Studying Chinese has been really interesting. It has one of the oldest writing forms in the history of the world. It’s one of only a handful of writing systems that came about without copying someone else. For example, we got our alphabet from the Romans who copied from the Greeks who in turn copied from the Phoenicians. We get our numeric symbols from India. The Chinese came up with all of that on their own.
The first Chinese characters are many thousands of years old but the modern characters are based off of a scroll that Confucius wrote about 2,000 years ago. This reminds me of how English writing was very influenced by Shakespeare, modern Spanish by Cervantes, modern Portuguese by Camões and modern Italian by Dante. For a long time, the Chinese people all spoke different, but related, languages, or dialects, but used the same characters to represent what they were saying. For example, 我 means I or me. It would be like writing 我 but saying I like English, Ik (Dutch), Ich (German), Ek (Afrikaans) Jeg (Danish) or Jag (Swedish). The pronunciation changes a little or a lot depending on where you are from but the character 我 stays the same.
This changed in the 1950’s. For about 200 years China had been carved up and smacked around by just about every important country in the world and it had had enough. One of the ways to unify their country was to get it speaking one language. A good 70% of the country already spoke Mandarin, or a variety of Mandarin, so they made it the official dialect. Since the government ran and funded just about everything they eventually made it so that all of the schools, universities, T.V. shows, movies and news programs were in Mandarin instead of the local variety of Chinese.
China also had a huge illiteracy problem so they decided to make their characters easier to write. This resulted in what is now known as Simplified Chinese. For example, the character for tree went from樹to 树. Everything would have transitioned over nicely if it weren’t for three groups of Chinese people: those living in the area of Hong Kong, Taiwan and outside of China.
People living in Hong Kong and were under the rule of the British during all of this and people living across the bay in Macau were under the rule of the Portuguese. The Europeans couldn’t have cared less about what the locals spoke or how they wrote. Consequently, these Chinese kept speaking Cantonese instead of switching over to Mandarin (the two are related languages but are also as different as the I in English and the Jag in Swedish). They also didn’t bother to switch over to the Simplified Characters that were becoming so popular everywhere else in China.
The Taiwanese already spoke a variety of Mandarin but were doing fine educating their young with the old characters and didn’t switch over. The Chinese living outside of China spoke a variety of Chinese dialects and languages and just kept doing so. That’s why if you’ve heard Chinese being spoken in a local China town it probably wasn’t what they speak any more over in China. If you tried, it would be like speaking Italian to French or Portuguese people; they could understand a little bit if you spoke slowly but, ironically, you would be better off to just use English.
It’s been about 50 years since China started pushing Mandarin and Simplified Characters. The British and the Portuguese have gone home and more people from Mandarin speaking China are immigrating to Australia, Thailand, Canada, the USA and other places. The result is that Mandarin has completely replaced most other “Chinese dialects.” There are about eight million people in Hong Kong and Macau that only speak a little bit of Mandarin and refuse to use Simplified Characters. Most of the other 1.2 billion Chinese speak Mandarin.
If it wasn’t already their native language, most people born before the 1950’s speak little or no Mandarin but can understand it. Their children are bilingual but are usually stronger in Mandarin than they are in their local language because all T.V. shows, class activities, movies and radio programs were in Mandarin. Their grand children, my generation, can understand their grandparents’ dialect but usually only speak a few words and phrases. By the time my children’s generation goes to high school most of China’s dialects/languages will be pretty much dead.
I think that’s incredible! It would be a lot like the Italians, after conquering Romania, Spain, Portugal and France, saying: Spanish, French, Portuguese, Romanian, Galician, Catalan, Sicilian, Breton and even Italian are no longer languages; they are dialects of pure Latin (which would just be based on the way people speak in modern day Florence). The obvious difference here is that these people have all lived as separate countries with separate literatures and separate identities for hundreds of years while the Chinese have had a single identity and a single writing system for thousands of years. It’s still crazy to think that a small group of men leading the worlds most populous country could decide to wipe out dozens of languages. The people of the world shouldn’t be so afraid of English taking over. They should keep their eyes on China!
Filed under: Languages