Thursday, August 5, 2010

Chinese Babel

What non-Chinese often overlook is the robust and rugged strength of the various Chinese dialects. To the non-Chinese, the Chinese are homogeneous. In many ways there is homogeneity. But, not in many other ways.

Just last month, over lunch with some management staff of a multinational company that I am associated with, the conversation turned to the impression within the Chinese Malaysian community that the Hokkien (Fujian) community are dominant in business. I suddenly realised that the staff were either Hakka, Cantonese or Hainanese. That was interesting.

Now, I hear that the Cantonese populace in Hong Kong are getting restive on the issue of the Cantonese dialect in education. As I understand it, when Hong Kong was a British colony, the Chinese schools in Hong Kong used Cantonese as a medium of instruction. But, since 1999, when China reclaimed sovereignty over Hong Kong as an autonomous region, the official Mandarin language has been the dominant medium of instruction.

The Cantonese dialect groups are trying to make a case for the freedom of choice for schools to revert to Cantonese as a medium of education.

Is this a troglodytic behaviour on the part of the Cantonese dialect groups in Hong Kong?

Is Cantonese a dialect or a language?

When the Mandarin text books are used in classrooms where Cantonese is the medium of instruction, does something get lost in translation?

And, here in Malaysia, many non-Chinese think that the Chinese community is homogeneous!

Dialect rules!

Quite an amusing thing, this Babel-like approach to education and choice of language or dialect. But, as we know, to many, it can be an emotional matter. Is this a indication of insecurity or, cultural imperative? One wonders.

Anyway, here's an interesting take on the issue by the Economist:

THE first reports of protests on behalf of the Cantonese language in China that I saw, about two weeks ago, I dismissed. Language has signally failed to become a major issue in China. This is despite the fact that the country is—it needs to be said again and again until people stop referring to "dialects"—hugely mutlilingual. Mandarin Chinese is a language, and so is Yue (Cantonese), so is Wu (Shanghaiese) and so are the others (Hakka, Northern and Southern Min, etc.) Speakers of two of these various languages simply can't have a proper conversation with each other in their home languages. (There are, of course, dialects of Mandarin, Yue and so forth, and these are by and large mutually comprehensible.)

Mandarin complicates this picture because it is the biggest, it is learned in schools around the country, is the official language, and is the basis of the writing system. The writing system is not a pan-dialectal written form that ties all varieties of Chinese together, as many believe. The character 我 is pronounced wǒ in Mandarin, ngóh in Cantonese/Yue, góa in Taiwanese, ngú in Shanghainese, ǎ in Gan, and so on; it means "I" in all those languages. But this doesn't mean written Chinese is pan-dialectal. To write Cantonese so it can properly be read out and accepted as real Cantonese requires different character order, special characters, sometimes Roman letters, and quite a bit of ingenuity, since it there is no standard way of doing so (though more Cantonese are trying).

Meanwhile many Chinese really do believe that they speak dialects of a single thing called Chinese, which they all write the same way—even if, to use a European analogy, the Chinese language family resembles not British vs. American vs. Irish English, but something more like English vs. Frisian vs. German. And they persist in believing in their linguistic unity probably because the Chinese really do see themselves as part of a single Han people. (This does not include non-Han minorities like Tibetans and Uighurs, and speakers of Miao-Yiao and so forth in the south.) Language has rarely disturbed national unity, as it has in so many places, whether Spain or Turkey or Belgium. So when I saw the second report (video) of such protests—admittedly small—in the past few weeks, I took note. Language policy (and language resentment) has been the dog that hasn't barked in China. Now it has barked meekly—twice. Both protests have been quite small. But this situation should be an interesting one to keep an eye on.


Hawkeye said...

Hi diminimis,
The chinese language has a long history and today the official language is mandarin however the written language has been quite the same but even than it has undergone changes like the simplified text used in modern china today whereas Taiwan still uses the original or known as traditional texts.

And it is written quite differently and the modern or the younger generation today who studied the simplified version is not able to comprehend the traditional written texts.

The chinese texts unlike western alphabetical systems are quite complex and just one character can mean quite a lot and i really mean "a lot" and you could just write a whole story just on one character. But than if used in daily communication and written in combination can well just transmit an understanding accurately. (haha hope you are not confused yet)It can transmit simply or could be used in complex studies depending on the subject.

the traditional text are important as it contains rich historical elements in the texts or character and should be preserved of which is what the Taiwanese did.

Modern China simplified the texts to make it easier and faster to write (kind of short formed it)and contains lesser strokes in the character eg. some character in traditional texts can contain up to 30 strokes just to write one character.

As far as the dialects are concerned it is just the pronunciation of the same character and is of differing sounds and is generally the same in written form. ie if you write a sentence it is understood by all dialects.

To give you an example it has been recorded in old historical documents that China is made up of some over 90 different Races.

They were unified through the writings but the spoken word has been different throughout the different dynasties especially the earlier dynasties.

Like Hokkien was the official language during the Tang dynasty some 1300 years ago.

Cantonese is predominant in Hong Kong as the migrants were mosty from Canton or today Guangzhou.

The origin of the dialects were from the different races or tribes that have settled in certain areas or location of historical china. Note that they have settled in the present location but they could have originated from other faraway areas.

Like the Koreans that settled in Korea was from a location some thousand of miles away and were of the tribes in the hills and this happen some 3000 years ago. And the Koreans today studied the chinese traditional texts in school but spoken in Korean similarly the Japanese.

Note: I have written an article about certain chinese characters and mybe publish it this weekend. Its a story of one word but defined into a philosophical story of the history of the chinese word.

Hawkeye said...

Yeah miss out on Taiwan, Taiwan is predominantly Hokkien and is commonly spoken as a second dialect or language and the national language is mandarin but you could speak hokkien everywhere in Taiwan.

No the Chinese are not homogenous, they are made up of many different "races" if you like.

They have all blended in after the span of time.

today in modern china they still differentiate between a northerner and a southerner which is a common description.

the staple food of the southerner is rice but the northerners don't eat rice. People of Beijing are considered northeners and not every restaurant in Beijing serve rice but today it is quite easily accesible due to criss crossing of business travellers.

Even mandarin is spoken with differeing accent between southerners and northerners and in some areas the spoken mandarin can sound quite foreign and sounds like russian to me.

de minimis said...

Thanks for the heads up, Hawkeye. Most informative