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!


  1. Uhm, isn’t it just that the page claims to be GB2312 but aside from the title is actually 8859-1? You can tell your browser to display it correctly, right?

  2. Not that strange; it’s being served with metadata suggesting an ASCII-compatible Chinese character set, but the French words (fédératif, démocracie) with accents have been taken from directly a document encoded in the ASCII-compatible ISO-8859-1 character set.
    While both encodings _are_ ASCII-compatible, the non-ASCII parts of the two are mutually incompatible. And the result is yet another advertisement for Unicode 🙂
    (I’m turning into a bit of a character-set pedant lately, as is obvious, I think. Ah well, it’s a relatively harmless pecularity.)

  3. Is Uighur a common language among Turks in China or a particular dialect of Turkish? Or is it a synthetic merging of several dialects? I had heard the term before as the name of an ethnicity, not of a language.

  4. Uighur is the language of the ethnic group of the same name. It’s a Turkic language related to Turkish, Uzbek, Turkmen, Azeri, etc. According to Ethnologue, there are over 7m speakers in China.

  5. Chinese characters showing up inappropriately is pretty common. An online publisher’s catalogue I use as well as PSU library’s in-house catalog occasionally toss up Cyrillic or Chinese by mistake.
    Completely off-topic, but where did the name “Austria” come from? Sounds like it should mean “southern” from “Austr-“, like Australia or the Argentinian currency austral. In fact the OED lists “southern” as a rare meaning of “austrian”.
    Austria IS south of Germany, but they call themselves Oesterreich (with an umlaut) = “Eastern nation”. Is this a fight over the Eastern heritage of Otto the Great — claimed by both Germany and Ausria?

  6. I, too, too often encounter Chinese charactres instead of non-US letters. It happens ever so often for the Swedish åäö, and often persists despite changing code page No. I suppose it has to do with codes >ASCII 128.
    Writing systems for Uyghur could probably fill several theses; nowadays it seems that they mainly use a variety of the Arabo-Persian system, with several additions. LIke Kurdish, for example, they have invented characters for theiar vowels:

  7. Two comments:
    “four of them — Tibetan, Mongolian, Uighur and Zhuang — appear on Chinese bank notes….”
    Well, actually quite a few more than that since all Chinese languages and/or dialects have a shared written form. (Traditional versus simplified characters is a separate issue related to governments, not languages).
    As for the French accents coming out as Chinese characters, as pointed out by several, this is a well-known side-effect of the myriad character encodings used by computers before Unicode. There is even a Chinese term for it: 亂碼 / 乱码, luan4 ma3, which means “chaotic codes”. Though the Japanese term 文字化け, mojibake, is probably more familiar to English speakers.
    Andrew Dunbar.

  8. Actually, it’s an AP story that dates back to at least December 5.
    Although I’m glad that some attention is being given to Beijing’s suppression of many languages within China, the article falls prey to myths about Chinese characters, which are at the root of misunderstandings about the nature of the Chinese languages and help support this suppression.
    For example:

    Chinese dialects are based on the same system of writing.

    Aaaagh! What the author is saying isn’t so different than claiming that Chinese people wrote their languages before they spoke them, which is of course absurd. (DuPonceau noted this problem nearly 200 years ago.) But this is typical of how the myths about characters and languages have confused people, even about what ought to be fairly obvious.

    That means that Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong can enjoy subtitled Mandarin movies and Mandarin-speakers can order off Chinese menus in the far west of the country.

    Because speakers of Cantonese and other Chinese languages are taught to read and write not their own languages but Mandarin. There’s nothing magical or especially language-transcending about Chinese characters.

  9. I’ve come across Chinese sites written entirely in Japanese — using GB2312 encoding! I suppose that the odd Japanese visitor might be take the trouble to tweak the encoding and read the content, but I’m doubtful.
    It’s amazing how many so-called web site professionals in China are totally ignorant of the need for the correct tag in the head of web pages.

  10. I have just posted a short page on the question of characters as a bridge between dialects at my website. At the risk of sounding as though I’m beating my own drum, I would welcome any comments language hat lovers might have. (The article is only half finished. I intend to add a brief section on the differences among dialects).
    The URL is:
    All comments welcomed, and please delete this if it is felt to transgress the rules of this blog.

  11. No no, I welcome links to interesting entries on other people’s blogs! Here‘s the direct link for anyone who’s interested.

  12. “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.”

    I guess they basically only saw a few snippets of Chinese television, find it fitting their biased view against China, doesn’t investigate further in fear of finding any evidence otherwise and just write it down.

    The reason these dubs were not legal was because they were made from bootleg version of the show, which means they’re illegal to broadcast on regular television.

  13. Thanks for that important context! Makes me glad these threads stay open indefinitely.

  14. David Marjanović says

    The fact that these threads stay open indefinitely also lets me answer a question 11 years later:

    Completely off-topic, but where did the name “Austria” come from?

    It’s a straightforward interpretation of Germanic *austr- “east” as Latin Auster “south wind”. Etymologically it’s even correct…

  15. Actually, 19 years later — impressive!

  16. @David Marjanović: Actually, my understanding is that it is specifically from Old High German Ostarrihhi (obviously cognate to modern Österreich, “eastern realm’). The suffix in Austria is thus probably derived from a merger of both the ordinary Latinate –ia in country names and the –rihhi from the Old High German.

  17. January First-of-May says

    Etymologically it’s even correct…

    Huh, indeed (or so says Wiktionary, at least). So Austria and Australia are (root) cognates after all.

  18. David Marjanović says

    modern Österreich, “eastern realm’

    That’s not at all transparent in modern German, BTW; if coined now, it would inevitably be Ostreich (no umlaut, no vowel length, no second syllable). It looks more like Ostern “Easter” – which is of course another root cognate.

Speak Your Mind