At the same that we're looking at documenting dialects, we're also attempting to do something to record oral histories of a time in Asia where there was a
lot going on that people outside of the area might not be aware of. A lot of these stories are important to people in China. We want to be providing
something for the general public in China, and so we're working with folklorists and oral historians at Chinese universities to this end.
We don't often think of China as a country rich in linguistic diversity, but there is a huge number of languages spoken in the country, as well as
dialects. How many are there?
This is a very difficult question to answer. China has 56 official ethnic groups. Many of these individual groups self-identify as actually being multiple
distinct groups with distinct languages, and other individual groups may actually have multiple languages. What many consider a single language may
actually be three, which is the case for what we think of as Tibetan. Ethnologue, which is
usually considered a pretty reliable source, lists 298 living languages in China's borders today.
So then there's the question of "what's a language and what's a dialect?" for which there is no real answer. The Mandarin a person from Xuzhou in Jiangsu
would speak at home is pretty much unintelligible to a Beijinger. They form a continuum where people at the ends can't understand each other, but from one
town to the next the degree of mutual intelligibility is pretty high, from town to town, all the way to Beijing. For Phonemica, we say that Wu and Mandarin
and Cantonese are all different languages of the same language family, much like Italian and Spanish and French are grouped as Romance languages in Europe. Others might say
that Cantonese and Mandarin are dialects of Chinese. Neither opinion is really wrong, because the language/dialect distinction is entirely arbitrary, and
some scholars may have a broader or narrower focus in making such distinctions.
As to how prevalent the dialects are, they're ubiquitous. Every town in China has its own form of speech, and to a trained ear, the differences are pretty
clear. However, since most people use Mandarin to speak to anyone not from their hometown, a person in Beijing could probably go a long time without hearing
any dialects from other parts of China. The speakers are there, but they're probably not using the dialect of their hometown.
How did Mandarin emerge as the national language in the country?
Ultimately, Mandarin was the only choice that made sense. Even at the founding of the Republic of China in 1911, the Mandarin dialects were more widely
spoken than those of other languages. The dialects of places like Manchuria, Sichuan Province, Yunnan Province, and Gansu Province are ultimately Mandarin
dialects, thanks to different military campaigns into those regions over the past few centuries. Additionally,Mandarin was the language spoken in what was the
long-standing capital of China. It just wouldn't have been reasonable to make something like Wu or Cantonese the national language, since both are limited
to fairly small geographic areas.