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Lessons in Language Preservation

Linguist Liu Danqing says that protecting any dialect means protecting a perspective and a way of looking at problems, perceiving and experiencing the world

By Du Wei Updated Oct.1

Performers speak local dialect in the play White Deer Plain in Shaanxi Province

Liu Danqing’s parents are from Wuxi, Jiangsu Province. Liu went to primary and secondary school in Wujiang District, Suzhou in East China’s Jiangsu Province and later spent a few years living with a relative’s family in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). These early experiences allowed Liu to become a polyglot, speaking four dialects, including those from Wuxi, Wujiang, Suzhou and Shanghai by the time he was a teenager. 

After being admitted to the Chinese Department of Suzhou University in 1977, Liu began studying and researching Chinese dialects. As the director of the Institute of Linguistics with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and former president of the Chinese Dialect Society, he is well aware of the rise and fall of the living conditions and survival of Chinese dialects over the past 60 years. In his view, protection of any dialect means protecting a perspective and a way of looking at problems, perceiving and experiencing the world. Today, as standard Chinese, known as Puntonghua, is spoken by 73 percent of people in the Chinese mainland, and more than 90 percent in big cities, Liu believes that tailored language protection policies should be implemented. In July, NewsChina sat down with Liu in his office on the east side of downtown Beijing. 

NewsChina: What was the language environment when you grew up? What has changed with the popularization of Putonghua?  

Liu Danqing: I grew up and lived in an affluent region in the south of the Yangtze River, but even in such a place, when I was a child, almost no teacher taught in Putonghua, from primary to middle schools. Putonghua was only used during Chinese classes or on formal occasions such as art performances or poetry readings. Normally, teachers taught students in the Wu dialect with different accents, and only some teachers who came from other parts of China taught students in Putonghua. Outside school, all the local people including both children and adults spoke our local dialect. It was aperiod of time during which dialects prevailed while Putonghua was not popularized. 

In 1977, I was admitted to the Chinese Department of Suzhou University. There were 108 students in two classes. Except for one student from northern Jiangsu Province who spoke Putonghua, all the other students spoke Wu dialect.  

The promotion of Putonghua in China began in 1956. I think the role the government played in promoting Putonghua was far less effective than the role of the media after reform and opening-up, especially after more families got TVs. As the main entertainment for families in the early 1980s, television did create a linguistic environment for the general public’s exposure to Putonghua. 

NC: When did dialects become threatened? What caused this crisis? 

LD: The popularity of Putonghua is only one of the reasons behind the gradual marginalization of local dialects in China. But I think another big reason is the important changes in economic patterns after the country adopted reform and opening-up policies. China’s old peasant-dominated economy restricted people’s economic life to their local region. Domestic reform and opening-up policies and the subsequent globalization allowed the boundaries among different provinces and even countries to be broken. Furthermore, the relaxation of the hukou (family household registration system) and the large migrations of people within the country have caused an even bigger impact upon the ecology for the survival of dialects. Thus the factors which are causing dialect decline are multiple.  

By the year 2000, the Law on the National Common Language and Character was adopted. At that time, it was very important to safeguard national unity and ensure the vitality of the development of the socialist market economy while at the same time it also endowed Putonghua with much more influence under that special economic background. But in practice, mismanagement between the popularization of Putonghua and the preservation of dialects may lead to over-suppression of dialects, and indeed this phenomenon did occur to a significant number of dialects in recent decades.  

NC: What dialects do you think are in crisis and what are the manifestations of dialect crisis? 

LD: The survival status of dialects is quite different, for example, Cantonese remains strong even today, and it boasts high recognition and identity among populations even outside the original dialect region. In my opinion there is a linguistic sense of pride. I feel that Guangzhou people’s linguistic pride is very strong, Shanghai people’s linguistic pride is at the mid-level, while in places like Nanjing, Fuzhou and other cities, the local dialect linguistic pride is not very strong. However I have not yet studied the specific reasons that lie behind this diverse phenomenon.  

The strength of linguistic pride actually affects the protection of languages or dialects. Another important manifestation of dialect crisis is the shrinking of the dialect use environment. Taking my hometown Wujiang as an example, the number of people who left and those who stayed are almost equal. Those who stayed are either old adults or children, while the migrated population are mostly young and middle-aged adults. This means that in daily life and work, the vast majority of young people you are in contact with are not local, thus communication requires Putonghua, which significantly reduces the space for speaking in dialect. 

Now children are sent to kindergarten as soon as they reach the age of admission and in the public education system, Putonghua is widely adopted. Therefore, young people are rarely exposed to a dialect-speaking environment from as soon as they start kindergarten until they start working. 

NC: What has been the national policy on dialect protection?  

LD: Starting more than a decade ago, the State Language Commission and the Language Information Management Division of the Ministry of Education have proposed the protection of language resources. This was a very important step forward. Dialects in history used to be regarded by many people as a factor hindering the development of the country and the promotion of Putonghua, but since the concept of language resources was brought up and promoted, it means that all dialects are regarded as resources to a certain extent, and all have their innate cultural accumulation, cultural value and social value. Since then, some were set up and a survey of language resources was carried out. I was personally involved in the design of the grammar survey standards. 

In 2015, the Chinese language resources protection project was launched, which combined a dialect survey with an ethnic language survey. The State has also invested a lot of human, material and financial resources in these endeavors. In some provinces, for example Hunan, support from private sectors also emerged. 

When the “Opinions on the Implementation of the Project of Inheritance and Development of Chinese Excellent Traditional Culture” was issued by the State Council in 2017, preservation of dialects became an officially confirmed project. This document proposes to “vigorously promote and standardize the use of national common language and characters, to protect the heritage of dialect culture.” It is expected that the younger generation will inherit and pass on local dialects rather than purely record and document. Thus this can be seen as a vital new change of policy, indicating that the country has acknowledged the deterioration of many dialects. 

NC: What has been the effect of dialect protection and inheritance? 

LD: I think the important change is in people’s awareness. We no longer perceive only the negative side of using dialects, but rather regard it as an object to cherish. This influence is not just changing the attitudes of practitioners, but also those of ordinary people. 

Places across the country are starting to organize dialect preservation activities and hold competitions to promote their local dialect, which is unprecedented in China’s history. However we should not overestimate the impact of such initiatives, since the obstacles in rekindling the development of dialects remain unchanged, such as lack of motivation for young people to use dialects and lack of opportunities to use dialects. 

NC: What’s the significance and value of protecting dialects? 

LD: UNESCO has focused heavily on protecting endangered languages since the last century, especially from the 1990s. One of its core views indicates that every language and indeed every dialect can form a unique perspective to observe the world, which can be reflected in terms of expression, word choices and more. When a language is lost, there is no longer such a perspective.  

In certain regions where local people make detailed observations of certain phenomena, the categorization of certain things is particular, even trivial details. Each language places a different emphasis on plants, animals, ecology, geography and climate, thus it is as precious as the significance of species diversification.  

For example, in English, people use a single word “rice” to describe any form of rice, from the plant in the field, to rice cooked in the pot and the rice served as food. This is because rice culture is not regarded as an important element in the English-speaking world. But for people who live in Southern China, rice is vitally important to their daily life. Accordingly, there are different Chinese characters to describe rice in different forms, such as gu (grain), mi (rice), fan (cooked rice) and zhou (rice porridge).  

In the food culture of the Wu dialect region, there is a word xi, which refers to the broken rice grain, a state between a complete rice grain and the form of rice powder. Thus it is only possible for local people to generate this kind of cultural concept where rice culture is highly developed.  

Northern and southern China are divided into wheat and rice cultures. As a result, there is a different terminology for words connected to grain. We say mian (wheat flour) in northern China, and fen (rice flour) in southern China. So chili powder is called lajiao mian and lajiao fen and pepper is called hujiao mian and hujiao fen according to where you are. So dialects represent diverse thoughts and cultures. After the merging of northern and southern Chinese culture, we created a special term mian fen in our Chinese language, which is a compromise that combines the two regional cultures.  

NC: Addressing the large number of dialects in China, which need to be protected and how do we protect them? 

LD: Objectively speaking, it may not be possible to protect every dialect forever. What we can do now is slow the speed at which dialects are disappearing to allow them to survive in a natural state, and to create certain conditions for them to survive. But preservation of dialects should not affect the popularization of Putonghua. Being unable to speak Putonghua has been an evident obstacle for people living in remote poverty-stricken regions to escape poverty. But for most urban areas, especially in central and eastern developed regions, it is urgent to put dialect protection into the local development agenda. 

NC: How can the inter-generational inheritance of dialects be encouraged?  

LD: On the one hand, families should be encouraged to speak in their dialect at home, while on the other hand, starting from kindergarten, teachers can practice speaking Putonghua in class and communicate with children in the local dialect after class. It is important to create a relaxed atmosphere for people to communicate in their local dialect if possible without offending others who are also present but cannot understand the dialect. 

Liu Danqing

Lu Yefa, a former sailor, explains a navigation book written in a Hainan local dialect, Chaotang Village in the city of Qionghai, Hainan Province, June 14, 2016