‘A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language’

This interesting little book by David Moser gives you the story of how the national Chinese language, Putonghua (普通话, ‘common speech’) came to be, and answers lots of interesting little questions about how that worked.

The most important takeaway from the book is the fact that getting all Chinese to understand each other is a continuing project. Much of the country remains unable to speak Putonghua; using 2014 figures, the author pegs it at around 400m people who are unable to communicate using the language.

The push for language reform really got going in the 20th century. Prior to the change, the situation really was quite dire (at least to modern, Western ears). It’s a wonder they managed to govern such a large territory at all, but they had an administrative language:

The Qing imperial bureaucracy had always managed to function under this situation of polyglot diversity by adopting a special version of Chinese for usage among literati and officialdom that they called guanhua, ‘the speech of officialdom’. This was a specialised common tongue based on the speech of the educated elite in Beijing, and it allowed Qing officials from different regions to communicate in speech and writing.

The official written language of China remained the Classical Chinese of the past two thousand years, i.e. books were not written in the modern vernacular. The author compares this situation to a London of the 1920s in which scholarly books were still published in Latin and thus only enjoyed by a small percentage of people.

But which language should reformers choose as the new national standard? The rather significant problem was choosing between the sheer range of languages in the country: Mandarin (‘northern speech’), Wu, Gan, Xiang, Min, Cantonese, and Hakka, constituted the seven major groups, at least conventionally. Each has dozens of shifting subgroups and varieties.

The task before the committee was, in the words of S. Robert Ramsey, ‘like choosing one of the vernacular Romance tongues to replace Latin in a Europe just emerging from the Middle Ages.’

Some of the dialects could understand each other, but many could not, and hence are different languages altogether, under the conventional definition of languages (mutually unintelligible) and dialects (mutually intelligible).

The first official attempt at standardising the language failed, and it wasn’t until 1926 that the government finally simply adopted the Beijing dialect as the new national language of China.

The second theme within the language debate surrounded the script. Traditional Chinese is not a phonetic language:

In sum, the phonetic function of the characters was so weak or inconsistent as to be more of a distraction than an aid to memory. Or, as one article about the difficulties of Chinese put it: ‘Chinese is phonetic in the way that sex is aerobic; technically true but in practice not the most salient thing about it.’

The Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek responded positively to calls from some academics for a new phonetic alphabet (though they didn’t impose Esperanto, as some were calling for). However, they did not fully replace the characters, and ultimately there were no meaningful changes.

It is easy to forget that, for most Chinese then (and even now) there was an almost sacred reverence for the Chinese characters. Chinese traditionalists tended to ascribe almost mystical semiotic power to the characters, seeing them not just as symbols for semantic meaning, but as embodying the essence of Chinese culture itself. To eliminate the characters would be tantamount to eradicating Chinese civilisation.

Before it took power in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party was keen to replace the characters with a new phonetic system devised by Chinese immigrants in the USSR. Once in place as the country’s leader, however, Mao failed to implement the alphabet. Instead, his government simplified the characters, to little real effect; a 12.5% reduction in the number of strokes for the most common 2,000 characters. This was marginal progress, Moser concedes; the real problem was the lack of literacy in the population.

Under Mao, the ‘pinyin’ system was created and adopted: a standardised way of writing Chinese in the Latin alphabet. Moser is upbeat on this move, which boosted literacy rates and made Chinese more accessible to Western media and scholars (as anyone who has used it can attest).

The latter part of the book deals with the challenge of broadcasting and media as China opened up. Media organisations were caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of official encouragements to use Putonghua and commercial pressures not to. (Strangely enough, it was hard to get people to watch TV in a language that they couldn’t understand.) Ultimately, it was hard to impose the language successfully, even in this area:

In a country with such centralised media control, why was the language policy so inconsistently and weakly applied? Part of the reason was that the language committees had never really resolved the longstanding question of whether Putonghua was to ultimately replace all regional dialects, or to act as a convenient standard, allowing dialects to continue unchecked. This left a grey area for dialects to creep in.

The tensions between the modern standardised language of China and the historic diversity led to some amusing contradictions:

In October 2005, SARFT [the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television] followed up with another regulation, ‘On Further Reiterating the Use of the Standard Language in TV Series’, which, among other things, mandated that ‘National leaders depicted in TV series should speak Putonghua’… This provision was quite historic, in that it finally succeeded in coercing Mao and other historic Chinese leaders to learn standard Putonghua – at least for the lines in the script. SARFT never explained the rationale for this particular ruling, but the regulation violated media common sense. Chinese television churns out a tremendous number of historical dramas depicting the key battles of the twentieth century’s wars, and there have been pools of actors who make their living portraying Mao, Zhou Enlai, Zhu De and the rest of the CPC pantheon in these epics. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, historical films were allowed to depict the revolutionary leaders speaking with their native accents and dialects: Mao Zedong with his Hunanese, Zhou Enlai with his penchant for Tianjin dialect, Deng Xiaoping talking in Sichuan Mandarin, and Chiang Kai-shek with a Ningbo accent. Of course, the actors usually did not attempt to replicate the exact speech of these leaders, but rather imitated the distinctive dialect pronunciations in such a way that the words would be intelligible to general audiences. The new SARFT ruling nixed this practice, and as a result such films as The Founding of a Republic featured the Chairman, played by Mao lookalike Tang Guoqiang, speaking with a standard Putonghua accent. Imagine a biopic of George W. Bush, in which the actor was coached to replace W’s thick Texas drawl with that of a polished National Public Radio news announcer.

A further question theme in the book is the issue of ethnic minorities:

Was the new People’s Republic to be considered as one nationality, or as a collection of separate nationalities, including the Han? The government decided to continue treating the speakers of non-Han languages, such as Tibetan, as belonging to separate, minority nationalities, and thus entitled to linguistic autonomy.

There are about 130 non-Han languages spoken in China, and official protections have not entirely halted their decline.

Outside of some protected groups, the government has very much encouraged the introduction (or should that be imposition?) of the national language:

…starting from 1956, most primary and middle schools throughout China began a push to either make Putonghua the language of classroom instruction, or to teach it as a second language. Success in these measures varied considerably, based on the linguistic disparity between the Putonghua standard and the local dialect, as well as access to texts and educational materials. Due to the lack of qualified teachers, and an imperfect understanding of the problems of bilingual education in dialect areas, Putonghua instruction in the early years was somewhat unsystematic and poorly monitored. The results in the decades since the policies were implemented have been a qualified success, though the reforms remain a work in progress.

The northern Mandarin areas have seen lots of success, but other areas remain fairly bilingual. The picture is mixed across what is an enormous country with lots of remote, inaccessible parts.

Towards the end, Moser offers a speculative remark:

We can now see the future of the globalised Chinese language, and its evolutionary path is beginning to look very similar to that of the variegated, mongrel language we call ‘English’. Just as all the colourful varieties of English – whether Texan, Cockney, Australian, Indian English or the Queen’s English – are all more or less intelligible yet imbued with their own distinctive flavours, so the varieties of Chinese, under the influence of Putonghua, are converging to a shared norm.

I don’t think these are quite the same thing; English was exported abroad by the British Empire, and there are now different versions of an original language (roughly). People around the world are learning it now, too, which has its own effects (they’re probably learning the American version…). I don’t think China has exported Chinese much by comparison, but many foreigners are learning that single standardised version now. So Chinese doesn’t have a native-speaking population taking its language abroad in at a critical mass to allow it to survive and evolve, so the official Chinese language won’t suffer/enjoy whatever that is doing to English. Or maybe both those effects are the same?

96 pages of good content. I recommend it if you are interested in China. The story of language in my home country, Northern Ireland, is similarly complex, and I would like to explore it more some time.

If you know of other good books I should be reading, on that topic or any other, let me know on Twitter!