A Los Angeles Times story by Christopher Bodeen describes the efforts of the Chinese government to suppress the so-called “dialects” (actually separate languages spoken by millions of people: Cantonese, Shanghainese, Hakka, &c) in a surprising context: Tom and Jerry cartoons.
Dubbed into regional Chinese dialects, the warring cat and mouse have been huge TV hits — and a good way to pass home-grown culture down to the younger generation, programmers say.
Not so fast, says the central government up north in Beijing, which for decades has promoted standard Mandarin as the only Chinese language worthy of the airwaves. The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television has ordered an end to broadcasting in dialect, saying kids should be raised in a “favorable linguistic environment.”
The move has put Tom and Jerry — or “Cat and Mouse,” as the show is called here — at the center of a long-running debate about how to maintain national cohesion amid a linguistic sea of highly distinct regional accents, dialects and wholly separate language groups.
“As an artist, I think dialect should be preserved as a part of local culture,” said Zhang Dingguo, deputy director of the Shanghai People’s Comedy Troupe, which does Tom and Jerry in Shanghainese.
“Schools don’t allow Shanghainese to be spoken, and now TV doesn’t either. It looks like Shanghai comedy will be dying out,” he added…
Promotion of Mandarin — known here as “putonghua,” or “common tongue” — began in the 1920s and became policy in 1955, six years after the communists seized power. Its use has been encouraged through an unending series of social campaigns, including the current one featuring TV presenter Wang Xiaoya on billboards exhorting Shanghainese to “speak Mandarin … be a modern person.”
In the latest campaign, Shanghai city officials are being required to attend classes on perfecting their pronunciation, schools are nominating contestants in citywide Mandarin speech contests, and foreigners are being invited to Mandarin classes.
Totally distinct from Chinese, the languages of minority groups such as Tibetans, Uighurs and Mongolians are officially recognized and taught in schools. Important documents are translated into major minority tongues and four of them — Tibetan, Mongolian, Uighur and Zhuang — appear on Chinese bank notes….
In places like Guangzhou and Shanghai, prevalence of the local dialect helps exclude outsiders from social networks that are key to securing good jobs and entry to better schools. Outsiders say it smacks of bigotry.
“If you want to find a good job and be a success in Shanghai, you have to speak Shanghainese. Even if you do, they can pick you out by your accent and discriminate against you,” said Steven Li, an accounting student flying home to the western city of Chongqing.
Preservation, not exclusion, was the purpose of Tom and Jerry in dialect, said Zhang, the producer.
“You’ve got Shanghainese kids who can’t even speak Shanghainese,” he said. “I have friends who’ve moved to Shanghai and want to learn the language to better integrate into local society.
“Isn’t watching TV easier than studying textbooks?”
Zhang cites semi-legal Shanghainese broadcasting that pops up on local radio as evidence of continued demand for dialect programming. For now, Tom and Jerry will continue in Shanghainese on video, along with other versions in close to a dozen dialects.
Oddy enough, Tom and Jerry didn’t speak in the original cartoons, so the dialect versions give them voices they never had.
Any regular reader of LH will be unsurprised to hear that I deplore the efforts at suppression and the Jacobin arrogance that produces them. Everyone should be able to speak, write, and watch cartoons in their native language without let or hindrance.
(Thanks for the link, Andrew!)
Incidentally, in looking for a link on “Jacobin,” I found a page from a Chinese site with an English essay on federalism in which parts of quoted French words are occasionally replaced by Chinese characters, eg “Du principe f閐閞atif” and “De la D閙ocracie en Amerique.” Very odd!