The characters running down the right side of the picture read as follows:
WO3 YAO4 SHUO1 GUO2YU3, BU4 SHUO1 FANG1YAN2
"I want to speak the national language, not the topolects."
In other words, "Let's speak Mandarin, not Taiwanese, Hakka, Cantonese, etc."
This injunction to speak Mandarin at the expense of the regional Sinitic languages ties in with numerous Language Log posts, such as Arnold Zwicky's "How many ethnic groups?" and my own on the "Mutual Intelligibility of Sinitic Languages."
Moreover, it also comports with the Zeitgeist reflected in several recent articles in the South China Morning Post. The first (October 6, 2009, p. A6), entitled "Cantonese almost became the official language," is by He Huifeng:
Putonghua is the official language on the mainland, but if history had played out differently the vast majority could have been speaking Cantonese.
In 1912, shortly after the fall of the Qing dynasty, the founding fathers of the republic met to decide which language should be spoken in the new China.
Mandarin – now known as Putonghua [the common language] – was then a northern dialect spoken by the hated Manchurian officials. While it had served as China's lingua franca for centuries, many perceived it as an "impure form" of Chinese.
Many of the revolutionary leaders, including Sun Yat-sen, were from Guangdong – which has long been China's land of new ideas. A great debate started between the delegates and eventually led to a formal vote. Cantonese lost out by a small margin to Putonghua and the rest is history.
While historians today still argue about the authenticity of the story, it is something Guangdong people love to tell. Many Cantonese speakers feel proud of their native language, saying it has more in common with ancient classical Chinese than Putonghua – which is a mix of northern dialects heavily influenced by Manchurian and Mongolian.
Linguists agree to some extent. "Cantonese is closer to classical Chinese in its pronunciation and some grammar," Jiang Wenxian , a Chinese language scholar, said. "Using Cantonese to read classical poetry is a real pleasure," he said. "Many ancient poems don't rhyme when you read them in Putonghua, but they do in Cantonese.
"Cantonese retains a flavour of archaic and ancient Chinese. Nowadays few people understand classical Chinese, so Cantonese should be protected as a type of language fossil helping us study ancient Chinese culture."
Cantonese is spoken by about 70 million people in Guangdong, Hong Kong, Macau and communities abroad.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Guangdong was the only Chinese province allowed to trade directly with foreigners. Many Westerners at the time learned Cantonese. Up till very recently, there were more Cantonese speakers in overseas Chinese communities than Putonghua speakers. In Canada, for instance, Cantonese is the third most commonly spoken language after English and French.
On October 11, Chloe Lai published a long article entitled "Linguistic heritage in peril: A group of friends are hoping to revive Cantonese in Guangzhou," from which I here give brief excerpts:
"Speak Putonghua, write standardised characters, use civilised language, be a civilised person." The words are printed on a red banner hanging in the main entrance of a primary school in Guangzhou, a city that once set the standard for the Cantonese-speaking community.
"It is a common practice; many schools are doing the same," said Yao Cheuk, an artists' agent in the city. "They are doing this because it is national policy to promote Putonghua. From time to time, there is news that kids got punished for speaking Cantonese in schools. It is outrageous. They are eliminating Cantonese."
Angry about the official bias, Yao went on to explain the superiority of Cantonese, which he described as a more mature language with a richer linguistic history than Putonghua. He cited soccer player David Beckham's name to illustrate his arguments. Cantonese translates his family name using two characters, while Putonghua uses four.
"You know why?" asked Yao. "Because Cantonese is an ancient language that has a rich phonetic system, it takes only one character in Cantonese to mimic the English sound 'ham', whereas it takes Putonghua two Chinese characters."
He pointed out that Putonghua has only 23 vowel sounds, while Cantonese has 59, leaving Putonghua relying heavily on the context for meaning.
Yao's friend, surnamed Pang, stressed they were not anti-Putonghua. "Language is for people to communicate. I speak Putonghua whenever there are people whose native tongue is not Cantonese," the college student said. "Kids will do the same when they need to communicate with their friends. Why force us to abandon our native language?"
Both insist on using Cantonese pronunciations to spell their names in English. Pang and Yao are among a group of Guangzhou natives who fear for the future of Cantonese in the capital of Guangdong. Their worries are not without basis. For example, more than 80 per cent of cabbies do not speak Cantonese and often drivers will suggest that Cantonese speakers use Putonghua for directions….
Pang, Yao and their friends believe Putonghua speakers in Guangzhou already outnumber Cantonese speakers, because of the influx of migrants from other parts of China and the national policy of promoting Putonghua. The trend, they say, will continue, leading eventually to the extinction of Cantonese in Guangzhou….
Cantonese is regarded as a modern variation of the ancient Han language, said Roxana Fung, an assistant professor at Polytechnic University's department of Chinese and bilingual studies. The Cantonese system – pronunciations, vocabulary and usage – is very similar to the official language used during the Tang dynasty (618-907)….
Professor Fung does not want to see Cantonese eliminated.
"Dialects are language fossils, they keep many characteristics of the ancient language. Through dialects, we can understand many ancient scripts," she said.
All is certainly not yet lost, since among certain sectors of youth, Cantonese is experiencing a resurgence. In another SCMP article by He Huifeng, entitled "Trendy Shenzhen teenagers spearhead Cantonese revival" (updated on October 6, 2009), we read:
A new craze is sweeping through the ranks of Shenzhen's teenagers. Whether it is in school, at the shopping mall or the KTV club, there's only one way to prove you are a real "Shenzhener" – by speaking Cantonese. In the past couple of years, there has been growing concern that regional dialects are being lost to the relentless tide of Putonghua. But in Shenzhen, many immigrants are swimming against the current. Li Zhen is a 16-year-old high school student who was born in Wuhan and moved to Shenzhen at the age of 10. She insists on talking to her friends in Cantonese. "My parents do not speak Cantonese and we speak Putonghua or Wuhan dialect at home," Li said. "But in school, we only speak Putonghua in class. All my friends are Cantonese speakers. Cantonese is the fashionable language among Shenzhen teenagers." Li's friend, Wang Zijing, said speaking Cantonese made them feel more international. "Being bilingual, we feel we have more in common with international cities such as Shanghai, Hong Kong or New York than with people from the hinterland who can usually only speak Putonghua," she said….
There is a two-pronged attack on the local language – internal migration on the one hand, and central government policies of a "common language for a unified country and harmonious society" on the other. In the 1980s, the universal adoption of Putonghua was enshrined in the constitution and in all schools from kindergartens up. In the 1990s, local dialects were even banned in many provincial and state-controlled television stations….
But things have taken an interesting turn in the past decade. As the second generation of migrants grows up, they are embracing Cantonese culture and language. "We feel no different from Cantonese natives," Li said."We speak Cantonese with no accent. We watch Hong Kong television dramas. We enjoy Cantonese cuisine such as herbal tea and fish balls. We sing old Cantonese songs at KTV. But actually, we are Shenzheners, or new Cantonese."
…In Guangdong, while the official policy of promoting Putonghua over local dialects remains unchanged, officials are increasingly putting emphasis on developing "Lingnan [Cantonese] culture". The reasons behind this go beyond pride in the indigenous culture. Guangdong leaders – many of them migrants from other provinces – are starting to realise the role of culture in social and economic development. There have been concerns that the Pearl River Delta is falling behind the Yangtze Delta in attracting skilled workers and top talents, all because of a perceived weaker cultural environment. In response, Guangdong invests billions of yuan in cultural development each year. The result is a wave of cultural propaganda showing off ancient Cantonese culture.
But to return to the anti-topolect slogan in Taipei Storyland with which I began, the National Language Movement (GUO2YU3 YUN4DONG4 國語運動) has a history going back even before the beginning of the Republican Period in 1912. When the Guomindang (Kuomintang / KMT) was defeated by the Communists on the mainland and retreated to Taiwan, they brought Mandarin with them and promoted it rigorously. In the 50s and later, it was illegal to speak Taiwanese in schools, universities, and other public places. During this period, one could even be put in jail for compiling Taiwanese language teaching materials (I know someone who was incarcerated for having done so).
Under President Chen Shui-bian, Taiwanese, Hakka, and even the aboriginal (Austronesian) languages experienced a strong revival. Now, however, Chen languishes in prison under a life sentence, the KMT is back in power, and Mandarin is being promoted vigorously. Hence the slogan pasted on the window frame in Taipei Storyland.
In a paper entitled "How to Forget Your Mother Tongue and Remember Your National Language" that I published on the Web, I attempt to put the dialectical dance of the "dialects" with Mandarin in historical and linguistic context.
[Hat tip to June Teufel Dreyer.]