Before traveling to China on a Light Fellowship this summer, I often touted China’s rather liberal minority language policy as a fine example of protecting native languages and promoting bilingualism in modern and modernizing societies. In China, minority languages (in this case, non-Han languages), whether small or large, are used a vehicle for education at the primary level and available for study at the post-secondary level. For example, even Xibe, a Tungusic language, very similar to Classical Manchu, with some 40,000 speakers, is offered as an undergraduate major at, at least, one university in China.
My time in China, however, opened my eyes to a sad irony. Though the Chinese government has done much to protect non-Han minority languages and traditions, it is apathetic at best when it comes to preserving the diverse languages of the Han people, who together comprise more than 90 percent of the Chinese population.
“Diverse languages of the Han people?” Most readers, no doubt, believe that there is only one Han language. Certainly, most Chinese, for complex historical and political reasons, feel the same way. However, from a scientific perspective, this notion is untenable. Though a language may not be “a dialect with an army and a navy,” it should still be considered a language.
The major scientific criterion for delineating the boundaries between languages is mutual intelligibility. Given, then, that the so-called Wu “dialects,” the speech of Shanghai and the surrounding area, cannot be understood at all by the people of Beijing, we are really speaking, not of different dialects, but of different languages: the Mandarin language, on the one hand, and the Wu language, on the other. And there are several such languages in China: Yue (generally known as “Cantonese”), Hakka (Kejia), and the two or more Min languages, to name a few.
However, these languages are not recognized as such by the government. Indeed, the government does not even acknowledge their value as fangyan (“regional speech-forms.”) Instead, the officials and policymakers totally neglect them, while aggressively promoting Mandarin as the language of all media and only permitting education in standard Mandarin. According to a television reporter who interviewed me at a school in Shanghai, the only television programming in Shanghai hua was limited to 90 minuteson Thursdays. At the same school, all of the students with whom I spoke were Shanghai natives and yet completely ignorant of the native language of their city.
Indisputably, the proliferation of standard Mandarin has many advantages, and if the proliferation were free and voluntary, I would be the last to oppose it. However, not only is the standard speech being forced upon non-Mandarin speakers, but this duress has also resulted in a sense of inferiority amongst the middle-aged and older speakers who did not grow up speaking Mandarin, and among youth who still use non-Mandarin Chinese at home. As one taxi driver told me, when I asked him about about his native Shanghai speech: “Standard speech is best.” Some linguists report that educated Shanghai people often state they are “embarrassed” by their city’s native tongue. When speaking to a man from Fujian, in southeast China, he told me that, in his experience, only old people speak Fujian hua (“Fujianese” — an ambiguous term considering the several forms of Chinese once prevalent in the province!). He also added that Standard Mandarin was better anyway.
The Chinese government, of course, in promoting the standard language, wishes to promote and maintain national unity. However, there can be no real unity without equality. Unity cannot be obtained when some peoples and cultures are censored and deemed inferior, especially by themselves, merely because of their speech. China’s regional speech forms, despite government pressure, thus far, have been fairly resilient, indicating speakers’ strong desire to keep them alive — even that “standard-speech-is-best” taxi driver told us he spoke Shanghainese at home with his kids.
There is yet time for the Chinese government to change its course and create an environment in which all minority-language speakers, Han and non-Han, can partake of equal protections and opportunities, and the many vibrant Han languages, buried alive in shallow graves, can breathe freely again.
OpinionMikitish: Burried AliveBefore traveling to China on a Light fellowship this summer, I often touted China’s rather liberal minority language policy as a fine example of protecting native languages and promoting bilingualism in modern and modernizing societies.