Two years ago, Qi Jiayao visited his mother’s hometown of Shaoxing in eastern China. When he tried to speak to his cousin’s children in the local dialect, Qi was surprised.
“None of them was able to,” said the 38-year-old linguist, who teaches Mandarin in Mexico.
The decline in local dialects among the younger generation has become more apparent in recent years as Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has sought to bolster a uniform Chinese identity.
Mandarin is now spoken by more than 80 percent of China’s population, up from 70 percent a decade ago. Last month, China’s State Council promised to increase the figure to 85 percent within the next four years.
However, the popularization of a standard national language is often at the expense of regional languages, including dialects of the Han majority, and ethnic languages such as Mongolian and Uighur.
In Inner Mongolia, for example, local regulations in 2016 allowed ethnic schools to use their own language. The policy was aimed at developing students’ linguistic skills and cultivating bilingualism, but it was reversed in 2020 to favor Mandarin, a move that sparked protests from the ethnic population.
It is not just ethnic languages being affected. In 2017, a survey showed that among the 10 dialect groups, Wu Chinese, which includes the Shanghai dialect and is spoken by about 80 million people in eastern China, has the smallest number of users aged between six and 20. It prompted concern among linguists in the region.
In Shanghai, where Qi grew up, activists have campaigned for many years to encourage use of their dialect. A local political representative in 2020 urged the Shanghai government to invest in promoting the local dialect. The government responded by upgrading the local annual Huju opera festival to a municipality-level activity.
This success encouraged Qi. However, he is realistic about how much activists can accomplish. In 2014, the TV program Shanghai Dialect Talk was taken off the air after the government insisted that standard Mandarin be used for the channel to broadcast nationally.
Activists are turning to social media. A new group of volunteers has been making a recording of the novel Blossoms, winner of the prestigious Mao Dun literature prize and one of the few novels written in the Shanghainese dialect of Wu. Every few weeks, the organizers upload chapters to WeChat and Himalaya, a podcasting site.
In 2000, China passed laws to standardize spoken and written language. In each province, a language committee monitors and polices the use of Mandarin. The strength of the implementation varies, but it is not difficult for a determined government to enforce its policy.
In September, Sichuan Province banned civil servants and party cadres from using the local dialect in the workplace, a language once used on national TV by former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平).
“The state has been telling people there are visible and tangible benefits from speaking standard Mandarin Chinese,” said Fang Xu, an urban sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “Since then, many regional languages, including Shanghainese, have suffered the same fate.”
A 2010 study by Beijing Union University found that nearly half of local Beijing residents born after 1980 prefer using Mandarin over the Beijing dialect.
It is not all bad news, Fang adds. In the past, internal migrants from outside Shanghai often felt discriminated against and excluded by being unable to speak the local dialect. Today social exclusion no longer hinges on speech or residential status but wealth.
Qi began noticing the change while studying in Harbin in 2002.
“The marginalization of the dialect is alarming, but thinking nationally, it may be inevitable at a time when a uniform Chinese identity trumps everything,” he said. “The diminishing of dialects seems only to be the price we pay for it.”
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