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Language Diversity in China
by Grain

Many human rights activists complain that the Tibetans are forced to learn the Chinese language. I feel a myriad of odd feelings as I read these reports.

When I grew up in Taiwan the people around me spoke in all kinds of dialects that might as well be foreign languages to me, because I could not understand them. Walking down a street, I would hear a Taiwanese street vendor yelling in a throaty dialect as he raises a watermelon in his hand. In the afternoons, another vendor from Shandong would be pushing his cart of steamed buns along the back street of my house, calling out in his lilted dialect the names of his huge buns of dough mixed with fermented wine. When I went to a fabric store, there would be ladies from Shanghai speaking their soft dialect as they chattered lightly. I could not understand a word of what any of them were saying, yet it never bothered me. That was just the way China was. Each province had its own dialect. Some of them did not sound tonal to me at all.

When we needed to communicate, we then all spoke in the national language, which was chosen by a national assembly after the father of modern China, Sun Yatsen, led a movement to overthrew the Manchurian dynasty. Beijing dialect won by one vote. Note that Sun was a Cantonese from the southern province of Guangdong; Chiang Kai-shek was from Zhejiang;  Mao was from Hunan, a province northwest of China, and Deng was from Sichuan, in southeast China. All of these leaders had to learn Beijing hua. And they spoke in heavy accents. In fact, a month or so ago, I read an article about how the mainland Chinese TV station are filming biographies of famous leaders, and a debate arose on whether they should be portrayed as speaking with heavy accents. Many people say them missed the endearing qualities of the accents. I think psychologically, all Chinese people know that the coming together of the nation took a lot of compromise. And the leaders in their heavy accents brought that feeling to home.

As far as languages go, according to the Cambridge Encyclopedia of China (editor Brian Hook): "the language spoken in China belong to eight linguistic stocks. These are genetic stocks, determined by the existence of shared cognate items in the core vocabulary within each stock. Moving roughly from east to west, and from north to south, the following stocks are found: "Japanese-Korean, Altaic, Indo-European, Tibeto-Burman, Austro-Asiatic, Dai, Miao-Yao, Malayo-Polynesian."

There was a recent study done by two Chinese American scientists in the U.S. They tried to trace the original roots of the Chinese people by studying their DNA. The human fossils found are not as reliable as a study on the DNA, they said, because of the damages to the bones. Their extended study of many groups of ethnic people in China and of people around the world to trace DNA progression led to an indication that the original people from China came from Africa. Some Africans moved from southeast Asia, in the Thailand regions, up northward into China, where they split up into two groups, one moved toward central plains and Tibet, the other group continued north to Mongolia and beyond. Later, the people in northern regions of Mongolia moved back down south. It was an exciting discovery based on DNA progression. They think what happened was during the last Ice Age most of the population on earth were killed, but some people survived in Africa, and these people migrated over thousands of years to the rest of the world. This all happened at least 50 thousand years ago.

According to Cambridge Encyclopedia, "The earliest examples of known Chinese writing are ideograph signs found on Neolithic pottery wares unearthed in Banpo, near Xi'an in Shaanxi. The pottery has been established by the radiocarbon method of dating as belonging to the Yangshao culture, which existed between 8000 and 5000 BC, and the writing closely resembles signs inscribed on bronze wares of the Shang-Yin and Zhou periods."

I find this interesting because my ancestor was a Mongolian who had won a written scholar context in the 1200's A.D. that was run by the then Han royal court. He was born and raised near the Shaanxi region where these ideographic signs were found. It shows me that he knew the language well enough at that time. Based on the contest, the Han court even offered him a position to rule the Hu-Guang Regions, which is the modern day Guangdong, Guangxi, Hunan, Hubei, four southern provinces in China. It meant he had to move across the country, and being the only son, he declined. (Later, he cited the incompetence of the Han court as a reason he joined other Mongolians to establish the Yuan Dynasty.)

I traced our family name. One Mongolian well-versed in Mongolian history told me that there was a Manor in Shaanxi where all the Mongolians in the region took their name from. I then found a reference to this manor in a Chinese history book, that stated the Manor was founded in the 6th century AD by Han. It shows me there was even integration at that time. (My ancestor was around at 1200 AD. Yet his name reflects the Manor founded by Han in 600 AD.)

The moral of the story: Do not underestimate the past integration in China.

In China there are people who are descendants of Arabian soldiers who arrived in the 8th century. Some of these people still know their Arabian roots. There are Chinese Jews, Chinese Muslims. The most famous poet in the Tang Dynasty was a Turk. His position in the Chinese literature is the same as that of Shakespeare's in British literature.

There is a diversity of written languages. The Mongolian script is an adaptation of early Uighur script, ultimately derived from Aramaic. Tibetan is an adaptation of a north Indian script. The written language the majority in China chose to use went through a myriad of changes, from archaic characters to great seal, small seal, scribe, standard, to the modern version in China. The evolution is still going on.

According to Cambridge Encyclopedia, due to influence from the West, in the middle of the 19th century, China saw that it was good to have one standard language. With the demise of the imperial rule, the formation, definition and applications of Modern Standard Chinese became part of the larger political and cultural movement aimed at emancipating and modernizing China.

In 1919, a move was made to reject the traditional Wenyan, and go to Baihua. Baihua was based on the Chinese style of popular fictions but primarily inspired by the models of European literary languages. In that same year, under the Nationalist government, a modified version of the Beijing dialect was chosen as a National Language. But the movement was interrupted by the civil war, and not revived until after 1949.

This shows me the necessity of a national language. In Taiwan we called it guoyu, national language. But I kind of like the way the mainland China calls it: "putong hua", which translates to "common language". It is less highbrow sounding, as far as preserving the status of individual minorities languages and dialects.

In a country as vast as China, it is important to have one common language with which people can communicate. As recent as the movement is, I see all kinds of people struggling with it. When I was a kid, I could not understand half of my teachers in class due to their heavy provincial accents. But for all of us, the movement is important to China, and the older people all devoted their efforts to it.

It is a shame that out there, people seem to think all Chinese speak but one language, and they are "forcing" the Tibetans to learn "the Chinese" language. When it comes to the common language, the fact is many Chinese had to struggle to learn it.

It's distressing to me to see China being reduced to such simplistic terms by the Tibetan segregationists. It is non-conductive to the real benefits of the very many different people across China. Many of them are still keeping their provincial languages alive. It is work to do both, yet it is certainly endorsed by the government.

According to Cambridge Encyclopedia: "Encouragement has been given to the use of existing scripts, especially clear in the case of Mongol, Uighur and Tibetan, for which dictionaries have been compiled, and which appear in newspapers, periodicals and some books."

An article by Steven Aldridge on (an organization aimed at helping Tibet preserve its culture and language). "A Look at Tibetan Books", in which he states: (5/99)

"In May of this year, this writer made a trip across China with several projects in mind. One was to review the current state of affairs in the printing of Tibetan books. I approached this project with over 13 years of experience working with Tibetan book publishers in Qinghai, Sichuan, and Gansu." The article went on to list many different Tibetan books.

It is sad that the Tibetan independence group out here is portraying themselves to be a victim, and everyone else in China as the aggressor. It is total fallacy.

The good news is, not all Americans are fooled by them. I have faith in those intelligent Americans.

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