Chinese dialects in decline as government enforces Mandarin

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Mark Schiefelbein/AP</span>
Photograph: Mark Schiefelbein/AP

Two years ago, Qi Jiayao visited his mother’s hometown of Shaoxing in eastern China. When he tried to speak to his cousin’s children in the local dialect, Qi was surprised. “None of them was able to,” recalls the 38-year-old linguist, who now teaches Mandarin in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

The decline in local dialects among the younger generation has become more apparent in recent years as China’s president, Xi Jinping, has sought to strengthen a uniform Chinese identity. Mandarin is now being spoken by more than 80% of China’s population, up from 70% a decade ago. Last month, China’s state council vowed to increase the figure to 85% within the next four years.

But the popularisation of a standard national language is often at the expense of regional languages, including dialects of the Han majority and ethnic languages such as Mongolian and Uyghur. In Inner Mongolia, for example, local regulations in 2016 allowed ethnic schools to use their own language for teaching. This policy was aimed at developing students’ linguistic skills and cultivating bilingualism. But four years later it was reversed to favour Mandarin, a move that sparked protests from the ethnic population.

It is not just ethnic languages that are being affected. In 2017, a survey circulated online showed that among the 10 dialect groups, Wu Chinese, which includes the Shanghai dialect and is spoken by about 80 million people in the eastern part of the country, has the smallest number of active users aged between six and 20. It prompted concern among linguists in the region.

In Shanghai, where Qi grew up, activists have campaigned to encourage use of their dialect for many years. In 2020, a local political representative urged the Shanghai government to invest in promoting the local dialect. The government responded by upgrading the local Huju opera annual festival to a municipality-level activity. This success encouraged Qi. But he is realistic about how much activists can accomplish. In 2014, the TV programme Shanghai Dialect Talk on Shanghai Doco TV was taken off air after the government insisted on the use of standard Mandarin for the channel to be broadcast nationally. Chinese laws prevent satellite TV channels from broadcasting in local dialects.

Activists are turning to social media and local events. A new group of volunteers has been making a recording of Blossoms, by Jin Yucheng, winner of the prestigious Mao Dun literature prize and one of the few novels written in the Shanghainese dialect of Wu. Every few weeks, the organisers upload chapters to WeChat and Himalaya, a Chinese podcast site. Qi is now compiling a Shanghai dialect dictionary.

In 2000, China passed laws to standardise spoken and written language. In each province, a language committee advises, monitors and polices the use of Mandarin. The strength of the implementation varies, but it is not difficult for a determined government to enforce its policy. In September, the south-western province of Sichuan banned civil servants and party cadres from using the local dialect in the workplace, a language once used on national TV by Deng Xiaoping, the former supreme leader, before his death in 1997.

“The state has been telling people there are visible and tangible benefits from speaking standard Mandarin Chinese,” says Fang Xu, an urban sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Silencing Shanghai: Language and Identity in Urban China. “Since then, many regional languages – including Shanghainese – have suffered the same fate.”

A 2010 study by Beijing Union University found that nearly half of local Beijing residents born after 1980 prefer using Mandarin Chinese over the Beijing dialect.

But it is not all bad news, she adds. In the past, internal migrants from outside Shanghai often felt discriminated against and excluded by being unable to speak the local dialect. Today social exclusion no longer hinges on speech or residential status but wealth. “The richest in Shanghai today are not even Shanghainese.”

Qi began noticing the change when studying in the north-eastern city of Harbin in 2002. “Looking from a local Shanghai perspective, the marginalisation of the dialect is alarming. But thinking nationally, it may be inevitable at a time when a uniform Chinese identity trumps everything,” he says. “The diminishing of dialects seems only to be the price we pay for it.”

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