Language is Power

The 3-week intensive Elementary Putonghua course I have been taking concluded with an examination today. While I have full confidence in my performance in the written part, I would say that the 3-minute speech I gave in the oral part was at best only satisfactory. I have yet to fully master the tones and pronunciations, and the knowledge that even a foreigner like the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd can speak my national language much better than me does not sit well!

With China’s importance in the international arena ever growing, so does the worldwide interest in learning the language. When we went to Vietnam during the Chinese New Year this year, we met four young women from Canada and the UK who had been learning Putonghua in China and were taking their holiday break in Hanoi. I believe that there are quite a lot of people from the West who, like these young people, are learning or would like to learn the language. Apart from a growing interest in the country and its culture, one main reason for the fad is that learning the language has become more manageable with the romanised Pinyin system.

Learning Chinese used to be quite a nightmare for foreigners. As Chinese is a character language, each Chinese character has a specific sound and meaning and learners have to memorise them one by one. However, with the characters being turned into romanised phonetic forms through Pinyin, a system created in 1958, learners may be able to master the system and speak the language in a relatively short time, without having to bother with the dreaded characters. The four women we met in Vietnam had only been in China for a few months, but they were already able to speak pretty good Putonghua.

The nationwide and worldwide recognition of Putonghua is a good example of how language reflects power. Before the communists rose to power, the official language was Mandarin, which was the court language used in the Qing Dynasty. Putonghua, while very similar to classical Mandarin, is not the same language. It is a form based on Beijing and Northern Chinese dialects and became standard Chinese after the revolution in 1949. The heavy influence of the Beijing dialect in terms of pronunciation and use of expressions seen in Putonghua today is illustrative of Beijing's political dominance.

The same power game is also evident in the written form of the language. While Chinese is one of the six official languages of the United Nations today, the form being used is simplified Chinese, a form which was also introduced after the communists took power. As the name suggests, simplified Chinese is a simplified version of traditional Chinese. The latter is still used in Hong Kong and Taiwan but now risks being marginalised, for obvious political reasons.

Some language purists say that both Putonghua and simplified Chinese represent polluted forms of the language, it is more chaotic and much of the beauty and tradition of the Chinese language is lost. Proponents argue that both Putonghua and simplified Chinese have contributed greatly to the elimination of illiteracy in China in the last few decades, as they make learning Chinese more accessible. Whatever the argument, there is no doubt that Putonghua, literally meaning "the common speech", will be spoken by more and more people in the foreseeable future.

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