I've finally settled on one main theme in the online discussions I've been reading that I want to focus on... especially because of it's "real-life" connection here in Shanghai. Specifically, I've narrowed down my examination of how people are expressing themselves online in China, to how people are expressing themselves in what I'd call "the Great Shanghainese Debate".
"Let's all speak Putonghua!" In the photo above, taken on the campus of ECNU this Fall, an art class project encourages university students to speak Mandarin (rather than other Chinese dialects) and also is branded with the slogans and logos of this latest round of monolingualization campaigns tied to the upcoming 2010 World Expo.There is nothing more familiar or divisive to Canadians than struggles over prominent dialects, French being the most important in Canada. In Canada, the climax of our struggle over language rights was la charte de la langue française was seen by French speakers as a necessary step to preserve Quebecois langauge and culture. On the flipside, Anglophones looked upon the change in status of Quebec to French official language province in a country they saw as being Anglophone (incorrect as they may be) as proof of the dissent and rebelliousness of our belle provence. The issue became one wherein the preservation of the French language somehow "interfered" in the "rights" of English speakers living inside and outside Quebec vs. the devastating effects of English economic dominance on the French culture and language in Canada.
In China, the language issues are far more complex, and likewise, far less openly discussed. Here is a map from the University of Texas that gives us some notion of the size and scope of the linguistic differences in China. I would note that while Sichuan Mandarin and Beijing Mandarin are only barely intelligible to each other, "Southern dialects" like Shanghainese Wu and Hong Kong Cantonese are even further apart, with such distinctive features as more tones (Cantonese with it's ear-mind-coordination-shattering nine versus Mandarins paltry four. And since these linguistic groups could be easily misunderstood, it's important to not that this is a map of native languages. We can consider Beijing Mandarin, Zhongyuan Mandarin and Taiwanese Mandarin to form an ubiquitous lingua franca in the media landscape of spoken Chinese. Less media saturated dialects, for example Henan or Sichuan Mandarin, feature seperate pronunciations and idioms, but are more or less comprehendable to "Standard" Mandarin speakers.
My interest rests with the everyday conflicts between Mandarin as lingua franca and the local Wu dialect of Shanghainese. Not just some little ethnic language either, as we should keep in mind that Wu native speakers number in the area of 80 million, on par with native speakers of such a major world language as French. I'll follow up with examples in a similar format to my previous post on human rights.