2009-07-15

'Harmonious' Myth masks Turbulent Reality in China

A brawl that erupted among workers in a Guangdong toy factory on June 25 sparked mass protests in Xinjiang on July 5. Over a hundred people have lost their lives and over a thousand have been arrested. Dru C Gladney, in an informative essay, explains the complex reality that churns behind the facile myth of a 'harmonious' China.

Foreigners and the Chinese themselves typically picture China’s population as a vast Han majority with a sprinkling of exotic minorities living along the country’s borders. This understates China’s tremendous cultural, geographic, and linguistic diversity—in particular the important cultural differences within the Han population. Across the country, China is experiencing a resurgence of local ethnicity and culture, most notably among southerners such as the Cantonese and Hakka, who are now classified as Han.


Gladney notes that 'it has become popular to be ‘ethnic’ in today’s China.' But even the majority ethnic group, the Han, is not as myth represents it.

The supposedly homogenous Han speak eight mutually unintelligible languages (Mandarin, Wu, Yue, Xiang, Hakka, Gan, Southern Min and Northern Min). Even these subgroups show marked linguistic and cultural diversity. In the Yue language family, for example, Cantonese speakers are barely intelligible to Taishan speakers, and the Southern Min dialects of Quanzhou, Changzhou and Xiamen are equally difficult to communicate across. The Chinese linguist Y. R. Chao has shown that the mutual unintelligibility of, say, Cantonese and Mandarin is as great as that of Dutch and English or French and Italian. Mandarin was imposed as the national language early in the 20th century and has become the lingua franca, but, like Swahili in Africa, it must often be learned in school and is rarely used in everyday life across much of China.


Much more turbulence may lie ahead for China's leaders. 'Cultural and linguistic cleavages,' says Gladney, 'could worsen in a China weakened by internal strife, an economic downturn, uneven growth, or a struggle over future political succession.'


The full essay appears at the Wall Street Journal site.


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