China: One Nation, How Many Languages?

15 décembre 2010 — Parimal Satyal

Just a century ago, differences in local dialects would have made it nearly impossible for someone from Harbin to speak with someone from Guangzhou. Today, a foreigner having taken introductory Chinese is able to hold a basic conversation virtually anywhere in the country. What happened?

Note: This is a paper on the development of the Chinese language that I wrote in November 2010 for a class at SciencesPo Paris. It summarizes the development of Modern Standard Chinese (pútōnghuà) and the standard system of romanisation (pīnyīn) in the context of state power and the politics of language. References are at the end of the article.

It would not be inaccurate to say that just five decades ago, it would be difficult to point to “Chinese” as a particular, distinct language. It was not until the fifties, and afterwards officially with the revised constitution of 1982, that this common language was promoted as the standard language of the People’s Republic of China (Kane, 2006). Just a century previously, the differences between their local languages would have made it nearly impossible for an ordinary person from Harbin in the North to speak with a fellow compatriot in Guangzhou. Today, even a foreigner having taken an introductory course in Chinese is able to use pútōnghuà to have herself be understood and hold a basic conversation in virtually any part of the country. How did China achieve language standardisation in such a short span of time? What necessitated it? How effective is standardisation in a country as linguistically diverse as China? These are some questions this paper will seek to explore. We will examine the history of linguistic diversity in the country and why having a common language was a national priority even before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. We will look at how the Beijing vernacular was chosen as the standard for the language and how, over the years, efforts have been made to simplify the language and make it more accessible. To this end, we will look at not just the simplification of characters, but also the introduction of a system of phonetic romanization called pinyin. Finally, we will consider the obstacles, challenges and risks involved in using language as a means of social integration.

Linguistic Fragmentation

According to Kane, “A hundred years ago most Chinese spoke no language other than their own dialect, nor did they need to” (2006, p. 22). This was because exchange amongst people of different regions was rare. This is not to say that no form of ‘standard language’ existed. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, those who had the need would make the effort to learn and speak (with various degrees of fluency) guānhuà (官话), the “official speech” of the courts in Beijing. So while ‘standard languages’ did exist in various periods under various systems, they were rarely accessible to anyone but the very educated and powerful. By contrast, the written system for all Han languages was common even though there existed “hundreds of regional and local dialects” (Drake, 1992, p.302), marked by their own pronunciation systems and grammar. Dwyer (1998, p.81) asserted that although they are called ‘Chinese dialects’, “they are largely mutually unintelligible.” This is because while these dialects are different forms of one language — Chinese — in the Han political framework, it is agreed among sinologists (Drake, 1992; Zhou and Sun, 2004; Kane, 2006) that many of them are distinct enough to be languages in their own right. These Han Chinese dialects can be broadly divided in nine major mutually unintelligible groups:

What is fascinating is that even though a huge majority of Han do speak Mandarin, many of the sub-dialects themselves “are also mutually unintelligible” (Erbaugh, 1995 p.80). This seems to be especially true of the Min vernaculars. China’s linguistic diversity, however, goes beyond just the Han dialects and includes such vastly different languages as Mongolian, Tibetan, Uyghur and Zhuang. The number of speakers of these minority languages is very small in comparison to speakers of the Han dialects, but they are still significant in a country of over a billion people. According to the 1990 census, there were over 15 million Zhuang speakers in China (Zhou and Sun, 2004) and this number is estimated to have grown to around 18 million today. If the government thought, as it did, that a common spoken and written language would further national integration and allow all Chinese people — not just the educated elite — to communicate with one another, a standard speech would need to be established and popularised.

Qin-era Standardisation

Apart from the benefits of easier communications amongst Chinese, a standard language would also serve another purpose: consolidating state power. According to Zhou and Sun (2004, p.2), “Chinese states have paid special attention to the relationship between standard language and state control for 2000 years..., realising that they could use language [...] as a means to regulate power from the center.” This is especially apparent in 221 BC, when a Qin-dynasty emperor undertook measures to standardise the written system as part of a larger project to unify China. The script brought together the several distinct languages “under one single cover term - Chinese” (Zhou and Sun, 2004, p. 2). While it helped unify the country, a deadly consequence of the standardisation was that all other forms of writing were suppressed and subsequently died. Even after the standardisation of the written system, however, there was little official progress made in developing a standardised pronunciation and grammar system until the Republic of China era. Although the guóyú (transliteration: country-language) or the “official language” based on the Nanjing (and later, the Beijing) dialect had already been established during later stages of the Qing dynasty (Richard, 1908), the reach of the language was still limited mainly to courts and the elite. In other words, the scope of that standardisation effort was not comparable to the wide reach and adoption of Modern Standard as we know now.

Establishment of the Modern Standard

The first steps to truly establishing a popular standard began with a Commission on the Unification of Pronunciation in 1912, with members from all over the country debating and finally deciding that standard should be based on the Beijing pronunciation. Already attempts were made then to introduce a phonetic system based on the Latin alphabet (Herdan, 2006, p.7) to make the language more accessible, but their effects were limited and mostly unsuccessful: there was the issue of national pride, lack of direction and focus and a general lack of proper leadership. Another Latin-based system was also introduced in the 1930s by some revolutionaries, but this was largely ignored. So while it is important to consider that attempts were made pre-PRC towards standardisation, simplification and reform, it was not till after 1949 when the PRC was established that sweeping and radical language reforms were effectuated. Mao Zedong understood the politics of language well. According to Hernan (1972, p.7) he saw it as a means to “remove power from the hands of a privileged élite and entrust it to the people.” For Mao, literacy was a way to empower the people and he considered simplification essential to both making the language more accessible and increasing literacy rates all over the country. Through a series of reforms that supported bilingual education and strongly pushed for puthonghua, “grade school attendance increased from 10% of children in 1949 to over 95% in 1990s.” (Erbaugh, 1995, p.83). How was this possible?

Pinyin: Romanisation and Standard Pronunciation

As early as 1951, Mao was convinced that language reform was necessarily to overcome two huge obstacles in establishing pútōnghuà as the standard national language:

  1. the difficulty in learning to write and pronounce the characters and
  2. a very low literacy rate.

He had an answer:

“Our written language must be reformed. It should take the direction of phoneticization common to all the languages of the world; it should be national in form; the alphabet and scheme should be devised according to the existing Chinese characters.” (Yulun, 1952)

Unlike previous attempts at phoneticization, the development of pinyin was focused and organised. Chappell (1980, p.106) describes how six draft proposals that took three years of researching were submitted to the 1955 National Conference on Language Reform, each recommending a standard for phoneticization in either Chinese, Cyrillic or Latin writing systems. The Latin system was adopted and soon, pinyin — the Chinese Phonetic Alphabet Scheme — was to be used for phonetic annotation and transcription. This was officially announced in 1958 by Zhou Enlai, who stressed the need to popularise not just the pútōnghuà vernacular and the pinyin phonetic scheme but also the need to simplify Chinese characters. From an international point of view, pinyin had certain advantages over other phonetic schemes already in use. Overseas, it came to replace the British Wade-Giles system, which, according to Erbaugh (2004, p.84) “remains standard for US library card catalogs” despite its many flaws. One of the many strengths of the system is its consistency, which made Chinese pronunciation easy to learn for a vast number of people in China and abroad. Chappell (1980, p.112) explains that the pinyin rules of pronunciation “adhere to [...] symbolic reversibility: When you hear a word, you know how to write it down correctly, (according to the particular rules); when you read it, you know how to pronounce it.” This surely played a huge role in lifting literacy rates, since the PRC encouraged all schools to teach children pútōnghuà using the pinyin system. From a very young age, children would be able to correctly pronounce Chinese words and associate characters with the phonetic representation and vice versa. Mcbride-Chang and Chen (2003, p.6–7) reported on how the policies reflected changes in the classroom: children in the PRC are introduced to pinyin in their first year of school and they “use Mandarin from primary 1, regardless of what their home languages might be.” Pinyin is apparently introduced very early on as well, and the students are expected to be familiar with it before moving on to higher levels. This is how children in China learn characters. They are always presented with the accompanying pinyin transcriptions to reinforce the standard way of pronouncing them. Furthermore, only simplified characters are used at that level.

“Teachers always discourage their pupils form using traditional characters, and would consider a pupils writing incorrect if it is done in traditional characters.”


The aforementioned 1995 report on language reform introduced more than just pinyin, as important as that was. The committee also made recommendations to simplify the writing of characters. According to Herdan (1972, p.7) the first stages involved doing away with 400 rarely used characters and character variants, and then the “simplification of another 798 characters by reducing, in some cases drastically, the number of strokes.” An example of such a simplification can be found in the character fēi for the word ‘fly’, written as 飛 in Traditional Chinese but simplified to simply 飞. In this case, the simplified character was derived by taking just one part of the traditional character. There were other ways of creating characters that were easier to write but still retained a solid foundation in history and practice: for example, simplification by changing the graphical element of a character and simplification based on handwritten forms of characters (Kane, 2006). The end goal was to make it easier and faster to write and remember Chinese. There were, however, some who wanted the take the process to another level completely. Herdan (1972, p.7) had believed that the simplification of the language would “no doubt continue to be augmented until the final change-over to romanisation,” which did not happen. What did happen, though, is that by 1982 pútōnghuà secured its place as the standard language without any real competition (Erbaugh, 1995, p.83).

Language Identity

When the PRC replaced the term guóyú used by the Guomintang with the more populist term pútōnghuà, it was to emphasise that the standard was based on the vernacular and not the literary language of the elite. It was to convey that the standard was based on the most popular spoken dialect in China (of the aforementioned ‘North Mandarin’ group) and not on any inherent superior characteristics of any one dialect. An actual ‘national language’ would place itself above other dialects, which would be met with resistance due to people’s strong affiliation with and pride of their local dialects. Unlike the character standardisation process during the Qin-era, establishment of the common speech was not intended to replace existing dialects. While the differences between these dialects is, as previously described, great enough that they’re mutually unintelligible, the affinity between speakers of two of these dialects must also be considered. Norman (1988, pg.2) states that:

“A speaker of the Pekin dialect can no more understand a person speaking Cantonese than an Englishman can understand an Austrian when each employs his native language. Nevertheless, the Contonese speaker feels a much closer cultural affinity to the Peking native than an Englishman does to an Austrian.”

Pútōnghuà, then, allowed speakers of different dialects to communicate with one another and share cultural experiences without having to forego their local languages. The PRC was not interested in suppressing local languages to establish any one supreme national language. That the language was named “common speech” and based on a vernacular suggests that it was considered an asset that would help unify people of a single nation-state without their having to reject their local identities. Erbauch (2004, p.82) explains this tolerance on the PRC’s part as “dialect bilingualism,” which is viewed positively. Both Mao Zedong, who was from Hunan and Deng Xiaoping, who was born in Sichuan, “retained their strong accents and pride in local culture, providing symbolic support for local languages.” The choice, then, is not mutually exclusive. It is not a question of whether you chose to speak pútōnghuà or stick to your local dialect. It is not unusual for Chinese people from a certain region to speak their local dialect amongst themselves but switch naturally to pútōnghuà when talking with or in the presence of people from other regions. An appropriate example is Shanghai, where the main language was and still is Shanghainese (Kane, 2006, p.22), part of the Wú family of dialects with some distinct constants and vowels that do not feature in Modern Standard. With the influx of migrants coming to Shanghai not only from other parts of China — this itself is largely connected to success of expanding the common language all over the country (Kane, 2006, p.22) — but also from other Chinese-speaking states such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, pútōnghuà is now heard everywhere in the city. At the same time, the Shanghai accent is also heard in Beijing, almost uniquely from Shanghainese politicians who lice and work there. Kane (2004, p.28) asserts that this has made the “Shanghai accent synonymous with being an important government official, which has given it a certain prestige.” So although most people in China are now able to communicate with the same words and expressions, not everyone speaks the common language exactly as it is spoken in Beijing. This is in part because the local Beijing vernacular, or běijīnghuà, itself has a few characteristics not found in pútōnghuà. The most distinct of these is its use of the final r in nouns that do not normally feature it (Kane, 2006; p.147): wa(n)r (完儿) for wan (完), for example.

Resistance to Mandarin and Hanzi

The establishment of pútōnghuà as a single common standard language as a link among the ‘dialects’ of the larger Chinese language has no doubt had positive effects on national unity, integration and development. When one looks at how these effects are distributed over the entire country and amongst various ethnicities (including minorities), however, it becomes a whole lot more complicated. For example, the push to make Mandarin the primary language at the cost of local ones can invite resistance. Erbaugh (2004, pp.85) gives the example of protests in Taiwan to a proposed law in 1985 that would have imposed heavy fines for the use any language other than Mandarin in government, education, media, advertising and group conversation. Similarly, proposals to shift the language of school instruction from Tibetan to Mandarin and discourage the use of Tibetan language in local schools in Tibet was met by protests and resistance by students and teachers from the region (Wong, 2010). Erbaugh explains that “people from all over Greater China show an increasingly public pride in local culture,” which are especially true of areas such as Taiwan, which is very suspicious of and resistant to PRC policies and in Tibet, which is politically a very sensitive area for China. Dwyer (1988, p.80) remarks that the term hànyú, literally ‘language of the Han’, is becoming more common than the more generic term pútōnghuà, indicating “a shift towards language identification along ethnic lines.” He adds that this change is recent, and that the Han ethnicity was not directly linked to the umbrella ‘Chinese’ language family before the century.

Language as Power

Language is intricately tied to state power and hegemony, and although the stated of goal of the language reforms might have been integration for all, there are differences between educational accessibility and support for speakers of high-prestige and low-prestige dialects (Dwyer, 1988, p.81). Speakers of non-Chinese languages have it even worse, claims Dwyer (1998), which casts doubt on China’s goal of using language as a means of social equalisation and integration. Could the rapid growth and widespread adoption of pútōnghuà be a threat to ethnic minorities in China? Could the language meant to integrate the various dialects and people of the country serve to further alien others? These issues are beyond the scope of this paper, but directly treating them would contribute to a better understanding of the role of Modern Standard Chinese in modern-day, rapidly changing China.


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