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Putonghua – The struggle to unite China under a single language

As we saw yesterday, China is a diverse country with hundreds of distinct dialects/languages that are closely connected with local culture. However, for the past 100 years, the government has been encouraging the adoption of a single national dialect based on the Beijing accent.

Originally, the language we know as Mandarin, was only spoken by officials and the people who lived near the capital (the language shifted with the capital as it moved from Nanjing to Beijing). It was a necessity due to the fact that officials came from all corners of China, and would be otherwise unable to communicate orally. Near the end of the Qing Dynasty, it was decided that this language of officials should become the national dialect, known as Guoyu (国语 country-language).

The promotion of this language continued through the Republican era and with the foundation of the People’s Republic. In 1955 it was renamed Putonghua (普通话 Common-language), but Taiwan still calls it Guoyu. Both are stubborn when it comes to the politics of language, with the mainland insisting on “simplified” characters that lose some of their original meaning, and Taiwan continuing the use of the terrible Wade-Giles system of romanization (i.e. writing “Taipei” but pronouncing it “Taibei”).

There are several valid arguments for the promotion of Putonghua beyond the theory that it is some kind of Communist ploy to force subservience to Beijing. I think this idea is popular because a unified language seems like it would be able to unify the country, and it would also increase the penetration of CCTV; which broadcasts only in Putonghua (many elderly Chinese can’t understand it, and it is doubtful that they’d be able to read the subtitles either).

As with most things in China though, I think the real impetus is economic. At the moment China’s migrant worker population surpasses that of the entire United States. As they move from factory to factory, a single language could greatly improve communication between companies and workers. It would also help migrant workers integrate more completely into their new hometowns, allowing them to avoid the pervasive stigma.

A unified language could also help activists, in that reduced regional identities might help promote causes at a national level. As myself and others have noted, local conflicts rarely spread beyond their village, even though similar problems exist in thousands of other villages. A common language could lead these places to realize that their problems are not unique.

Despite reasons which appeal to officials, activists, and businessmen, the Chinese people have so far resisted the efforts to unite under a single dialect.

I say “resist” because in most of my experiences, the use of a local dialect seems to be an intentional choice. In my universities in Guangxi, there were signs everywhere that read “请说普通话” (Qing shuo Putonghua – please speak common-language), and I mean everywhere. On the dean’s desk, in the stairwells, around the student’s dormitories, and occasionally on bright red banners. Yet every faculty meeting was held in the local dialect, and some teachers opted to use dialect for instructing their students; even though the students (and a handful of teachers) came from other regions.

Most of these people could speak Mandarin, they simply chose not to.

Most, but not all. Each year the faculty was given an oral test in Mandarin to make sure they were proficient, but one of the proctors told me there were dozens who failed. The school simply faked the results, and life went on in local dialect. The test only required them to read a script with proper pronunciation, it wasn’t a complete language test covering grammar or anything like that, but it still proved a challenge to many college level teachers.

In my opinion, this is not the result of some kind of separatist attitude, national identity is strong, this simply highlights the importance of regional and local identities. This can be most clearly seen in Guangdong, where gov’t efforts to limit Cantonese on the airwaves have been met in the past with protests and riots (old People’s Daily story denying the last attempt). Hong Kong is even touchier about it as I learned on my first visit – it’s Cantonese or English, don’t try anything else.

As China becomes increasingly mobile and regional identities breakdown, Putonghua will continue to grow in popularity. However, this is something that happens naturally and gradually in a developed country, and isn’t a directive that can be handed down from on high. Even 100 years after the start of the drive to promote a national language, the penetration of a common language in the Chinese countryside has been minimal.


14 Comments

  1. This is a good summation of the language situation in China. Regionalism is quite highly developed among the Chinese, and even more so for those aged 50 or 60 and over. And this tussle between [Mandarin + Wade-Giles] vs. [Putonghua + Pinyin] is readily seen in Hong Kong among the older educated classes, mainly because Mandarin hardly ever got called Putonghua here until well into the 1980s. Hong Kong’s street signage are all in Wade-Giles or a localised variant of it, and there is no popular pressure on the government to change that. Most Hongkongers are pretty conversant with the Pinyin system, but they mostly prefer the Wade-Giles, especially for Cantonese transliterations.

    Let me give you a small idea as to how strongly regionalism can be among the Chinese until the most recent times. I’m not going to go into politico-historical reasons, but up until around the 2000s, the Cantonese dialect had always been the ‘Chinese language of the United Kingdom.’ (Yeah, I know how that sounds.) It didn’t matter any which where of China you originally came from, you just had to speak Cantonese in the UK regardless. Mandarin speakers spoke Cantonese there, Hokkien speakers spoke Cantonese, Shanghainese spoke Cantonese – every Chinese whatever their native speech spoke Cantonese. It was the done thing and no one even considered anything else. Today, and the last time I was back in the UK (2006), practically every other yellow face spoke Mandarin (or should I say Putonghua).

    Indeed, in those days in the UK, if you wanted to learn Chinese at school level (not university level), you actually had a choice of learning Cantonese or Mandarin. Remember that Hong Kong then was still a British dependency, so it wasn’t altogether politically problematic for Brits to be offered Cantonese as ‘Chinese.’

    Over in the USA in the late 1960s or early 1970s, the Chinese-language picture is a bit more mixed, fluctuating from place to place between straight Cantonese or Hoishan (or Toishan, a regional Cantonese subdialect) or straight Mandarin (the old-fashioned version: the one based on the combo Nanjing-Peking accent). Today, the Cantonese and Hoishan still exist as the major Chinese-American dialects, but it’s mostly Putonghua there now.

    The Chinese-language shift has been much bigger in the UK than in the USA, and the Chinese oldtimers in the UK are not exactly happy bunnies about it (although they don’t object too much to the change either).

    Apologies, my comment here is starting to ramble a bit.

    • Tom says:

      Really interesting stuff. I know in the Chicago Chinatown they still use traditional characters and most speak Cantonese or Hokkien (Fujian dialect). The shift to Mandarin though is very interesting.

      • The Chicagoan Chinese are staunch traditionalists, just like the Irish there and in Boston.

      • Chopstik says:

        When I lived in Texas many years ago, Cantonese was the lingua franca amongst not only the Chinese but also the Vietnamese community there. Today, Mandarin has overtaken it to a large degree. The same is also true for the Virginia/DC/Maryland area… As someone else pointed out, I suspect it is because of the increasing migration of mainlanders instead of just those from Guangdong/Hong Kong region.

  2. Matt Taylor says:

    The Cantonese prevalence around the world until the last 20 years is a by product of history. It was the people from Guiangdong who travelled the world the most in the service of merchant ships as cooks and other staff, the British, going to San Francisco 金山 for gold, building American railways etc. Cantonese took hold because most of those emigres from China were from Guangdong.

    WHat I see from a person who has been around in China off and on since 1987 is that I see a slow resurgence of local dialects. In Hongkong the speaking of Putonghua is reserved for govt and the shoppers. It is disdained by locals because it isnt their local language, but worse because it is a language from the North. Hongkong was populated by people running away from the Communists so it hardly has a deep love of a language coming from the people who oppressed HK citizens! People from the South of China have always been industrious and independent – in mainland Guangdong they preserved their language in spite of Beijing efforts for a couple of reasons. Firstly because they had an army. In Republic times Guangdong was center of military training, and post revolution Guangdon retained very significant military strength under regional leadership. This also the underlying reason why Guangzhou was never put under Beijing municpal control. The second reason is that Guangdong people wanted, as now, to maintain their culture.

    A ;lingua franca is suitable for business and government and I have no issue with that. But outside of its needed use there is no use for it in civil society. French was used as the language of trade for 200 years but the English or the Germans did not all speak French on the street. A language encapsulates everything about a people; history, customs, psychology, environment, dreams. To remove a language is to eliminate that culture.

    I am heartened by the resurgence of Shanghainese among young people and in the media that I now see here in Shanghai where I live. There is a growing awareness of local identity and a wish for expression of that identity through a means that is available to everyone for free – the language. I know that Hongkong went through a phase of Putonghua being the “in thing” but that was politically motivated and people learnt it out of fear rather than a deep love of North CHina culture and politics.

    My local Shanghainese friends always asking me to teach them Cantonese to which I readily agree but only if they will reciprocate and teach me the same expressions in Shangainese. Strangely none of my Hongkong friends ask me to teach them any Shanghainese or even to explain some Putonghua……and its not just because Im a gweilo…..its because they are not interested. Hard enough to protect your own identity and culture without absorbing too much from elsewhere.

    As i have travelled a lot around the world on business in the past 15 years I have see a emergence of Putonghua in the chinatown districts, the migration to simplified Chinese. The most interesting division i notice is that the language of business in overseas Chinese is still Cantonese but the language of the arts/media is Putonghua.

    I have no idea how this will play out but I personally hope that we can preserve the local dialects and by doing so preserve the cultures and oral histories which they represent. Linguistic diversity is as important to culture, understanding and tolerance as bio diversity is to scientific understanding.

  3. Homer says:

    Another perspective of factory life is languages. I hear a number of dialects everyday. The local dialect, a regional dialect, Putonghua, and probably a few other areas.

    What does this mean? Well, workers tend to group up, for a number of reasons, I would imagine language is one of them. Missing home, something in common, etc probably being other reasons. So when they strike, or there is a problem they huddle together. So all the local people go against a boss, or say the people from Sichuan all pool together and what not.

    It also means that they speak a dialect in front of me because they know I don’t understand it.

    Prices go up and down when vendors find out where you are from. Which is fairly easy when you speak.

    It means that when a new person meets me they speak standard Mandarin to a Chinese person next to me thinking I don’t understand, but as soon as they know I understand they switch to a regional dialect. Hell they don’t even have to meet me. When they are standing next to me and find out that I understand they switch. Which really makes me feel like they are talking about me..

    It’s used for status. In the area that I live I get the distinct feeling that they speak the local language to set themselves apart from the rest of China. And they can tell real fast where you are from and then shut you down, or out. They refuse you taxi rides and a few other things I have forgotten about. Must like the stereotype of Shanghainese.

    Speaking a common language is a very good thing. More then once I’ve seen negotiations where sides change to a local dialect and talk amongst one side. Which to me, really undermines relationships. But I suppose in business, especially in this area, is pretty much warfare. Where all is fair.

    Sorry just some incoherent thoughts.

    • Matt Taylor says:

      A very relevant facet of the use of language that I too have noticed. Thanks for pointing it out. I also have to admit that I have done it occassionally myself – sometimes out of habit that I just speak in whatever language my brain just thought it and sometimes because the one Im talking to has a better grasp in another language. So I switch. WHen I do it I prefer to excuse myself first as others may find it rude/unsettling. Amongst people who are a long way from home, nothing around them is welcoming or familiar, the only thing they can keep which is from home, and which cannot be taken away is their language. Its only natural that people should seek a form of comfort and security in speaking their natural language.

  4. David Troxell says:

    All of your posts are interesting but this one was of particular interest to me. I lived in Nanning Guangxi 4 years, and although I was a teacher in a middle school during the daytime and at a college at night I still had much time to travel. I have been in over 100 cities and towns and encountered dozens of dialects throughout the country. The many ethnic tribes were one of my main interests and some of their languages are totally unrecognizable. I have been in my home in Florida 4 years, but will return to China soon for an extended trip of a year or more.

  5. Interesting post, here in Shenzhen pretty much every Chinese person I know speaks both Mandarin and Cantonese to a decent standard. In fact for half the words I learn here, I’m never sure which language they belong to.

    Unification of language makes sense – it’s the way the UK operates, you can still speak Welsh, or Cornish, or Gaelic – heck, you can have road signs, etc. in those languages too, but for functional purposes everyone needs to learn English.

    • Matt Taylor says:

      English is same as Chinese in that respect, Local dialects are many and some not intelligible to people at a distance. I have been to places in England where i cannot understand the local dialect even though I know they are speaking English – and I was born there and grew up in English speaking country. Same in Chinese – cross a mountain or a river and dialects change a lot. As with English, in have basically have same written language, same written grammar, but accents and spoken usage very very different. In Guangdong and Shanghai (maybe other places but i dont know enough about other dialects) they have taken this to a new level with so many different words and different spoken grammar that their local forms are treated as different languages.

      Bottom line IMHO is that Putonghua spoken like a Beijinger (who essentially got the language from a minority group from old Manchuria who invaded and conquered them a while back) is as unlikely as Oxford Engish.

  6. xl says:

    As a Chinese-American, I was forced to speak Mandarin growing up although it is not my parents’ native tongue and they speak it with strong regional accents. I can understand it because my parents continued to speak it to each other at home, but due to lack of practice, I’m not able to speak it (with accurate pronunciation) myself. As a result, there is a division between me and my family in China because my relatives there can’t speak Mandarin and it’s strange to carry on a conversation in 2 separate languages. It’d be different if my native language were Cantonese and there are plenty of Cantonese speakers outside of China, but my particular dialect of Wu language is spoken by less than a million people. Therefore I HAVE to know Mandarin and also depend on other Chinese people to know Mandarin.

  7. Just to be highly topical about regionalism and why Putonghua/Mandarin has long being pushed as the nationwide form of speech, we in Hong Kong is just witnessing another kerfuffle between mainlanders vs. Hongkongers – this time over Dolce & Gabbana’s brain-damaged decision to disallow picture-taking of its store by Hongkongers, based as it does on some sort of semi-racial sociocultural profiling: http://e.winandmac.com/2012/01/dolce-and-gabbana-block-photo-taking/.

    I’ll tell you something none of you will ever get to read or hear from the mainstream or even the alternative media: the discontent at D&G is strongest among pure Cantonese speakers (which basically means a substantial portion of Hongkongers), but not so much from those Hongkongers who are fluent Putonghua speakers (by reason of education or family habits). It is even stronger than strongest among pure Cantonese speakers whose ‘culture’ is more aligned with being a Hong Kong Chinese than as a ‘Chinese’ Chinese.

    Just for the mental exercise, if everyone and anyone in Hong Kong spoke Putonghua as a commonality (never mind as a first language), this sort of protest would not erupt – certainly not over picture-taking permissibility. Hurt feeling is a much, much stronger hate than (say) some other sort of economic or legal problem.

  8. Cassie says:

    I’m Cantonese-American. My parents were born and raised in Hong Kong and I was born and raised in California.

    Even as a Cantonese-American, I would prefer that Hong Kong stick with Cantonese and English. Cantonese is part of the ethnic identity of the people in HK. I think they should learn it purely for function. But I hope people understand that it’s not preferable to speak Putonghua because it’s just not who they are. Even among Asian-American communities, it can be difficult for Cantonese-Americans to relate to Taiwanese-Americans or Chinese-Americans who’s families are from mainland. I actually cant even relate very well to people’s families who are from Guangdong province because it’s so different from Hong Kong despite the common local dialect.

    Putonghua is useful for communicating nationally and for foreigners who want to be in China (at least as a start before taking a crack at a local dialect). But I hope that as Putonghua becomes more popular among foreigners, they’ll start educating language learners about the linguistic and cultural diversity in China that cannot be accounted for in Putonghua.

    • Cassie, I think this excellently sums up the Cantonese vs. Mandarin situation, especially in the context of Hong Kong. You are absolutely right about Cantonese-Americans not relating to the other Chinese – pretty much the same situation back in the UK for me and, not to put too fine a point on things, also in Hong Kong. Your comment says the same thing that a sociolinguistic book I once read, but yours is much shorter, less pretentious and much more entertaining.

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