13 February 2004

Traditional China: Multilingual

A new reader in traditional Chinese culture is in the works that places long-overdue emphasis on just what a complex, multilingual, multiethnic, and multireligious place it always has been and will continue to be. Here's an excerpt about China's multilingualism from the introduction by the indefatigable Victor H. Mair:
For many students, this book will be part of their first systematic exposure to learning about China. As such, we wanted to make it as comprehensive as possible within the limits naturally imposed by the amount of material that can reasonably be absorbed within a single semester. One of our main goals has been to help the student realize that China is not a monolithic state with a monotonous culture and a static past. The myth of a thoroughly homogeneous, ultrastable empire, although widespread and persistent, is far from true. China never existed as a "nation of uniformity." To the contrary, we are faced with a multifaceted country that possesses an extremely complicated history and a richly varied mix of regional and ethnic traditions.

Take language, for example. When one thinks of what defines "China," perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is that it is a place where the people all speak "Chinese." But what is this "Chinese" that everyone is supposedly speaking to each other? Unfortunately, China does not today possess, nor has it ever in the past possessed, such a universally understood tongue. For starters, we have to take into account the tens of millions of speakers of non-Sinitic languages who make up a significant proportion of the population of the Chinese nation as it is currently configured.... These languages belong to such disparate groups and families as Tibeto-Burman, Austroasiatic, Austronesian, Turkic, Tungusic, Iranian, and Slavic. These are the "minorities" of the Peoples Republic of China, all of whom have roots that lie deep in the past of East Asia, West Asia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and Northeast Asia.

And then there is the so-called majority group who, it is claimed, speak a language called "Hanyu" or "Chinese."...

However we ultimately choose to define it, Hanyu is related in some fashion (not yet well understood by scholars) to Tibeto-Burman. Since the combined family is customarily styled Sino-Tibetan, we may--for the sake of linguistic precision--refer to Hanyu as "Sinitic" in English. Sinitic is often said to have eight (or more) major fangyan ('topolects' ...). Among these fangyan are "Northern" (i.e., Mandarin in the broadest of terms; it actually stretches to the far southwest), Wu (typified by Suzhou and Shanghai), Xiang (Hunanese), Gan (spoken in Jiangxi), Hakka (the language of those displaced "guests" from the north who have played a particularly important role in modern Chinese history), Northern Min, Southern Min (including Amoy and Taiwanese), and Cantonese. If analyzed by the standards applied to languages in Europe or South Asia, these fangyan would be classified as branches of the Sinitic group.

Speakers from any one of the major fangyan are incapable of conversing with speakers from those of any of the other major fangyan. Even within the major fangyan or branches of Sinitic, there are numerous more or less unintelligible varieties of speech. What is more, it is essential to note that, throughout history, the fangyan have never been written down in their unalloyed form, except latterly by missionaries using alphabets. Traditionally, there have been only two acceptable forms of writing in China: Literary Sinitic (wenyan or Classical Chinese), strictly a book language ..., and Vernacular Sinitic (baihua[wen]), a written manifestation of Mandarin that developed--largely under the influence of Buddhism--out of a presumed Tang-period koiné. Despite their lack of a written form, the fangyan are still vibrant. As clear indications of the continuing vitality of fangyan, Taiwanese is now the preferred mode of expression on Formosa, and the Chinese government on the mainland is constantly threatening to cashier officials and teachers who fail to learn Mandarin.
As an aside, let me note that during the graduation ceremony at Sun Wen [= Sun Yat-sen] College (now affiliated with Sun Yat-sen University [= Zhongshan University]) I witnessed in 1988, all of the administrators and teachers spoke in Mandarin, while the mayor and other local politicians spoke in Cantonese (Sun Wen = Sun Yat-sen = Sun Zhongshan).
Sinitic evolved through a complex process of interaction with the non-Sinitic languages mentioned above, borrowing (and lending) not only words, but also structures and phonemes. The internal development of Sinitic is equally intricate, such that historical linguists are still seriously puzzled over the relationships among the various fangyan, the phonology of their earlier stages, and the identification of the fundamental etyma for the group en masse.
UPDATE: Language hat adds, "Incidentally, anyone who wants a more detailed look at the linguistic situation should get hold of S. Robert Ramsey's The Languages of China (reviewed here)." I second that endorsement. Ramsey's book (Princeton U. Press, 1987) gives a lot of attention to the minority languages. Language hat's entry has also attracted a nice range of comments. See also the follow-up entry above, The "Cultural Glue" of Chinese Writing.

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