Is it the Chinese Language, or Chinese Languages?

Say you are walking in the countryside somewhere in South China and you catch sight of an old farmer who looks to be in his seventies working alone in a rice paddy.  You figure this is a perfect opportunity to try out the Chinese conversation skills you have honed through several years of arduous study at a Western university on a true member of the “masses.”

You approach him and swing into action.

Ni hao, ni hui shuo zhongwen ma? (你好, 你会说中文吗)

How are you? Do you speak Chinese?

The old gentleman looks at you with unconcealed surprise, and then after some hesitation replies with a torrent of statements, the contents of which you do not understand a single word. That is except for the term gweilo (鬼佬; literally “ghost guy”)—a sometimes pejorative expression meaning “foreigner” you became acquainted with under unfortunate circumstances during a hiatus in Hong Kong.

You conclude that he didn’t understand your question because your Mandarin is so poor. (You are wrong. He understood perfectly what you said and was telling you how well you spoke Chinese for a foreigner. Or “hairy barbarian,” if you prefer.)

But then you recall that you had no trouble whatsoever communicating with the staff at your hotel or shopkeepers in the nearby town. So you reckon that he must be a Miao or member of some other non-Chinese minority group. (Wrong again.)

The fact is that you were both speaking good Chinese. But you were speaking

Putonghua—a sanitized form of the Beijing dialect that has been established as the standardized language in the People’s Republic of China—while the peasant was speaking in a sub-dialect of Cantonese.  Why then could he understand your question?

Official and Standard Language

Well, you see, the Chinese government dictates that the official language must be used throughout the country in films, television, the radio, newspapers, magazines, and other forms of the mass media. (The Guoyu or “National Language” used in Taiwan is essentially the same as the Putonghua used in the PRC.)

Chairman Mao Zedong once boasted that just as the First Emperor (Qin Shihuang) had standardized the written language, so too was he going to standardize the spoken language. (Actually, this was also the dream of Chiang Kai-shek, who established the Mandarin spoken in Beijing  as the official language of China in 1932.) The end result was Putonghua.  Since 1956, all education—from the first grade to university level—has been in Putonghua. That also goes for cultural and government activities.

As a result, at home the peasant you just “conversed with” is exposed to quite a bit of standard Mandarin. However, the old fellow was not educated in it and has little occasion to speak it. Nor does he have the confidence to express himself in Mandarin since the word order and other items of grammar, not to mention the tones, are quite different from his native Cantonese.

The fact is that in China today there is one standard language; yet there are many “tongues” spoken.  Actually, there are many forms of Mandarin, although they are more or less mutually intelligible.  The same does not hold true for the “first-order dialects,” which many linguists would classify as languages in their own right.

Here it should be noted that Putonghua is not “pure” Beijing dialect. You might say that the gloriously elegant language of the Beijing streets, replete with the retroflexive “r” sound, has become defanged and homogenized. Some local terms such as hutong (胡同) for Beijing’s alley communities and laojia (劳驾 ) for “excuse me” have become well-known nationwide.  However, other alternative vocabulary, such as laoyer (老爷儿) instead of taiyang (太阳)for the sun, and the use of beir  (倍儿)   for “very” or “especially,” remain confined to the capital and its environs.

Colloquial Distinctions

Another distinction is that colloquial Beijing speech tends to be more loquacious than its standard counterpart, since the later is modeled on the concise classical Chinese. It is also spoken at a much faster clip, and some sounds are scrunched together. Incidentally, the Mandarin term for “dialect,” namely fangyan, means “regional speech”—indicating anything different from the language of the imperial capital.

Considering that China is larger than the continent of Europe, it is not surprising that there should be great complexity in its many dialects. So much so that in the past people from different regions could not communicate with each other without an interpreter, unless they wrote things down. The Beijing dialect is as different from Shanghainese as is Spanish from Italian. This diversity holds especially true in the South where some of the dialects differ more from each other than they do from Mandarin.

Nevertheless, Mandarin dialects are spoken by more than two-thirds of the Chinese people, occupying more than three-fourths of the nation’s territory. That makes it in its own right the most spoken language in the world, far outnumbering native speakers of English. Even so, the populations of speakers of some of the non-Mandarin “dialects” outnumber speakers of many European languages. The Chinese dialects are also linked to each other about as closely as are the Romance languages. In terms of linguistic complexity, the Chinese dialects should obviously be considered different languages.

A glance at the map shows that the realm of the Mandarin speakers stretches in a huge swath from the northeast (Manchuria) through the North China Plain to the loess plain and deserts of the northwest and finally to rice-growing provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan in the southeast. Generally, Mandarin is the lingua franca in territory above a line formed by the Yangtze River, and in areas dipping down below it as well. Although the tones used vary widely, just about all the Han Chinese living in these regions speak some form of Mandarin. They can talk to each other, although sometimes with great difficulty. That in itself is not a unique situation. No language is completely uniform. Just imagine how a conversation between a Cockney and a Mississippi sharecropper would go.

At the same time, a distinguishing feature of modern Mandarin is that it is surprisingly simple in its stock of vocabulary and sounds, but has the saving grace provided by the musical accent of its tones. Language experts tell us that in the past it was considerably more complex and possessed more tones. In fact, the language used in Northern China around the capital of Changan during the great Tang dynasty was the direct ancestor of practically every modern dialect.

The North was the cradle of Chinese civilization; this is where Chinese culture bloomed. But it was subjected to many forces making for massive relocations of population, including war, repeated “barbarian invasions,” interaction with foreign merchants arriving over the Silk Road, pestilence, floods, and ever-threatening famine.  All these were factors which ironically helped spur linguistic unity.

Take the example of Sichuan; today China’s most populous province.  In the mid-1600s, as the Ming Dynasty was on the brink of collapse, the sadistic leader of a rebel horde of North Chinese peasants who went by the moniker “Yellow Tiger” (Zhang Xianzhong) invaded Sichuan and engaged in immense massacres of the local population.  So decimated was Sichuan by warfare and plague, that it took decades to repopulate the province through in-migration under the new Manchu dynasty. Therefore, the fundamentals of today’s Sichuan dialect were in fact imported from North China.

The situation is quite different in South China which is fragmented by mountains and rivers and where communication and transportation have traditionally faced many impediments. The South became an integral part of China in stages. The southward spread of Han civilization, primarily through assimilation, is a process which lasted many centuries.  The southern “dialects” are not mutually intelligible.

Generally, the farther south the Chinese spoken, the more tones. Since some tones have disappeared in the north, it is said that reading Tang poems in Cantonese or another southern dialect renders a more faithful recreation of what they must have originally sounded like in terms of tones and feeling than reading them in modern Mandarin

However, llinguists cannot even agree on the number of first-order dialects (languages in the Western sense). There is of course Mandarin in its many forms. Then there is the Wu dialect spoken in Shanghai, Suzhou and other parts of the Lower Yangtze Valley. Likewise, Gan is spoken in Jiangxi Province, Xiang is spoken mainly in Hunan Province and Min in Fujian Province. Yue, better known as Cantonese, has many sub-dialects and can be heard in Hong Kong and many overseas Chinatowns.  Hakka constitutes a rather special situation. Its speakers – the kejiaren  or “guest people”—arrived later than other southerners, and were not even considered to be Han Chinese by those already living there. They themselves claim to have migrated en masse from North China in response to barbarian invasions from the north. In any event, the Hakka dialects are linguistically linked to other Southern dialects.

There are also anomalous candidates for separate major dialect status, such as the Jin speech used in Shanxi province in north central China. Some linguists claim an independent status for it, although most count it as one form of Mandarin.

Stereotypes have developed for the speakers of these various dialects. The Shanghainese are considered like the French, simultaneously elegant and arrogant, the Cantonese as voluble and excitable as southern Italians, the Hunanese operatic and fiery as the super-hot peppers they regularly devour, while the inhabitants of  Shaanxi Province in the northwest, where Xi’an (formerly Changan) is located, speak softly due to overconsumption of vinegar.

To some Chinese ears the cadences of Sichuan Mandarin resemble English. This has given rise to the following undoubtedly apocryphal yet nevertheless amusing story. During the famous 1979 trip to the United States by Deng Xiaoping , Sichuan’ s favorite son, in addition to hankering to try on ten-gallon cowboy hats, China’s paramount leader also wanted to test out his rather limited English skills by taking questions in English (but answering in Chinese).

A journalist asked him, “Where are you going first?”

Deng thought he had been asked his surname, so he replied, “Wo xing Deng?”

“I see, you’re going to Washington D.C.”

Then another reporter asked, “What is your wife going to do?”

Now, Mr. Deng thought he had been asked his first name.

He naturally replied, “Xiaoping.”

“Oh, she’s going shopping. How nice!”

So much for Sino-American communication

Though some foreign scholars claim that in linguistic terms Mandarin and the southern dialects should be considered separate languages within one language family, the Chinese government, for political reasons, would vehemently deny they are separate languages. This is nothing new, however. Several European governments have traditionally sought to suppress dialects. Closer to home, the Japanese tend to regard theirs as one unified language with numerous dialects, even though it has been clearly established that Okinawan dialects form a separate language group within the same linguistic family.

Based on the lessons of history, any Chinese government would have a legitimate concern with rampant regionalism.  Even though left-wing luminaries like Lu Xun and Mao Dun argued that the Shanghai, Fuzhou and Canton dialects should be treated on a par with Beijing Mandarin, the PRC leaders obviously opted for stability over equity.

In a sense, they were following in the footsteps of the Japanese, since following the Meiji Restoration, the new government chose the language spoken in the higher-class districts of Tokyo where the samurai had formerly lived to be the new normative language, or hyojungo, for the entire country. Its emphasis on the use of honorifics and lack of regional peculiarities provided a sharp contrast to the shitamachi kotoba spoken by the merchants, artisans and other townsmen living in the downtown district of the same city. This dialect was rich, rough and gloried in both the traditional plebian culture and ephemeral trendiness. Comparisons might be made to Brooklyn or Parisian lower classes.  In short, it was everything the new government bent on modernizing Japan abhorred. Naturally, the government was equally determined to break the sway of dialects in the countryside in the name of national unification.

Moreover, even though most educated Chinese would readily acknowledge that the major dialects are certainly linguistically quite different, they believe that cultural considerations are more important. For most of the last 2,000 years, the regions have not constituted separate national units, and they have consistently shared a common cultural heritage.  China is a civilization, not just a nation. Still, language helps shape the way we think.  An Englishman does not think the same as a Frenchman. Nor should it be expected that a Beijing resident will think the same as a Shanghainese. Therefore, there are always centrifugal forces at work in China, and not just in places like Tibet and Xinjiang where minorities speak non-Chinese languages of their own.

Of course, one of the major reasons for China together as long as it has is the shared written language. For centuries classical Chinese functioned as a linguistic bridge akin to written Esperanto. The almost magical aura of the written characters has exerted incredible influence even on the illiterate. In 1929 the Swedish Sinologist Bernhard Kalgren wrote: “The day the Chinese discard it [the written language] they will surrender the very foundation of their culture.”

Alphabetization would make the whole of the ancient literature illegible and unintelligible.  Every Chinese reader pronounces the words in a classical text according to his own local pronunciation. The meaning of the text remains the same for all. Of course, all of these renderings are quite different from the original pronunciation.

Oddly enough, despite the imperative of linguistic unification, at least two types of written Chinese other than those of standard Mandarin and Classical Chinese have developed. These are found in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Written Cantonese has developed quite a number of unique Chinese characters in order to be able to write how Cantonese is spoken. This is important for everything from fiction to verbatim court records. These characters are not found at all on the mainland, except for an occasional billboard in Guangdong Province, but they are increasingly being used to write colloquial Cantonese, even in newspapers and magazines. It is something the older generation tends to frown upon, and perhaps can be considered as an assertion of local identity.  Needless to say, dialect literature is not officially sanctioned by Beijing.

Similarly, for the mutually intelligible Hokkienese or Southern Min dialects referred to as “Taiwanese” in Taiwan, there are a large number of unique informal or “substitute” characters, with up to a quarter of all the elements in Taiwanese words lacking a corresponding standard Chinese character. In some cases, rare literary characters are used, and even the characters used for everyday terms like “to eat” seem exotic to those familiar with standard Mandarin.

Standardization of Chinese in the form of Putonghua is an expression of modern nationalism.  Therefore, the PRC can be expected to take full advantage of technological innovation to further the process. If Beijing really decided to make Chinese a global language, might it not make the daring leap into full alphabetization?


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