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Jan 03, 2017

Close your eyes, and you can’t guess her nationality. Lu Qiyu’s English is meticulous, sculpted over years of careful study. Though it remains slightly accented, the merest hint of a twang is difficult to place. 

Switch to Mandarin, however, and her southern Chinese accent emerges. In China, “north” and “south” are universally recognized as highly distinct regions, though no one is sure where exactly to draw the dividing line. The country’s diverse geography, history, and ethnic culture have led to the emergence of distinctive linguistic variations, even within standard Mandarin.

Mandarin spoken across the north — particularly the areas around Beijing and the northeast — is characterized most distinctively by the retroflex “r” affixed to the ends of words: For example, the word “hua,” meaning “flower,” becomes “huar.” Northerners also use the fifth, or neutral, tone more widely. 

This pronunciation contrasts with that of southern Chinese speakers. While the vast southern region is more linguistically diverse than the north — the area is dotted with dialects bearing little resemblance to Mandarin — in general, southern speakers of the standard language are more likely to eschew the retroflex; soften the consonants “s,” “sh,” “zh,” and “ch”; and, in some cases, struggle to differentiate between the “n” and “ng” sounds at the ends of syllables. 

Lu studies in Beijing and socializes mostly with northerners, but she refuses to adopt their pronunciation, even though northern Mandarin is closer to the official “standard” pronunciation. For example, she pronounces the word “xuesheng,” meaning “student,” as “xueshen,” omitting the “g.” She declines to change her pronunciation, even when it confuses me, her language exchange partner. 

Xuesheng,” she intones to herself, concentrating as she applies the more accepted ending to the word as if taking the accent out for a test drive. She squints, furrows her brow. “I can’t; it’s too ugly.” She apologizes for using non-standard Mandarin in my presence but remains unbowed. “The southern accent is better.” 

Needless to say, most northerners don’t agree. In China, Mandarin pronunciation is one of several battlegrounds in a rivalry that spans several centuries. It has spawned viral videos, prolix internet conversations, and foreign media coverage. Even the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has intervened. Despite years of heated discussion, a winner has not yet been declared and probably never will be.

Every country has regional rivalries. The United States, for example, boasts north-south as well as east-west rivalries. At times, these contentions have grown intense: The 1990s New York City-Los Angeles rap rivalry, for example, led to gang warfare and the death of two of the country’s most talented performers. But even in the United States, there is little talk of a “standard American accent.” Regional identities are becoming increasingly fluid, too, as more young people grow up in one location, attend school in another, and work in yet another. The ongoing diversification of southern cities is one of U.S. demography’s most consequential phenomena.

Linguistically, a common language is crucial: Southerners and northerners must be able to speak to each other if they are to trade boasts.

In China, however, regional rivalry has deeper roots. In ancient times, imperial decline was often associated with regional warlordism. As a result, officials were precluded from forming regional patronage networks under the “rule of avoidance,” which forbade them from serving in their home provinces. In the 1800s, China was shaken by the Taiping, Nian, and Dungan rebellions. Though mostly ethnic and religious in origin, these uprisings drew on regional ties. Consequently, ancient and modern Chinese governments have tended to view strong regional identities with suspicion and, sometimes, alarm. Such regional loyalties have often presaged civil unrest. 

The CCP’s great achievement was to reunite the country under central rule. Politically, the central government in Beijing reestablished administrative control over the various provinces, including the historically rebellious Tibet Autonomous Region in the southwest and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the northwest. Ideologically, Maoist thought permeated all aspects of Chinese society, corralling competing strands of political thought into a unitary “People’s” Republic of China. Ubiquitous Little Red Books were but the physical manifestation of an extant ideological penetration. 

These achievements are well-known. Less well-known — but equally important — is that the CCP also managed linguistic standardization, for decades an elusive goal of Chinese reformers. At the National Conference on Script Reform in 1955, the CCP established Putonghua — based on the northern dialects, with Beijing pronunciation at its core — as Mandarin’s standard pronunciation. 

The decision marked the conclusion of a conflict that had simmered for decades between guoyin, a hybridized supra-regional Mandarin pronunciation, and jingyin, a Beijing-based Mandarin pronunciation. According to author Ping Chen’s “Modern Chinese,” a history of Chinese linguistics, even into the 1930s, Beijing Mandarin was considered by many to be “lower status” — belonging to “maids and laborers” — especially when compared with a third dialect, guanhua, the literary pronunciation of Chinese officials. Jingyin won a provisional victory in 1926, and in 1932 earned publication in the national dictionary. But it was only in the years following 1955, and especially after the reform and opening-up period, that Beijing Mandarin evolved into China’s shared language. Today, over 90 percent of Chinese people understand Putonghua. 

National unification diminished the sway of regional identity. Politically, Beijing has reigned uncontested over the provinces since 1949. Ideologically, the CCP has used one-country nationalism to buttress state power, diminishing regional ideologies in the process. And linguistically, the elevation of Beijing Mandarin has accelerated the erasure of hundreds of regional dialects, previously the most visible markers of regional identity. 

Yet paradoxically, national unification may also have enabled regional rivalries to survive. Politically and ideologically, of course, a rivalry can only exist within a system — just as sports teams cannot compete without a league. If a rivalry is defined as competition for the same objective or for superiority within the same field, then ideological unity is the shared objective, and a unified China is the shared field. Linguistically, a common language is crucial: Southerners and northerners must be able to speak to each other if they are to trade boasts.

In this historical context, Lu’s refusal to pronounce the “g” in “xuesheng” is but another salvo in the ancient feud between north and south, capital and provinces. It contests the superiority of Beijing Mandarin, but it does so from within the strictures of Beijing Mandarin itself — after all, she uttered her challenge in Putonghua, not Zhejiang dialect, the language of her home province in eastern China. 

If there is final proof that Chinese regional rivalries are, in the end, lighthearted in nature, it is foreigners’ participation in them. Foreigners without Chinese ancestry who are living in China do not have bloodline connections to any particular region and consequently have little reason to profess loyalty to one over another. Much like supporting a sports team in another country’s league, they simply choose a home team and cheer rabidly. 

I am one such fan: In recent months, I’ve swapped the “w” in “weishenme,” “why,” for a harder “v” sound, which hails from the northeast of China. When speaking in my second language, I usually choose to channel my inner northerner. And yet, I have noticed a troubling phenomenon. After spending a semester with Lu as my language partner, my Mandarin has changed. Whereas before, my “-en” and “-eng” sounds were distinct, recently they have blurred together. It seems I am migrating south.  

Some linguistic variety is healthy; it allows the Chinese language to innovate. With too much variety, however, communication becomes impossible. Northern Mandarin has won enshrinement as a closer approximation of standard Putonghua, but as a result, perhaps we ought to look south for innovation. It’s not a conclusion, but a compromise. The rivalry will continue.

(Header image: Students play games to learn pinyin in Shenyang, Liaoning province, July 14, 2010. VCG)