Dialect Adventures9 min read

Colin Jones reviews Dialect and Nationalism in China: 1860-1960 by Gina Anne Tam

In 1961, Yuen Ren Chao sat down in Berkeley to answer a question: ‘What is correct Chinese?’ Chao – one of China’s first and most brilliant scholars of modern linguistics – had grown up in Jiangsu in the 1890s; his first words were spoken in the idiom of the communities linked by the waterways of the Grand Canal. In the course of his education, he learned Mandarin, the official language of the Qing court. He also mastered the conventions of the classical writing style. This not only connected him to a literary tradition that stretched back into antiquity, it also gave him a shared language with the scholastic elite across the empire. The speech they used in daily life differed tremendously depending on the region, but as Chao recalled, “every literate person had to write the correct characters, form the right sentences in the classical language, and pronounce in their reading according to the tradition.” If their pronunciations sounded nothing alike, that was a small matter: “The actual sounds were beneath the concern of most literary scholars.”

In the half century that followed, the sprawling, polyglot empire of the Qing was reconstituted as a nation state, and virtually every element of the linguistic world Chao knew was thrown into disarray. The literary prose Chao cherished came under attack during the nationalist awakening of the May Fourth Movement. For an emergent vanguard, mass literacy and national consciousness demanded that writing that was closer to speech. Lu Xun, one of the most well-known writers of his day, wanted to eliminate Chinese characters altogether, replacing them with a phonetic system: “Either we cling to the old script and die, or we rid ourselves of it and live.” But if speech was the essence of language, that meant the actual sounds mattered very much. Debates raged across the 1910s and 1920s over whose voices would speak for the nation, as competing visions of China’s future fused with new empirical methods for dissecting speech.

Chao entered the fray in 1921, when he spent a year creating a textbook and accompanying audio recordings for a new national language. The result was a kind of Chinese Esperanto, a composite of the array of different speech in the fragmented Republic of China, brought together based on a set of linguistic rules Chao had formulated that emphasized commonality and sounds that pleased the ear. Like Esperanto, it was a failure. “For thirteen years I was the sole speaker of this idiolect, meant to be the national language of 4, 5, or 600 million speakers,” Chao wrote. That was only partly true. Some hapless Harvard students who took Chao’s classes had also picked up a little.

Ultimately, in 1925, Mandarin was chosen as the standard language for the Republic of China. In 1958, Zhou Enlai implicitly ratified the decision for the People’s Republic. In the same decree that established the simplified character set as the official Chinese script and pinyin as the official system for romanization, Zhou declared that Mandarin would be the “common tongue,” or putonghua, within the PRC. Writing three years after Zhou’s pronouncement, Chao registered his dissent by continuing to use classical characters and his own system of romanization. Even the way he spelled his name, Yuen Ren Chao, was a kind of quiet protest against the PRC’s language policies. Following the conventions of pinyin, he would be Zhao Yuanren.

Sixty years on, the PRC’s standards have become the dominant referents for what Chinese looks and sounds like, and yet variation is still the rule rather than the exception. Within the PRC, the first tongue spoken by as much as 80 percent of the population is something other than Putonghua. Beyond its borders, in the Chinese diaspora, Cantonese and Hokkien rival Mandarin as the most common version of Chinese you will hear, while the traditional Chinese characters remain the norm in most Chinatowns. Thus when Chao asked, ‘What is correct Chinese?,’he was raising another and more salient question: ‘What do we mean by “Chinese” at all?’

Chao created a kind of Chinese Esperanto. Like Esperanto, it was a failure.”

There is no one answer, or not yet, argues Gina Anne Tam in her recent book Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860-1960. Taking in a large sweep of Chinese history – from early 19th century translations of the Bible into vernacular Chinese, to Cultural Revolution-era language campaigns – Tam stresses the staying power of the myriad “localized and diverse” forms of the Chinese language throughout national consolidation and the campaign for standardization. This cuts against the ideal of linguistic uniformity aspired to by the central government of the People’s Republic. For Tam, the more important point is that it also undermines the state’s monopoly on Chinese nationalism. A China united under Putonghua is also one that revolves around Beijing. By contrast, the abiding plurality of the Chinese language offers a way to recover the multiple and sometimes clashing ways of being Chinese in the modern era.

‘Dialect’ is the word used in the title, but Tam’s actual subject is not quite that. The backbone of the book is formed around the Chinese term fangyan, which Tam leaves mostly untranslated. In contemporary usage, fangyan carries the connotation of “dialect” as well as “regional language,” conflating forms of speech that differ mainly by accent with those that feature substantially different grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. The linguistic distance between Mandarin, Cantonese and Shanghainese is roughly as great as those between French, Spanish and Portuguese. Cantonese and Shanghainese, however, can still be called fangyan of the larger linguistic group of “Chinese,” while Mandarin is the standard against which all other iterations are measured.

Fangyan in this sense is a modern concept. Two millennia ago, poet and philosopher Yang Xiong compiled a dictionary of regionally unique expressions that he titled Fangyan, but the rise of nationalism and comparative linguistics in the 19th century refashioned the meanings ascribed to China’s various idioms. European missionaries and consular officers laid the important conceptual groundwork when they recorded the phonetic differences of regional speech and tried to work out their relationship to one another using linguistic family trees. Chinese language reformers in the last years of the Qing dynasty and the early-Republican era drew on this body of knowledge, as well as centuries of domestic scholarship on Chinese phonology, as they devised various schemes for what the national language would be.

The linguistic distance between Mandarin, Cantonese and Shanghainese is roughly as great as those between French, Spanish and Portuguese”

The history of how, from disparate parts, a standard form of Chinese was defined and propagated has been told several times, most enduringly by John DeFrancis in his 1950 book Nationalism and Language Reform in China. Tam’s account largely follows the path cut by her predecessors, but her main interest lies in instances that interrupt and complicate the route. In these detours, she suggests, we can find a different vision of how modern China might fit together. To that end, she highlights late-Qing gazetteers in which budding nationalists boasted that Cantonese was a more authentic version of Chinese than the idiom of the north. Her treatment of the May Fourth Movement points to the swell of interest in local vernacular that emerged at the same time that students and intellectuals were calling for national unity. Here she follows the essayist Zhou Zuoren into the countryside, where he imagined he was capturing the essence of the national spirit by transcribing folksongs and the vernacular in which they were expressed. Even during the Mao era, when fangyan were recast as tethers to a feudal past, Tam points out that Red dramatists consistently found themselves making concessions to local vernacular.

Tam is of two minds about what to make of these departures. She has an obvious affinity for the plural, heterogenous conceptions of Chinese nationalism she catalogues. Yet she recognizes that even if the alternatives embodied in fangyan have not been wiped out by the state, they have largely been accommodated. Campaigns to preserve local dialects, as we have seen recently in Guangzhou, do not challenge Putonghua’s hegemony as much as they bolster it, institutionalizing “fangyan exclusively as local cultural heritage.” Still, Tam is quick to point out that this settlement is not stable. Enduring linguistic difference makes fertile soil for defiance, as the recent protests in Hong Kong have demonstrated. The street-level struggle against the PRC’s seizure of administrative control has transformed Cantonese into a “language of resistance,” in which both the content and phonetics of slogans such as gwongfuk Hoenggong, sidoi gaakming (“Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times”) declare a Chinese identity autonomous from that promoted by Beijing.

So, can fangyan rescue Chinese nationalism from the state? This impulse to juxtapose language against politics is appealing because it suggests a form of collectivity that, rather than being imposed by an autocratic bureaucracy, arises organically out of the very words and grammar through which we access the world. That is true today as it was once for Johann Gottfried Herder, the ur-philosopher of language and nationalism, who declaimed that “each nation speaks in accordance with its thought and thinks in accordance with its speech.” Language is supposed to connect us in time and space to those who, because they speak like us, share our way of life. But no matter how tightly these linguistic circles are drawn, they tend to only reiterate nationalism’s erasures and exclusions, albeit at a smaller scale. There is little room, for example, to consider class, gender, and other power structures. For China in particular, it also makes it difficult to keep in view citizens whose languages are not rooted in the Chinese character set – Uyghur, Tibetan, Dai, the indigenous peoples of Taiwan – as well as the forms of multi-ethnic, civic nationalism so important in China since the Republican era. No version of the Chinese language is adequate to represent the state or these identities. And once the issue of representation is broached, all the baggage of politics comes roaring back. ∎

Gina Anne Tam, Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860-1960, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020).
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