Locals, foreigners try to keep Chinese dialects alive despite Putonghua dominance

Updated 2017-06-23 13:50:23 Global Times

In China, local dialects reflect self-identity, but Putonghua plays a role in holding the country together

○ The Chinese government has been pushing for the use of Putonghua for years, in order to create convenience as well as maintain national unity

○ Some Chinese and Westerners in recent years are putting more effort into preserving local Chinese dialects

○ Conservationists say dialects are connected to local cultures and even individual identities

Throughout her school years, Hu Shuning was repeatedly told not to use her local dialect, but to use Putonghua instead.

She remembers walking on the streets of Suzhou, East China's Jiangsu Province and seeing government slogans that read "Speak Putonghua, be civilized." During high school and college, all her teachers were required to not use any dialect when in class, otherwise they'd be fined.

Hu grew up in the 1990s, when a government-led campaign to popularize Putonghua swept through China, pushing the country's official spoken language which is based on northern dialects, especially Beijing's. Putonghua is different from the Suzhou dialect to the extent that they are mutually unintelligible.

Suzhou and the surrounding regions were historically viewed with a touch of romanticism. Poets writing about Suzhou have always mentioned its scenery, food, beautiful women and lively nightlife.

To Hu, most of that heritage has been lost. Now, years later, when she walks the streets of Suzhou, all the slogans about Putonghua are gone, but so are the people speaking local dialect, wearing traditional clothes or making embroideries in small workshops.

Reviving tradition

Hu started taking an interest in preserving the Suzhou dialect when she went on an exchange program abroad during college. Feeling homesick, she started looking up her hometown on the Internet and stumbled across a forum where people were exchanging views and information on the Suzhou dialect, and started getting involved.

In 2012, she went back to Suzhou to teach Spanish and spent all her spare time researching the local dialect. She spent years writing a textbook that spells out its words phonetically, so people can learn it in an easier way.

In 2015, Hu started a WeChat public account that focuses on teaching the dialect. The account releases lessons daily and advertises the offline activities Hu and her team hold. She holds open lessons, both about China's dialects and about traditions and lifestyles that are long lost. The lessons have attracted many people, both local residents and tourists.

In general, Hu feels that in recent years, more and more young people are neglecting their local dialects. Their ways of speaking are evolving, and some words and pronunciations are fading from existence. She thinks that work needs to be done to keep them alive.

"Language constitutes a large part of culture," Hu said. A dialect's unique words show the lifestyle and traditions of the people who speak it. For example, there's a word in the Suzhou dialect that refers to a person standing in the hallway of a noodle restaurant, calling out people's orders. Hu said this reflects the noodle-eating culture of old Suzhou.

Personally, she thinks this culture and dialect are connected to her identity and define who she is. She grew up in an older part of town, surrounded by people speaking the ancient dialect and practicing traditional trades.

Recent years have seen more and more effort put into preserving dialects and Chinese culture from both Chinese and foreigners.

In 2013, two Americans - Kellen Parker and Steve Hanson - founded Phonemica, a website dedicated to presenting audio stories spoken in various Chinese dialects, many of which are thought to be on the edge of extinction. The site includes a map showing where each dialect is spoken and approximately how many people still speak it.

Phonemica is also known as Xiang Yin Yuan (Local Dialects Garden). On the website, you can see colored balloons that indicate different language systems. The balloons are pinned onto a map of China, to indicate where the languages are used. If you click on a balloon, you will hear a story told by a person in that dialect, and you can easily follow along reading one of the multilingual transcripts that are displayed as you listen.

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