The languages spoken by ethnic-Han Chinese, who are more than 90% of the population, belong to half a dozen main groups (see map). Since the collapse of China’s last imperial dynasty in 1911, successive regimes have been obsessed about popularising just one of them: Mandarin. The Communist Party has been particularly zealous in its promotion of the language. In 2000 about half the population was reasonably fluent in it. The proportion is now higher than 70%, thanks partly to migration from the countryside into cities, which has compelled those moving from non-Mandarin areas into Mandarin-speaking ones to learn the official tongue. The government wants 80% to have a good command by 2020.
The problem is that China is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world, with about 130 ethnic-minority languages as well as its Han ones. Of the Han languages, Cantonese is spoken by around 60m people in Hong Kong and neighbouring Guangdong province. Some 80m Hans speak one of the Wu languages, among them Shanghainese. Languages of the Min family are used by around 70m people along the south-eastern coast.
The mandarins’ mandate
But as officials see it, a monolingual China is more likely to be a strong and unified one. They are also reluctant to accept that Han China might be an amalgam of cultures as varied as Europe’s. They prefer to call the Han languages “dialects”, even though some are as different from each other as Romance languages such as French and Spanish. (Chinese people, however, use the same written language, a Mandarin-based non-phonetic form that those who are literate all understand). In 2000 the country passed its first national law on standard Chinese. It said people were free to use their own languages, but it reinforced long-standing policy that Mandarin be used in schools, government offices and in the vast majority of broadcast media in Han-majority areas. (The rules for non-Han people notionally give greater protection to their minority languages.)
At the same time, however, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, also wants to boost the party’s appeal to Chinese nationalists at home and abroad by presenting the party as a champion of traditional culture—not the systematic destroyer of it, as it was in Mao’s day. Mr Xi stresses the importance of China’s ancient heritage almost as much as communism. In a speech on May 4th to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, he said the party must not only “imbue core socialist values”, but also promote “fine traditional Chinese culture”.
Officials now accept that this requires showing off the country’s traditions in all their diversity. In 2015, three years after he came to power, Mr Xi visited the village in Shaanxi province where he had lived during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. His use of local dialect to introduce villagers to his wife became headline news in China (he is the first Chinese leader since the Communists took over in 1949 whose Mandarin is unaccented).
Also in 2015 the State Language Commission launched a five-year project to record and protect China’s “language resources”. This involves cataloguing languages used at 1,500 sites as well as online. Wang Lining of Beijing Language and Culture University says it is the biggest such survey in China for decades. It has already resulted in a 20-volume work on China’s “linguistic culture”, published last December, complete with QR codes that readers can scan to access online audio recordings of regional tongues.
In 2020 the scheme will enter a new phase, in which researchers try to use the material they have collected to help speakers of regional languages. Ms Wang says one idea is that the data be offered to developers of local-language software for voice-controlled products. Han languages are benefiting from all this attention. Not long after Mr Xi took over in 2012, the authorities in Shanghai launched a campaign to promote their local tongue in kindergartens. Officials have encouraged a revival of regional forms of Chinese opera, performed in their original languages. This year organisers of the annual spring-festival gala on national television tried to include more southern accents in order to deflect accusations that the much-watched variety show has a northern bias.
The government has come to accept that support for local languages can bring political and economic rewards. It may, for example, help China’s efforts to woo overseas Chinese, says Li Wei of University College London. China’s trade in South-East Asia depends on contacts with ethnic Chinese in that region, many of whose ancestors did not speak Mandarin.
Party leaders appear to believe that China’s cultural “soft power”, including local language, can be used to persuade members of the global Chinese diaspora to support policies that are favourable to the party, and even to win over people in Taiwan. Jason Lim of the University of Wollongong in Australia notes that the party has been dubbing propaganda videos into Hokkien, which is used in Taiwan as well as elsewhere in Asia.
But the government’s support for local languages is still tempered by a suspicion of localism and the long-term threat it might pose to national unity. In 2010 officials in Guangdong province proposed replacing some local-language broadcasts with Mandarin ones. Cantonese speakers took to the streets of the capital, Guangzhou, in protest. The authorities backed off, but in 2014 they implemented a modified version of the plan. Some people worry that for all its talk, the government wants to wipe out other Han tongues. (Don’t even ask Tibetans and Uighurs how their languages are getting on.)
For a while, the internet appeared to offer hope. But officials are stepping up efforts to suppress “lowbrow” material online, especially video. Local languages, which are often used in such content, have become collateral damage. Supporters of regional tongues still have to fight for small concessions such as local-language announcements on buses and trains. They have to rely on the ability of local officials to resist uniformity-demanding superiors. For most Chinese, only one way of speaking still enjoys the full backing of the law.