I’ll hear a string of sounds – slick fricatives, ballooning rounded vowels, shreds of distantly familiar tones. It’s a sequence of mismatched notes, sewn together by the timbre of my grandma’s voice. She’ll look at me as she speaks, as if trying to impart meaning, to imprint in the air the essence of what she’s just said. As if to leave it hanging there for an act of interpretation that will never come. She’ll ask my mother questions about me. My mother will reply, and my grandad will interrupt with jovial laughter. I’ll sit there, trying to decode by expression and gesture what has been said, trying to sift through sound patterns to unearth the sense beneath. It makes for isolating, and near impossible activity, like trying to pan gold from heaps and heaps of never-ending sediment.
I’ve never had a conversation with my grandparents. They only speak Chinese and I only speak English. Despite language classes at school, I’ve never managed to knead my Latin letters until they resemble the Chinese characters my grandparents can understand. My mother was reluctant to the idea of bringing me up speaking Shanghainese, the dialect of her hometown, mostly because it didn’t seem worthwhile; nobody else in our town in south-east England spoke it, and neither did the Chinese population outside of Shanghai. Plus, she thought, children can be resistant to speaking a foreign language anyway. Their mentality often boils down to: if none of my friends at school speak it, why should I? This logic may be juvenile, but it does reveal something about the socially bracketing way in which we perceive language; it signifies that we are within, or without. That we are part of a collective self, or that we are in some way ‘other’.
I had often pictured a mother speaking her own mother tongue to her children to be something like premastication – when mother birds chew and break down food before passing it onto their young. The language, retrieved and pre-handled, is given to the offspring in an unmediated passage: a gift that bonds mother and child. I saw it as a process of simplification, sharing, communion – as being part of a collective self. The language classes I took, then, felt humiliating, since I wasn’t inheriting the language, but receiving it second-hand. In the act of learning that would in fact have brought me closer to my heritage, I felt othered, exposed, or as if sitting in that classroom made me at once far too close and far too distant from the language I wanted to know.
Instead of receiving this linguistic inheritance, then, my mother becomes a reluctant ventriloquist. She refracts my grandparents’ voices through her vague, you-get-the-gist method of translation. So much becomes reliant on facial expressions, laughter, gesture, offers to wash the dishes, small, unnecessary favours to signify affection between generations. I stare at the characters on dumpling packages and New Year’s decorations with a helplessness, surveying in disbelief their unassailable peaks and troughs. In the absence of a clear-cut pathway through the thickets of conversation, the relationship between myself and my grandparents feels tribal – almost primal – when language cannot cultivate that flow of meaning and message. These familial relationships seem to become located in the body, in the irrevocable fact of blood – a fact that seems prized even over communication. For the English-speaking half-Chinese person, the world of the Chinese language is a limbo; I’m certainly not within, but it can’t quite be said that I’m entirely without. My heritage is caught somewhere between a bloodline and a complete linguistic blank.
But even if I did persist with those classes, I would be learning Mandarin, not Shanghainese. Shanghainese is only one of over 1,500 different dialects spoken by the Han Chinese population, and there are even more variations among the country’s ethnic minorities. Though the phonology (or speech sounds) differs drastically across the country, the characters, grammar, and syntax are pretty much identical. They provide the body from which dialects spring out, like the apparently endless flourish of the peacock’s tail. This expansion of dialect disrupts my ideal of complete communicative unity. It means that someone in Xian who speaks only their local dialect won’t be able to understand someone speaking Shanghainese. But, more than this, it renders China a cohesive space teeming with a kind of linguistic dynamism, a series of linguistic fragments, a patchwork piece with barely-threaded seams. But either way, the seams are most definitely there. There is some bedrock of uniformity beneath the splintering off of Guan, Wu, or Yue dialectic groupings. In this tension between grammatical consistency and phonological variety, dialect also seems to straddle that line between collective self and other.
Dialect, then, is a potent force in China. It is a more specific signifier of origin and geography than its umbrella language. But it has begun to wobble against the threat of erosion. While I wrestle with the disruption in my own personal communication, communication within China is becoming increasingly centralised. Mandarin is based off the Northern dialect, and is the official language of the country. It looms large as a grand unifying banner of the nation, beneath which dialects lose their footing. In the West, Mandarin is used synonymously with ‘Chinese’, in part a reflection of the fact of its official status, in part a testament to its perceived cultural dominance. From within, China may indeed be fizzling with linguistic diversity; from outside, it’s seen as a monolith – there is only ‘Chinese’, perhaps with an indeterminate offshoot called ‘Cantonese’. The government has encouraged schools, as well as television and radio broadcasters to use Mandarin. Now a whole generation of children is growing up with their local dialect limited to the private sphere. Mandarin belongs to the public.
The push for unity is in some ways understandable. It creates a linguistic common ground for a nation that spans almost 9.6m square kilometres of land and a huge number of minority languages. Speaking Mandarin does not necessarily equate to the elimination of local language, but it does trigger a process of dissolution that is increasingly difficult to ignore. This is also due to migration; around 40% of Shanghai’s population are migrants and require a common language to communicate. The government’s push for a Mandarin-speaking population may be driven by this evident need for national unity, particularly in an era of migration. But it comes at a cost: an imposition and prioritisation of one dialect over thousands of others, and a potential weakening of local culture. Dialect is tied heavily to community, to a process that is historically entrenched in the mouth-to-mouth passing down between generations and does not account for the Internet or social media. Though I have never come near to learning Shanghainese, I recognise its preciousness as a dialect. The Chinese language’s predicament of embodying a uniformity of script but differentiation in speech means that, should dialect disappear from people’s tongues, outside of linguistic textbooks it will also disappear altogether. Contained in the written Chinese character is a potential of 1,500 variants of phonologically speaking it, and so each variant cannot be captured and preserved in writing; they are all embodied in the same written sign. The moment of speech is transient, so dialect cannot be sustained without continual recycling when the written character cannot be relied upon to account for all 1,500 nuggets of pronunciation. It ought to be carefully handled, like an heirloom made smooth from years of handling.
Yet this gradual move towards effacement has disrupted my ideal of that crystal-clear flow of communication between my grandparents and my cousin as well. The changes within a nation, though made up of statistics and laws and media influence, are always localised onto the experience of the family. My cousin now refuses to speak Shanghainese at home, as he only speaks Mandarin at school – another, more adolescent manifestation of if none of my friends at school speak it, why should I? And so my grandma, as a member of the older generation, speaks in Shanghainese to my cousin, while my cousin flashes his fluency in Mandarin in answering back. They still communicate, of course, but the mutual embrace of a common language has been fractured; my grandma grasps onto a potentially fading tongue, while my cousin champions a national one. The spread of Mandarin might be uniting the country geographically, but it certainly seems to be rupturing it generationally.
My experience of language is therefore triangulated. I love English, my grandma knows all the nooks and crannies of Shanghainese, while my cousin knows English, knows Shanghainese, but upholds Mandarin as his language of choice. There’s no lingua franca across generations; it’s not just China that’s the variegated linguistic patchwork, it seems, but my own family. Being within and without of these linguistic evolutions, I’m no longer sure what kind of communicative inheritance or integration I’m searching for; whatever unadulterated flow of meaning and message I had envisioned has been fundamentally disrupted.
I could mourn this disruption. But at the same time, perhaps this is just what happens; communicative fractures, suffering the burdens of external pressure and opening up over time like splintering wood, are just what come with the movement of generations, immigration, time passing. If dialect really is effaced in the future, it will be a loss for China – there is something so unique, so precious in dialects that have been spoken in communities for years and years, unable to be satisfactorily preserved in written scripture and seeming to hark back to the ancient. But, for now, dialect is holding its own: though around 70% of the population now speak Mandarin, the other 30% makes up 400m people – enough to keep it alive for another few generations. In Shanghai, radio stations that only use the Shanghainese dialect have sprung up in resistance to the pressures of conformity, an act of deliberate oral preservation. But the weakening of dialect perhaps remains a marker of an inevitable slope towards a hybridity of culture. I now recognise the motley linguistic character of my family is less of a sign of emotional separateness, or the absence of true inheritance, but of an entity partaking in a nation’s evolution. Besides, that irrevocable fact of blood will never change – marking me firmly, concretely, within. ∎
Words by Annabel Jackson. Graphics by Alice Yang.