Anti-MSM sentiment in Sichuan

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Photograph of a slide shown during a lecture at a university in Sichuan:

Here's what the writing on the slide says:

Guānyú pǔtōnghuà

Běn jiàoshòu cóngjiào 20 nián cónglái bu shuō Pǔtōnghuà, bìngqiě péiyǎngle wúshù yōuxiù de xuéshēng.

Wǒ shuō Sìchuānhuà, yībàn yǐshàng xuéshēng tīng dé dǒng; wǒ shuō Pǔtōnghuà, méi rén tīng dé dǒng.

Xuéxiào yǒu guànlì, zhèng jiàoshòu kěyǐ bù shuō Pǔtōnghuà.

Duìyú tīng bù dǒng Pǔtōnghuà [sic –> Sìchuānhuà] de xuéshēng, wǒ yǒu sān gè zhōnggào:

Dì yī, yòng yī nián de shíjiān jǐnkuài tīng dǒng Sìchuānhuà.

Dì èr, bùyào zài tíxǐng wǒ jiǎng Pǔtōnghuà.

Dì sān, jìzhù shàngmiàn liǎng tiáo, yóuqí shì dì èr tiáo.



Regarding MSM (Modern Standard Mandarin [Putonghua]*)

The professor has been teaching for twenty years and has never spoken MSM.  Furthermore, he has trained countless outstanding students.

When I speak Sichuanese, more than half the students understand what I'm saying; if I speak MSM, nobody understands what I'm saying.

The university has a customary rule:  full professors are not required to speak MSM.

As for students who do not understand MSM [sic –> Sichuanese], I have three suggestions:

1. Spend a year learning Sichuanese as fast as you can.

2. Do not remind me again to speak MSM.

3. Remember the above two items, especially the second one.

(*VHM:  In Taiwan it's called Guóyǔ 國語; in Singapore and elsewhere in the Sinophone diaspora it's called Huáyǔ 華語)

Spoken like a true professor, with wit, charm, firmness, and lucidity.

What he/she says is highly revealing about the linguistic situation in Sichuan in particular and in China more generally.

If someone only speaks Sichuanese naturally and you force him to speak MSM, then what comes out of his mouth will neither be fully intelligible MSM nor fully intelligible Sichuanese.  It will be a jumbled mix of the two, a god-awful, garbled mess that is neither one nor the other.

The text testifies to the significant difference between MSM and Sichuanese, though they are both held to be types of Mandarin.  I've written a lot about this on Language Log (see the posts below for some examples).  We really need to take seriously the question of mutual intelligibility (and varying degrees of lack thereof) among different topolects.

Decades ago, I spent a lot of time at Sichuan University, and what this text describes is exactly what the situation was when I was there.  I remember a distinguished professor of Chinese literature named Xiàng Chǔ 项楚 who is a friend of mine.  He is not even a native of Sichuan (he's from Zhejiang), but his wife is Sichuanese and he has been living in Sichuan for most of his life.  He delivers his lectures in Sichuanese and used to get annoyed when people would tell him to speak MSM.

I myself married into a family that had spent a decade in Sichuan during the war, so my wife spoke fluent Sichuanese and had many Sichuanese friends.  When they were together, she and her Sichuanese friends preferred to speak Sichuanese and found it much more satisfying (guòyǐn 过瘾) than speaking MSM.  Ditto for my Shandong relatives who were much more relaxed and open when speaking Shandongese among themselves, whereas they felt awkward (bièniu 别扭) and constrained (shòuxiàn 受限) when circumstances compelled them to speak MSM.  Even though I'm fluent in MSM, when Sichuanese speakers and Shandongese speakers are conversing at full tilt among themselves, I probably understand less than fifty per cent of what they're saying, and yet they're both supposedly speaking "Mandarin".

A couple of additional notes:

1. Before Donald Trump's surname was rendered into Chinese as Chuānpǔ 川普, that very expression was used to designate Sìchuān tōnghuà 四川普通话 ("Sichuan MSM"), which is what the feisty professor does not want to speak.  While Chuānpǔ 川普 is still used for "Trump" in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and on the internet on the mainland, the government and official media in the PRC refer to President Trump as Tèlǎngpǔ 特朗普.

2. Another term for Sichuan MSM is jiāoyán pǔtōnghuà 椒盐普通话 ("salt and pepper Mandarin"), which alludes to its being a little bit of this and a little bit of that as well as to Sichuan's spicy cuisine.

[h.t. Zeyao Wu; thanks to Fangyi Cheng and Yixue Yang]


  1. Lai Ka Yau said,

    March 13, 2018 @ 12:22 am

    Hmm, I think 惯例 guànlì is more like informal 'common practice' than formal 'policy'. I'm not sure of the situation in the Mainland, but it would be surprising to me if school policy officially allowed non-MSM…

  2. Bathrobe said,

    March 13, 2018 @ 1:56 am

    There is a gulf between what linguists say and what actual speakers say.

    When linguists classify Chinese 'dialects', they group a whole swathe of dialects, from Beijing, Hebei, Dongbei, and Shandong, right down to Guizhou and Sichuan as fundamentally belonging to Mandarin-type dialects. This is presumably due to the existence of common features among those dialects, even though the dialects themselves are only partly mutually intelligible. By contrast, linguists essentially classify 'dialects' such as Cantonese (Yue), Wu, Min, Xiang, etc. as different languages since the differences are too large to treat them as mere dialects.

    The linguists' classification of 'Mandarin dialects' is far removed from the way the word was originally understood, that is, as the language of the mandarins (the imperial bureaucracy), which in the latter stages was based on the language of Beijing.

    In ordinary parlance, there is no single word in Chinese that would cover the same ground as the linguists' term 'Mandarin'. The closest is probably 北方话 Běifānghuà ('northern speech'), but since Sichuan is in the south it isn't included in this group. So trying to tell an ordinary Chinese speaker that Sichuanese belongs to the Mandarin group of dialects is an exercise in futility. The language and the assumptions are just too different.

    Indeed, as is implied by the term 'topolect', Chinese see their language largely in terms of location, not similarity to some hypothetical standard. Therefore, Cantonese, Sichuanese, Minnanese, Shanghainese, Dongbei speech, and Shandongnese are all independent 'topolects' (local speech varieties). There is awareness that certain dialects (like Cantonese) are radically different from MSM, but people do not think in terms of certain dialects (such as Sichuanese) somehow belonging to the family of 'Mandarin'. Topolects are all roughly equal, all being local spoken languages and all differing from the standard language (MSM).

  3. Michael Watts said,

    March 13, 2018 @ 3:44 am

    Bathrobe, I have been told by Chinese with no particular specialization in linguistics that the "family" (my word, but parallel in concept to 粤语, 吴语, etc.) to which 普通话 belongs is called 官话, pretty much literally "mandarin speech".

    The term may not be common, but I'd expect that if you told an ordinary Chinese speaker something like 四川话,北京话,普通话都可以叫官话 they'd get the idea. Throw in a parallel to 粤语, which is a pretty common word, if you want it to be even clearer.

    (I don't know how to type the Chinese list comma.)

  4. dainichi said,

    March 13, 2018 @ 4:51 am

    > it would be surprising to me if school policy officially allowed non-MSM

    That's what I thought too. Do students from other parts of the country know that they will have to spend extra time learning the local language? What a disappointment for someone who expects MSM and finds out they can't understand anything.

  5. David Marjanović said,

    March 13, 2018 @ 6:29 am

    Even though I'm fluent in MSM, when Sichuanese speakers and Shandongese speakers are conversing at full tilt among themselves, I probably understand less than fifty per cent of what they're saying, and yet they're both supposedly speaking "Mandarin".

    So the span of Mandarin is comparable to that of German, then. Or of the whole Slavic family.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    March 13, 2018 @ 6:41 am

    It's interesting that you're talking about Slavic as a "family" of languages, and that Mandarin is being compared to that family.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    March 13, 2018 @ 7:22 am

    @Lai Ka Yau

    Thanks for pointing that out about guànlì 惯例 ("usual practice; convention; custom; customary rule; usage"). There is indeed a subtle but important distinction between policy (zhèngcè 政策) and practice. Accordingly, I've changed the translation of guànlì 惯例 in the o.p.

    I knew the president of Sichuan University and used to eat lunch with him fairly often. He was a very nice man, affable and altogether unpretentious, quite different from the stuffy, stodgy Communist Party secretary who was the real boss. I asked the president about this matter of allowing professors to speak Sichuanese and not forcing them to speak MSM. He smiled and said something like "Méiyǒu bànfǎ 没有办法" ("We can't do anything about it"). In other words, the school administration knew that there was a discrepancy between policy and practice, but they just winked and looked the other way when non-Sichuanese speakers (a minority on the campus) complained about professors and lecturers speaking Sichuanese.

    It's sort of like forcing lefthanders to become righthanders. Theoretically you could do it, but the result would be a painful mess for everyone.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    March 13, 2018 @ 8:13 am

    As it was used six hundred and more years ago, guānhuà 官话 meant "officials' talk" and that's what it was (in contrast to xiāngyǔ 乡语 / 鄉語 ["village speech"]) . As it has been used for the past century, guānhuà 官话 has become a linguist's term, an abstract concept that the man, woman, or child on the street would be hard pressed to define and would seldom, if ever, use.

    Pǔtōnghuà 普通话 41,900,000 ghits

    Guóyǔ 国语 76,500,000 ghits

    Huáyǔ 华语 39,900,000 ghits

    Guānhuà 官话 1,710,000 ghits

    Some references:

    "Cantonese as Mother Tongue, with a note on Norwegian Bokmål" (12/22/13)

    especially these comments:

    "Sinological suffering" (3/31/17)

    especially this comment:

    "Diglossia and digraphia in Guoyu-Putonghua and in Hindi-Urdu" (1/1/12)

    especially this comment:

  9. Victor Mair said,

    March 13, 2018 @ 8:32 am

    Bless you, Bathrobe, for understanding and explaining what a "topolect" is, and why we have need for such a term. In fact, it is what the Chinese themselves call these varieties of Sinitic, viz., fāngyán 方言 ("lect of a place"). It's just that Westerners have been mistranslating that for a century and more.

    Some references:

    "Dialect or Topolect?" (7/1/10)

    "Is Cantonese a language, or a personification of the devil?" (2/9/14)

    "The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th edition" (11/14/12)

    especially this comment:

    but also in the main post.

    "What Is a Chinese 'Dialect/Topolect'? Reflections on Some Key Sino-English Linguistic Terms"

  10. Alex T said,

    March 13, 2018 @ 9:06 am

    Professor Mair, I'm surprised that you mention not being able to understand much Sichuanese despite your formidable ability in MSM. Although I'm by no means fluent in Mandarin, an extended stay in Sichuan brought my comprehension to about the same level in both. I can pretty easily follow the gist of ordinary Sichuanese dinner table conversation, for instance.

    Of course, this might be explained by the age of the speakers involved. Younger speakers tend to use fewer "deep Sichuanese" lexical items. Depending on the subject at the university, there may or may not be uniquely Sichuanese words that appear in the professor's speech.

    All in all, I'd say native speakers from other places in China should be able to learn to take classes in Sichuanese after a few weeks of listening carefully. Besides, everyone has their own idiolect that takes time getting used to.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    March 13, 2018 @ 9:33 am

    I wrote: "when Sichuanese speakers and Shandongese speakers are conversing at full tilt among themselves". I wasn't talking about polite "dinner table conversation" with non-Sichuanese and non-Shandongese present, and I wasn't talking about urban Sichuanese that has been much watered down with MSM.

    I could say a lot more about this, but I've already said it so many times in earlier Language Log posts that it would be otiose to repeat myself here.

  12. David Marjanović said,

    March 13, 2018 @ 2:55 pm

    It's interesting that you're talking about Slavic as a "family" of languages, and that Mandarin is being compared to that family.

    Isn't it. :-)

    Both German-Luxemburgish-Dutch and Slavic are large dialect continua with very different sociolinguistic histories… (OK, there's a geographic interruption in the Slavic one, but it's not that large of a gap in similarity.)

  13. Bathrobe said,

    March 13, 2018 @ 5:40 pm

    I've sat in a Beijing taxi with Sichuanese speakers conversing in the back. I could partly follow what they said (because I knew the context). The taxi driver could only shrug.

  14. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 13, 2018 @ 5:43 pm

    I seem to remember that Deng Xiaoping's televised speeches had to be dubbed into MSM. Did he speak Sichuanese, or Mandarin with a Sichuan accent?

  15. Anonymous Coward said,

    March 13, 2018 @ 10:05 pm

    David: And the higher mutual intelligibility among German and Mandarin compared to Slavic speaks volumes about the importance of a unified literary culture providing shared higher vocabulary up to Neogrammarian correspondences and calquing…

  16. Victor Mair said,

    March 13, 2018 @ 11:16 pm

    @Coby Lubliner

    Xi Jinping is the first president of China who speaks MSM in a manner that does not have to be dubbed when televised nationally.

  17. Adrian said,

    March 14, 2018 @ 6:34 am

    Although I wouldn't criticise the line taken by the professor, I wonder whether this is fair on the non-Sichuanese speakers? Did they choose the university on the basis that they had been told that all the lectures would be in Mandarin? Or was it well-known that some/most of the lectures would be in Sichuanese?

  18. Victor Mair said,

    March 14, 2018 @ 9:01 am

    About 15-20 years ago, I visited a university in the northeast that advertised an all-English curriculum in various subjects (the sciences, archeology, anthropology, medicine, etc.) for students from abroad. I talked to some of the students from India and elsewhere who were enrolled in the program and they told me that, although their professors were allegedly speaking English, they couldn't understand most of what the professors said. I even had lunch with some of those very same professors and I found it impossible to carry on a conversation in English with them, so we switched to Mandarin.

  19. Adrián Hernández Terrazas said,

    March 14, 2018 @ 12:38 pm

    The topic of this post reminds me of Chao Yuen Ren's Mandarin Primer, as it is, as far as I know, the only textbook that not only mentions the existence of distinct Sinitic variants, or topolect, but also uses an entire lesson (Lesson 18) to teach the basics of Southwestern Mandarin, specially the Chongqing variant as well as some peculiarities of the Beijing dialect. As some time have passed since Chao's published his Mandarin Primer, that let me wondering if the distinctions between variants of Mandarin is a subject that is mentioned in the curriculum of Chinese language courses either at Western universities or at the Confucius Institutes or even at Chinese for Foreigners courses in China.

  20. Eidolon said,

    March 15, 2018 @ 8:21 pm

    "Although I wouldn't criticise the line taken by the professor, I wonder whether this is fair on the non-Sichuanese speakers? Did they choose the university on the basis that they had been told that all the lectures would be in Mandarin? Or was it well-known that some/most of the lectures would be in Sichuanese?"

    They would have known before hand from their peers and visits to the university. But the prestige of a school is significantly more important, in China, than whether you can understand the lectures. Either way, as stated above, you can't expect southern professors in their 50s and 60s to speak Standard Mandarin without a heavy accent. Even in American universities, and especially in the sciences, there are frequent cases of international professors whose English is nearly incomprehensible, though American students could usually decide to avoid their classes.

    While the Chinese government has been promoting Standard Mandarin for decades, it's only among the younger generations of Chinese that their efforts have been relatively successful. The next generation of professors will be much more proficient in Standard Mandarin, and such complaints will naturally decrease. Though, given current trends, they might then start teaching in English.

  21. B.Ma said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 7:17 am

    Just spotted this Sichuanese gem:

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