The question of how a state decides what its official language is going to be, or indeed whether it even needs one, is never simple, and this may be particularly true of China which covers a continental landmass encompassing multitude of different language families and groups. Indeed, what is even meant by “Chinese” is unclear when one considers the huge range of related but mutually unintelligible linguistic varieties – from Cantonese to Shanghainese and many other lesser known ones. The story of how the Beijing-derived language today known – at least in English – as “Mandarin” became the standard is thus a highly complex one.
In Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860-1960
(Cambridge University Press, 2020), Gina Anne Tam takes us through the ways that people in China have navigated the country’s complex linguistic landscape while also negotiating profound questions over the meanings of modern Chinese identity itself.
Moving smoothly from the late imperial period up to the Maoist sixties and indeed beyond, this book is a rich source of insight into how states standardize language, and along the way explores the linguistic debates underlying many vital projects, from educating a nation, to writing novels, organizing socialist revolution, performing opera, and indeed dissing foreigners in rap tracks.
Gina Anne Tam
is Assistant Professor of Modern Chinese History at Trinity University, Texas.
Ed Pulford is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam. His research focuses on friendships and histories between the Chinese, Korean and Russian worlds, and northeast Asian indigenous groups.