Beijing to Shanghai: use Mandarin, or else

On Wednesday, September 14, China’s official China Daily announced that Beijing intends to crack down on people in Shanghai using their native language (often called “Shanghainese” but also known as “Zanghae Hewu” and other names). The excuse given for this is that visitors to the 2010 World Expo — that’s five years from now — might be confused if the first words people in Shanghai spoke to others were in Shanghainese rather than Mandarin. Imagine the shock and confusion! People in Shanghai speaking Shanghainese!

In the quotes below, I switch back and forth between two separate articles on this (identified at the end of this post).

The Shanghai government will require people who speak bad Mandarin to attend remedial classes in the run up to the exposition “to end the confusion,” the China Daily said.

“Chinese see Shanghainese as a foreign language,” Shanghai government spokeswoman Jiao Yang told reporters. “As we open up to the world, especially for the Expo, it’s vital to promote Mandarin.”

Shanghainese as a foreign language? That’s certainly not the party line!

And if opening up to the world is the idea, promoting English would make a lot more sense. But of course that’s not what’s behind this; rather it is simply a suppression of languages other than Mandarin — done in the name of a manufactured national unity.

A different article states:

The regulation will be submitted to the Standing Committee of the Shanghai Municipal People’s Congress for approval on September 22.

It seeks to establish a comprehensive system to require local people to improve their putonghua, according to Sun Xiaoguang, an official with the Language and Character Department under the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission.

Every neighbourhood committee will form a team to patrol their area to correct incorrect Mandarin speech and characters used on signs, menus and notices.

Anybody who has difficulty speaking putonghua or writing correctly will be required to take remedial classes organized by the neighbourhood committee, while any shops displaying incorrect Chinese characters on their signboards will be asked to correct them.

Any individual or enterprise that refuses to comply will be fined.

All service industry workers would also have to pass a Mandarin test before 2010 and greet customers in Mandarin, the newspaper added, though they can then chat to customers in Shanghainese.

Speaking Mandarin, however, won’t be enough by itself to satisfy Beijing. People in the media won’t even be able to speak with certain accents:

the government is demanding that hosts and news anchors avoid slang words, speak only in standard Mandarin and drop any affected Taiwan or Hong Kong accents, according to rules posted on the State Administration of Film, Radio, Television’s Web site.

Some presenters deliberately adjust their pronunciation to sound more like natives of Hong Kong or Taiwan, the cultures of which, if not the politics, are fashionable across the mainland.

China has been promoting Mandarin for decades to ensure national cohesion in a country where dialects as different as French and Spanish share a similar written form.

This sort of statement is so common that I find myself having to correct this again and again. First, these are languages, not dialects. And, no, they do not share a written form. Rather, people in various parts of China are taught to read and write Mandarin — though they may translate this into their own language when reading.

Only just over half China’s 1.3 billion people can communicate in Mandarin, the official Xinhua news agency cited a national survey as showing last year, while almost 90 percent can speak dialects [sic] ranging from Cantonese to Hokkien and Hakka.

But wait! There’s more:

Additionally, all abbreviations and newly invented terms commonly used in Internet chat rooms are forbidden from use in schools and official documents.

Sources: China Daily, but found here, and another article by Reuters, Shanghainese told to mind their language for Expo, Wed. Sept. 14, 2005.

rough survey on Wu in Shanghai

from Xinhua:

Survey shows locals still prefer their own dialect 11/2/2005 9:12

A recent survey has found residents in China’s largest city, Shanghai, prefer speaking their own dialect even though most speak fluent mandarin (putonghua).
Compared with people from other parts of China, Shanghaiers speak more often in their local dialect at home, office, supermarkets and doctor’s consulting rooms, according to the national survey on the popularity of mandarin, conducted by the State Language Commission of China.
Mandarin, known in China as “putonghua” or “common tongue,” was made the standard pronunciation of Chinese language more than 50 years ago.
The survey found only 35 percent of Shanghaiers speak mandarin in the office, while the national average use of mandarin at workplaces is 42 percent. About 12 percent of Shanghai’s residents speak mandarin at home, opposed to 18 percent nationwide.
Results of the survey have surprised many Chinese linguists because Shanghai has long been considered a “melting pot” and about 35 percent of its population have moved in Shanghai from other parts of the country.
“Drivers and conductors on Shanghai buses all speak the local dialect, though posters are seen everywhere reminding the residents to speak mandarin,” said He Xin, a public servant who’s been in Shanghai for seven years. “You’d be an outsider if you speak mandarin among a group of local Shanghaiers.”
But he said Shanghaiers are generally friendly and don’t discriminate against people from other parts of China.
In fact, some local newspapers have started to discuss how the Shanghaiers should make sure their future generation still speak their “mother tongue” now that schools have been told to teach mandarin only.
The unique Shanghai dialect is very different from mandarin and many other Chinese dialects. It was for a time a symbol of Shanghaiers’ localism and superiority over people from the rest of the country.

China moves against ‘dialects’ again

Here’s an AP story, with a lot of bad information (“dialects” instead of languages, etc.). But it’s still useful as a reminder of what China is doing to suppress languages other than Mandarin as part of Beijing’s struggle to create the “one China” that it claims has existed forever and ever, amen.

Thousands of years of Chinese linguistic heritage have come down to this: a squabble over Tom and Jerry.

Dubbed into regional Chinese dialects, the warring cat and mouse have been huge TV hits – and a good way to pass home-grown culture down to the younger generation, programmers say.

Not so fast, says the central government up north in Beijing, which for decades has promoted standard Mandarin as the only Chinese language worthy of the airwaves. The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television has ordered an end to broadcasting in dialect, saying kids should be raised in a “favorable linguistic environment.”

The move has put Tom and Jerry – or “Cat and Mouse,” as the show is called here – at the center of a long-running debate about how to maintain national cohesion amid a linguistic sea of highly distinct regional accents, dialects, and wholly separate language groups.

“As an artist, I think dialect should be preserved as a part of local culture,” says Zhang Dingguo, deputy director of the Shanghai People’s Comedy Troupe which does Tom and Jerry in Shanghainese.

“Schools don’t allow Shanghainese to be spoken, and now TV doesn’t either. It looks like Shanghai comedy will be dying out,” he adds.

The government calls the Mandarin policy vital to promoting a common Chinese identity in this vast land of 1.3 billion people, 56 ethnic groups and seven main Chinese dialects spoken by the Han ethnic majority.

“Thank you” is pronounced “xie xie” in Beijing, “do jey” in Hong Kong, and “sha zha” in Shanghai. Need to know a price? Ask “wa tsui gim” in Fujian, but “duoshao qian,” in Mandarin-speaking northern China.

The notion of “pronunciation” should be a red flag, indicating that the author is thinking in terms of characters rather than languages.

The pronunciation of Chinese surnames can induce mild identity crisis. Mr. Xu (pronounced “shoe”) in northern China becomes Mr. Ko in Fujian, which itself is called Hokkien in the local dialect.

Promotion of Mandarin – known here as “putonghua,” or “common tongue” – began in the 1920s and became policy in 1955, six years after the communists seized power. Its use has been encouraged through an unending series of social campaigns, including the current one featuring TV presenter Wang Xiaoya on billboards exhorting Shanghainese to “speak Mandarin … be a modern person.”

In the latest campaign, Shanghai city officials are being required to attend classes on perfecting their pronunciation, schools are nominating contestants in city-wide Mandarin speech contests and foreigners are being invited to Mandarin classes.

Totally distinct from Chinese, the languages of minority groups such as Tibetans, Uighurs and Mongolians are officially recognized and taught in schools. Important documents are translated into major minority tongues and four of them – Tibetan, Mongolian, Uighur and Zhuang – appear on Chinese bank notes.

Chinese dialects are based on the same system of writing.

Yup. Like I said, this reporter is repeating myths about the Chinese languages and characters. What the author is saying isn’t so different than claiming that Chinese people wrote their languages before they spoke them, which is of course absurd. But this is typical of how the myths about characters and languages have confused people, even about what ought to be fairly obvious.

That means Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong can enjoy subtitled Mandarin movies and Mandarin-speakers can order off Chinese menus in the far west of the country.

Because speakers of Cantonese and other Chinese languages learn to read and write not their own languages but Mandarin. There’s nothing magical or especially language-transcending about Chinese characters.

Rising incomes, greater travel freedom and the spread of education are also helping to break down linguistic barriers. Yet no one is predicting they’ll dissolve entirely – or soon.

“Many parts of China are heading for a situation of what linguists call diglossia, where there is one ‘high’ or public language … and one ‘low’ or local language that is used among friends and family,” said Stevan Harrell, an expert on Chinese languages at the University of Washington.

Use of dialects may even be strengthening in some areas with strong local identities, sometimes for economic reasons. In Guangzhou (that’s Mandarin for the great southern city of Canton), broadcasters are allowed to speak Cantonese to compete with the nearby Hong Kong stations.

In places like Guangzhou and Shanghai, prevalence of the local dialect helps exclude outsiders from social networks that are key to securing good jobs and entry to better schools. Outsiders say it smacks of bigotry.

“If you want to find a good job and be a success in Shanghai, you have to speak Shanghainese. Even if you do, they can pick you out by your accent and discriminate against you,” said Steven Li, an accounting student flying home to the western city of Chongqing.

Preservation, not exclusion, was the purpose of Tom and Jerry in dialect, said Zhang, the producer.

“You’ve got Shanghainese kids who can’t even speak Shanghainese,” he complains. “I have friends who’ve moved to Shanghai and want to learn the language to better integrate into local society.

“Isn’t watching TV easier than studying textbooks?”

Zhang cites semilegal Shanghainese broadcasting that pops up on local radio as evidence of continued demand for dialect programming. For now, Tom and Jerry will continue in Shanghainese on video, along with other versions in close to a dozen dialects.

Oddy enough, Tom and Jerry didn’t speak in the original cartoons, so the dialect versions give them voices they never had.

Despite support for dialects, Mandarin’s influence reaches deep. Speaking the language well is considered a sign of good breeding and education. And because China has bound use of Mandarin so closely to the idea of national unity, promotion of other dialects can sometimes be seen as insulting if not traitorous.

Self-governing Taiwan’s efforts to promote its local dialect have been angrily denounced in Beijing as “anti-Chinese.” Even at an entertainment awards show in Shanghai, Chinese reporters drown out Hong Kong celebrities speaking in Cantonese with exasperated shouts of “speak Mandarin.”

The annual meeting of China’s legislature is a jamboree of regional accents and languages. Delegates, including Tibetans, Cantonese speakers from Hong Kong and Macau and Turkic Uighurs from Xinjiang in the remote northwest, struggle to make themselves understood in Mandarin. Other delegates and Chinese reporters strain to understand.

The farther from Beijing, though, the tougher communication becomes.

In the bazaar in Minfeng, a town deep in the Xinjiang desert, ethnic Chinese strain to understand Turkic Uighurs’ thickly accented, broken Mandarin.

“Every Uighur student who comes here has already learned Chinese in elementary school. Their levels vary wildly, but they can all understand it at certain levels,” says Li Qiang, principal of Middle School No. 1 in Korla, a town in central Xinjiang.

But, he allows, “We sometimes need to work very hard to understand each other.”