Changing China

Giant on the move

Dialect fun

April 25, 2008

There is a common myth perpetrated about China — that everyone speaks “Chinese”.

There is in fact no single “Chinese” language.

There is an official language, Mandarin, taught at schools and used on the airwaves, yet even the government admits that only about half the country’s 1.3 billion population speak it fluently.

But there are hundreds, if not thousands, of other Chinese languages spoken in the country. The government calls them dialects, but linguistically the likes of Cantonese, Hokkien and Shanghainese are as distinct and mutually unintelligable as French, Spanish, German and English.

Linguists consider them separate languages, though many others are genuinely dialects. Mandarin has been promoted as a single unifying tongue by the Communists, and the Nationalists before them, as otherwise somebody from Guangzhou would find it impossible to speak to somebody from Beijing or Shanghai.

Poster promoting the use of Mandarin and Chinese characters in Beijing

That makes total sense. But Chinese “dialects” today are increasingly marginalised, which is, I think, a great loss for Chinese people and their centuries-old culture, both in China and abroad.

I love going to Singapore and hearing people chatting away in Hokkien, Teochiu, Hakka, Hainanese and Cantonese, even if my knowledge of these languages is limited to being able to say “pai sei” (“I’m sorry”) and “ti a bo” (“I don’t understand”) in Hokkien — phrases I picked up from my time in Taiwan, where the language is normally known as Taiwanese.

I’m sad to hear more and more young Singaporeans speaking to each other in Mandarin, and more than one Singaporean friend has told me that they think they’ll be the last generation who can speak so-called dialects.

In China, there is now a recognition that dialects form an integral part of the nation’s fabric, though there are no moves, as far as I know, to introduce teaching in dialects at school, as happens to a limited degree now in Taiwan.

Tang dynasty poetry, taught to every Chinese schoolchild and extremely beautiful, sounds a lot better read out in Cantonese or Hokkien than Mandarin.

At the time they were written, the court language more closely resembled these southern Chinese tongues. Today there is only very limited official support in China for dialects: a few radio shows in Shanghainese or Cantonese, and the odd academic trying to protect dialects in danger of dying out.

Yet two places in the Chinese world buck this trend — Hong Kong and Taiwan. In Hong Kong, Cantonese is still very much alive and kicking. The more racy newspapers fill their columns with stories written in colloquial Cantonese, using Chinese characters which only exist in Cantonese, and make no sense to a Mandarin speaker like myself. I now have a Cantonese dictionary to try and make sense of some of these words.

And in Taiwan, where the Nationalist government once ruthlessly supressed Taiwanese and Hakka in a bid to get everyone to speak Mandarin, Taiwanese is once more very much back in the limelight, thanks to the Democratic Progressive Party of President Chen Shui-bian, which has tried to promote the island’s native culture. Taiwanese words are liberally peppered into everyday speech, almost as a fashion statement, and appear in newspapers. I learnt a new expression in March when in Taipei to cover the presidential election. “Ao bo”, meaning “dirty tricks”.

Now that I have mastered Mandarin (I would never dare call myself fluent as I’m not a native speaker), I’d like to learn another Chinese language. It would either be Cantonese or Hokkien — both have some great swear words. Yet the one thing that rather daunts me is the number of tones in these two languages.

Mandarin has just four, and it took me rather a long time just to master even them. Hokkien has 5, 6, 7 or 8, depending on how you classify them and in what part of the Hokkien-speaking world you are in. Cantonese has around 9. Again, there is debate on that. I think I’ll be sticking with Mandarin in the short term.

Picture of a sign promoting the use of Mandarin by Alfred Cheng Jin


“but linguistically the likes of Cantonese, Hokkien and Shanghainese are as distinct and mutually unintelligable as French, Spanish, German and English.”

People who claims the above are the most unitelligable of all, for all the Chinese people use the same written langauge with the same grammar ,vocabulary and syntax etc.. The only different is the pronounciation are different or slightly different depending which dialects you are comparing, but it is refering to the same word and meaning.

It is unlike spanish and English for example. How do you write and say “good-bye” in English and Spanish? Do they use the same word “good-bye”? On the contrary,the different Chinese dialect uses the same word but the pronounciation of the words are different or slightly different in most of circumstance depending on which dialect you are comparing. I suggest the writter take a Chinese language beginning lesson.

Posted by Mark | Report as abusive

why would anyone who could barely speak anything in Chinese (whichever lovely dialect he chooses) would proclaim his rather mis-directed sadness so openly? Allow me to make two points here:

1. Young people start using more Mandarin Chinese because they see the value in their future. As a local HK commercial for Mandarin studies so directly states, “China is rising and come to study Mandarin!”

2. Our writer felt sad over the loss of the rich dialects. But the truth is far from it. People all over Europe and Asia are mostly bi-lingual or multilingual. That means they can choose which language/dialect to use per parties they communicate with. If the writer only travels in China for a week, he would easily find people in each locale speak a dialect of their own.

It just reminds me of an old Chinese saying, “people with half bottle full make a lot of noise.” Why would a mere beginner in Chinese make such a sweeping statement? It is time for a lesson on Chinese culture!

Posted by George | Report as abusive

The best definition of Language I ever heard was that it is a Dialect with a flag and an army.

Other than that, I’d like to point out that someone who speaks Portuguese, Spanish, French or Italian can understand the other languages to some degree, but not fully.

Among the Chinese languages, the strong difference in pronunciation makes up for the same characters being used. Also, the very foundation of the Chinese languages are different, the comparison with writing the same way is inappropriate. It can also be pointed out that some Cantonese and Hokkien words have no equivalent in Mandarin, and cannot be written.

Posted by Zictor | Report as abusive

It seems that the writer never travelled in China before. If he did, he should not have written such a article, most of which are not the truth. Before commenting on something, please get to know more about it.

Posted by Carol | Report as abusive

This is a comment to Ben Blanchard’s 4/29/2008 article,”China jails 17 for Tibetan riots”. I was going to e-mail him, but I couldn’t find his e-mail address.

I was deeply disturbed by the use quotation mark around “innocent civilians” as in …
government-in-exile for plotting the riots, in which at least 18 “innocent civilians,” according to Beijing, were killed by …

Ben might be implying that what Beijing says are not all creditable. I have to agree on that. However, it is beyond any dispute that many innocent Han Chinese fell victims of the riot; they died of horroble, senseless violence. By using “innocent civilians” with quotation marks, I find the author as unbelievably insentive to the people whoe were murderred.

Posted by Yong Yue | Report as abusive

It looks like that you think you know a lot about the language and are having fun showing off you limited knowledge, but I just want to point out that it won’t impress anyone as any 5th grade kid in China outperform your knowledge about the language.

It also made me laugh when you say “the governments call them dialects”. Where did you learn that, or it’s your imagination? I’d like to know an example of a language that YOUR government told you to use.

Anyway, from this blog, I learned what an arrogant and ignorant person you are. Now I know your name, I will watch out and avoid when I see an article.

Posted by zhao zi long | Report as abusive

I think Mr. Blanchard is generally accurate in his post and I find some of the comments posted in response to be ignorant.

I am ethnically Chinese and I studied both Mandarin and Southern Min (aka Hokkien/Taiwanese) throughout my time in college at Stanford University as well as in my own independent research.

Spanish, Italian, and French are Latin dialects just as Mandarin, Taiwanese, Cantonese, etc. are Chinese dialects. But in the same way as Spanish and Italian can be treated as separate languages, so can Mandarin and Taiwanese. Whether you want to call something a dialogue or language often is defined by politics and perception–not necessarily by substance.

There are more differences than simply different pronounciations for the same words. Take Taiwanese and Mandarin for example. First, Taiwanese has 7 tones. It preserved 7 out of the 8 tones standardized in the Tang Dynasty. Second, Taiwanese has much more extensive tone change rules than Mandarin. Every word in a phrase will have a tone change when spoken. Third, Taiwanese has a literary and vernacular register, meaning the same word will have two different pronounciations depending on the context of use. Classical poetry are read in literary register while nursery rhymes will likely be read in the vernacular register. Fourth, although Mandarin and Taiwanese share many of the same written characters, the same characters can mean different things. For example, the word for walk in Mandarin “zou” is pronounced “zao” in Taiwanese, but it means “to run”–not “to walk”! Fifth, even though there is a common set of characters, simple words like “toothbrush”, “lights”, and “scissors” are expressed using different characters in Taiwanese than in Mandarin. Sixth, some Taiwanese words, usually the vernacular words, simply don’t have a character that is equivalently used in Mandarin. Seventh, there are plays, poetry, songs, and stories written in Taiwanese that would not rhyme, sound well, or make sense if read or heard in Mandarin.

China should appreciate its diversity in culture and not belittle its great cultural wealth. After all, what makes Chinese “Chinese” is not a government or even a certain gene. It is culture.

Posted by Jonathan | Report as abusive

I do not know an awful lot about Asian languages and dialects. But I know from going to culturally diverse schools in Canada, that Mandarin speaking kids have little trouble communicating with Cantonese speaking kids when speaking in their own dialects. And the writing is the same – they pass notes to each other during class :-P It’s the same language… unless you want to call Scottish and Canadian English different languages than American English? I’m not calling them dialects either, just saying, same language, different way of pronouncing some words. And for the record, when I was in Scotland, it wasn’t easy understanding the English spoken there.

Posted by Tiffany | Report as abusive

I think this is a well-written and interesting article. The writer is offering his own perspective on the language and does not claim to know everything about Chinese.

Keep up the good work Ben, and to all y’all haters, stop hatin’.

Posted by Russ | Report as abusive

I have to agree with Tiffany 100 percent. Mandarin is mandarin, there shouldn’t be any deputes of who is what between the Taiwanese Mandarin and mainland China Mandarin. They are identical in pronunciation with each has its own accent and a bit local culture added to their speech. That just saying New Yorkers will have no problem understanding Texans and will never say that Texans are speaking a dialect of American.

However, on the other hand, if one must insisted Mandarin is a Chinese dialect. He/she could be right at a certain degree. Frankly we must dig back to the very beginning of China’s thousands years of history when the regions at that time were greatly divided itself and conquered by several rulers and each region spoke own languages/dialects. During which period of time mandarin was only one dialect amongst hundred of other and it hasn’t became the official language until to date.

Posted by NoWhereNear | Report as abusive

When Russ learns more about Chinese, I think he’ll understand the situation better. Keep trying buddy. Also, I think you’re much better off claiming fluency than saying “I have mastered Mandarin”.

Posted by Alan | Report as abusive

I’m suprised at the amount of animosity exhibited by Alan, NoWhereNear(way to post a real name), Mark, George, Carol and others. It seems once again that an individual’s absolute and total familiarity with all aspects of China and Chinese culture is the single qualification to make any comment on either.

As an advanced Chinese Learner, I have run into similar situations several times. Although I would not claim fluency or having mastered Mandarin, I can hold my own, yet have been flustered and frustrated several times by the complete uselessness of Mandarin in certain areas of China. In fact, I have met very few Chinese who are unwilling to admit that they themselves have been unable to communicate with people within their own country due to topolectical or dialectical differences.

Zhao zi long, you’re an ass.

Posted by Jake | Report as abusive

Actually,CHINA Han Ethnic has more than 1000 dialects,those all dialects have same writting called HANZI,so we call it CHINESE. In order to differ different dialects orally,we made Mandarin be an official oral Chinese,then all Chinese no matter where you’re from,can understand each other well. Cantonese,Taiwanese,Shanghainese,Hainane se are all merely local dialects of Chinese,they are not a language at all,as we all use same handwritting.
For example,my hometown is Hubei,i could not speak Mandarin when i was there,i speak Mandarin after studying in other city,it’s so easy for a Chinese to speak mandarin.

Why China’s han did not have different languages? The reason is simple: As Chinese HANZI(Character) were created long time ago,it’s hard to change its form.So all Chinese use hanzi,then oral Chinese tone changed after people migrated.But the handwritting not changed at all. Some linguistics even said this is one of the reasons China can be a unified country in different periods of history. Becoz Latin language ‘s form easily be changed,so Europe had different countries from long time ago.

Posted by Hubei | Report as abusive

So great to have some objective, knowledgeable reporting on China and its many beautiful languages. Its stories like this that will empower people to embrace the beauty of each and every language and preserve them for generations to come.

Mandarin is a great language, so beautiful and ageless. It is evolving as are all langauges and that’s what makes speaking and writing it such a pleasure.

Ben’s knowledge of the language and over 10 years experience in the region, as well as his vast vocabulary of both unsimplified and simplified characters ensure his insights are true and well thought out. Keep up the great work Ben!

Posted by rawboy | Report as abusive

First and foremost, to Ben Blanchard, I would like to commend you on a well thought out and informative article. I plan on posting a link to this article on Myspace for my friends to read.

To many of the ignorant commenters I\’ve read from above, I think it is deplorable how very uninformed people have been lambasting this writer. I am ethnically Chinese but raised in the United States. My family\’s dialect is DioJiu (also spelled commonly known as TeoChew and ChiuJau), which is part of the Min(Minnan)subgroup of dialects. I speak English fluently as I\’ve resided in the U.S. since the age of 5 months, but also speak fluent DioJiu, learned a smidgen of Spanish from friends, smidgen of French in high school, and went to Chinese language school to learn Mandarin and write in hanzi (Chinese character script) although I am not at all fluent in Mandarin, I can understand it when spoken to me better than I can reply. Speaking from experience, what Blanchard said is absolutely true. Linguistically, the languages of China were united to use the same writing system because the government devised that it would unite the country and allow people to communicate. China is large and this occured when its kingdoms were united into what is relatively the territory of modern China. People were encouraged to learn Mandarin-later forced even-to speak to one another but could also communicate by writing. In ancient times, people were not educated in schools but learned information passed down orally. Not everyone could write, least of all the poor peasants. This was possible because at the time, not all languages of China likely had their own writing system. Chinese characters are not phonetically read but are ideograms, depicting an idea rather than a sound. Spoken tongues sharing the same writing system are defined as being the same language, whereas a dialect is defined as a variety of a language sharing a writing system but differing in speech. So you can see why Chinese cannot be defined as different languages although they are. This is why Chinese is considered one language. However, linguists do acknowledge that were it not for the singular writing system, China would indeed be considered to have many native languages. This is because most Chinese cannot understand each other while speaking different dialects. However, as noted in a comment, Chinese youth would have no difficulty passing notes in class, because all writing is written the same. In some dialects, spoken idioms and grammar are different when written because they must be converted to the standardized Mandarin version. Some colloquialisms have no translation in other dialects. It is true that people can sometimes understand other dialects because they can guess at the meanings of some words, but this is only true of those dialects from the same region of the country. Unless using Mandarin, a northern Chinese would not understand a southern Chinese by speaking for example. Two southern Chinese speaking different dialects could passably communicate. They could all communicate by writing however.

Posted by Rose Chea | Report as abusive

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