China: Language bonds

December 24, 2018 14:19
There are stories galore of Chinese youth who speak only Putonghua and hence are unable to communicate with grandparents who speak only the dialect of their region. Photo: Bloomberg

It is often said that the United States and the United Kingdom are two allies with a special relationship largely because they speak a common language. And yet, this idea of a “common language” cannot be carried too far because, as George Bernard Shaw observed, with a twist, "The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language," no doubt because so many words and usages are peculiar to one country that misunderstandings inevitably arise.

In China, the problem is even more complex because, although it is one country and one language, there are so many mutually unintelligible “dialects” that they may as well be speaking different languages. Of the hundreds of dialects in China, that of Wenzhou is widely recognized as the most difficult to comprehend, because Wenzhou, in Zhejiang, was so isolated.

That is why the printed word has a special place in China. For several thousand years, while dialects separated the many different regional groupings, the written word united the educated scholar class. That kept Chinese civilization going.

Up until as recently as the 1970s and 1980s, few national leaders spoke Putonghua, or Mandarin, the official dialect. Foreigners who visited China when it opened up in the 1970s were amazed that sometimes they had to go through two interpreters – one to interpret from the local dialect to Mandarin, the second from Mandarin to English.

That was the situation throughout the rule of Chairman Mao Zedong, who ran the People’s Republic of China from its founding in 1949 until his death in 1976. Mao spoke Mandarin with a thick Hunanese accent that was unintelligible to many people. In his later years, he was surrounded by a small coterie of women who understood his utterances and who relayed to the outside world (or rather, the party’s insiders), the chairman’s latest thoughts.

Nowadays, with Putonghua taught in all schools and with illiteracy having been wiped out, Chinese around the country have both the spoken and the written word in common. It is a huge step forward, but the price is being paid by loss of dialects.

There are stories galore of children who speak only Putonghua being unable to communicate with grandparents who speak only the dialect of their region.

Language reflects the values and culture of a society. We all know that the family is important in China, which is why the one-child policy was so widely opposed. As it was, the policy lasted from 1979 to 2015. If it had been carried on for another generation, few people in the country would have first-hand knowledge of what it means to be a sibling, an aunt, uncle, nephew, niece or cousin.

And these relationships mean much more in China than in western societies. Family relationships are so important, in fact, that they are designated by a special vocabulary, many terms of which may not have counterparts in western languages. This is because each relationship is designated by a term that tells a person immediately how he or she is related to someone else in the family, whether it is through the father or the mother, as well as the gender and seniority of the person concerned.

Ironically, as a result, simple words like “brother” and “sister” don’t have Chinese counterparts because the Chinese language insists on knowing whether it is an older or younger brother or sister.

That also reflects the importance of hierarchy in China, with each person knowing his or her position in the family. And the state, of course, is simply the family writ large. After all, the word country, guojia, is the combination or state and family, so the country is, in a sense, an enlarged family, one in which all its members know their status.

Not only does language reflect a society's culture, its evolution also shows changing values. Thus, words like “democracy” and “technology” were imported into China but now they are fully integrated so that people using those words don’t think of them as foreign concepts.

In fact, the Chinese language has evolved unconsciously to such an extent that today 70 percent of Chinese sociological terms used are imported from Japan, which modernized ahead of China. Japan had borrowed Chinese characters in the Tang dynasty and, more than a thousand years later, China borrowed some of these newly coined terms back as it modernized.

These terms are so prevalent that it has become impossible for Chinese to have conversations, for instance on sociological issues, without resorting to such imports. That is a little noticed result of globalization.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.