A demonstrator at a Pro-Cantonese rally
On Tuesday, a group of Tibetan students in Rebkong took to protesting over educational reforms that require all subjects be taught in Chinese except for Tibetan and English language classes. The students were reportedly chanting, “We want equality of culture” and number estimates go from as low as 800 up to 6,000 demonstrators. Police did not interfere with the protest, but its leaders were warned they would be expelled if the demonstration continued.
If you look past the inflammatory statements and propaganda certain groups are throwing around (because the demonstrations are Tibetan), you’ll see that the objections the students raise aren’t unique to that region, or even to China. However it does voice some important concerns of the trade-off between efficiency of communication and linguistic diversity. Especially with a country as massive as this one, it’s proving to be a complicated balancing act.
While many European languages usually have some overlap, even dialects in China are mostly mutually unintelligible. Shanghainese and Mandarin are perfect, easy examples of that. Mandarin has been the lingua franca of China since the Qing dynasty and has became even stronger since 1949 when the Communist party encouraged its use. But many groups have been complaining about how dialects or languages other than Mandarin are being pushed aside to the point of elimination in favor of this standard.
Similar protests of this nature have occurred elsewhere, at home and overseas. Pro-Cantonese demonstrations were sparked in Guangzhou and in Hong Kong this summer when bureaucrats proposed to air prime-time shows in Mandarin instead of Cantonese to accommodate for the upcoming Asian Games. Even Singapore saw a similar backlash against its Speak Mandarin campaign.
As a Hong Kong Cantonese, I empathize fully with the Tibetan students’ concerns over the thought of linguistic elimination. I know I’ll lament any toll Mandarin might take on Cantonese as the SAR reintegrates further into the mainland. Nonetheless, I don’t think that’s any reason not to learn the standard language of the nation. Shanghai is a perfect example of a region that has a good handle of Putonghua while still retaining the strong use of Shanghainese–proof that Mandarin can be implemented with minimal damage to local dialects.
Whether or not Mandarin should be promoted in schools across the whole nation isn’t really up for debate. It needs to be, no matter how you look at it–especially in regions like Inner Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang where Mandarin fluency is poor. What we should be discussing are the ways to ensure that the beauty and richness of local languages do not fall by the wayside while we learn a common language.