Fri, Dec 03, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Beijing struggles to make a polyglot nation conform

LINGUISTIC REVOLUTION A children's cartoon has gotten caught up in the long-running debate about how to maintain national cohesion amid a diversity of languages


Thousands of years of Chinese linguistic heritage have come down to a squabble over Tom and Jerry.

Dubbed into regional Chinese languages, the warring cat and mouse have been huge TV hits -- and a good way to pass home-grown culture down to the younger generation, programmers say.

Not so fast, says Beijing, which for decades has promoted standard Mandarin as the only Chinese language worthy of the airwaves.

The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television has ordered an end to broadcasting in different Chinese languages, saying kids should be raised in a "favorable linguistic environment."

The move has put Tom and Jerry -- or Cat and Mouse, as the show is called here -- at the center of a long-running debate about how to maintain national cohesion amid a linguistic sea of highly distinct regional accents, languages and separate language groups.

"As an artist, I think dialect should be preserved as a part of local culture," says Zhang Dingguo, deputy director of the Shanghai People's Comedy Troupe which does Tom and Jerry in Shang-hainese. "Schools don't allow Shanghainese to be spoken, and now TV doesn't either. It looks like Shanghai comedy will be dying out."

The government calls the Mandarin policy vital to promoting a common Chinese identity in this vast land of 1.3 billion people, 56 ethnic groups and seven main Chinese languages spoken by the Han ethnic majority.

Promotion of Mandarin -- began in the 1920s and became policy in 1955, six years after the communists seized power. Its use has been encouraged through an unending series of social campaigns, including the current one featuring TV presenter Wang Xiaoya on billboards exhorting Shanghainese to "speak Mandarin ... be a modern person."

In the latest campaign, Shanghai city officials are being required to attend classes on perfecting their pronunciation and schools are nom-inating contestants in city-wide Mandarin speech contests.

The languages of minority groups such as Tibetans, Uighurs and Mongolians are officially recognized and taught in schools. Important documents are translated into major minority tongues and four of them appear on Chinese bank notes.

Rising incomes, greater travel freedom and the spread of education are also helping to break down linguistic barriers. Yet no one is predicting they'll dissolve entirely -- or soon.

"Many parts of China are heading for a situation of what linguists call diglossia, where there is one `high' or public language ... and one `low' or local language that is used among friends and family," said Stevan Harrell, an expert on Chinese languages at the University of Washington.

Use of dialects may even be strengthening in some areas with strong local identities, sometimes for economic reasons. In Guangzhou, broadcasters are allowed to speak Cantonese to compete with the nearby Hong Kong stations.

In places like Guangzhou and Shanghai, prevalence of the local dialect helps exclude outsiders from social networks that are key to securing good jobs and entry to better schools. Outsiders say it smacks of bigotry.

"If you want to find a good job and be a success in Shanghai, you have to speak Shanghai-nese. Even if you do, they can pick you out by your accent and discriminate against you," said Steven Li, an accounting student flying home to Chongqing.

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