Can you speak Chinese?


Friend-of-the-blog Gina Tam1 has a new book out.Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860-1960  Cambridge University Press, 2020 It is a really remarkable study of, as the title says, dialect and Nationalism in China.  On the one hand this is a very old issue, in that language reform has been one of the things that scholars have paid a lot of attention to in studies of nationalism around the world and in particular in China where the baihua movement was a huge part of May Fourth. This book is different from earlier studies of Chinese language reform because it is concerned not with reforming the written language or the script, but with spoken language and the relationship between fangyan (dialect) and guoyu/putonghua (national language).

Discussions of language reform can be pretty top down. The Ministry of Culture defines French, or a bunch of intellectuals at Beida define baihua and then it flows to the benighted peasants in the hinterland. In this book, however, there is a dialectical relationship between the local and the national,2 as the two help to define each other.  This is in part because the Chinese could never figure out which was “better”. Is fangyan a backwards, feudal, counterrevolutionary, heterodox thing that must be swept away by the modern, orthodox National Language? Or is local speech the pure preserve of real Chinese-ness, or at least the best way to talk to the masses? As Tam points out, despite over a century of governments and reformers going on about the importance of national language fangyan are still alive and well, and in fact not even all that well defined, since where national language stops and fangyan starts is often not clear. In Qingdao they claim to speak qingpu, a hybrid of putonghua and local dialect3 and you Qingdao is not that far from Beijing. And in Beijing, of course, everyone talks like a pirate, which is not really official putonghua. This despite the fact that, as the book describes, reformers and governments have gone to great lengths to make their dreams a reality, and this book does not limit itself to debates among intellectuals, but also looks at things like the folklore movement and language surveys that tried to determine how Chinese people actually spoke and things like school lessons and speech contests that tried to change them.

There are a lot of things to like about this book. One is that she really gets into the weeds of all sorts of cool things. Linguistic science, missionaries, Stalin’s theories of language (did you know that language is neither base nor superstructure? ), Japhetic language theories, local opera, the problems with social science surveys, and lots of debates among petty-minded scholars and bureaucrats. If you love this sort of stuff this is your book. It also really lives up to or even exceeds, its dates of 1860-1960, since it moves seamlessly from Late Qing phonologists to Republican-period scholars to the actions of the Communist state to contemporary Cantonese internet subversives. I also think I found out where my guoyu teacher got the idea that you could learn Wu just by mastering a handful vowel and consonant switches 4 , although this worked about as well for me as it did for a lot of Chinese peasants.

The book is also really well written. It is a revised dissertation, so you might expect it to read like a collection of chapters inexpertly pasted together, but instead it reads like a single narrative, or maybe a collection of chapters expertly pasted together. I can’t really tell. I am not sure how well it would work as a classroom book for undergrads, since, beyond the price, one of the fun things about it is that every intellectual in Modern China seems to have weighed in on fangyan, and while she explains who these people are it helps if you already know Zhang Binglin, Zhou Zuoren and Xu Shen, or appreciate a two sentence summary of Joseph Levenson. I give it an A+

  1. She is closely related to  former blog member Gina Russo  

  2. pg. 5  

  3. p.207  

  4. p. 177  

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