Dialect Adventures

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.”