Speaking in Dialects

Shanghai dialect
Pearl Tower, Shanghai. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Dad is from the north. He thinks southerners are slippery and clannish. Their talk is impossible to follow. He prefers his native Shanghai dialect with its soft lilting sounds.

Mom is a southerner. Her mother tongue is Cantonese. To me, it’s a throat-clearing ribald dialect, somewhere between a curse and an off-color joke.

I’m an ABC. American Born Chinese, yellow on the outside and white on the inside. The only dialect I can (sort of) speak is Mandarin. Or, as they call it these days, Putonghua.

the common speech

In the old days, Mandarin was nothing more than the way folks in Beijing talked.

Then reformers during the Qing dynasty tried to replace Classical Chinese. It was a language that existed only in writing and used only inside the imperial court. But the emperor was not amused.

Later, when the Nationalists took power, the reformers tried, again. This time, the push-back was grounded in aesthetic reasons. How horrifying to corrupt Classic Chinese with the vulgar vernacular!

mao zedong thought

That all changed with the Communists. With his customary briskness, Mao implemented numerous language reforms. The government introduced pinyin in 1955: a Romanized phonetic alphabet for the teaching of Chinese. By 1956, all elementary schools taught Putonghua. That same year, the government released its first set of simplified characters. In 1958, Mao ordered all Chinese Communist Party cadres to learn to read and write the new common language.

Mao succeeded in lifting millions of Chinese out of illiteracy. Were his intentions all benign? Daniel Freiman thinks not.

The more people spoke Putonghua and read Mao’ s quotations in vernacular language, the more successful Mao would be in communicating his messages and creating a socialist society guided by Mao Zedong Thought.

in the local dialect

From data released by the Chinese Ministry of Education, it looks like there’s more work to be done. As of 2014, 3 out of 10 Chinese  cannot speak Putonghua. Only 1 in 10 is fluent in the official Chinese language. It seems that some Chinese citizens cannot or will not adapt to its use.

Not so in Shanghai. Putonghua and English are the main languages there. By contrast, only 60% of primary and junior middle school students speak Shanghainese and few of them are fluent. In an effort to preserve their linguistic heritage, local activists launched Hu Cares in 2011. Members meet each week in People’s Park to practice their Shanghaihua.

Cantonese dialect
Hong Kong Island. Photo credit: Frans Verhagen

On the other end of the spectrum sits Hong Kong where Cantonese is the home dialect. At the time of the handover in 1997, only a quarter of Hong Kong residents spoke Putonghua. That figure quickly doubled as Hong Kongers came to see Putonghua proficiency as the only route to success. Recently, however, young Hong Kongers have begun to reject Putonghua as “mainlandisation”. In Hong Kong, the language you speak has become a political act.

culture wars

Beijing dialect
Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Grande_anatra_gialla.jpg

Yet even within the confines of Putonghua, war rages. Around the anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square, words disappear from the Chinese internet.

China Digital Times maintains a comprehensive list of the blocked terms. The catalogue is both laughable and long. It includes disgraced politicians, activist groups, even ordinary words like remembermourn, yesterday and tomorrow. Chinese citizens respond with hilarious puns and ingenious memes. The Chinese call the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Incident: Internet Maintenance Day.

When Chinese dissident and Nobel Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo died last July, a similar internet culling took place. His name, the abbreviation RIP and all candle emojis disappeared from Weibo, the most popular social media site in China.

Meanwhile, the Communist Party marches relentlessly toward controlled speech. Apple recently agreed to shore up the notoriously leaky Great Firewall of China. In Hong Kong, the BBC World Service has been replaced by Chinese state programming. For a few short days last fall, Cambridge University Press foolishly agreed to block access to certain articles in The China Quarterly. And what were the topics to be censored? Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen and Falun Gong, to name only a few.

a secret language

When I was a kid in Los Angeles, I went to Chinese school every Saturday. We were taught the traditional way of bopomofo, even though pinyin had become standard usage in China. I can only imagine that bopomofo was an act of political resistance.

Los Angeles street names like Colima and Vista del Mar harken back to a Spanish-language past. Storefronts, however, declare themselves in the Chinese present. Roughly half the banks, restaurants and shops advertise using the traditional characters known only in Hong Kong, Taiwan or to Chinese over the age of 60. The other half uses the simplified characters I know.

A secret language is a barrier, like when my parents switch into Shanghaihua when us kids are in the room. A common language is a banner for gathering the troops or signaling defiance. But to master more than one language is to create a bridge.

Or, in the words of the Chinese proverb:

To learn a language is to have one more window from which to look at the world.