Giant on the move
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.
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