As China's Role in the World Changes, So Does Mandarin's Role in China

The Chinese national identity has long been tied up with its language, for natives and foreigners alike.

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A Beijing woman looks at a poster promoting the use of Mandarin and Chinese characters. It reads, "The country promotes Mandarin and pushes to standardize Chinese characters." (Reuters)

There's an experience common to many first-time visitors to China, who often recount it with surprise, delight, and a sense of discovering something uniquely Chinese. It happens when they utter their first sentence in mandarin to a Chinese stranger -- a taxi driver, a watermelon vendor, or an old man practicing water calligraphy in the park -- and see the person's face instantly light up in amazement. That amazement might turn to reverence if the speaker can demonstrate even a shaky comfort with the language. Waiguoren -- foreigners -- are no longer a rare sight in many parts of this briskly modernizing country, and with the worldwide boom in studying Chinese, an increasing number of them bring language skills. While the novelty is wearing off, Chinese continue to be fascinated by foreigners able to speak their mother tongue. It's a fun moment of cross-cultural bonding, but it's also a product of China's complicated relationship with its own language, which for centuries has been tied up with its national identity. As China and its place in the world are changing, so is the meaning of the Chinese language for natives and foreigners alike.

Most recently, this fascination manifested in Chinese web user's reactions to (and obsessive viewing of) a viral Internet video, in which a young half-Caucasian, half-Asian American impersonates 12 different characters, among them a Beijinger, a Hong Kong Chinese, a Taiwanese, a New Yorker, an African American, and a score of non-Chinese foreigners speaking English with exaggerated native accents. His immaculate Chinese and jarringly precise grasp of the slangs, accents, and subtleties in the language's regional variations amazed his Chinese audience. "What are you trying to do?" Some users, pinching a line from his skit, asked on Weibo, where the video, which has over 5 million views on Youku, has been forwarded more than 435,000 times.

The Chinese language has long been a point of pride for its people, a sense that often comes through when they tell foreigners, smilingly, that Chinese is too hard to learn as a second language. They're telling the truth, which they have lived themselves through years of hunching over their desks in school, scribbling thousands of characters and memorizing Chengyu, special four-character Chinese aphorisms that gives one's speech a cultivated air. For foreigners, learning Chinese can require even more fortitude and patience, a subject eloquently explained in this essay famous among Chinese learners, "Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard." The author, an English-speaker struggling to learn Chinese, posits that native speakers "generally become aware at some point of the Everest-like status of their native language, as they, from their privileged vantage point on the summit, observe foolhardy foreigners huffing and puffing up the steep slopes"

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A deeper reason for the extraordinary pride that Chinese people take in their language lies in their view of it as a symbol of the nation's glorious history and blooming civilization. Chinese is one of the oldest known writings in the world, inscribed on animal bones that date back to 4,500 years ago, possibly earlier. It is one of the only logographic languages still widely used in the world, a writing system of pictorial symbols, each intended to look like the thing or idea it stands for. The language's consistent structural principles allow the modern descendants to converse directly with their distant ancestors, and create a remarkable sense of historical continuity that smoothes over the wrinkles of wars and dynasties. At any point in history, it has also been a powerful unifying force, tightly weaving ethnic groups under the rule of the empire and a common national identity. To neighboring countries that admired the civilization of the Middle Kingdom, the langauge was a form of soft power that they absorbed, incorporating Chinese into their own languages. Modern Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese all contain some linguistic traces of China's cultural influence.

Recent history, however, complicates Chinese people's relationship with their language. After repeated defeats by foreigners in the early 20th century, the Chinese began to question the traditional ways that had not saved them, including their sacred script. Scholars in the 1910s called it the greatest impediment to literacy and democracy, and even discussed switching the language to Esperanto or adopting the Latin alphabet. Most ambitious of them all, Mao Zedong, famously told the American journalist Edgar Snow in 1936, "Sooner or later, we believe, we will have to abandon characters altogether if we are to create a new social culture in which the masses fully participate." He might have replaced all Chinese characters with the Latin alphabet, had Joseph Stalin not convinced him that a nation as great as China should have its own form of writing instead of borrowing another culture's. The chaos of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution further exhausted the momentum for language reform, and by late 1970s, people had lost all interest in radical, top-down change. Chinese characters, saved by a foreign dictator and a series of domestic anti-traditionalist movements, survived to be passed on to the next generation.

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Helen Gao is a freelance writer based in Beijing.

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