In This Review

Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860–1960
Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860–1960
By Gina Anne Tam
262 pp, Cambridge University Press, 2020

Chinese nationalists who wanted to create a modern nation in the twentieth century had to contend with the dozens of regional forms of spoken Chinese, which they believed hindered the creation of a unified culture. Tam argues that these speech forms are not just dialects but distinct languages, as different from one another as many of the languages spoken in Europe. To solve the problem, modernizers designed a common language based on the vocabulary and pronunciation found in Beijing and claimed that the regional languages were mere offshoots of this main idiom. Mao Zedong’s regime forced all Han people to learn the common language. But folklorists, anthropologists, dramatists and, in the post-Mao period, rap artists believed the local forms of speech expressed the authentic culture of the common people. In this learned and thoughtful study, Tam shows that local languages have survived in the face of state hostility, mostly because people continue to speak them with their children and neighbors. The struggle over uniformity versus diversity continues with the current regime’s efforts to snuff out Tibetan, Uyghur, and other languages of the non-Han minorities.