Reading Chinese

The language of 中國 China is 中文Chinese though some nations in the rest of the world calls it Mandarin.  The official spoken language in China is Putonghua普通話 (common speech), a dialect that other nations also call Mandarin.  普通話Putonghua is taught in schools and what you hear on National TV or Radio in China.

Some regional TV and radio stations are still broadcasting in local dialects but there is an effort to put a stop to it.  So as I write, hundreds of regional languages are dying in China as a new generation is being taught to read in 普通話Putonghua only.  My mother tongue, 廣東話Cantonese, is one of them.

My mother tongue is not that of my father’s.  Father was born in a small village in southern China.  He attended the local village school, where he learnt to write in Chinese but read in the local dialect.  He acquired 廣東話Cantonese after he left the village but we, his children born in Hong Kong, spoke only Cantonese.  In our family, the village dialect is lost.

When my grandmother joined my father in Hong Kong, she too had to learn to speak Cantonese but in the last years of her life totally lost her acquired language and reverted back to her village dialect.  As a result we were not able to communicate when I visited her from Australia.

Hong Kong was granted a special status for fifty years when the British government handed its former colony back to China in 1997.  Cantonese is still being taught at school and used in broadcasting.  At the same time it is preparing for its reabsorption by China and Putonghua is also being taught to school children in Hong Kong.

Like them, I had to learn Putonghua as a second dialect.  I won’t live long enough to see Hong Kong give up the Cantonese dialect officially but as I age, my mother tongue is returning to me just as it happened to my Grandma.

I have lived in Australia for 48 years.   When they ask me, ‘Can you read Chinese?’, I say, ‘Yes, I can read and write in Chinese but I speak Cantonese.’  When they ask me, ‘do you read Mandarin?’ I say, ‘Only out loud’.  To me, Mandarin is not a written language.  The written language of China中國 is Chinese中文, used by everyone in all regions and its official spoken language is 普通話Putonghua which is taught in schools.

When I record my Chinese translations of English poems I use Cantonese, knowing that some time after I’m gone, it will go too.  For the same reason I use the Traditional Chinese Script because it has been replace by a Simplified Script in China and will also fade one day.  That will be the subject of another post.

About Mary Tang

An urban orchardist everyday, a volunteer regularly, a poet sometimes and a blogger since March 2015. I travel when I can. Food is a constant.
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11 Responses to Reading Chinese

  1. I like the idea of your recordings helping to keep the language alive

    Liked by 1 person

  2. angela1313 says:

    A new Asian fusion restaurant opened in my town. As I listened to the sushi chefs, I could not make out a word. The owners, managers, chefs and several of the wait staff are Fujianese. So strange to hear one of those regional dialects in rural Virginia. Iam the last French speaker in my family since my grandmother passed, now I have no one to speal with I am loosing it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mary Tang says:

      Yes, ‘use it or lose it’ definitely applies to languages and those unique words to each language will be lost. The world is heading away from diversity for the sake of efficiency. When I look at the fruit on my trees and compared them to the ones in the supermarket, each looking exactly the same, I think of all the fruit that were eliminated because they do not conform.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. mattb325 says:

    That is interesting. I always knew about the Cantonese/Mandarin distinction, but the loss of so many dialects is (usually) cause for concern. Does the Government give an explanation for its reasons?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mary Tang says:

      It’s about unification. China, like Australia, like the USA, Canada, and the UK was once a conglomerate of many nations with many languages but just as Australia, USA, Canada, the UK and even some countries in Africa now uses English as the official language, many other native tongues have been lost. The ‘first emperor’ in China, ‘unified’ China and its written language, now the spoken form is being unified. With globalisation, I would not be surprised if one day, albeit decades or even centuries from now, everyone on Earth may speak one language only. English and Chinese will vie for that place, I believe.

      Liked by 1 person

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