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Popularizing Mandarin: A Long Way to Go
Although China's first emperor Qin Shi Huang unified the country's language over 2,000 years ago, the nation's 1.3 billion population still encounter communication troubles, whether with people several provinces away or in the village down the road.

During the on-going "popularizing mandarin week," Yuan Zhongrui, an official from the Ministry of Education, said linguistic unification is vital to any nation's modernization process.

As the world's most populous and third largest country, China boasts 56 ethnic groups and hundreds of dialects and ethnic languages.

This can mean that residents of the capital Beijing have a hard time communicating with south China's Cantonese, while even those from neighboring villages in east China's Zhejiang Province can not understand each other.

Experts said that in an open and mobile society, language should not become a hurdle in people's daily life.

However, in China, language is still such a hurdle. Just a few weeks ago, a Hong Kong journalist misheard "zhisha," sand-control, as "zisha," committing suicide, while reporting in Beijing.

In Chongqing, one of the four municipalities in China, some Taiwanese businessmen were unable to understand the local dialects, leading them to suggest that the municipal government further popularize mandarin Chinese.

Wang Jun, a well-known Chinese linguist, said language rationalization severely hinders the country's economic development and modernization process.

In the early 1950's, the People's Republic of China defined Putonghua, meaning standard Chinese or mandarin, stipulating that it be based on the northern dialect with Beijing pronunciation as the standard.

Seeing that testing the level of Putonghua is an important step for its spread, China implemented an examination in October 1994, which has so far been taken by 5 million Chinese people.

On January 1, 2001, China created a "National Common Language Law," which stipulates that announcers, anchors, movie actors and actresses, theater performers, teachers and government employees as well as other people specified by the department concerned should pass the Putonghua level test and reach the grade specified by the state.

Yuan Zhongrui said civil servants represent the government's image and they are the executors of the nation's laws, so their Putonghua level is quite important.

Consequently, Beijing's civil servants are expected to pass the Putonghua test before the year of 2004, while in China's biggest city Shanghai, the 100,000 civil officials are required to take the test within the coming two or three years.

Education is also considered an important front in the country's language unification and to date most urban schools have done well in teaching students standard Chinese. However, some schools in the countryside, especially those located in the landlocked western region, still teach in dialects.

The spread of Putonghua and standard Chinese characters does not however mean restriction on the use and development of ethnic minority languages, Wang Jun said.

In autonomous regions and areas where ethnic minorities live incompact communities, Putonghua and the local minority language can be used simultaneously.

However, Wei Dan, a Ministry of Education official, noted that the small-scale farmer economy that has existed for thousands of years in the populous and diverse country perpetuates the problem. Many people have formed a closed language mindset and are so used to their local language and sometimes they feel reluctant to accept the common language, she added.

Facing all these challenges, China and its people must be more urgently mobilized to build up openness to language and exercise Putonghua.

(Xinhua News Agency September 19, 2002)

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