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Notes from "A Billion Voices" by David Moser

asking the question ‘Do you speak Chinese?’ is akin to asking ‘Do you speak Romance?

As the conference wore on, attacks became increasingly personal. Ironically, dialect differences themselves became fuel for the ire of delegates. At one point a member of the southern faction, Wang Rongbao, happened to use a Shanghai expression for rickshaw, huangbao che, which northerner Wang Zhao misheard as a standard Mandarin curse wangba dan ‘son of a bitch’ (literally, ‘turtle’s egg’). Incensed, Wang Zhao proceeded to bare his arms and physically attack Wang Rongbao, pummelling him with his fists and chasing him from the assembly hall.

In 1919 the National Language Dictionary based upon the committee’s compromise standard was published, under the editorship of Wu Zhihui. But before the champagne bottles could be opened, the dictionary immediately came under harsh criticism. Many scholars continued to argue for a system based on the Beijing dialect. Wu, in his typical bombastic fashion, defended all attacks on the dictionary, describing a competing phonetic system as ‘utterly worthless dog shit’.12 Nevertheless, the standard had now been made official; the next step was to create textbooks and materials to implement it within the Chinese educational system.

The classical textual tradition was fundamentally anti-democratic, elitist, and, most importantly, a serious impediment to literacy.

Qian felt that even if Confucianism was banished, remnants of its cancerous influence so permeated the Chinese language that only surgical interventions could cure the sickness. Furthermore, since no alternative literary language was available, Qian Xuantong and others believed that Chinese should be replaced by another language altogether, the best candidate being the culturally neutral Esperanto.

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.’

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. For such conservative traditionalists, Fu Sinian and his ilk were seen as race traitors, as cultural terrorists who wanted to plunge a knife into the heart of China.

The language requirements for Chinese TV and radio professionals are some of the most stringent in the world. Whereas in, say, the United States media environment, it is common to hear TV hosts with regional accents (think of Larry King’s trademark Brooklyn accent, or Bill Moyers’ folksy southern drawl), in China, such regional linguistic flavours are strongly discouraged. This means that for any official media professional with a microphone, the uttering of a non-standard pronunciation or faulty tone is subject to a fine. The exact amounts of these fines vary somewhat, depending on the media outlet and internal department rules, but they constitute an effective check on non-standard language use. The knowledge that somewhere in the bowels of China Central Television (CCTV) there exists a shadowy group of language monitors whose job it is to check for Putonghua violations is an annoying reality for all those who make a living talking on TV.

Hosts and announcers from outside Beijing must hone their speech to expunge local dialect traces, but professionals born and raised in Beijing have their own problems, due to the fact that Putonghua, though based on the Beijing dialect, is not identical to it. Language habits are hard to break, and sometimes the most common words are most difficult to change. For example, Beijing hosts have complained to me about slips involving the word for ‘because’. In their native Beijing dialect the word is pronounced as yīnweí, whereas in Putonghua the correct pronunciation is yīnweì, with a falling fourth tone weì on the second syllable. It is virtually impossible for such professionals to avoid occasionally lapsing into their mother-tongue pronunciation, and the resulting error brings a slap on the wrist.

While a language may be unified, the thought of the people who speak it cannot be. A shared language does not imply a shared vision for society. With the establishment of Putonghua, China may well achieve its ultimate goal of language unity – a billion voices speaking as one – only to find social and political unity as elusive as ever.

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