Putonghua a unifier, but dialects still important

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 July, 2010, 12:00am

With a population of 1.3 billion people and multiple variations of the Chinese language, the use of Putonghua as the official language has no doubt helped to bring the country together. Beyond that, a single language helps streamline economic activity with efficient communication. Business and commercial activity relies on the ability of people to understand each other easily, and China's increasing prominence on the world stage would not have been possible if overseas partners could not be sure whether they should communicate in Putonghua, Cantonese, or the many other dialects and languages spoken in China.

But that's not to say that those other dialects are not important.

On Monday, the Guangzhou's People's Political Consultative Conference (PPCC) submitted a proposal to the local government urging the city's main television station, Guangzhou Television, to switch its broadcasting from Cantonese to Putonghua in order to coincide with the Asian Games in November. On the face of it, this represents a pragmatic approach to ensure the national sports team, which would predominantly be made up of non-Cantonese speaking members, can understand the local television programmes. Overseas teams arriving in China would undoubtedly have brought language experts who specialise in Putonghua, rather than in Cantonese.

But regional languages or dialects are often part of one's cultural identity, and any perceived attempt to dilute a local culture is often felt as a personal attack. The PPCC's proposal seems to have had exactly this effect, with widespread opposition to what is perceived to be further evidence that the authorities are indifferent to the decline of Cantonese in the region. That suspicion is fuelled by bans on dialects on many radio and television stations around the country - part of the central government's drive to ensure all citizens speak Putonghua. After all, some may ask, if the goal during the games was simply to facilitate the athletes' understanding of the news, why not just add subtitles?

Still, this opposition to the proposal should not be interpreted as an anti-Putonghua movement. Residents aren't opposed to the use of Putonghua as such, but are unhappy when they believe it is being promoted at the expense of Cantonese. It is not the increasing use of Putonghua that concerns them, but the gradual decline of Cantonese, and with it, their cultural identity.

There is already academic research into the cultural value of Cantonese - a language used by an estimated 70 million people. Chinese language experts believe Cantonese provides a closer link to Classical Chinese than Putonghua, and that ancient poems only rhyme when read in Cantonese. Many of the founding fathers of the Republic of China such as Sun Yat-sen spoke Cantonese, and its vocabulary and usage remains similar to the official language of the Tang dynasty.

The maintenance of Putonghua as the official language is essential for the purpose of China's efficient communication with itself as well as the outside world. But the preservation of Cantonese and other languages within China can only enrich its cultural diversity. History has shown that nations create a stronger and more unified identity when their local cultures are given the freedom to express themselves. Language policies that undercut minority cultures, on the other hand, have often led to discord. China should cherish the natural diversity that other nations can only envy.