Uniting China to Speak Mandarin, the One Official Language: Easier Said Than Done
DATIAN, China - As a crowd formed around a rare foreign visitor in this town's open-air market, the conversation turned quickly from the price of dried fish and fresh fruit to how many dialects people here could muster.
Hoisting her cherubic 6-month-old daughter, Lin Jinchun, a 29-year-old dumpling seller, claimed that she could speak two, drawing a quick counterclaim of three from her mother, Lin Guimei.
What was the third dialect? someone asked. "Putonghua," the mother answered, counting the standard national language of China as if it were just another minor tongue. Meanwhile others, shouting above the din, chimed in that they could speak four, five or even six tongues.
As seen by many outsiders, China is a behemoth: the world's most populous country with a galloping economy and a more or less unified culture. But if Putonghua - Mandarin - is one of the world's most heavily spoken languages, in many parts of China it is lost in the mazes of local dialects.
In recent years migrant labor, which has brought about huge population movements from the hinterlands to China's prosperous eastern cities, has obliged millions of Chinese to learn more Mandarin, but by official estimates even today barely half of the population can speak the official dialect.
China has 55 ethnic minorities, many of them with cultural roots in neighboring countries. The linguistic diversity among these minorities, however, pales in comparison with the variety of tongues spoken among China's Han, the ethnic group that makes up more than 90 percent of the population. The Han speak as many 1,500 dialects, with the bulk of those concentrated in the southern half of the country.
The official view here is that all of the tongues spoken by Han are variants of one language, Chinese. But in a country with a traumatic history of civil war and fragmentation, many specialists say this theory may have more to do with politics than with linguistic reality. Many of the Han dialects are almost entirely mutually incomprehensible, more distinct than languages from disparate regions of Europe.
"No one can clearly answer the question how many dialects there are in China," said Zhang Hongming, a professor of Chinese linguistics at the University of Wisconsin who is in China doing fieldwork. "The degree of difference among dialects is much higher than the degree of difference among European languages. In Europe they call them languages, but in China we share a culture, so the central government would like to consider that one language is shared by many different peoples. It is simply a different definition."
Linguists say the Wu dialect widely spoken in Shanghai, to take one prominent example, shares only about 31 percent lexical similarity with Mandarin, or roughly the same as English and French.
The encounter at the Datian market began when the dumpling seller approached the foreigner with a phrase that sounded like "goodbye" in the Wu dialect. Knowing it must mean something else, the foreigner guessed she was asking his name, and provided it, producing a laugh from the woman who explained, switching to Mandarin, that she had asked if he had eaten lately.
For China, the consequences of this linguistic fragmentation are immense. Although no one in government says that local languages should be eliminated, there is a growing awareness that the country's national construction cannot be considered complete until all Chinese can speak a common language, which remains a distant goal.
Indeed, a government survey published last year said only 53 percent of the population "can communicate in Putonghua." In recognition of this fact, broadcasters commonly include subtitles - the meaning of Chinese characters is stable, even as spoken dialects vary - on television programs here to help people overcome comprehension problems.
A 2001 national language law decrees that Mandarin be used in all mass media, government offices and schools, and bars the "overuse" of dialects in movies and broadcasting.
Even by the standards of China's complicated language matrix, Fujian Province stands out for its richness, a dense thicket of tongues laid down by waves of migration over time from central China.
"We have an expression, that if you drive five miles in Fujian the culture changes, and if you drive 10 miles, the language does," said Zhang Zhenxing, a linguist from Fujian at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. "In recent years, because of economic growth things have been getting better, but there are still an extraordinary number of dialects in Fujian."
If Fujian Province can be said to have a Babel, tiny Datian County can stake a pretty solid claim. In this 800 square miles of rural central Fujian, where fields of rice and tobacco grow in the shadow of tall mountains, no fewer than five dialects are spoken in addition to Mandarin.
To drive a few miles down the road from one village to another is indeed to plunge into a new linguistic universe. Things can be as confusing for someone from the next town as they are for the total outsider.
In one village near the county seat, where an old Daoist shrine sits high above the roadside, a man who said he spoke southern Min, one of Fujian's most widely spoken dialects, tried to exchange words with some boys who said they also spoke southern Min. A few words from each side, however, sufficed to show they were mutually unintelligible.
Chen Wenxian, a shopkeeper in his late 20's in another village, grimaced with incomprehension when a driver pulled up and inquired about the price of shoes in his glass display case. The two switched into heavily accented but mutually comprehensible Mandarin.
Mr. Chen, slouched in his chair behind his counter, shrugged when asked the name of the village's language. Consultations with a cluster of family members did not unearth a name either.
"It's just what we speak here," he said. Asked if he could understand the language in the next village, a short distance down the road, he said: "I have no idea what they speak. Those people talk too fast."