What About Chinese Dialects? — Part II: A Tribute to Two Heroic Scholars Through A Children's Play

During my childhood, I didn’t have a chance to learn swimming. In my adulthood, I have taken swimming classes sporadically, but with not much result. However, I made sure my daughter learn swimming and she did. Now when facing a large body of water, fear arises in my mind and excitement arises in her mind. I envision myself drowning in it, and she envisions herself playing in it.

There are many things in life that resemble this large body of water. The topic of Chinese dialects is one of them. You are either overwhelmed by it, or you emerge from it with a confident smile.

It’s important for us to help children who are learning Chinese to emerge from the “water” instead of submerging under it. Therefore, this summer, with twenty children (ages 5 to 13) in our Summer Program, we started this effort. We knew that these children’s minds are powerful enough to understand this topic (to different levels depending on their age), just like children of all ages can learn to swim. We also knew that if it’s done incorrectly, the subject of Chinese dialects can be the most boring thing. We further knew that most children like the experience of acting; for those who claim they don’t, they can also benefit from the experience of trying and observing.

So, we identified two individuals from history whose stories can lead children to the topic of Chinese dialect. We then wrote a play, and the children acted out the play (note this is a private YouTube video, please contract us to gain access).

Who were these two individuals and what were their stories?

They were Yang Xiong (杨雄) and Gao Ben Han (高本汗). Among the thousands of scholars throughout Chinese and World history who studied Chinese dialects, these two shone with their pivotal contribution and poignant personal stories.

The Story of Yang Xiong           


Yang Xiong (53 BC – 18 AD) grew up in Chengdu (Sichuan province). As a child, he suffered from stuttering but was an avid reader. By the age of 41, he was already known as the top philosopher, writer, and astronomer of the Han dynasty (206 BC – 23 AD). That year, he was called to the capital at Chang An (modern day Xi An) to serve as a Court Scholar official.

By that time, he already knew the existence of some dialect records and wanted to expand them into a formal book. These were records of 1,000 Chinese words and their dialect variations were collected during the preceding Zhou dynasty (1046 BC- 256 BC) and Qin dynasty (221 BC-206 BC). Fascinated by dialects, Yang Xiong spent the following 27 years of his life to expand this collection.

How did Yang Xiong do it? He took advantage of his position at the court in the capital. Every year, local officials and soldiers from all over China came to the capital to attend events. Yang Xiong would reach out to them, asking them how certain words were said in their local dialects. To put it in our modern terms: he held many “information sessions” for his “empirical research”  project.

Word by word and from person after person, Yang Xiong collected the dialect variations of 11,900 Chinese words, organized them, and explained them. He put his complete collection into a book named (in brief) 方言 (fāng yán), which translates to "Dialects."

“党、 晓、哲,知 也。楚谓之党,或曰晓,宋齐之间谓之哲。”

(dǎng, xiǎo, zhé, zhī yě. chǔ wèi zhī dǎng, huò yuē xiǎo, sòng qí zhī jiān chǔ wèi zhī zhé)

This excerpt says that for “to know,” the standard word (used in the capital) was 知 (zhī). In the Chu area (roughly modern day Hubei province of Northern China), “to know” is 党 (dǎng) or 晓 (xiǎo). In the Song and Qi area (modern day Shandong and Henan provinces of Northern China), “to know” is 哲 (zhé).

In all my years being steeped in Chinese language, this is the phrase that informs me why “philosophy” in Chinese is called 哲学(zhé xué).  哲 once meant “to know” in parts of China, so 哲学 literally translates to “the science of knowing.”

Just imagine yourself going through 11,900 words like these, and how much you would learn about the Chinese language. What’s more amazing is that one can feel and relate to the Chinese people living in different areas 2,000 years ago through their language that were preserved.

Of course we didn’t expect young children to feel this way. Instead, we helped them experience their own personal side of the story of Yang Xiong through the play. We know some details of how Yang Xiong did his work through his writings. He said he would hold a writing brush (no pens at that time) and a piece of white silk cloth (no paper at that time), and write down what he learned.

So, we captured this in our children’s play with a scene of Yang Xiong joined by four local officials, each coming from a local region of China to the capital to celebrate the Emperor’s birthday. The officials just watched a beautiful dance performed by the court dancers. Sitting around a tea table, Yangxiong and the four local officials kneeled on the floor (chairs only became widely available after the Tang and Song dynasties afterwards). Yang Xiong asked the officials to comment on the Peony Dance they just watched.

As the first official from Shanghai uttered a sentence in his local Shanghai dialect , "花美,歌美,人更美!"— The singing was beautiful, the flowers were beautiful, the people (dancers) were beautiful — Yang Xiong became intrigued and asked him to say it again. Then, the other three officials each said the same line using their own local dialect. Amidst amused laughers, Yang Xiong dutifully wrote down on his silk scroll the variations of the same line said with four different dialects.

We recorded this line in the four dialects, and by the end of the week-long camp, most children were able to recognize the line in Mandarin, as well as distinguish its variations in the other four dialects.

We put a few knowledge points about Yang Xiong in four multiple choice questions and had the children split into three teams to play a game of jeopardy (you can play along):

1.  杨雄生活在中国的哪个朝代?Which dynasty did Yang Xiong live in?

A: 汉朝 han chao (Han dynasty)

B: 唐朝 tang chao (Tang dynasty)

C: 宋朝 song chao (Song dynasty)

D: 明朝 ming chao (Ming dynasty)


2.  这个朝代距离现在大约多少年? How many years ago was this dynasty?

A: 3000 

B: 2000

C: 1000

D: 500 


3.  汉朝时候,人们聊天的时候大都坐在哪里?
   In the Han dynasty, when people sat and chat, what did they sit on?

A: 地上 dì shàng (floor)

B: 椅子 yǐ zi (chair)

C: 沙发 shā fā (sofa)

D: 床 chuáng (bed)


4. 杨雄写的书叫什么名字?
  What is the name of Yang Xiong’s book?

A: 四书 sì shū (The Four Books)

B: 诗经 shī jīng (The Poetry Book)

C: 论语  lún yǔ (The Sayings)

D: 方言  fāng yàn (Dialect)


5. 这本书里记录了多少中文词语的方言说法?
About how many words and their dialectal variations are recorded in the book?

A: 500

B: 1,000

C: 5,000

D: 10,000

Each of the three groups of children got all the answers correct! How well did you do? [Answers: 1-A, 2-B, 3-A, 4-D, 5-D]

When the children listened to the dialects and shouted out their answers during the jeopardy game, they showed a great deal of interest and excitement. This tells us that they made a connection to the Chinese dialects one way or another.

All the years I was growing up in China, I was bombarded by this phrase “中国有五千年的悠久历史和文明” (China has 5,000 years of continuous history and civilization). Anything more concrete than this to interest me? Not much, other than the 四大发明 (The Four Greatest Inventions) presented as a list to memorize.

The phrase about the glory of Chinese history became a cliché because no one actually helped me grasp the concept. It was not until recent years that I have started to relate to Chinese history in a concrete way because I have been in a pursuit of helping children connect to Chinese culture.

This summer, after digging into historical records and supporting each of the young actors in our Yang Xiong play with scripts, costumes, and accent, I felt Chinese history had never been so close to me.

In Yang Xiong, I see a reflection of my parents and countless contemporary Chinese intellectuals. In the sense that as long as they can carve out a little world of peace in their lives, they dare to tackle project seemingly so ambitious to others. They center their work on literary creativity, and whenever the time calls for or allows it, they become top-notch politicians, generals, scientists and entrepreneurs. 

The Story of Gao Ben Han


We fast forward to about 2,000 years later. In 1910, a 21-year old Swiss young man by the name Klas Bernhard Johannes Karlgren came to China. He was on a grant to study Chinese dialects and had been passionately studying Swedish dialects since he was a teenager. His Chinese name is 高本汉 (gāo běn hàn). Curiously, Gao Ben Han knew no Mandarin, let alone other Chinese dialects. But no worries. He mastered enough Mandarin in just a few months.  

Gao Ben Han was in China at a historical moment. When he arrived, the revolutionaries were planning intense plots to end the Qing dynasty. By the time he completed his studies, the new Republic was already established. Amidst the social and political turmoil, he roamed China, riding on a donkey and talking to people.

He prepared a questionnaire of 3,100 Chinese characters. From 1910 to 1912, he gathered data on 19 Chinese dialects. He ran out of grant money in between, and had to support himself by teaching English, a language he picked up on the ship coming from Europe to China.

He brought his rich set of data back to Europe, used the modern Western linguistic methods, and made a contribution that no other Chinese scholar had done. By examining the relationships among sound systems of the then current Chinese dialects, he was able to discover that they are all related to each other systematically — certain sounds in one dialect got switched to other sounds consistently in other dialects. This discovery also allowed him to reconstruct exactly what ancient Chinese sounded like at two historical points: the time for "Old Chinese (上古汉语)" and "Middle Chinese (中古汉语)."

In our Gao Ben Han play (note this is a private YouTube video, please contract us to gain access), we depicted a scene of when he went to the Inner Mongolian region of China with an assistant. They watched a dance that showed the life and pride of the Mongolian people. They then entered a town with Chinese people from different parts of China. There, they wanted to do three things: buy a drink, get a haircut, and buy a pair of shoes. By not being savvy with the local accent the vendors carried while speaking Mandarin, they had quite a scare and ended up running away.

Thou, this did not capture the seriousness of the work he did, but it was very interesting for children. Through the mis-happenings of Gao Ben Han, the children learned that a tiny twist in the accent can change the meaning of words. This light-hearted lesson may very likely motivate children to strive for a better accent.

The children particularly liked the fact that he rode on a donkey. Unfortunately time was too short for us to design a donkey prop, but we are encouraged by the fact that this Swiss scholar has entered into the collective memory of all who were part of our Summer Program.