As we saw yesterday, China is a diverse country with hundreds of distinct dialects/languages that are closely connected with local culture. However, for the past 100 years, the government has been encouraging the adoption of a single national dialect based on the Beijing accent.
Originally, the language we know as Mandarin, was only spoken by officials and the people who lived near the capital (the language shifted with the capital as it moved from Nanjing to Beijing). It was a necessity due to the fact that officials came from all corners of China, and would be otherwise unable to communicate orally. Near the end of the Qing Dynasty, it was decided that this language of officials should become the national dialect, known as Guoyu (国语 country-language).
The promotion of this language continued through the Republican era and with the foundation of the People’s Republic. In 1955 it was renamed Putonghua (普通话 Common-language), but Taiwan still calls it Guoyu. Both are stubborn when it comes to the politics of language, with the mainland insisting on “simplified” characters that lose some of their original meaning, and Taiwan continuing the use of the terrible Wade-Giles system of romanization (i.e. writing “Taipei” but pronouncing it “Taibei”).
There are several valid arguments for the promotion of Putonghua beyond the theory that it is some kind of Communist ploy to force subservience to Beijing. I think this idea is popular because a unified language seems like it would be able to unify the country, and it would also increase the penetration of CCTV; which broadcasts only in Putonghua (many elderly Chinese can’t understand it, and it is doubtful that they’d be able to read the subtitles either).
As with most things in China though, I think the real impetus is economic. At the moment China’s migrant worker population surpasses that of the entire United States. As they move from factory to factory, a single language could greatly improve communication between companies and workers. It would also help migrant workers integrate more completely into their new hometowns, allowing them to avoid the pervasive stigma.
A unified language could also help activists, in that reduced regional identities might help promote causes at a national level. As myself and others have noted, local conflicts rarely spread beyond their village, even though similar problems exist in thousands of other villages. A common language could lead these places to realize that their problems are not unique.
Despite reasons which appeal to officials, activists, and businessmen, the Chinese people have so far resisted the efforts to unite under a single dialect.
I say “resist” because in most of my experiences, the use of a local dialect seems to be an intentional choice. In my universities in Guangxi, there were signs everywhere that read “请说普通话” (Qing shuo Putonghua - please speak common-language), and I mean everywhere. On the dean’s desk, in the stairwells, around the student’s dormitories, and occasionally on bright red banners. Yet every faculty meeting was held in the local dialect, and some teachers opted to use dialect for instructing their students; even though the students (and a handful of teachers) came from other regions.
Most of these people could speak Mandarin, they simply chose not to.
Most, but not all. Each year the faculty was given an oral test in Mandarin to make sure they were proficient, but one of the proctors told me there were dozens who failed. The school simply faked the results, and life went on in local dialect. The test only required them to read a script with proper pronunciation, it wasn’t a complete language test covering grammar or anything like that, but it still proved a challenge to many college level teachers.
In my opinion, this is not the result of some kind of separatist attitude, national identity is strong, this simply highlights the importance of regional and local identities. This can be most clearly seen in Guangdong, where gov’t efforts to limit Cantonese on the airwaves have been met in the past with protests and riots (old People’s Daily story denying the last attempt). Hong Kong is even touchier about it as I learned on my first visit – it’s Cantonese or English, don’t try anything else.
As China becomes increasingly mobile and regional identities breakdown, Putonghua will continue to grow in popularity. However, this is something that happens naturally and gradually in a developed country, and isn’t a directive that can be handed down from on high. Even 100 years after the start of the drive to promote a national language, the penetration of a common language in the Chinese countryside has been minimal.