China has had local dialects for thousands of years. Since the presence of the first centralized government (221-207 BC), some dialects have been offered the elevated status of “Official Language.” These dialects tend to be more popular or desirable as they are associated with power and accessibility.
The once “Official Languages” in ancient China were close to some of the current Southern Chinese dialects such as Min (spoken around Fujian province) and Cantonese (spoken around Guangdong province). Since 1935, the official dialect in mainland China has been Mandarin, a Chinese dialect taking its form rather late in Chinese history, around the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).
When I grew up in Northern China in the 1970’s, my teachers, from elementary to high school, all spoke my local dialect, the Shandong dialect. I also spoke the dialect with all my peers. My parents, grew up in the South, didn’t know how to speak the Shandong dialect. So, they spoke their hometown language Shanghainese to each other and spoke Mandarin (tainted with a Shanghainese accent) to me.
Then in college and after college, I lived in Beijing for 9 years and perfected my Mandarin accent. Now living in New York, I’m often complimented by Chinese speakers for my “pure” Mandarin accent.
These days, when I visit my relatives in Shandong, I speak the local dialect. Again, I win admiration because of my descent local dialect accent.
However, these days, everywhere I travel in China, I rarely hear children speaking their local dialect. In school, their teachers are required to only speak Mandarin to them. At home, their parents try to cooperate by using only Mandarin.
It is the hardest for the grandparents who often are the main caretakers of these children. In order to fulfill the “obligation” to support their grandchildren’s Mandarin development, many, for the first time in their lives, struggle to speak Mandarin. So many times I had to suppress my chuckles (plus my resulting guilt) when I hear the heavily accented Mandarin these well-intentioned grandparents speak to their grandchildren.
Why do some parents want their children to have nothing to do with their local dialect? The reason is that some people mistakenly believe that the only way to speak standard Mandarin is to not being able to speak their local dialect. Just like many immigrant parents (in the U.S.) used to believe that the only way for their children to speak standard English is to not speak their home language. This belief is ungrounded as the up-to-date science has shown that human brain has the power to master multiple languages and dialects given the right input.
I feel a sense of loss when encountering one child after another in China who can only speak Mandarin, because I feel that these children do not have the richness in their language experience as I did with mine. Their brains are equally capable like mine to master multiple Chinese dialects, but they are not given the chance.
What’s so cool about speaking standard Mandarin? Well, some professions do require that, such as TV show hosts, actors, actresses, and Chinese language teachers. In my entire life of speaking Mandarin, the only sector of my life that has benefited from a standard Mandarin accent is teaching Chinese. I have seen that teachers with an accent can still be effective teachers (sometimes more effective than those with no accent), it’s just that a teacher without an accent has one fewer vulnerable spots to address.
In contrast, accented Mandarin has brought a lot of richness to Chinese people’s lives, including mine. Just recently, I ran into an American-born filmmaker who lived in Southern China for 9 years. As soon as he opened his month and spoke his first Mandarin sentence, I was drawn to his accent. His Mandarin, with a clear Southern accent, was so endearing because it reminded me of how my parents spoke. I found myself engaging in longer chats with him than I would have otherwise.
When Chinese people see each other for the first time, after the initial greetings are exchanged, often they would say to each other: “你是东北人。” (nǐ shì dōng běi rén) — You must be from the Northeast; “你是南方人。” (nǐ shì nánfāng rén) — You must be from the South); or “你是河南人。” (nǐ shì hénán rén) — You must be from He Nan province. This custom of guessing each other’s geographical identity based on the accent each person carries when speaking Mandarin is always the most reliable and the safest icebreaker, just like talking about the weather in Western cultures.
Of course, it is always a problem if one speaks Mandarin with such a heavy local accent that others can’t understand. Interestingly, while this may seriously bother the individual, but others may think it is not a big deal.
I recently ran into a conversation on a Chinese forum named “Tianya” (天涯). The original post was by someone from Chongqing (Sichuan province) who complained about his heavily-accented Mandarin. This post and its responses have captured how Chinese people think about Chinese dialects and accented Mandarin. I have selectively translated some parts of the conversation below. I hope that you can enjoy and experience, as I did, some of the humor and straightforwardness of the Chinese "网民 (wǎng mín)" ("netizens").
The conversation* is here, for those of you who can read Chinese.
*Note that in a Chinese forum, the author of the original post is named as 楼主 (lóu zhǔ) — the building owner. The subsequent posts are named as 一楼 (yī lóu) — the first floor，二楼 (èr lóu) — the second floor，三楼 (sān lóu) — the third floor, and so on.
楼主: I just can’t speak Mandarin well, [because] I just can’t get rid of my local dialect accent. I’m so depressed. I want to jump off a building. Can someone help me? It’ll be great if someone can tell me how to speak better Mandarin. Because of my work, I often need to give speeches and reports [to higher level officials]. Once I open my mouth, other people immediately hear my heavy accent. I’m dying of depression. Many of my sounds are not clear, such that I can’t distinguish 二 (èr) and 日 (rì).
一楼: Did Chairman Mao speak Mandarin with no local accent? Believe in yourself.
(Note: Mao was the Supreme Leader of the People's Republic of China from 1945-1976. He was known to speak his local Hunan dialect throughout his life, including when he announced to the world on Oct. 1, 1949 the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.)
二楼: Do you have his [Mao’s] status?
一楼: Of course not. Whether it’s Chairman Mao or Chairman Deng [Xiaoping], accent was never a concern and others were just supposed to listen to them carefully. A person with no confidence, even if he/she speaks Mandarin like Zhao Zhongxiang [a famous Chinese TV news announcer], people still wouldn’t want to listen. So, don’t have a complex about your accent. The important things are your social status and what you say.
九楼: It is not so terrible to speak Mandarin with an accent, as long as people can understand you. Don’t be afraid of speaking. Speak a lot. Other than your local town Chongqing folks, people from other places won’t laugh at you. Not many Chinese speak Mandarin with the standard accent.
十二楼: Make sure you learn pinyin. Then read books with pinyin. Listen to news broadcasts. Practice a lot.
十三楼: I’m so sympathetic with you. You should listen to the calls of the central government — don’t talk empty words. Put your words into action. If you’re determined [to jumping off a building], then go jump! I’ll miss you forever.
十四楼: In the opposite, I don’t know the local dialect here. I think it’s a big problem.
十五楼: You should go to a foreign country. There in the Chinatowns, you’ll hear people speaking Mandarin with all kinds of accent. Not only you’ll not feel bad about your accent, you can learn some other accents. I’ve tested this myself.
十六楼: The highest level leader in my organization is from Henan province (not local). Now, all the employees in my organization can understand the He Nan dialect!
二十五楼: (Mandarin) is actually the version of Chinese language developed by Manchurians (not Han Chinese).
二十六楼: When [chairman] Deng Xiaoping went to the United Nations to give his speech, he spoke his local dialect. The translator would have to be fired if she had not known his accent.
二十七楼: Some local supermarkets asked their employees to speak Mandarin to the customers. It’s tough on the employees and it offends the customers (who take pride in their local dialect). Language is for communication, not for a show.
三十楼: If we want Chongqing to become an international city, we should promote Mandarin. That’ll attract people from all over China and all over the world. We can spare the older generations from speaking Mandarin, but not the younger generations.
三十二楼: Language diversity needs to be protected. If you don’t preserve your own dialects, years later, you would expect foreigners to come and teach your descendants your local dialects?
The last post refers to the emerging interest among foreigners in Chinese dialects.
An American young man Mike Sui has stirred up quite a sensation in China by being able to speak dozens of Chinese dialects. The following is a video of him giving Chinese New Year blessings and good wishes in 34 Chinese dialects.
Two American young men, Kellen Parker and Steve Hansen have been working on a project named "Phonemica (乡音苑)" that has an expanding collection of real people speaking Chinese dialects. On their website, if you click a spot on the map of China, you will hear a person (or people) speaking their local dialect. Have fun with this website and donate to support their work if you can.
The website is available in Simplified and Traditional Chinese, Korean and English. To switch the site's language, please go to the dropdown at the upper right hand corner to select the language most suitable for your viewing.
As we are coming to the end of our three essays about Chinese dialects, here are some conclusions we can draw:
Chinese dialects tell a rich story of how China has evolved; how Chinese people have lived, migrated, and what they have valued. In supporting learners of Chinese language and culture, we should find opportunities to integrate the topic of Chinese dialect.
Embrace the richness of Chinese dialect in daily life, and don’t shy away from it. The next time you run into a Chinese person, ask what dialect other than Mandarin he/she speaks. This may just be the question that can open a door to that person’s heart.
Be prepared yourself, and also help your child(ren) or student(s) be prepared for Mandarin spoken with various accents. This does not mean you need to understand all types of accented Mandarin perfectly. At the minimum, don’t be dazzled when hearing Mandarin spoken in the way you’re not used to hearing. Even better, be respectfully curious in that accented Mandarin. You can even pitch in the “guess-where-I’m-from-through-my-accent” game Chinese people play with each other. Even if you are not sure you can get it right, just have fun trying!