Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

Chinese dialects vanishing in China [Straits Times]

Very unfortunate news in my personal opinion – the 2010 Census did not care to include information about native tongues/dialects, deeming it as not important. Progress and solidarity through a common language is one thing, but forgetting the lessons learnt through the formation of unique dialects is regrettable.

I for one can not speak my native tongue – Teochew, because of top-down government measures. From the Singapore model, I can attest that this vanishing of dialects can be irreversible; and it can vanish within one generation. I cannot help but feel a great sense of loss hearing this. Perhaps this will help shape a more uniform Chinese identity. Will that do much good? And perhaps, not.

Census vice-director Fang Nailin said the government decided that this piece of information was ‘not that important’.

– – –

Chinese dialects vanishing in China
Mandarin threatening even native tongues as major as Cantonese
By Peh Shing Huei, China Bureau Chief
Source – Straits Times, published December 25, 2010

BEIJING: China’s numerous native tongues are slowly vanishing, with even major dialects spoken by tens of millions under threat from Mandarin.

The country’s three biggest cities – Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou – are seeing their mother tongues increasingly being drowned out, a trend experts believe may not be reversible.

In the Chinese capital, for example, the Beijinghua dialect, which is a close yet highly localised variant of Mandarin, is so little used that a linguist was prompted to compile a dictionary to preserve it.

‘I’m very anxious because Beijinghua is disappearing so quickly,’ said retired scholar Dong Shuren, who released the New Dictionary Of Beijing Dialect this week.

‘I wanted to record the expressions so that future generations can understand the historical documents of our city which are written in the Beijing dialect.’

In Shanghai, the native dialect has been struggling for the past 20 years following a mass influx of non-Shanghainese into the financial capital.

The situation is slightly better in southern Guangzhou city, long proud of its Cantonese and aided by the strong Canto- pop culture in neighbouring Hong Kong.

But there have been official attempts to limit the usage of Cantonese. In July, a proposal to switch the programming medium from Cantonese to Mandarin at a major television station led to protests in Guangzhou.

Displacing these dialects is Mandarin, which is referred to in China as Putonghua, meaning ‘the common language’.

The government recognises more than 80 major dialects but there is only one lingua franca – Putonghua.

Since 1956, the state has called for the promotion of Mandarin and the pace has quickened in the last two decades.

In 1998, it was declared that the third week of every September would be designated National Putonghua Promotion Week.

Two years later, the Common Language Law was approved, giving Mandarin legal status as the national common language and stipulating that government organisations and schools had to use it.

Mandarin was considered ‘civilised’ while dialects were seen as tu, or parochial, a view bolstered by requirements that all radio, television announcers and actors had to pass a Mandarin test.

Recognising that Putonghua proficiency made up a key part of career advancement, parents quickly fell in line, electing it over dialects as the home language.

But Chinese linguists believe that their country need not be monolingual.

‘Promoting Putonghua doesn’t mean that you have to get rid of dialects,’ said analyst Wu Yuanfeng, who speaks four languages, including Manchurian and Uighur. ‘If a person can speak a few languages, that will broaden his mind.’

The demise of native tongues in China goes beyond Chinese dialects. It includes major minority languages such as Tibetan and Manchurian. The speakers of the latter have dwindled to fewer than 100.

The government looks unlikely to want to reverse the trend.

During the country’s census conducted last month, Chinese residents were not asked for their native tongue.

Census vice-director Fang Nailin said the government decided that this piece of information was ‘not that important’.


Additional reporting by Lina Miao


Filed under: 2010 National Census, Beijing Consensus, Chinese Model, Culture, Domestic Growth, Education, Media, Population, Social, Straits Times, The Chinese Identity, The construction of Chinese and Non-Chinese identities

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