Mandarin and the Southern Chinese
schools teach in English, but all children are required to do a second language
from the very first year. The second language must be, for the three main racial
groups, the "mother tongue". This is policy. Chinese pupils must do
Mandarin Chinese as a second language, because Mandarin Chinese is considered
their mother tongue. This is the case regardless whether Mandarin is spoken at
home or not. "Mother tongue" in Singapore parlance is not the language
spoken within the family (20-25% of Singapore Chinese families use English as
the main language at home), but the language assigned by our politics to your
racial group. In Singapore, you are pigeonholed according to your race.
The majority of the Chinese think nothing of it. To them it is only right and natural that Chinese should want to preserve their culture, and that learning the language of their forefathers will help in transmitting that culture. They are entitled to their opinion, though this does not necessarily mean that they have the right to impose their ideas on other Singaporeans who do not wish to be compelled to learn a language not of their choosing -- but that is a separate debate, not the subject of this article.
Yet, even granting them the right to their opinion, there is still a nagging matter of accuracy. Is the Chinese taught in schools the language of their forefathers? (This is one more of the many near-taboo subjects in Singapore. It is a debate that is discouraged from mainstream forums.)
The Chinese migrants who came to Singapore spoke many dialects -- and I use the word 'dialect' with hesitation, the reason for which I shall explain later. The chief dialects were from Amoy, Swatow, Kongchow and Hylam. You'd notice I used the dialect names for the places they came from. If you could go back in time and ask the migrants as they arrived on the wharf where they sailed from, those place-names would have been their replies. Yet, if you spoke to their descendants today in their "mother-tongue" and asked them where their families originated from, they'd say "Xiamen, Shantou, Guangzhou and Hainan."
I think you can see my point. There seems to be a huge difference between Amoy and Xiamen, Swatow and Shantou and so on. Is the Chinese we teach our children today anything like the language their forefathers spoke?
The riposte is always that what the migrants spoke were the regional dialects of a continental language, Chinese. What is being taught today is the same language, but with a standardised Mandarin pronunciation. The written language has always been the same -- for 5,000 years, they will stress. Therefore the difference is minor.
Frankly, it is more myth than fact. Chinese Singaporeans are led to believe that there is one language, Chinese, and the "dialects" are merely variations in pronunciation. Related to this is the belief in the unitary Chinese culture, Chinese race and Chinese nation.
Alas, the world is a messier place. The Chinese do not stand apart from others. There are no clear boundaries. At the fringes, they slide into other peoples and other languages. With the diaspora, they certainly slide into other nation-states. The Chinese in Singapore, for example, are not part of the Chinese nation. It is doubtful if they are even part of the Chinese cultural area.
This essay is about language, and what I want to do is to throw some unaccustomed light into issues of dialect and language. It is remarkable how few Singaporeans know the history of the Chinese languages, and how uncritically they accept the "official version" of the story.
As a continent-sized country with a long history, it is no wonder that China contains innumerable variations of language. But there is an interesting divide between the Mandarin areas and the Southern Chinese areas. The Mandarin areas comprise the northern plains, the loess plateau region, Manchuria, the northern side of the Yangzi valley, with a biggish hook southwest into Sichuan and Guizhou. The area is home to about 72% of China's population, some 800-900 million people. In these areas, they speak dialects which are more or less intelligible to each other. Their grammar is similar and they share many common colloquialisms.
When I was in Xi'an, I could just about understand what I was overhearing of the locals' conversation, despite my poor command of Chinese, and despite their thick accent. Once, when I was in the departure lounge of Beijing airport, I could understand what a Harbin family were saying among themselves, and in another corner, some old school friends from Dalian, while a little further away, two businessmen returning to Nanjing.
The differences in their regional dialects were no greater than the differences in English from Texas to New York to Sydney to Manchester. The Mandarin dialects have differences in pronunciation, but they are minor enough to remain mutually intelligible.
In southeastern China the variations in language are much greater. The many versions spoken are not intelligible to Mandarin speakers nor to each other. Each of them do not only pronounce the ideograms differently, they have words for which no ideograms exist, for example, the Cantonese words "la-tza" ('dirty') and "humbelang" ('everything'). If any ideograms exist, e.g. for the Cantonese word "mo" ('not have'), they are local inventions, not recognised by other Chinese .
Furthermore, the southern Chinese use slightly different grammar from Mandarin. Again using Cantonese as an example, you could try translating these two sentences into Cantonese and Mandarin: (a) "Eat some more", and (b) "You go ahead first". You'd realise that the word order is different between Mandarin and Cantonese, and even the words used are different, not just different pronunciations of the same words. For example, if you had translated the second sentence, you'd have used different words for 'go' in Mandarin and Cantonese.
Are these dialects or separate languages? I do not think it is all that obvious that they are merely dialects. The differences among French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish are not greater than the differences among Hakka, Mandarin or Cantonese speech. Yet French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish are considered distinct languages.
At this point, the old argument about a common Chinese script is trotted out again, to prove that they are dialects, not separate languages. Putting aside what I said above, that the southern Chinese have words for which there are no northern ideograms, or about the differences in word order, one should also remember that the written forms of the European languages are based on their pronunciation. As pronunciation differs, so the writing is supposed to differ. You can't compare that with the Chinese idea of writing, which is to capture the meaning, not the sound. If China had a more phonetic system of writing, then each of the southern dialects would be written differently, and as a result would be seen as separate languages.
I am not insisting that they are dialects, or that they are languages. I am just saying that there isn't a clear distinction between the two. Southern Chinese speech can be considered very distant dialects, or very closely-related languages. But I am saying, beware those who absolutely insist that they are dialects despite the complexity of the facts: these persons have a hidden political agenda.
What caused this great divide between the Mandarin dialects in three-quarters of China, and the related Chinese languages in the southeast? (I'm using the term 'Chinese languages' not because I am insisting that they are separate languages, but merely to distinguish them from the Mandarin dialects).
Certainly, topography is one. History is another. Let's start with history.
Chinese originated in the middle valleys of the Yellow River, roughly today's provinces of Shaanxi and Henan. By about 500 BCE, the time of Confucius, it was a dynamic and thriving civilisation. But it was local. Much of present-day inner China was still not yet Chinese. The south (meaning the Yangzi valley and beyond) in particular was inhabited by quite different peoples, which the Chinese called the "Hundred Yue". It is not possible now to reconstruct what those peoples were like, or what languages they spoke, although one could guess that there was some relationship between them and the present-day Vietnamese and Thais, both of whom migrated southwards from China into their present countries during the last 1000 years.
Like all thriving cultures, Chinese culture began to influence the southern peoples from about 500 BCE on. There was trade, and a trickle of Chinese settling in the southern valleys.
The Han dynasty (206 BCE - 9 CE; and 25 - 220 CE) was the first to extend its political control to a few parts of the south, but political control should not be mistaken for cultural or linguistic homogeneity. Today's China has political control over Tibet and Xinjiang, but these places are ethnically, linguistically and religiously different from Inner China. Likewise, the south remained largely non-Chinese during the Han period. Political control however brings with it increased migration -- ask the Tibetans and the Uighurs of Xinjiang and they'll tell you about it. During the Han, more and more Chinese moved into the Yangzi valley and even further south, as population pressures grew in the north.
The many regions of the south did not become Chinese at the same pace. The first part to become fully sinified was the Yangzi delta region. In 610 CE, during the Sui dynasty, the Grand Canal linking the capital Chang'an in the north (near today's Xi'an) with Hangzhou in the south, was completed. This facilitated trade and travel. Most of the middle and lower Yangzi regions filled up with Chinese people within 200-300 years after that.
The Tang dynasty (618 - 907 CE) also had effective control over much of the south. It was a period of cultural brilliance, which meant sustained cultural influence over the south. This would be similar to the spread of the English language in the wake of the British empire and American ascendancy. But it was the collapse of the Tang in 907 CE and the chaos that ensued in the north, that produced the greatest wave of southwards migration to date. You can see some evidence of this in the way the deep southerners in Guangdong and Fujian refer to themselves as a people. There is no exact translation in Chinese for the word "Chinese". In Mandarin, in the north, the translation would be the "Han people", but in Guangdong and Fujian, they would say "Tang people", even though they'd be referring to all the Chinese of Inner China. This indicates the time when the deep south became sinified.
The process of sinification was spread over more than a thousand years. With such a gradual process, the Chinese did not displace or obliterate the original inhabitants. They lived among the locals and intermarried. Today's southern Chinese are, as a result, not genetically identical to the northern Chinese. Even an Indian friend of mine told me that he can tell the difference in physical features between the northerners and southerners.
Unlike the mixing of genes, the mixing of culture and language however, were more unbalanced. The acculturation tended to be in the direction of non-Chinese to Chinese, rather than an equal blending. Even so, for centuries, the more accessible valleys of south China were multi-lingual places, with Chinese spoken amidst the local Hundred Yue babel of languages. But over time, Chinese began to predominate. It tended to be the locals and the mixed-blood who took up Chinese, rather than the migrants from the north picking up the Hundred Yue languages. Yet, the Chinese spoken in these places was influenced by the local languages, the same way that English in India is influenced by native Hindi speakers.
There are some tantalising clues of such influences in the southern Chinese languages of today. Firstly, the number of tones tend to increase the further south one goes. The Mandarin dialects, with few exceptions, use just 4 tones. Shanghainese and the Zhejiang language, just a bit south of the Yangzi river mouth, have 6 tones. Hakka too has 6 tones. The Amoy language has 7. Cantonese has 9. Were the original languages of the "Hundred Yue" very rich in tones? Consider also the two peoples who migrated from what is today the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi to their present countries: the Thais and the Vietnamese. They have five and six tones respectively.
Another clue lies in the position of the modifier. In Mandarin, the modifier precedes the noun, like in English: "the unknown soldier". This is in contrast to languages where the modifier follows the noun, as in French, "le soldat inconnu".
In Mandarin, the rooster is "gong1ji1", literally "male chicken". Modifier before noun. But in Cantonese, it is "gai1gong1", or "chicken male".
In Mandarin, a guest is "ke4ren2", literally "guest person". In Cantonese, it is "yan3haak2", or "person guest".
The Cantonese examples are just the exceptions. Mostly, the word order in Cantonese is also modifier before noun, just like the north. But where did these odd exceptions come from?
Thai and Vietnamese also have their modifiers follow the noun. This suggests that the original local languages of southern China had different word order rules from Mandarin, and here and there, remnants can be seen in today's southern Chinese languages.
When thinking about the steady migration and acculturation over the millenia, please do not imagine that the northern Chinese language that was current during those times was anything like the Chinese spoken by Mandarin speakers today. We have no way of knowing now what it sounded like. We only know, based on preserved documents, that they used very similar symbols (ideograms) to represent word-concepts as today. But how they pronounced these symbols, we can't tell. What few clues we have indicate considerable differences in sounds. For example, some experts have pointed out that during the Tang dynasty, the northern Chinese had sounds that ended with an unvoiced "p", "k" or "t", similar to the Cantonese or Amoy sounds of "taap", "hock" or "kiat". Present-day Mandarin has lost these ending consonants. The word for "wealth", currently pronounced "fu" or "foo" in Mandarin, was probably pronounced "hoook" (with a long "ooo" like the English word "tool") during the Tang dynasty.
Languages drift over time. Chinese is no exception. Even when almost all of Inner China had been sinified, by around 1200 CE, linguistic changes continued to occur.
Southern China is characterised by mountains and valleys. Without modern technology, communication was difficult. The best means of transport was by boat, and even then, it was slow and allowed travel only within the same river system. The hundreds of isolated communities gradually drifted apart in their speech even after they were sinified. In any case, for starters, they absorbed different pre-existing local languages -- after all, the "Hundred Yue" were hardly homogenous.
Some experts say that the very isolation of many southern Chinese communities helped them preserve some of the original sounds of Tang Chinese, sounds which the northerners lost over the next few centuries. Perhaps, but we can't be sure. However, it is true that the linguistic map of southern China is deeply fragmented and inhabitants of one area are usually unintelligible to people living more than 200 km away, let alone to Mandarin speakers north of the Yangzi. For example, the city of Shantou is the centre of the Swatow language (what in Singapore is called Teochew). The city of Meizhou is the centre of the Hakka language. Meizhou and Shantou are only 120 km apart. Both these cities are in the province of Guangdong, the capital of which, Guangzhou (Canton), is the epicentre of Cantonese. Guangzhou is only 370 km away from both Shantou and Meizhou.
In contrast, the Nanjing dialect of Mandarin is intelligible to the residents of Harbin, 2100 km away. Despite the different accents and slang, there is a remarkable uniformity of language thoughout Inner China except for the south. Geography certainly has a lot to do with it. The northern landscape is flatter, the climate drier, allowing communication by horse. So people moved about regularly in search of trade or better farmlands.
The openness of the terrain also meant that northern China was exposed to invasion. Every time the "barbarians" came in, refugees fled quite considerable distances.
The flat landscape also magnified natural disasters as when the Yellow River burst its banks and changed course (a repeated feature of Chinese history), or when enormous dust storms blew out of the Gobi Desert.
These factors kept the population of the north on the boil. People moved about every other generation or so and there was simply no time for languages to drift apart in isolation.
Sichuan and Manchuria are outside northern China and yet are Mandarin speaking. These areas have unique histories. Manchuria is a newly settled area. It's been open to migration only in the last 200 years or so, with the major wave of migration in the early part of the 20th century.
Sichuan in the southwest, is a plateau ringed by mountains. It's been politically part of China for over a thousand years, and probably had linguistically different inhabitants at the beginning. However, the province was seriously depopulated in the 1200's. We don't know why, though plague has been suggested as a possibility. It was resettled, mainly in the last 300-400 years, from northern and central China, which explains why the Sichuan dialect is a Mandarin dialect.
The linguistic history of China is a fascinating story. There are close dialects, distant dialects (or close languages) and all sorts of factors playing havoc with language. But so far, nowhere in this story has an "official" or "standard" language appeared.
This Mandarin that we teach in Singapore schools as the standard version of Chinese -- where did it come from?
In fact, you might have noticed that I don't even speak of Mandarin as a single dialect, but as a collection of dialects. Why has an "official" or "standard" dialect not entered the story?
Because for most of Chinese history, there was no need for one. Think about it for a moment: there were no long-distance telephones; it was impossible to summon all your governors and commanders back to the capital for a conference. The business of the state was more written than spoken. Imperial edicts, provincial reports, recommendations, entreaties were conveyed not by speaking to each other, but through letters.
Through all the dynasties, China had an official written language, Classical Chinese, which bore little relation to any of the spoken dialects. It was an extremely formal and literary style, something vaguely akin to Shakespearean blank verse. Nobody ever went around spouting blank verse in real life. Likewise, nobody ever spoke Classical Chinese. But that was of little consequence. So long as all the bureaucrats were trained to read and write Classical Chinese, they could communicate with each other. How divergently they pronounced those ideograms in their various cities and outposts, was immaterial.
It's much like how written Latin survived as the language of the secular and ecclesiastical bureaucracy in Europe, long after people stopped speaking it but spoke Norman French, Frisian Dutch, Bavarian, Catalan and so on.
Classical Chinese was in use right up to the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911, though parallel to that, Baihua ("plain language") was rapidly developing as a written form. Baihua captured the ordinary speech of the middle and educated classes, but unlike Classical Chinese, it was circumscribed by dialect, since it strove to reflect ordinary speech. As Peking was the centre of the Chinese world, Baihua as it developed, tended to propagate the idioms and usages of the Peking dialect of Mandarin. But Baihua had no official status.
Besides Classical Chinese as the written form, within the confines of the Peking bureaucracy itself, but not the provincial administrations, the spoken form was a rather elevated version of the Peking dialect. It was called "guan1hua4"  ("the language of the officials"). In the imperial household, however, the spoken language was not even Chinese, it was Manchu.
This was the situation as extant when many, probably most, of our forefathers left China for Singapore, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their world had no official Mandarin as we would know it today. Their concept of Chinese was that of a family of languages sharing a common script, but in real life, even their spoken versions departed quite a bit from the written version in vocabulary, word order and other linguistic features. All the dialects were on an equal footing. Only Classical Chinese (which was impossible to speak) enjoyed prestige as the language of education and political advancement.
To illustrate this, consider the United States today. They have many regional dialects of spoken English, but none of them enjoy an acknowledged superiority over others. Writing, however, is different. There is a standard for proper written English.
Contrast this with Britain or France, where there is a standard of pronunciation, acknowledged as correct and which has greater cachet.
Coming back to the China story, after many of our forefathers had left China, China changed. Their hometowns of Amoy, Swatow and Kongchow became Xiamen, Shantou and Guangzhou. How did that happen?
The Qing dynasty was overthrown in October 1911. The modernists took over, declared a republic, and resolved to make China a modern nation-state. One of the key tasks was to have a unifying language, like English in the United States, or French for France.
In 1913, a Conference on the Unification of Pronunciation was organised by the Ministry of Education, but it rapidly went into deadlock between the southerners and the northerners. The southerners refused to recognise the supremacy of the Mandarin dialects and insisted that the southern speech (despite their innumerable versions) was more authentic to historical Chinese pronunciation.
A messy compromise resulted. The official language, called "guo2yu3" for the first time in Chinese history was created. A dictionary (Guo2yin1 Ci2dian3) was published. It was based on the Peking dialect, with added features believed to be truer of original Chinese pronunciation as spoken centuries ago. For example, they added a fifth tone to Peking Mandarin, which nowadays has only four tones. This very abstract Guoyu was something that no one could speak! Among other problems, the southerners couldn't get the Peking sounds right; the Pekingers couldn't manage the fifth tone!
But there was a lot of revolutionary fervour, and the modernist opinion leaders led the way in spreading Guoyu. The elite began to pick it up (or at least a close approximation of it, fifth tone notwithstanding), and institutions of higher learning began to adopt it.
Eventually, pragmatism won the day. In 1932, the National Language Unification Commission quietly published a new Vocabulary of National Pronunciation for Everyday Use (Guo2yin1 Chang2yong4 Zi4hui4), which normalised the pronunciation to the Peking dialect.
This more or less, is the standard we now aspire to. This standard is only two generations old, when most of us have been in Singapore three generations.
The Communists took over in 1949, and they derided the Nationalist's Guoyu as insufferably elitist. In 1955 and 1956, they convened two conferences on language reform, to put their own stamp on things. What came out of them was, in truth, quite indistinguishable from Guoyu, except that it was now called "Pu3tong1hua4" ("Common Language"). Putonghua was to be based on the Peking pronunciation, with usages based on the northern dialect, and should have as its grammatical model, the "exemplary literary works written in the modern colloquial".
The Communists had even greater revolutionary zeal than the Nationalists. Immediately after they authorised Putonghua, they set about converting all schools throughout that large country to teaching in it. They re-trained hundreds of thousands of teachers at one go, and they made Putonghua mandatory for all broadcasting.
40 years on, we can see the results. A whole generation has grown up with some working knowledge of Putonghua. In any city or small town of Inner China (I don't know about Xinjiang, Qinghai or Tibet), you can get by without the local tongue. Occasionally, you can't use the local language!
I was once in the city of Dongguan, midway between Hongkong and Guangzhou. A waiter was taking our orders for lunch. My Hongkong friends began to order using Cantonese. The waiter struggled to understand them. I thought it was odd; after all, we're in the heartland of the Cantonese. I asked the waiter, in Mandarin, where he was from. He said, Xi'an. That explained it. I then placed the orders for my friends, in Mandarin. The young man was much happier dealing with me than with the Cantonese. My Hongkong friends were flabbergasted. As for me, I secretly hoped my Hongkong friends hadn't noticed the bad grammar and bad pronunciation of my so-called Mandarin.
With the passage of time, and as China relaxes controls leading to more internal migration in search of jobs, the gradual standardisation of speech in the country will gather steam. What the future is for the southern Chinese languages may be something worth watching.
What is happening in Singapore -- the officially-mandated replacement of the southern languages with Mandarin -- parallels the events in China. Both events are driven by the same impulse to unify and modernise.
I am not saying the trend is wrong. I am not saying it is regrettable. Quite the opposite: I really do agree that it would be a good thing. So what am I going on about?
Too often, the revolutionary reformers gloss over the reality, the historical facts, to better package their objectives. They insist that there is no significant loss when "dialects" are subsumed under the official Mandarin; after all, they are merely variances in pronunciation. They're all the same language anyway. The supremacy of Mandarin is not to be questioned. It is conveniently confused with written Chinese and imagined to have 5,000 years of history behind it. With such venerable authority, why quibble about whether the "mother-tongue" we teach in Singapore schools today is or is not the same language that the immigrants spoke?
Too often, the first casualty of revolution, as of war, is truth. Which is why I set out to tell this story: that it is quite debatable whether the southern speech are dialects or separate languages; that Mandarin or Putonghua did not achieve its ascendancy until the middle of this century, well after most of the Chinese immigrants arrived in Singapore.
What is sold to the public as "preserving your heritage" through teaching the "mother-tongue", may in fact be social engineering through compulsory teaching of a foreign language. I mean, consider this: Chinese families are roughly split into three types in Singapore: those that still use a southern Chinese language at home, those that use Mandarin, and those that use English (always bearing in mind that many families use a mix of languages too). In a narrow sense, then, "mother-tongue" as an appellation for Mandarin is only accurate for the second group. Another fact the social engineers tend to ignore is that almost all families who today use English in their home never went through a Mandarin phase. It's not as if these families, originally Hokkien or Hakka speaking, first migrated to Mandarin and then migrated to English. No, they went directly from Hokkien or Hakka to English, just as other families went from Hokkien or Hakka to Mandarin. English, for those families using it, is not twice removed from their origins, but only once removed, just as Mandarin is once-removed from other families' origins. The authenticity of English as a family language is as real in these families as Mandarin in other families.
This is not to say that we shouldn't learn Mandarin. For utilitarian purposes. But I would be suspicious of claims of Mandarin being the vehicle for cultural heritage. I'm not saying that Mandarin can't be a vehicle for its own culture; I'm asking how relevant that China-oriented cultural heritage is to us (see my next article Mandarin and the Singapore Identity). I'm even more suspicious of the oft-stated need for Mandarin to bolster our "moral values", whatever that means. Why is morality language-specific? More particularly, Mandarin-specific? Yet, my doubts notwithstanding, we can still debate all those things. All I ask is that the debate should start from the facts of the language, not myths.
© Yawning Bread