Saturday, August 01, 2009

The Mandarins of China

In any comparison of China and India, the point is usually made that we are a country of multiple languages and dialects, whereas China is ‘monolithic’ in most respects, including a common language that binds most of its people.

That is not entirely true. Lee Kuan Yew, founding father of Singapore, writes in his memoirs, “From Third World to First”:

"I was impressed by the size of China and the vast differences between their 30 provinces. What I was not prepared for was the gaggle of different accents that I came across. It was difficult to understand many of them. The range of dialects and accents when they spoke “Mandarin” was so great that when when we got to Guangzhou, their interpreter who accompanied me, an excellent interpreter, could not understand the elderly member of the revolutionary council who came from Hainan Island, even though he was speaking what he thought was Mandarin.

This is a small example of the problem of unifying China through a common language. China is nearly twice the size of continental Europe in population and in area. The Chinese are 90 percent Han Chinese using the same script. But they have different consonant and vowel values for the same written word and have developed different idioms and slang in their various provinces and even in adjoining towns in the same province. They have been trying to unify their language since the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911, but it will be a very long time before they succeed. With satellite TV, radio and cellular telephones, they may be able to achieve it in another one or two generation, but only for the better-educated or their younger population."

So, while India is divided by many languages, China is divided by a common language


Shalini said...

Is India divided only by languages?
I wonder sometimes what would have been the situation if India had been divided into as many countries as there are languages. Something akin to Eastern Europe.Tiny pieces of land trying to establish its own identity.And further divided by religions. Scary!

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