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Proud Shanghainese asked to speak putonghua
By Pan Haixia (China Daily)
Updated: 2005-09-29 06:00

SHANGHAI: People from other parts of China often complain that visiting Shanghai is like arriving in a strange city. The local dialect, which is so different from putonghua, the country's national tongue, can seem totally alien to those venturing from faraway provinces.

Most Shanghainese prefer to speak their own dialect on the streets and in the workplace, making newcomers feel like complete outsiders.

But this may be about to change. The metropolis is working on a campaign to promote the standard Chinese language and characters, which business insiders say will be launched by the end of this year.

A draft has been sent to the Standing Committee of Shanghai Municipal People's Congress (SMPC) for the first review, making clear that putonghua should be the foremost means of public communication.

The draft also lists occasions on which only putonghua should be used. These include the official activities of government, lessons in schools and other educational institutions, radio and television broadcasting, and films and TV dramas.

The service industry is also required to follow suit, so customers must always be greeted in putonghua. All meetings, exhibitions and other large-scale events should be conducted in putonghua.

The introduction of this regulation will pose a big challenge to a city with such a strong love of its dialect.

During a group discussion of the draft regulation last weekend, some SMPC standing committee members used Shanghai dialect to voice their opinions. They were immediately stopped and reminded that they should speak putonghua.

"It can be hard to change old habits in a short time," said Sun Xiaoxian, director of the Language and Characters Division of the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission.

"That is why a regulation is necessary," he said.

According to Sun, whose division is the main government body responsible for the drive to popularize putonghua in Shanghai, all civil servants in the city have been required to attend standard Chinese courses in the past year, and most passed the test they were set.

"However, people forget from time to time to speak putonghua," he added.

One survey shows that while more than 70 per cent of Shanghai people can speak putonghua, less than 30 per cent often use it in public places.

Locals' reluctance to speak putonghua has something to do with the sense of superiority they feel when speaking their dialect.

"People in Shanghai tend to look down upon those who don't speak Shanghai dialect," Sun said.

"Although this sense of superiority has gradually weakened in recent years, it still affects to some extent locals' attitudes to putonghua."

Sun hopes the situation will improve in the next few years following the implementation of the regulation.

While unanimously accepting the importance of promoting putonghua, many experts and congress deputies also expressed their concern about the death of the Shanghai dialect, which as an integral part of local history and culture is facing what they said "a quite obvious declining trend."

"The short line included in the draft about how to protect local dialect in the process of standard Chinese popularization, is a little too summary," said congress deputy Ye Xin, also a famous Shanghai-based writer.

"There is already evidence showing that Shanghai dialect is on a quick trend of declining. A proper protection of it is very necessary."

Despite the frequent use of Shanghai dialect among the middle-aged and elderly, many Shanghai children are unable to speak the local tongue.

Tao Huan, a dialect expert at Fudan University, conducted an investigation in Shanghai early this year, writing out some of the more rare characters and asking people of Shanghai origin to read them out in the local dialect.

Most children said they could only pronounce them in putonghua.

Chen Xianshu, a sales woman with a 10-year-old daughter, said: "As all children are required to speak putonghua in school, I have found my daughter less and less proficient in Shanghai dialect. She sticks to putonghua even at home."

Concern about making sure the younger generation do not forget about the local dialect has made the legislation a hot topic.

"It will be a great loss if our precious linguistic heritage disappears," said Wu Jiansheng, a professor at Jiaotong University.

Many minor dialects with few speakers are withering in China.

Ma Lili, a famous Shanghai opera actress, said: "Behind each dialect is the culture of a particular area."

But according to Sun, these worries are a little overstated. Sun's division carried out a survey of 8,000 Shanghai students, from primary school to university. The final results are still being calculated, but one thing is for sure most can still speak Shanghai dialect.

The basic tones of the dialect are still there, although some slang and old Shanghai idioms now seem beyond youngsters, Sun said.

"It is already a widely acknowledged trend that languages worldwide are decreasing in number every year, which is an implacable process," said Huang Yu, a legislation scholar at the SMPC.

"If more people are speaking common language, it is only a showcase of social development."

As for the protection of the Shanghai dialect, Huang said the city is already working on establishing vocal archives. Research will be conducted to find out about the dialect.

Recordings will be made on tape or written in international phonetic symbols.

While discouraging the use of dialect, Huang pointed out that it is necessary for the city to support traditional local art forms, such as Shanghai comedy and Shanghai opera, which are based on the local tongue.

It is difficult to estimate how many dialects exist in China, but they can be roughly classified into seven large groups Bei, Gan, Kejia (Hakka), Min, Wu, Xiang and Yue (Cantonese). Each group contains many sub-dialects.

These are the variants of dialects spoken by most Han people, representing 92 per cent of the population. There are additional languages spoken by ethnic minorities.

Recent statistics show only 53 per cent of Chinese always speak putonghua.

(China Daily 09/29/2005 page5)

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