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Putonghua: Uniting a Linguistically Fractured China

From the series Learning Chinese


In the first post of this series on Chinese language learning, I noted the complicated nature of even identifying exactly what the Chinese language is.

During my travels around China people often said to me “Your Chinese is better than mine.” When I adamantly denied even the remote possibility that their assertion may be true, they would clarify: “Your Putonghua is better than mine.”

I still protested, but then offered my own clarification: “Well, I studied in Changchun.”

Nanguai," (no wonder) they would reply.

The reason for their response is that the northeast of China, where Changchun is located, is generally considered to be the place where Putonghua is most widely spoken.

But what exactly is Putonghua, and where did it come from? Is it just another regional dialect or a new “dialect” imposed on the linguistic landscape by the central government?

These are just a few of the questions that David Moser tackles in his great book A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language.

Writing in the introduction, he describes the Putonghua that is taught to children in schools all over China in this way:

The Chinese they are learning is not the naturally existing “language of the Chinese people”—for there never was such a thing— but is actually an artificially constructed hybrid form, a linguistic patchwork of compromises based upon expediency, history, and politics. This linguistic construct is called Putonghua (普通话), “common speech,” and it is the official version of Chinese now promulgated in the People’s Republic of China.

Moser traces the history of the government’s attempts to establish a “common language for a linguistically fractured China,” (Kindle, loc. 67) dating back to early days of Republican China, following the fall of the Qing Dynasty. At that time, the main question was how to “close the gap between the spoken and written language.” (Kindle, loc. 568). What was written was not spoken, and what was spoken was not written. Many believed that increasing literacy and thus modernity were not possible unless this gap was closed. The writer Lu Xun even went so far as to argue for the complete abolition of characters. Writing on his deathbed he supposedly said, “If the Chinese characters are not eradicated, China is doomed.” (Kindle, loc. 422)

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the matter became urgent for the Communist Party as they sought to unify the country and promote literacy. The first step was the release of a list of 515 simplified characters in 1956 (Kindle, loc. 747). The next step was the introduction of pinyin, a standard Romanization of the characters as well as a standard (approved) pronunciation of the characters. This is what would be taught everywhere, regardless of the local dialect.

While we often say that Putonghua is essentially the “dialect” of northern China, Moser helpfully reminds us that it was “not the adaptation of an existing form of speech, but was still an amalgam of linguistic features. It was a prescriptive standard rather than a descriptive norm.” (Kindle, loc. 660)

The expansion of broadcast media in the 1980s and 1990s helped Putonghua take root, especially in the urban areas of the country. There are strict Putonghua requirements for broadcasters and even fines for mispronouncing words!

What began as an artificial language, Moser notes, has now become a living language.

Those who are or have studied Chinese (Putonghua) will find this book particularly interesting; but anyone interested in the role and impact of language and language policy will also learn much.

If you are interested in other books about the Chinese language and learning Chinese, please see the post "Learning ABOUT Chinese (and Language Learning)" on my personal blog, Outside-In.

Please fill out this survey by the end of the day August 31, to be entered to win a free copy of my book Survival Chinese Lessons. We will be giving away ten free books.

Image credit: Fruity, by Gauthier Delecroix, via Flickr
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio