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China, a land flowing with a babel of tongues...

By:Bruce of Troy

Let me also pray, that you will excuse my speaking to you in my native language, and that you will reply in the same if your knowledge of it permits; if not, I sufficiently understand Norman to follow your meaning.


                                                              Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott



Chinese or Chineses? Mandarin or Cantonese? Dialects or languages?


For foreigners who do not have a fairly good knowledge of China, Chinese is either Mandarin or Cantonese, which is nothing but a glaring misconception.



           find it difficult to answer when asked whether I speak Mandarin or Cantonese, as if these were the only languages or dialects, if you like, which exist in a country as big as Europe. Generally I will ask others to narrow down or make the question more specific. For example: which language or Chinese do I speak inside the family? What is my first language? How many Chinese languages or dialects can I speak? Or what is the predominant language on the air in China? The answer to the first question is, sorry to let you down, neither Mandarin nor Cantonese, but Shanghainese instead. The answer to the second question is both Shanghainese and Mandarin, though many local people in Shanghai are losing Shanghainese little by little. Languages are like trust, difficult to get but easy to lose. The answer to the third question is that I speak Mandarin, Shanghainese, and Cantonese which I learned myself the same way as I learned English. The answer to the last question is that Mandarin is on the air predominantly in Mainland China ,and Taiwan, which the Chinese government religiously claims as its own whilst Cantonese is used in Hong Kong and Macau, shadows of their former selves for reasons which are best left unsaid. How many dialects are there in China? The same number of cities or towns in China.


An Australian born Chinese said to me the other day, “Chinese is a group of languages but the government classifies them as dialects for political reasons.” His view does make some sense, if not 100% correct. There is a political approach in the classification, of course, because it is CHINA, but if you stick to linguistics and facts as they really are, things can get far more complicated than you expect. For example, Shanghainese is a dialect of Wu and Cantonese is a dialect of Yue, although the term Cantonese is sometimes used to refer to all the dialects of Yue. But it should be noted that Shanghainese and Cantonese are not dialects of Mandarin which is a dialect itself, the equivalent of the RP in the UK. It does sound complicated so your life will be easier if you just call them dialects because you never know which one is which one’s dialect or language.


When in Rome, do as the Romans do...


Do people need to learn a dialect if they move to another city? Yes and no. Some Chinese dialects are quite understandable so there is no need to learn it if language barriers don’t exist. Feel free to speak Mandarin to them. At the end of the day, languages are a tool for communication, if you can understand people perfectly, do not learn it unless you are a language buff as I am. However, it is always better if you can speak to people in their own language or dialect, a good way to break the ice. If a dialect is almost dead, you cannot learn it even if you wanted to. But for dialects that are still alive, they are worth considering. You do not have to learn to speak if you do not want to, but at least you have to learn to be able to understand the dialect if you have settled down or worked in a certain city. It is bang out of order to tell people stop speaking their own language in their own city. You can still speak Mandarin to people but being able to understand the dialect is useful even if you cannot speak it at all. For a tourist, it does not matter and now comes the beauty of lingua franca.


Does Mandarin unify or alienate China?


Mandarin, a man-made language akin to Beijing dialect was adopted as China’s lingua franca back under Chiang Kai Shek’s government and it continued to serve as the official language of China after Chiang Kai Shek fled to Tai Wan, head high and heart broken. Personally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with the adoption of Mandarin, the same way as English is the world language. As a southerner born and brought up in Shanghai, I speak fairly acceptable Mandarin, if not accentless and immaculate. I do not mind speaking it but I only speak it when I have to and I am supposed to speak it when doing interpreting which was what I studied and would probably be my future career. If you take a look at the world map, you may be astonished at the similarity in size between mainland China and the European continent. (In Mandarin, mainland China and the European continent are both called da lu, literally big land, excluding Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan and the UK). Mandarin is what Latin was during the Roman Empire or Charlemagne’s time. Chinese government officials are staunch apostles of linguistic reform so that Mandarin holds China and its people firmly together linguistically and politically, something Latin failed to do. The only difference is that Spanish, French and Italian grew out of Latin when it was dying, whilst Mandarin is a newborn baby experiencing its growing pains and teething problems.


Mandarin is based on the speech in Beijing but it is so different from the Beijing dialect. Mandarin speakers often fail to understand the Beijing dialect and vice versa. Cantonese, which, thanks to Hong Kong and Macao where people also learn Mandarin but are never forced to speak it, is still prevalent in those areas and also in many countries abroad. China’s linguistic diversity is amazing. It’s true that if people speak the same language in one country or even in the world, life will be a thousand times easier, and I will be out of employment because no one would need an interpreter. Without Mandarin, I would be uable to communicate with non-Shanghainese people and could not even study interpreting where Mandarin is needed.


But the government has somehow gone much further than is necessary. The noble vision that everyone in China would speak Mandarin has almost degenerated into one where everyone in China must only speak Mandarin. In order to protect dialects, some people have become hostile towards Mandarin, a sign which will not unify China but alienate it. This has the potential to create conflict between people from different regions of China. Many campaigns to protect dialects have been held all across China, Guangzhou 2010 for example . Some people even held banners saying, “If you cannot speak Cantonese, go back to the backwaters where you come from.”


I support the protection of dialects but it should be done in a rational way and with respect. Mandarin deserves respect as all dialects do. I do not hate Mandarin myself and I think it is quite a useful tool to communicate with people in China. I need Mandarin for my work and communicate with people from other provinces and I am happy I can speak it quite well. Being a language junkie, I believe that all languages in the world should receive the due respect that they deserve. I have learnt some Cantonese, Suzhou dialect and Ningbo dialect, but when I spoke Suzhou dialect to my friend, he replied in Mandarin and told me that he only speaks Suzhou dialect with his parents. In order to practise my broken Suzhou dialect, I continued to converse in the dialect and made the situation seems as though I were from Suzhou and he were from somewhere else.


Now only the older generation in rural areas are unable to speak Mandarin properly. With Mandarin’s prevailing influence and China’s urbanisation, I think everyone in China will speak Mandarin only in its strictly literal sense. Even the Beijing dialect, from which Mandarin was derived, is dying owing to the growing prevalance of Mandarin - many local Beijing words have fallen out of use. Though young people in Beijing still speak with a Beijing accent, their speech is going increasingly closer to Mandarin both in terms of pronunciation and vocabulary.


Chinese officials want Mandarin spoken more at home. Though it makes some sense to choose Mandarin as the main language for school and radio, it’s outrageous to require people to speak a certain language at home. At the same time, when friend from different regions meet up and can speak the same language the whole group will feel comfortable and included . When I hang out with people from different countries, everyone speaks English. But home is home. An Englishman’s home is his castle. I even have the right to speak Latin at home if I wanted to. Anything we do at home, the kind of food we eat, speaking a language, watching TV programmes, is none of anyone else’s business as long as it's legal.


I was asked why it is stupid for the government to strongly encourage Mandarin at home.  For me, the answer is obvious. I have a friend from Shanghai who sometimes speaks Mandarin to her parents - this is is very strange to me. She does so because in school she was forced to speak Mandarin even after class - in his case human rights are being flouted openly. I asked my other Canadian friend, what if everyone in the world could only speak English. He said, with his cute Canadian accent, “of course not, it would be convenient, but loads of cultures would be dead, which is far from good.”  This hits the nail on the head. It is not whether it is feasible to ask people to speak Mandarin at home. Instead, it is a matter of people’s unalienable rights to do what they want at home. As long as everyone can speak Mandarin, the government should not interfere. The fact that Mandarin is becomig be the main language used in school and media does not mean it is the only language. But in China, many TV programmes were in dialects were banned by the government, the similar way it bans Facebook and YouTube. In recent years, more provinces have been allowed to make some shows in dialects, which is really good, such as in Guangdong, a special case. But even if all the programmes in dialects are aired on TV, programmes in Mandarin will still be predominant. Cockney is dying. Gaelic can only be heard in some remote areas in Ireland or Scotland. We want more freedom of “speech”, but in China, we have none of them.


Are dialects characterless?


Dialect bashers often say that dialects cannot be written down, so they are bound to die out.  But even those who know a smattering of Chinese culture and history know that many dialects have a classical touch and feel, far preceding Mandarin. If you read aloud Chinese classical poems in a southern dialect, be it Shanghainese, Hakka, Cantonese, Hokkien, or Teochew, many poems which don’t seem to rhyme in Mandarin will rhyme miraculously. As a matter of fact, all Chinese dialects share more or less a same writing system, thanks to the unification of the writing system by the First Emperor, probably his only saving grace. It is natural to find in classical Chinese books using words used in dialects but not in Mandarin any more. To ask whether dialects can be written down or not is like asking if the Pope is Catholic. Scholars on dialects have discovered that Chinese characters for words from dialects are difficult to write down - so it is possible that more words from dialects will come to light in the future. People have to admit, however unwilling they are, that dialects have characters, in more ways than one. However, to say dialects are a crystallisation of cultures does not mean they shall gain an official status as Mandarin. As I said, I am not against Mandarin as the official language at all, but I do mean that dialects, containing rich cultures, should be respected and preserved. Mandarin is the lingua franca which is supposed to enable people with different dialects to communicate with each other, nothing more and nothing less.


Can Mandarin be replaced by English?


To some extent, yes, but the government will not agree. If English replaces Mandarin as the official language in China, at least more and more people will be fluent in English, something many try to achieve but fail. Some people will ask,” Then, if English is the official language in China, the linguistic culture of China will be severely harmed.” Actually, it will not. Dialects, no matter what kind it is, contain more culture than Mandarin. The beauty of Mandarin is its easiness to communicate, not its cultural essence. Some local cultural words from the Beijing dialect were scrapped in Mandarin so that people can use Mandarin as a tool more efficiently.


Imagine, what will happen if people are all educated in English and use dialects after class. When people from different provinces meet each other, they just speak English, as some people do in Singapore. In Nigeria as well, people have various dialects but use English as an official language. Can you say Nigeria has lost its own identity because of English? Obviously not, their dialects are well kept in every city with English as the common language that everyone is supposed to be able to use. One of the reasons why Singapore became an Asian Tiger is due to English. If so, more dialects and culture can be preserved whilst more people can speak English fluently - is that a blessing or a curse? The only sacrifice will be Mandarin, but Beijing dialects would be preserved. People may ask, what if people in the north and south cannot communicate? Yes, they can, in English. But it is strange that Chinese people need to communicate in English, some will say. No, not really, if it is strange, then it is equally strange for people in Guangdong to speak Mandarin because Cantonese is the language there and Mandarin is kind of foreign to them.


For me, either way is not strange, as long as we can communicate - English, Mandarin, or Cantonese are all fine. It is not strange at all. For people who cannot speak Mandarin well or properly, I do encourage them to have it polished. My view is that the more languages you master, the better and easier your life will be. You just cannot use one of your languages to suppress the others.BW



For further reading, the writer recommends:

Name: Bruce


Nationality: China


Self-description:  A total Anglomaniac


Favourite quotes: 


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We were ships that pass in the night.

Don't know whether to wind a watch or bark at the moon.

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We snuggled, in my dreams.


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