Locals, foreigners try to keep Chinese dialects alive despite Putonghua dominance

By Zhang Yiqian Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/22 19:08:40

In China, local dialects reflect self-identity, but Putonghua plays a role in holding the country together

The Chinese government has been pushing for the use of Putonghua for years, in order to create convenience as well as maintain national unity

Some Chinese and Westerners in recent years are putting more effort into preserving local Chinese dialects

Conservationists say dialects are connected to local cultures and even individual identities

Phrases from the local dialect are printed on a restaurant wall in Xi'an, Northwest China's Shaanxi Province. Photo: CFP


Throughout her school years, Hu Shuning was repeatedly told not to use her local dialect, but to use Putonghua instead.

She remembers walking on the streets of Suzhou, East China's Jiangsu Province and seeing government slogans that read "Speak Putonghua, be civilized." During high school and college, all her teachers were required to not use any dialect when in class, otherwise they'd be fined.

Hu grew up in the 1990s, when a government-led campaign to popularize Putonghua swept through China, pushing the country's official spoken language which is based on northern dialects, especially Beijing's. Putonghua is different from the Suzhou dialect to the extent that they are mutually unintelligible.

Suzhou and the surrounding regions were historically viewed with a touch of romanticism. Poets writing about Suzhou have always mentioned its scenery, food, beautiful women and lively nightlife.

To Hu, most of that heritage has been lost. Now, years later, when she walks the streets of Suzhou, all the slogans about Putonghua are gone, but so are the people speaking local dialect, wearing traditional clothes or making embroideries in small workshops.

Reviving tradition

Hu started taking an interest in preserving the Suzhou dialect when she went on an exchange program abroad during college. Feeling homesick, she started looking up her hometown on the Internet and stumbled across a forum where people were exchanging views and information on the Suzhou dialect, and started getting involved.

In 2012, she went back to Suzhou to teach Spanish and spent all her spare time researching the local dialect. She spent years writing a textbook that spells out its words phonetically, so people can learn it in an easier way.

In 2015, Hu started a WeChat public account that focuses on teaching the dialect. The account releases lessons daily and advertises the offline activities Hu and her team hold. She holds open lessons, both about China's dialects and about traditions and lifestyles that are long lost. The lessons have attracted many people, both local residents and tourists.

In general, Hu feels that in recent years, more and more young people are neglecting their local dialects. Their ways of speaking are evolving, and some words and pronunciations are fading from existence. She thinks that work needs to be done to keep them alive.

"Language constitutes a large part of culture," Hu said. A dialect's unique words show the lifestyle and traditions of the people who speak it. For example, there's a word in the Suzhou dialect that refers to a person standing in the hallway of a noodle restaurant, calling out people's orders. Hu said this reflects the noodle-eating culture of old Suzhou.

Personally, she thinks this culture and dialect are connected to her identity and define who she is. She grew up in an older part of town, surrounded by people speaking the ancient dialect and practicing traditional trades.

Recent years have seen more and more effort put into preserving dialects and Chinese culture from both Chinese and foreigners.

In 2013, two Americans - Kellen Parker and Steve Hanson - founded Phonemica, a website dedicated to presenting audio stories spoken in various Chinese dialects, many of which are thought to be on the edge of extinction. The site includes a map showing where each dialect is spoken and approximately how many people still speak it.

Phonemica is also known as Xiang Yin Yuan (Local Dialects Garden). On the website, you can see colored balloons that indicate different language systems. The balloons are pinned onto a map of China, to indicate where the languages are used. If you click on a balloon, you will hear a story told by a person in that dialect, and you can easily follow along reading one of the multilingual transcripts that are displayed as you listen.

The website has also become more popular since media exposure.

A volunteer speaks at a gathering held by Hu Shuning in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. Photo: Courtesy of Hu Shuning

Identity crisis

The identity crisis Hu feels is shared by others in China. A Shanghai resident surnamed Wu told the Global Times he doesn't feel a sense of belonging to any city, doesn't speak any dialect and doesn't even know what regional traditions he connects with. Even though he lived in Shanghai for the most of his childhood, he doesn't recognize it as his hometown in the traditional sense because he cannot speak Shanghaiese.

Zhuang Chusheng, a professor of linguistics at the Guangzhou-based Sun Yat-sen University, has long worried that China isn't doing enough to preserve the local dialects.

At first, pushing for greater Putonghua penetration was the right move, because there were multiple mutually unintelligible dialects being spoken within one area in some regions and it was difficult to carry on the day-to-day work of a modern economy. Zhuang said it was necessary under such circumstances to spread Putonghua, otherwise society's development would have been impeded.

But the situation nowadays is different as the usage of Putonghua has grown exponentially. According to research, the population of fluent speakers has grown over 20 percent in some areas in the last decade. In many areas, it's not even the government driving the popularization of Putonghua, but the market. In these regions, usage of the language is purely voluntary among residents. 

Zhuang believes the situation is threatening local dialects, with some smaller dialects facing extinction or already having disappeared.

"For example, the Waxiang dialect used in the Wuling mountainous region in Hunan Province and the She dialect used by the She ethnicity, are near extinction. Some larger authoritative dialects, including the Shanghai dialect, the Xiamen dialect or the Fuzhou dialect are also gradually being spurned by younger generations," he said.

Many young people nowadays have been told to speak Putonghua since they were young, and teachers also imprint upon them the idea that Putonghua and dialects cannot coexist, Zhuang said. Hu also agreed with this, saying she has observed that years of Putonghua-centric education has made many think dialects are outdated and tacky.

Furthermore, there are policies that some argue restrict dialects a little too much. For example, in 2014, the then State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT) announced that all of the country's TV presenters were banned from intentionally speaking non-Putonghua dialects when hosting shows. This was highly debated and vehemently protested by many, especially those in Cantonese-speaking regions.

"The policy on the Chinese language, which came out in 2001, pointed out that dialects can be used on TV under some circumstances, but it needs to be approved by State or provincial radio and TV authorities. It doesn't prohibit local stations from delivering shows in a dialect," Zhuang said. "So this act is wrong."

Many such dialectical shows are popular across China. In Hangzhou, there is a regular news commentary item in the local dialect, as well as in Chongqing and Nanjing. But such shows are often restricted by SARFT and some officials even say such shows need to be forced out of prime time, Zhuang said.

It's also being discussed whether such a policy is being implemented for purpose of national unity.

The government's measure isn't without precedent. During the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC), the first emperor of China released policies to push for a unified spoken language and writing system to stabilize his rule.

However, the excessive tightness of the policy may have even fostered extremism in the dialect protection circle, Hu said.

"Some people even advocate the independence of the Wu dialect region, they even have a flag ready," she said. "Because they think with the current language policy, they'll be eliminated anyway, so they might as well go for independence."

In recent years, however, the policy is being relaxed, Zhuang said. A few language-preservation programs are being led by local governments since 2015 to document nearly extinct languages in order to better protect and preserve them.

"The popularization of Putonghua is a national policy written in the Constitution. It's important but it doesn't conflict with the preservation of dialects," Zhuang said.

In Guangzhou, Guangdong Province for example, the children all have sufficient level of Putonghua, but they still prefer to speak Cantonese in private. They also have many opportunities to learn Cantonese, because their neighbors still speak it, the metro, bus, radio, TV all have Cantonese-language shows or channels, so the children grow up speaking the dialect and will have more attachment to their hometowns and local cultures, said Zhuang.

One thing that's clear, is that there are more and more people like Hu, who want to understand their heritage. She thinks the situation is better nowadays, at least people recognize and support their cause.

"I know people who have been protecting dialects 10 years ago, at that time, many accused them of falling to 'localism,'" she said. "So for us, we are trying to take this as far as we can."

Newspaper headline: Death-defying dialects

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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