here’s to China… and dreamers!

    Sara Reply:

    So nice to see you over here Katherine! I do believe that if some plan doesn’t work out, it happens for a reason and something better is just around the corner. Good luck with your project! I’m definitely reading your new posts.

  • Ross Cranwell

    I spent 6 months in Guangzhou during the SARS outbreak. Absolutely loved the place, and always find I have to defend it when mention the city to others. Everyone always says the city is dangerous, and maybe it is, but when I was there never had a problem

    Sara Reply:

    So niceto hear that you loved Guangzhou Ross! I also haven’t got any safety issues here. I feel much safer than in Finland because there are always so many people in here. But in Finland it’s just a lonely street at night and the one creepy guy behind you. Sure it also depends on in what kind of groups you hang out, but I consider Guangzhou a safe place to live.

  • Marcus

    To be fair Guangzhou is much less Cantonese-dominated than it used to be in the past. As you see migrant workers all over China come to work there and one would increasingly consider Mandarin the lingua franca. So to speak you may well learn a ‘neutral accented’ mandarin which is all well. And most Chinese speak heavily accented Mandarin anyway. Lastly my answer to your question is that my home is just across Shenzhen River!

    Sara Reply:

    That is true Marcus. Chinese people hava accents all over the country, some lighter some stronger. When I go out I can hear both Mandarin and Cantonese. And then a variety of other dialects I don’t even know what they are.

  • Kyon

    Having just come back from my one-month vacation in China, I have to say that the cities definite seem safer than the ones over here in the US. Though dear god I am so much more appreciative towards all the everyday privileges I get over here. Thank you so much for the FDA, thank you so much for smoke bans, thank you so much for cleaner air. Beijing and Guangzhou might be a good place to chillax and party but I can’t imagine living there. Especially not after experiencing all the things that I have taken for granted from over here in the states.

    Sara Reply:

    I agree with you Kyon, that you appreciate your own country more when you visit other places. I’m on my holiday back in Finland right now and I love the clean air and that I can drink straight from the tap! But at the same time I also miss Guangzhou, I guess during the year I made it my home and I just can’t wait to rent my new aparment and start finally doing my BA (that’s I’m going to finish ;) )

  • Brandon Owens

    hi – have you written or can you recommend any travel guides for visiting Guangzhou? I’m coming from Shanghai but haven’t travelled much in China yet. Thanks.

    Sara Reply:

    Hi Brandon! The only guide book I have in Lonely Planet China, but they don’t have a city guide for Guangzhou. So unfortunately I don’t have any first hand experience on Guangzhou guide books and don’t want to recommend somethings I haven’t read or used. I think you could check out Travel China Guide’s website for Guangzhou. I used that site a lot when I want to find out about other Chinese cities. And if you tell me what you like, maybe I could recommend some places in Guangzhou for you?

  • Adriana

    the first time i went to china it was to Guangzhou, I went as an interpreter. I loved it. And, in fact, the mandarin they spoke there it was so clear to me (because its learned too) I could communicate really well

    Sara Reply:

    Nice to hear that you liked Guangzhou. First I thought that mandarin was easier in the north, but after a year in the south I like the way people talk there. I have had two teachers from the norht, norther than Beijing, and have had problems to understand them. Sure it has an effect that I have a Cantonese boyfriend.

  • Laurie from Kansas

    I am looking for information about Mr. Yang Ju for the last ten years, date of birth 1956-1958. My research lead me here and it is probably what I remember based on population. He owns a house in Guanzhou.
    I met him in London ten years ago. His sister has a market in town. Yang is probably an engineer and did his undergraduate degree in engineering in China

  • wim

    heey i am wim and i want to go to the JINAN university (international program) in GZ but i still have a few questions. i don’t want to live on campus because of the strict rules. but how much does it cost to live and rent an appartement in guangzhou near the JINAN university?

    Sara Reply:

    I’m sorry wim, but I don’t know about the renting situation near that area.

  • jerry

    good taste! I always think that GZ(my hometown) is the best city in China..haha. I have never been to the Northern part of China in my whole life..

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I’ve grown to be very fond of Guangzhou too.

  • Ihcnawleong

    For chinese learner or non chinese speaker, do you think there is a slight difference or big difference between mandarin and cantonese? my mother languae is cantonese, because i remember before i began learing mandarin, i had almost understanded half of mandarin speaker’s speaking when they spoke. I am just curious what the view of learner is ?

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Do you mean the difference when a foreigner learns Mandarin and a Cantonese speaker learns Mandarin? I can only guess that it must be much easier for Cantonese speakers to learn Mandarin, than it is for me example.

    Or maybe you mean if I find that learning Mandarin or Cantonese have differences? It’s a bit hard to say because I use Mandarin to study Cantonese. I guess with Cantonese it could be tricky to find as much learning material than in Mandarin. The tones also feel harder because there are more of them.

  • mateo

    Hi Sara! thanks a lot for ur article. Could you tell me where were/are you studying? Any advice for a good uni? I am interested in going to SYSU (zhong shan da xue).

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Hi Mateo, I’m actually studying at SYSU and I’m thrilled to hear you are also interesting in studying at our university. I can totally recommend SYSU, I’ven been very satisfied with my choise.

  • 勇氣

    Hi Sara! I hope to have the pleasure of shaking your hand one day! I have never been to Guangzhou, but my girlfriend, who I 碰見ed in Taiwan, now holds my heart.. And guess where she’s living?!?!

    Guangzhou! Looks like I’ll have to add a bit of south to my already very Taiwanese accent. You don’t hear much Cantonese on the Guangzhou streets?



    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    It really seems like you will end up visiting Guangzhou, welcome!

    I hear a lot of Cantonese on the streets here. And one day I was wondering if Guangzhou is the only city in China that has metro announcements in three languages: Mandarin, Cantonese and English.

    Chris Reply:

    And hong Kong as well! Although they have Cantonese first, then Mandarin and English

  • Martin

    I like Guangzhou, I also like the rest of Guangdong (Foshan, Zhuhai, …) with a little less love for bland Shenzhen, and I agree with you, most foreigners living in China hate Guangzhou and also Guangdong I think, I used to live in Shanghai until 2010 (before it became a huge soulless urban sprawl, when there was still a true Shanghainese culture), when I told my friends there that I was moving to Guangzhou they all had the same reactions “Guangzhou is dirty and peoples are rude”, “Guangzhou is super hot you will sweat your ass when you go out”, “Guangzhou doesn’t have nightlife” and so on, now I don’t agree with all of this, I have been here for 4 years and I enjoy this place much more than I did enjoy Shanghai. And I prefer to here Cantonese than Wu or Putonghua in the street, it sounds better to my ear.

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Thank you for the love letter to Guangzhou Martin! I haven’t lived in any other city in China, only visited maximum of 2 weeks, but I’ve been happy to stay where I am. I think there is a little bit of everything here in Guangzhou. And comparing to the North, here in the South people spend more time outside together, shops are open until very late and night snacks can be bought after midnight.

  • Annabelle

    I am planning to go to guangzhou to get a bachelor degree next year. However I don’t speak fluent Mandarin and I need an HSK certificate level 4 or above. I heard that international students usually study mandarin for at least a year and then take the HSK exam but i don’t know which arrangements i need to make in order to study mandarin prior to starting my undergraduate studies. I was wondering if you could give me more information about that?
    By the way, your article makes me want to go to Guangzhou even more :)

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Hi Annabelle!

    Are you planning to come on your own or apply for a scholarship? For scholarships you can also check the option of getting language lessons first for a year, before starting your degree.

    And if you pay the tuition fees your self, then you can of course first come as a language student and apply for the degree once you go the HSK4.

    Have you done any HSK tests before and how have you studied Chinese until now? It seems like you want to do a degree along with the Chinese students in Chinese, right? To be honest, you will need language skills much better than HSK4 to be able to survive the classes. The hardness depends a lot on your major of course.

    Would love to hear about your reasons to decide to study in Guangzhou :)

    Annabelle Reply:

    I am planning on paying the tuition fees myself since my family can afford it and someone else could need the scholarship more than I do.

    I would say I am between a beginner and an intermediate level. Coming from a Chinese family, I already can speak hakka but I heard this dialect is not used in Guangzhou. I have already tried a few HSK level 3 practice tests and I think that with a little bit more work i can easily get my HSK level 4.

    There is a HSK test centre in my country but I would have liked to study for my HSK in Guangzhou since writing or listening is not a big issue for me but speaking is. I want to have full exposure to the language before starting my undergraduate studies. I might take chinese speaking courses in my country although it’s not the same as being in China itself.

    I want to study applied mathematics by the way and I want to apply to both Sun Yat Sen University and Guangzhou University next year :)

    I heard that Guangzhou is really beautiful and there’s not as much pollution as there is in Beijing (where I originally wanted to go). And since I have family in Shenzhen and Hong Kong I figured it will be easier to visit them if I were in Guangzhou (and i would also be able to go to a university which my family can afford)

    Thank you for answering my questions!:)

  • Warren

    I’m moving there in February! Seems like the consensus is that learning Mandarin in Guangzhou is realistic, obtainable, and sensible. Thanks for the post, hope you’re doing well where ever you are now!

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    It’s totally possible and you can get by anywhere in Guangzhou with Mandarin. Of course you will get a southern accent, but if that’s fine with you, then welcome :)

  • Elisa Chaillot

    Hello Sara ! Thank you for your useful post. Two years ago, I spent one year in Shanghai and I would like to go back to China, but I thinks it’s a shame to go back where I already was. Therefore, I’m considering going to Sun Yatsen University as my university has a programme with this university. Do you think I will be able to improve my mandarin chinese? I also have the opportunity to go back to Shanghai… What do you think?