Uniting China to Speak Mandarin; Easier Said than Done

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sun Jul 17 19:29:10 UTC 2005

>>From the NYTimes,   July 10, 2005

Uniting China to Speak Mandarin, the One Official Language: Easier Said
Than Done

DATIAN, China - As a crowd formed around a rare foreign visitor in this
town's open-air market, the conversation turned quickly from the price of
dried fish and fresh fruit to how many dialects people here could muster.
Hoisting her cherubic 6-month-old daughter, Lin Jinchun, a 29-year-old
dumpling seller, claimed that she could speak two, drawing a quick
counterclaim of three from her mother, Lin Guimei.

What was the third dialect? someone asked. "Putonghua," the mother
answered, counting the standard national language of China as if it were
just another minor tongue. Meanwhile others, shouting above the din,
chimed in that they could speak four, five or even six tongues. As seen by
many outsiders, China is a behemoth: the world's most populous country
with a galloping economy and a more or less unified culture. But if
Putonghua - Mandarin - is one of the world's most heavily spoken
languages, in many parts of China it is lost in the mazes of local

In recent years migrant labor, which has brought about huge population
movements from the hinterlands to China's prosperous eastern cities, has
obliged millions of Chinese to learn more Mandarin, but by official
estimates even today barely half of the population can speak the official
dialect. China has 55 ethnic minorities, many of them with cultural roots
in neighboring countries. The linguistic diversity among these minorities,
however, pales in comparison with the variety of tongues spoken among
China's Han, the ethnic group that makes up more than 90 percent of the
population. The Han speak as many 1,500 dialects, with the bulk of those
concentrated in the southern half of the country.

The official view here is that all of the tongues spoken by Han are
variants of one language, Chinese. But in a country with a traumatic
history of civil war and fragmentation, many specialists say this theory
may have more to do with politics than with linguistic reality. Many of
the Han dialects are almost entirely mutually incomprehensible, more
distinct than languages from disparate regions of Europe. "No one can
clearly answer the question how many dialects there are in China," said
Zhang Hongming, a professor of Chinese linguistics at the University of
Wisconsin who is in China doing fieldwork. "The degree of difference among
dialects is much higher than the degree of difference among European
languages. In Europe they call them languages, but in China we share a
culture, so the central government would like to consider that one
language is shared by many different peoples. It is simply a different

Linguists say the Wu dialect widely spoken in Shanghai, to take one
prominent example, shares only about 31 percent lexical similarity with
Mandarin, or roughly the same as English and French. The encounter at the
Datian market began when the dumpling seller approached the foreigner with
a phrase that sounded like "goodbye" in the Wu dialect. Knowing it must
mean something else, the foreigner guessed she was asking his name, and
provided it, producing a laugh from the woman who explained, switching to
Mandarin, that she had asked if he had eaten lately.

For China, the consequences of this linguistic fragmentation are immense.
Although no one in government says that local languages should be
eliminated, there is a growing awareness that the country's national
construction cannot be considered complete until all Chinese can speak a
common language, which remains a distant goal. Indeed, a government survey
published last year said only 53 percent of the population "can
communicate in Putonghua." In recognition of this fact, broadcasters
commonly include subtitles - the meaning of Chinese characters is stable,
even as spoken dialects vary - on television programs here to help people
overcome comprehension problems.

A 2001 national language law decrees that Mandarin be used in all mass
media, government offices and schools, and bars the "overuse" of dialects
in movies and broadcasting. Even by the standards of China's complicated
language matrix, Fujian Province stands out for its richness, a dense
thicket of tongues laid down by waves of migration over time from central

"We have an expression, that if you drive five miles in Fujian the culture
changes, and if you drive 10 miles, the language does," said Zhang
Zhenxing, a linguist from Fujian at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
in Beijing. "In recent years, because of economic growth things have been
getting better, but there are still an extraordinary number of dialects in
Fujian." If Fujian Province can be said to have a Babel, tiny Datian
County can stake a pretty solid claim. In this 800 square miles of rural
central Fujian, where fields of rice and tobacco grow in the shadow of
tall mountains, no fewer than five dialects are spoken in addition to

To drive a few miles down the road from one village to another is indeed
to plunge into a new linguistic universe. Things can be as confusing for
someone from the next town as they are for the total outsider. In one
village near the county seat, where an old Daoist shrine sits high above
the roadside, a man who said he spoke southern Min, one of Fujian's most
widely spoken dialects, tried to exchange words with some boys who said
they also spoke southern Min. A few words from each side, however,
sufficed to show they were mutually unintelligible.

Chen Wenxian, a shopkeeper in his late 20's in another village, grimaced
with incomprehension when a driver pulled up and inquired about the price
of shoes in his glass display case. The two switched into heavily accented
but mutually comprehensible Mandarin. Mr. Chen, slouched in his chair
behind his counter, shrugged when asked the name of the village's
language. Consultations with a cluster of family members did not unearth a
name either.

"It's just what we speak here," he said. Asked if he could understand the
language in the next village, a short distance down the road, he said: "I
have no idea what they speak. Those people talk too fast."


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