My friend from GW’s poli sci department, Enze, is spending the summer in Kunming, China. He is doing exploratory research to figure out his dissertation topic there. He has some interesting stories on his blog here. (He has another blog at wordpress here, but interestingly wordpress is blocked in China.) He visited some remote villages of ethnic minorities and I am looking forward to hearing more stories from him.
China is huge. I love China’s linguistic diversity. Enze himself speaks a fascinating dialect from Hangzhou, but he was also confronted with a difficult dialect of Yunnan in minority villages. Here in Korea, most of my classmates in the Korean language school are Chinese. They have finally accepted the fact that I understand Chinese, and are now in the stage of trying their local dialects to figure out how much variation in Chinese I can understand. Actually, they do the same to each other; they speak in local dialects to each other, and apparently find it fun when others do not understand your dialect. (Of course they communicate in the standardized Mandarin usually.)
I find it interesting and funny, too, but I am not quite sure how far the common saying that “but our written language is all the same” can hold. I know little about other dialects, but Taiwanese, which is considered as a dialect called “Minnanhua” in Mainland China, needed many new characters and slightly different grammatical rules when it was standardized in Taiwan. Is Cantonese a dialect but Vietnamese not?
Since the distinction between ‘dialects’ and ‘languages’ is political and arbitrary, it is fine that they want to call many different languages in China dialects. But I wonder if the notion that “our written language is the same” itself is an invented tradition and a national myth in China?