Recently, the Economist referred to the president of Taiwan as a "bumbler": “Ma the bumbler: A former heart-throb loses his shine" The Taiwanese media translated "bumbler" as 笨蛋 ("stupid egg / oaf"), which caused Ma's supporters to have conniptions: "'Ma the bumbler' Economist report causes storm in Taiwan".
To call someone a bèndàn 笨蛋 ("stupid egg / oaf") or even a dà bèndàn 大笨蛋 ("big stupid egg / oaf") is not really that bad. Presidents in Western nations are called by terms of opprobrium that are much worse than that every day. Indeed, my wife used to call me bèndàn 笨蛋 ("stupid egg / oaf") or dà bèndàn 大笨蛋 ("big stupid egg / oaf") in an affectionate manner. So it's hard to fathom why calling Ma Ying-jeou a "bumbler" — translated into Mandarin as bèndàn 笨蛋 ("stupid egg / oaf") or dà bèndàn 大笨蛋 ("big stupid egg / oaf") — would occasion such an uproar.
Meanwhile, people in China are enthralled by the prospect of a new president who speaks standard Mandarin, a rarity among politicians and professors in China: "Finally, a Chinese Leader Who Speaks Intelligible Mandarin", by David Wertime, editor and co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation.
How could China's new President impress his countrymen with the mere ability to speak standard Chinese? In fact, China is a country of such great linguistic diversity that, for example, the native Beijing dialect and the native Shanghai dialect are mutually incomprehensible. Chinese television shows and adverts sport subtitles so that viewers of all linguistic persuasions can follow them. Regional differentiation is so great that a refined ear can even distinguish between two Chinese accents from neighboring towns.
Here, I'll invoke my wife again. Li-ching was born in Shandong, but moved to Sichuan at age one, and then to Taiwan at age eleven. She spoke excellent Modern Standard Mandarin (Guóyǔ 國語) and was a superb teacher of that language. She often told me stories about how, in her classes at Taiwan National University, she and her classmates couldn't understand half of what her professors — who came from all over China — were saying. That includes some famous professors from her natal Shandong. It wasn't just a matter of accents so thick that you could cut them with a knife. Her professors also used expressions that simply didn't exist in Modern Standard Mandarin (Guóyǔ 國語).
The linguistic (and cultural) diversity of China is so great that few people in America, who think that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have pronounced accents, can begin to imagine China as a country in which it is often difficult for citizens to understand what their presidents are saying (and I'm thinking back to Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek too).
That is why, when I read Jared Diamond's "Empire of Uniformity" in Discover Magazine back in March of 1996, I first burst out laughing, then became indignant that a national magazine was purveying such misinformation:
Today China appears politically, culturally, and linguistically monolithic. (For the purposes of this article, I exclude the linguistically and culturally distinct Tibet, which was also politically separate until recently.) China was already unified politically in 221 B.C. and has remained so for most of the centuries since then. From the beginnings of literacy in China over 3,000 years ago, it has had only a single writing system, unlike the dozens in use in modern Europe. Of China’s billion-plus people, over 700 million speak Mandarin, the language with by far the largest number of native speakers in the world. Some 250 million other Chinese speak seven languages as similar to Mandarin and to each other as Spanish is to Italian. Thus, while modern American history is the story of how our continent’s expanse became American, and Russia’s history is the story of how Russia became Russian, China’s history appears to be entirely different. It seems absurd to ask how China became Chinese. China has been Chinese almost from the beginning of its recorded history.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Almost everything that Diamond says in this passage, and indeed in his whole article, on the supposed uniformity of China is mistaken or misleading, especially what he claims about China's languages and scripts. When pundits like Diamond say that China has 700 million or a billion people who all speak the same language, I just roll my eyes in exasperation. Nonetheless, I am glad for China that it finally has a president who speaks the national language.
[A tip of the hat to Joshua Harwood]