Chinese Corner

Not Mandarin7 min read

An invitation to speak other Chineses – Will Sack


Imagine if all of Germany spoke Shanghainese. Or if a population bigger than Britain spoke Cantonese. Wouldn’t we treat them as more than just sideshows? With 80 and 70 million native speakers respectively, Shanghainese and Cantonese are massive in both use and importance. So why do we so seldom teach them or other non-Mandarin Chineses? Why aren’t we curious what one third of China – a politically and culturally marginalized, but not always economically marginalized, third – has to say and think on their own terms?

Korean is the fastest growing foreign language in US classrooms, but if we compared South Korea’s population with Shanghai’s, more people and more wealth coordinate to the latter. This is no saint’s crusade – much of the world’s wealth is increasingly centered on China’s south, where many of these non-Mandarin languages are spoken.

“Well, that’s all well and good,” you might be thinking, “but those are dialects, not real languages.”

There is no such thing as dialects. Or, perhaps there are only dialects, spread along a disjointed spectrum. Either way, the difference between national language and “dialect” grows out of the barrel of a gun. The subordination of languages is not a product of pronunciation or grammar, but rather of politics. Indeed, the very term “official language” delineates a phantom limb – those languages that have been pushed aside, if not actively strangled, to make way for a common speech. Towards this end, language classification, like racial classification, is a tool of those in power. The bounds of such divisions are viciously arbitrary, when in reality, we all tend to blur from one place to the next. Still, people favor the familiar, and are more willing to express themselves in what they consider their mother tongue. For idealistic and pragmatic reasons, then, we would all benefit from broader linguistic sympathies.

Some might see this as a bit much coming from a native speaker of English. Our widespread intolerance of “non-standard” English (e.g. Singaporean English) is appalling. If any language can be called invasive, it is English. So perhaps it is with English’s failings in mind that scholars like Jeffrey Weng aver that Mandarin should be called an egalitarian project. After all, the crafting of a common language is ideal in theory, and who are we to yell foul if it breaks some eggs in practice.

Despite its regal name in English, Mandarin or putonghua (meaning “the common tongue”) is not the common language of civil service members in past empires (guanhua). There is room to debate how far Taiwan and the mainland’s Mandarins have drifted, but for our purposes it’s important to note the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) deep imprint on the common speech. Standard putonghua uses northern pronunciations, especially those of Beijing. However, putonghua is also not Beijing’s language. (For Mandarin speakers, when’s the last time you heard the Beijinghua term cèi used to mean “break”?) Rather, CCP putonghua is a stand-in for generic northern Chinese, reflecting the gradual imposition of centralized culture and politics on Greater China.

Sixty years after its creation, though, is the “common speech” really common? When the Communist government announced that the official language of the country was an ostensible “common speech” in 1956, less than half of the population could speak it, and only half could understand it. In 2014, Beijing announced they believe one third of the country still lacks proficiency in Mandarin. Even without counting non-PRC Chinese, who speak “dialects” in far higher numbers, there are more PRC citizens who are not proficient in Mandarin than the entire population of the US – and that isn’t even counting those who speak Mandarin but have a different mother tongue.

there are more PRC citizens who are not proficient in Mandarin than the entire population of the US

Mandarin’s immensity emerges from the mind boggling scale of China – roughly twice the population of Europe. Such size also births far more diversity than many, both within and outside China, are willing to admit. It gives in to a certain kind of Orientalist trap to assume that everyone in China is the same, or that they could be understood in one language, one broad sweep. It is also politically useful to imagine a unitary China, with a common tongue. Just as few people claim to understand all of Europe, regionalization is a kind of intellectual humility: we’d be better served with “Sichuan hands” and “Jiangnan hands,” rather than China hands.

In navigating Taiwan, conversance in Taiwanese Hokkien (also known as Southern Min) has been irreplaceable for me. Once you leave Taipei, you’ll be better served in almost any interaction if you speak Taiwanese. Even in the capital city, however, I swear I get bigger helpings of food if I can order in Taiwanese. There is no more fundamental way of saying “I care” than speaking someone’s language.

This holds true not just in Greater China, but on the mainland as well. When I catch a cab in northeast China, as soon as I say my destination, the conversation begins: How long have you been here? Who taught you that? Why don’t you use putonghua? And my answer is simple: “I wanted to know you all better, so I learned your language.” And that small gesture has been rewarded a thousand times over: in food, access, work, and most of all, straight talk.

Now, at this point you might be saying, “They’re a third … for now. These languages are dying ones.” Actually, only one in particular, Shanghainese, is predicted to decline steeply in the coming years. More to the point, restrictions on other Chineses is a big reason why we should seek out these languages and their speakers. The CCP holds that other Chineses suggest other Chinas. This hints at the diversity of opinions these language communities contain. Students of China need to be more creative, or at least more intentional, in the languages we study. Remaining satisfied with Mandarin is a self-imposed obstacle to hearing marginalized voices: the poor and the old, the rural and the dissident.

Have a little gumption! Such restrictions hardly mean learning is impossible. The method for learning smaller ones might be more quixotic (step 1: learn the local card game), but for several languages there are formal schools available, many of which offer distance learning. I do not want to make any endorsements, but suffice it to say Google can connect you with Cantonese and Hokkien lessons. Learning a non-Mandarin Chinese language is a manageable, meaningful thing one can accomplish in the face of larger political currents.

Less obvious than racial genocides, the cultural destruction underneath campaigns to promote Mandarin is nonetheless appalling. They lacerate communities on the mainland today, just as they did in Singapore and Taiwan before. Even now, the governments in all three share a belief that other Chineses are inherently backwards, obstacles for the nation to overcome. The most horrific examples of such thinking in practice are among the Inner Asian peoples at China’s edge, where Uyghur, Mongolian and Tibetan are targeted for destruction. However, I cannot forget what I’ve seen among the supposedly protected Han Chinese core: dongbeihua drawling grandmothers who never see their grandchild, lest the child imprint on their speech; parents who sleep only five hours a night to work that extra shift to pay for daycare in “the” Chinese language.

Even if Hong Kong loses its grip on Cantonese, people are embracing other Chineses across Greater China. Taiwan has at last elevated Taiwanese, the language spoken at home by 71-82% of the country, to an official language, giving it near-parity with Mandarin. And in Singapore, other Chineses, such as Hakka, are returning to TV and the classroom.

While non-Mandarin Chineses are experiencing a political spring in Greater China, they have also shown surprising resilience within the PRC. Their demise, then, but also their meaninglessness, has been greatly exaggerated. Other Chineses suggest hundreds of millions of people waiting for a more open China. These are not splittist or rebellious voices, but equal members asking for a seat at a table where all of China can feel at home and flourish. We should learn what dreams these speakers have for China – or at least speak their language. ∎


Header image: From “700 Handy Words in Taiwanese Hokkien” (臺灣閩南語推薦用字700字詞), New Taipei City Education Bureau