Saturday, January 15, 2011

Mandarin is not my mother tongue


For those who are not familiar with the history of Chinese dialects, I should say from the outset that Mandarin (as it is historically known), or more accurately, the Beijing dialect, has never been a dialect of national importance or universal acceptance in China before the 20th century. Confucius was known to have spoken one of the Southern dialects which he himself referred to as “elegant language”.  Some have postulated that he probably spoke an ancient form of Cantonese but I have reason to believe that it was more probably the precursor of our present-day Hokkien.  True, he did not speak the coarse language of the Hokkien peasants but he spoke a refined form of Hokkien, akin to the Hokkien spoken today in the island of Penang.  Whether he spoke an ancient form of Hokkien or some other Southern dialect, history tells us that he certainly did not speak the Beijing dialect.

From ancient times to the 19th century, many other dialects held sway as the lingua franca of the land we know as China today. Of note is the Nanjing dialect which was the official and most popular dialect used in China right up to the early 20th century.  It was only in 1909 when the dying Manchu Dynasty which wasn’t even Chinese ruled that the Beijing dialect became the “guoyi” or national language of China. But there was not much effect in the ruling and the Beijing dialect continued to be sidelined by the literati and the movers and shakers of China. It was only after Communism, that noxious poison that destroyed the soul and dignity of the Chinese people, infected the whole of China that the Beijing dialect, under the edict of the Communist Party of China, became the “putonghua” or “common language” of China.

The more vociferous Chinese people in the Greater Diaspora were Communists in those days.  They too championed the dictates of the Communist Party of China and before long, the Beijing dialect became synonymous with the Chinese language.

The Chinese Government has since 1949 when Communism’s venomous tentacles gripped the whole of China systematically discouraged the use of non-Beijing dialects in China.  Of course we all know what it means when the Communists discourage something – they ban it with an iron fist. They have no qualms about sending in the tanks if that is necessary as the world has seen them do in the late 1980s to quash peaceful student protests in Tiananmen Square. The photograph above was taken in 2008.  A banner in front of a school asks readers to speak only the Beijing dialect. It is a “polite” or “civilized” language and one should use it if one were “sincere”.  The words are couched carefully so that it can be translated as simply, “Speak Mandarin. Use polite language to express sincerity”.  But anyone who has lived in China knows that the Communist Government has ensured that the people understand that this “polite language” or “civilized language” is none other than the “putonghua” or universal language or the people’s language which in Communist-speak means no other dialect but the Beijing dialect.  There’s no dispute here – any honest Chinese is bound to admit that this is so.

It is a fact of Chinese history even before the Boxer Rebellion that anyone who had the courage to enter a Chinese village in the South speaking the Beijing dialect would have been lynched and killed by angry mobs and accused of being a Northern infiltrator. How can I, whose ancestors hail from one of the Southern states of China, accept Mandarin as my mother tongue when I would have been killed for speaking it in my native village just barely 150 years ago? How can this foreign dialect be forced down my throat as my mother tongue when my mother does not speak a word of it and neither did her mother or her mother’s mother. You can trace that line all the way to Eve and not one of them spoke a word of the Beijing dialect.

Is there anything inherently attractive or superior about the Beijing dialect that can perhaps recommend it as a more suitable dialect to represent the entire Chinese people apart from the fact that the Communist politburo in 1949 all spoke it?  Let us look closely at the Beijing dialect and compare it in every linguistic detail with the Southern dialects and for simplicity, I will pick Hokkien, the most melodious and expressive Chinese dialect.

One of the most beautiful aspects of Hokkien that stands out when you set it next to Mandarin is the versatility of expression. One is able to express just about any emotion in Hokkien even when one is seized by a sudden surge of anger and one needs a loaded expletive to express oneself immediately. In this, Mandarin is sorely lacking. The closest one can come up with in Mandarin is “ta ma de” which literally means “his mother’s”.  But that hardly conveys the point, no, not by a long shot.  You can’t even make it more directly pertinent by changing it to “ni ma de” or “your mother’s”.  The Communist rigidity of the Mandarin dialect just does not permit this.  Hokkien, on the other hand, has an expletive for every occasion.  Again, this is beyond dispute and I don’t have to give illustrations of Hokkien’s superiority here.

Next, let us look at the comparative beauty of the two dialects.  Admittedly, the beauty of a particular language is very much subjective.  But linguists have other more objective ways of measuring and accurately calibrating a language. One of the easiest methods is to look at the consonants available in a language or dialect and to see how these consonants can be attached to the various parts of a word.  I won’t go into the technicalities but I’ll give illustrations which will explain my point more clearly.

All languages have a fixed number of consonants which differs from language to language. Roughly the number of consonants in the different languages do not differ significantly.  What is different is where these consonants appear. I’ll pick a simple example.  Let’s look at the letters “S” and “I”.  We have the consonant “S” in front and we place a vowel immediately following it, in this case, it’s an “I”. We’ll then see how many legitimate syllables can be made by adding a consonant at the end of the two letters.  We will have SICK (it’s the sound that matters and not the actual letters), SIT, SIN, SIM (which is necessary to construct words such as “simple”), and the list goes on.  That makes English highly versatile.  Hokkien is the same. You can have consonants of all kinds that end a syllable.  Mandarin, however, is different.  Apart from the consonants “n” and “ng”, there is ABSOLUTELY NO consonant that can appear at the end of a syllable.  For those of you who are familiar with Mandarin, go ahead and think about it and see if I’m right. And if you know Hokkien or one of the other Southern dialects, you can try this test on it and you will see that you can end the syllable with a great number of consonants. For example, in Mandarin, you can have a word such as "wan" or "fang" because they end in "n" and "ng".  You can't have words or syllables that end in "k" such as "pak" (found in Hokkien) or in "p" (as in the Hokkien word "sip") and other consonants.

That makes Mandarin a highly limited dialect.  There are only so few phonemes you can make with it.  Because of this shocking limitation, Mandarin has to go tonal in order to have enough phonemes for words.  For example, “tang” can be sugar or soup, depending on how you voice it.  True, Southern dialects too are tonal but because we have an adequate supply of consonants that can begin and end a syllable, our tones add more to the melody of our speech.  The tone is more like a flavour enhancer in Hokkien.

Why, you may legitimately ask, is Mandarin so crippled in its linguistic capabilities?  I have a theory but it is merely a personal theory and I must beg all Beijingites to treat this post as no more than some lighthearted chatter.  We all know that the Gobi desert sits just next to Beijing and for most months in a year, it spews relentlessly desert dust and sand into Beijing.  Just check with any hospital in Beijing and you are sure to hear stories of people choked by the dust during a sand storm.  Because of the poor quality of air in Beijing, it is hardly surprising that the Beijing dialect closely resembles what you will expect of a population that is usually gasping for air. Consonants at the end of a syllable will have to be dispensed with because they demand a large intake of air.  Why then do we find only “n” and “ng” endings in the Beijing dialect.  The answer is quite simple.  These are consonants that are nasal in nature and they act more as a means by which the speaker can clear his nasal passage.  They don’t add to the speaker’s burden as far as air intake goes.  The Beijing dialect or Mandarin is highly suitable for those who speak it in Beijing, given the harsh conditions there but to export it to the rest of China or worse, the rest of the world is madness.

I have nothing against the Beijing dialect.  I find the dialect quite beautiful.  But given the historical and environmental background in which the dialect comes about, it is not appropriate to insist that this dialect should be viewed as the mother tongue of everyone of Chinese descent.  It is as alien to me as Urdu is.  I’m sure Urdu is a beautiful language but it’s quite another thing to insist that I should speak it.

Let me conclude with an ancient Hokkien poem (the imagery is only comprehensible if you understand ancient Hokkien):

My eyes, hooded with grief, stared into space,
As I sat by the river where the willows weep,
I cast my mind to my good old days,
In Hui’an county with the gorges deep.

Where ang ku cakes were sold with Hokkien mee,
And pandas roamed as far as the eyes could see;
Oh, Min River, my dearest Min River,
To thee, my soul flies, from my heart to my liver.


  1. Hi. I do not know much about Hokkien but I love your article.

  2. Thanks, Tim. It's very kind of you to say that. You are most welcome to read the rest of my blog. I welcome all kinds of comments even if you don't agree with me.

  3. Hope you will replace the word, "dialect," with the word, "language."

    Hokkien and Mandarin are mutually unintelligible and more different than Spanish and Italian. You would use the descriptive this way: Penang dialect of Hokkien versus the Southern Taiwan dialect of Hokkien versus the Northern Taiwan dialect of Hokkien. They can roughly understand each other. I think you'll enjoy the following link:

  4. Hi Aì Tâi-oân,

    Thanks for your comment. Blogger does not have a feature to alert me to new comments made in my posts and I missed your comment for almost half a year. I will make it a point to check for fresh comments more regularly. I have read your blog and you are obviously an expert on the Chinese languages (let me not be influenced by Western writers and call them dialects). I find your blog hugely interesting and highly informative on the languages of Taiwan. This blog entry of mine is quite different. It's wholly intended to be facetious rather than factual. Your blog, on the other hand, is serious business and I will most certainly go through it when I need to understand more about the fascinating languages of Taiwan, a most delightfully beautiful country that I've visited and have such fond memories of.