Awareness of the need for cultural diversity leads to drive to save local dialects

By Li Qing
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Beijing Review, December 14, 2020
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Young contestants perform Kunqu, one of the oldest forms of Chinese opera, during a contest in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, east China, on September 12. [Photo/Xinhua]

To be a "slasher," a person with multiple occupations, is a recent popular concept among young Chinese. However, Xu Kaifei has been doing this 20 years before the trend started.

Xu is a new media journalist living in Haikou, Hainan Province in south China. But the 36-year-old is better known as a rapper. His stage name is Jin'anzai.

Xu's high school years were filled with pop songs from Hong Kong, written in the Cantonese dialect, which is mostly spoken in south China, including Hong Kong. Listening to them, he realized that few people used the Hainan dialect to write songs. In 2008, he wrote a rap song, Domidomi, meaning what to do in Hainanese.

"Hainanese is not a systematic language. It is difficult to rhyme when rapping. But the artist wrote good lyrics. Also, the genre of this song is advanced, many years ahead of today's Hip Hop trend," a netizen posted on NetEase Cloud Music, a music platform set up by Internet technology giant NetEase, commenting on Xu's effort.

Although Xu's social media account has only 26,000 followers, much less than famous pop stars' accounts, he is still proud of his music because it records his hometown's beautiful dialect. Over 80 percent of the population in Hainan speak Hainanese, according to the website of the Hainan Provincial Government. In 2019, there were over 9.4 million people living in Hainan.

Today, more and more songs and films are including dialects. It not only creates an artistic effect but also leads dialect speakers to rediscover their language. Such artistic offerings can break geographical limitations and win the appreciation of people in other areas.

Language treasures

"My music usually consists of melody with local features and Hainanese lyrics. It makes people think of the sunshine and sunny days on this lovely island. The language is easier for me to express my emotions," Xu told Beijing Review. He wants to record Hainan people's community life.

As an individual musician, his songs were first released on social media platforms, some of which are no longer widely used by the public. But he still gets messages from those platforms time to time.

"One of the most moving comments was from a listener in Los Angeles. He told me that my songs have awakened his memory of Hainan, which he left many years ago," Xu said.

According to Zhao Rixin, a professor studying dialects at the Beijing Language and Culture University, there is a saying in China that demonstrates the magic of dialects. "When people find others speaking the same dialect, it can bring tears to their eyes. The unique expressions of a dialect can build connections between strangers if they speak the same language," Zhao told Beijing Review.

Dialects are a cultural resource and the condensation of ordinary people's wisdom. They propagate the culture of a region. When an area's dialect deteriorates, it means a waning of the local culture, such as folk arts. Dialects are also an essential material to study the history of the Chinese language and its evolution, making up for lack of documents. They are human memories whose extinction cannot be reversed, he added.

According to UNESCO, nearly 7,000 languages and dialects worldwide are facing extinction, falling out of use at the rate of about one every two weeks. In China, there are over 120 languages at risk of extinction. More than half of them are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people.

Xu, who has a 7-year-old son, finds that Hainanese is not being spoken by the younger generations: "Children do not use the dialect, and some can't even understand it." So he started to teach his son the language word by word, uploading videos on social media platforms for viewers interested in Hainanese.

Due to education and work, where standard Chinese is used, many young people who spoke dialects have transitioned to standard Chinese. Some think speaking only a dialect is an obstacle to finding jobs in cities, where standard Chinese is widely used. So they stop using their native tongue. In many families, the parents guide the switch for their children.

To research dialects, Zhao has visited over 100 places, mostly villages. "Villages are the best sites as their dialects are well preserved, thanks to the small influx of outsiders," he said. His last survey was done in a village in Chengde, Hebei Province in north China, whose dialect is close to standard Chinese.

The dialects in north and northeast China have been better preserved than in other places, he said. The former is similar to standard Chinese, so the local people regard their language as standard Chinese.

The dialects of northeast China are popular due to their profound culture, tradition and economic development. The development of the media and genres of art has also reinforced people's pride in this region's language.

Common language repository

Zhao emphasizes that while the decline of dialects is related to the promotion of standard Chinese, the latter is a necessity. "We need a common language for communication at the national level," he pointed out.

However, standard Chinese itself has been developed from the dialects of north China areas, including Beijing. It is the repository of various dialects that have contributed to it, leading to its development.

Besides, efforts are on to preserve dialects and ensure cultural diversity. The China Language Resources Protection Project, launched in 2015, is strengthening dialects. The largest language resource base in the world, implemented by the Ministry of Education and the National Language Commission, its function is to survey, protect, display and develop language resources.

The initiative began almost six decades after the first census on dialects and ethnic minority languages was carried out in 1956. It has been collecting data on 123 languages and local dialects across the country with over 100 field surveys on endangered dialects completed.

The project has motivated scholars and standard dialect speakers. "When we select representatives of dialects, people show great enthusiasm to present theirs, making the selection process look like a talent show," Zhao said. "Local newspapers and magazines also spread the word, encouraging everyone to participate."

Institutions and hi-tech enterprises have also contributed to protecting dialects. For example, iFLYTEK, a well-known intelligent speech and artificial intelligence company, uses machine translation and inputs to collect samples of 23 dialects, like dialects from Suzhou in east China and Shanghai. Since 2017, it has been developing a dialect library to preserve them.

Schools have also set up courses teaching local languages. In 2019, a module called dialect and Chinese culture introduced by Wuhan University in central China aroused discussion on the Internet. The course teaches the history, formation and characteristics of Chinese dialects as well as the cultural connotations behind the languages.

Ruan Guijun, who teaches the module, told Pear Video, a short video-sharing platform, that he hopes students would inherit their dialects and not be prejudiced against them.

Local governments are also paying more attention to dialects. On August 1, representatives of the Shanghai Municipal People's Congress called for Shanghai Metro to add Shanghai dialect announcements to the standard Chinese-English ones.

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