Civilized language

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Sign at a bus station in Inner Mongolia:

It says:

yòng wénmíngyǔ 用文明语
("use civilized language")

jiǎng pǔtōnghuà 讲普通话
("speak Putonghua [Modern Standard Mandarin — MSM]")

If you look that up on the internet, you will find that most of the references fall under the categories of biāoyǔ 标语 ("slogans") and xuānchuán 宣传 ("propaganda") — of which there are aplenty.

Such slogans and propaganda are much in evidence throughout the country (note especially the propaganda boards that you see all over the place in China).

The injunction to speak MSM often appears in parallel with the charge to xiě guīfànzì 写规范字 ("write standard characters").

Speaking MSM and writing standard characters fall more or less under the same rubric of a citizen's duty to:

ài guóqí 爱国旗 ("love the national flag")

chàng guógē 唱国歌 ("sing the national anthem")

Other posts discussing "civilized language" include:

It is not difficult to tease out the implications.

[Thanks to Geoff Wade.]


  1. K Chang said,

    June 27, 2015 @ 12:40 am

    The intent is to displace Mongolian culture with a Chinese one. It's been done in Tibet too, with implication that if you don't speak Mandarin you're a country bumpkin.

  2. Mark Meckes said,

    June 27, 2015 @ 12:44 am

    No doubt similar signs have appeared throughout the world, like this one from southern France (from the early 20th century I think).

  3. K Chang said,

    June 27, 2015 @ 3:23 am

    @Mark Meckes — or the "Speak English" movement that popped up at various times in the US, including… Colorado?

  4. Mark Meckes said,

    June 27, 2015 @ 1:46 pm

    @K Chang, Yes, among many other places in the US. I thought of the French example partly because that's where I am at the moment, and also because the style and intent of the sign seemed very similar. As you say about the sign in Mongolia, the implication of the French sign was that if you don't speak the language of the national capital then you're a country bumpkin. The US "Speak English" movement is slightly different in character in that it's aimed primarily at immigrants, as opposed to speakers of indigenous languages. (Not that I'm defending it in any way!)

  5. D-AW said,

    June 27, 2015 @ 9:04 pm

    How do you like "Speak white"? :

  6. Bivalent Jerryrigged Statist said,

    June 27, 2015 @ 9:05 pm

    Ironic, given that things like classical poetry sound far prettier and far more civilized when read in an uncivilized dialect like 蘇州話.;) Mandarin is depressingly boring; I wish I had a chancc to learn Suzhou dialect…

  7. Matt McIrvin said,

    June 28, 2015 @ 7:09 pm

    The stigmatization of Black English/AAVE/Ebonics as "bad English" is a closer analogy, as is the stigmatization of Southern US accents more generally.

  8. Matt McIrvin said,

    June 28, 2015 @ 7:10 pm

    …whereas you don't hear much of the effort to eradicate indigenous American languages today since it succeeded so nearly completely.

  9. harry said,

    June 28, 2015 @ 10:06 pm

    As the tour guide said to us on a visit to New Orleans recently: "It's good thing Andrew Jackson won the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 – otherwise we'd all be speaking English…"

  10. Eidolon said,

    June 29, 2015 @ 10:57 am

    @Matt McIrvin I would say that the US today is much more liberal about multilingualism, rather than that the absence of signs is because indigenous languages have already been eradicated. Spanish – specifically Mexican Spanish – is, for example, becoming a second language in large swaths of the US, and multilingualism is encouraged, not discouraged, in a great many US schools. It wasn't always this way, and indeed there are still segments of American society who fear the spread of multilingualism, but it is a long ways from the time when the federal/state governments had to put up posters about the need to speak English.

    As for the PRC, they are in that stage of nation-building in which multilingualism is still seen as being subversive to the goal of political unity. But have yet to understand, I think, that hard-nosed propaganda posters of the sort shown above are liable to offend and threaten, rather than to sway.

  11. Wentao said,

    June 29, 2015 @ 3:38 pm

    @Eidolon "Hard-nosed propaganda posters of the sort shown above are liable to offend and threaten, rather than to sway."
    You might be surprised at the size of the general public who actually agrees with these propaganda posters. I have often come across people who believe that their mother tongues are vulgar and uncultured, and take pride primarily in the fact that they contain colorful swearwords. The fact that school education only acknowledges one standard pronunciation when reading literary texts, even in historical cultural centers such as Suzhou, Fuzhou and Guangzhou, further reinforces the stereotype that Standard Mandarin is the sole vehicle of high culture. Sadly, forceful eradication of topolects has been very effective in most areas across China.

  12. Yong said,

    June 30, 2015 @ 3:50 pm

    You guys read too much into this sign. Without standardization of pronunciation, China would have a higher chance of separation into multiple small countries, not to mention the great inconvenience to everyone living in the country. The negative side is, understandably, less fun to the people that enjoy reading language blogs.

  13. JQ said,

    July 1, 2015 @ 10:51 am


    It's certainly understandable that the government wants to prevent the country from splitting into small countries and is trying to use language as a tool to achieve that, but if China was actually multiple countries (à la Europe) that would not necessarily be a bad thing.

  14. Milan said,

    July 3, 2015 @ 6:21 pm


    Also there are quite a few countries which are nowhere near falling apart despite not having a common language for all citizens: Switzerland and India come to mind. Or those many African countries where the main lingua franca – English or French – hardly lends itself to national identification.

  15. Anna Johnson said,

    July 4, 2015 @ 4:14 pm

    Yeah I'm not going to say "we must have nationalistic movements so we don't form into smaller communities" because wow, there's so much political drama going on in that it'd take a long blog post to unpack it.

    Suffice it to say that there's no reason to buy into Speak Putonghua without also buying into an ethnic nationalism that prizes Han Chinese speaking one restrictive form of modern Guanhua at the price of everything else.

  16. Eidolon said,

    July 6, 2015 @ 10:19 am

    @JQ I think China is very different from Europe in the sense that its flat-plains geography has never allowed for easily defensible borders for regional states. Even during the Warring States period, when China actually had fairly powerful regional kingdoms, borders were constantly shifting as they were being destroyed/swallowed by other kingdoms, till, as every Chinese school child is taught, the First Emperor "united" all under heaven. The control of water sources being so critically important, even today, it's difficult to see how division in China is not going to result in a few geographically well-positioned states along the great rivers bullying the rest.

  17. Eidolon said,

    July 6, 2015 @ 10:26 am

    @Anna Johnson would you also say the same for the English-only movement in the US? That 'there's no reason to buy into it without also buying into an ethnic nationalism that prizes Anglo-Americans speaking one restrictive form of modern American English at the price of everything else?'

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