My Textbook on Dialects
02 Sep 2005
As I understand it, the universtity, in conjunction with the Party, assigns approved textbooks to all courses. Students must buy these books. Then, when it comes to actually teaching the course, the professors choose how much those official textbook choices are used and how much other materials the professors personally select are used. The book I was so busy studying for a while, Modern Chinese (现代汉语, 上海教育出版社), is one of the ones chosen by the Party. That can make for interesting reading sometimes.
Here’s my slapdash translation of a paragraph on dialects in China (pp. 8-9):
> In order to adapt to the needs of socialist construction and promote the function of language in society, we must actively support the common language of China’s ethnic groups — we must rapidly popularize Mandarin Chinese. “Mandarin serves the people as a whole, whereas dialects serve only the people of a particular region. The spread of Mandarin does not mean the deliberate extinction of [other] dialects. Rather, it entails a gradual reduction in scope of the [other] dialects’ usage, in keeping with the objective requirements for the advancement of society. [Other] dialects can — and inevitably will — coexist with Mandarin in the long run. However, Mandarin’s scope of usage must be continually expanded, and Mandarin must be used as much as possible for public occasions and written materials. We must correct the narrow-minded views of those who do not accept Mandarin, are not willing to listen to Mandarin, or do not even allow their children to speak Mandarin. We must correct published materials — literature in particular — in which the misuse of [other] dialects appears.” We should correctly recognize the relevance of dialects as a form of communication within an ethnic minority while consciously promoting the development of the common language, reducing the influence of [other] dialects, and not only actively using Mandarin oneself, but also doing one’s best to spread the use of Mandarin.
The quote within the passage comes from a 1955 article in the People’s Daily entitled “For the Advancement of Language Reform, Promote Mandarin and Strive for the Standardization of the Chinese Language.”
So basically, the government doesn’t want to squash the other dialects, it just wants to reduce their role to insignificance while Mandarin dominates all. Apparently that doesn’t count as squashing them.
I have the feeling that the typical Shanghainese person would just laugh at a passage like this. Every now and then I hear that Shanghainese is in danger, but it seems pretty healthy to me.
One interesting issue raised by translating this passage had to do with the Chinese words 普通话 (Mandarin) and 方言 (dialect). In normal Chinese usage, Mandarin is pretty much never referred to as a dialect, even though by linguistic definition it could fairly be called a “standard dialect.” Yes, dialects can be standard or nonstandard, but they’re still dialects — variations of a larger linguistic group (of course, whether or not the different dialects/topolects of Chinese are actually separate languages altogether is a whole different can of worms). Yet in this passage, “dialects” were continually referred to, and the implication was “not Mandarin” and “inferior.” This linguistic bullying may not seem very strange, but keep in mind that the above passage came from a university’s core linguistics text! Ah, but it’s a Party-approved book… not so surprising after all.
Related: “Dialects” in China