What Makes a Language Policy Revolutionary?

By Gina Anne Tam

“Promulgating Mandarin serves the Socialist revolution.” This declaration, part of the keynote address at Shanghai’s sixth annual “Mandarin Promulgation Teaching Achievement exhibition” in 1965, promoted the importance of teaching China’s national language by tying its promulgation to national goals. Delivering his remarks to an audience of teachers, students, and local party leaders on the eve of China’s Cultural Revolution, the speaker recognized that his claims might be perceived as overwrought. He quickly refuted potential criticisms. “There are those who believe, when the liberation army is at our defense can it be considered “doing revolution”… or developing oil fields is “doing revolution.” But to say that promulgating Mandarin is for the revolution, isn’t that placing its value too high? Actually, in this age of our great revolution, in this country of our great revolution, on every front, whether it is a large-scale movement or everyday activities, they are all a part of the revolution.”

Picture collage of teachers in the classroom and interacting with students.
First Putonghua teaching achievement exhibition in 1958.

The speaker’s use of the word “revolution” was not incidental. Revolution was central to the way the People’s Republic of China (PRC) imagined itself as a nation. According to its own rhetoric, the nation was founded on the idea that national success required perpetual revolution—that the revolution of 1949, in which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took control of the mainland by overthrowing the Republic of China, was only the beginning of the revolutionary process, not the natural conclusion of it. This included, of course, its language policy. Announced in 1955, the policy deemed that the linguistic representative of the People’s Republic would be called Putonghua or the “common language”—what we in English call Mandarin. The language, based upon what was spoken in the capital in Beijing and only familiar to a small percentage of the population, was to be taught in schools, used on public transport, and blasted on radio throughout the country, its very name, “the common language,” marking it as representative of a nation that launched a revolution to give power back to “the people.”

But what, besides the party deeming it so, made speaking Mandarin an overtly revolutionary act? How does speaking one, unified language, help to serve its goals? At the heart of this question is a critical ambiguity, an ambiguity that has defined debates about Chinese language reform for over a century: Who are the “the people” of the Chinese nation for whom this national language served as their representative?  

A Mandarin Revolution?

Though framed as revolutionary, very little about the Communist Party’s language policy was new. Indeed, China’s substantive language upheaval occurred half a century prior. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Qing empire’s repeated military losses to Britain, France, and Japan convinced many Chinese elites that the best way to strengthen and save their nation was to mold the subjects of their crumbling empire into a citizenry culturally united. In particular, they believed modern nations had a national language; China, with its hundreds of mutually unintelligible local tongues and an elite written tradition with little relation to any of them, lacked this important marker of modernity. These men thus engaged in intense experimentation, offering a variety of opinions about what a Chinese national language would look like. After nearly 20 years of debate, a government council of several men determined that the most practical solution was to base a national language on what was spoken in the capital. Calling their language Guoyu, or “National Language,” it quickly gained the support of the central government, helmed after 1927 by the Nationalist party and its leader Chiang Kaishek.

The basic phonetic rules and vocabulary of the PRC’s “Common language” differed very little from this Guoyu promoted by the government they ousted. Strikingly similar, too, was the way that Chiang Kaishek’s government framed the relationship between the national language and the myriad local languages not chosen as a national standard, called fangyan in Chinese, but in English most often translated as “dialect.” In the 1930s and 40s, the Nationalist government, in conjunction with leaders in academia, education, and media, emphasized a hierarchy between Guoyu and fangyan—one the national standard, the other “variants.” Such efforts are echoed in the PRC’s language policy. When the PRC deemed Mandarin the language of revolution, other non-Mandarin Chinese languages, outsiders to that same revolution, were branded in educational materials and propaganda “mistakes” or “remnants” of a backwards past.

Are all revolutionary language policies aggressively homogenizing and nationalistic? The PRC’s policy, meant to force the nation to speak one, homogenous language, echoed many other so-called revolutionary language policies around the world. The French revolution was followed by the promulgation of a standard French language. Stalin’s zealous Russification policy in the 1930s USSR imposed the Russian language on most areas of public life, thus replacing and devaluing other ethnic languages. And in Indonesia, a country with hundreds of ethno-linguistic groups, a cornerstone of Sukarno’s postcolonial regime was the promotion of the Indonesian language, paired with accusations against those who chose to speak their mother tongue of harboring disloyalty. Indeed, it is difficult to find a language policy executed in the name of revolution that was not grounded in promulgating one, national standard.

The language of “the people”

Yet ironically, the aggressive homogenization that characterized the Communist party’s language policy was entirely at odds with how many Communist allies imagined a revolutionary language policy before they took the helm in 1949. When the Communist party were rebels instead of rulers, many of its supporters advocated for a language reform retinue that celebrated the “people” by emphasizing that the true culture of China’s masses was, at its heart, multi-lingual. One of the key architects of the CCP’s language policy, Qu Qiubai, sought to promulgate a newly invented romanization system for use alongside Chinese characters that could flexibly accommodate most local languages, arguing that fangyan “cannot be forcibly unified.” Writers sympathetic to the Communist cause emphasized folksong collection as a way to preserve the lived experiences of everyday people, celebrating these songs, what they called “fangyan poems,” as an authentic expression of Chinese plebian life. Even among those who conceded that a national language was a necessary component of modern nationhood, they, too, emphasized the value of local languages. Communist party member, writer, and proponent of a unified national language Huang Yaomian wrote in 1939, “Even for myself…there are many things that I cannot use Putonghua to express. This shows that my vocabulary is insufficient, I need to use local language to express it.” In a word, this was how the CCP set themselves apart from the KMT—as the party that celebrated the authentic sounds of the citizenry they sought to represent.  

After 1949, the Communist party continued to claim they spoke for “the people.” But increasingly, key leaders began to argue that “the people’s language” by definition needed to be one that everyone could understand. It was with this contention, following in the footsteps of Stalin’s Russification policies decades prior, that the state began justifying a homogenizing policy on the basis of egalitarian principles—that a truly egalitarian nation needed to all speak one, common tongue. In so doing, the CCP that once celebrated the authenticity of China’s diverse local plebian life, that pushed back against the elitism inherent in a policy defined by standardization, that contended that linguistic homogeneity was entirely at odds with a revolution of and by the people, began to proclaim that their revolution required a strong nation, and a strong nation required a unified language. Even by the time of the Cultural Revolution, a period characterized by mass, popular movements, revolutionary enthusiasm, and calls to destroy bureaucratic structures, the party line remained, “To obey the party is never wrong. To speak the national language is to obey the party.”

This was, of course, mostly emphasized in rhetoric, not practice. It was difficult to enforce what peasants or steelworkers spoke on a day-to-day basis, especially as the Cultural Revolution effectively ended formal schooling. But this still had a tangible effect on China’s soundscape. Whereas in the 1950s, for instance, the party still paid lip service to drama troupes who performed in Cantonese, or Hubei fangyan dialogue peppered through revolutionary literature, by the Cultural Revolution, there seemed to be little space for any artistic production outside of a very narrow retinue, nearly all of them in the national language. While critics of an aggressive national language policy remained, they did not make their voices known through outright protest. Instead, their disapproval was executed through the private act of speaking fangyan.

Competing visions of the nation
Cover of Gina Anne Tam's book "Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860-1960"

My book, Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860-1960, probes the relationship between language and nation throughout the twentieth century. It argues that that relationship has been defined, in part, by the tension between two visions of the nation—on that saw the Chinese nation as represented by a singular, standardized language, and the other that saw the nation as more flexible and heterogenous, spoken in many voices instead of just one. At the core of my book is a contention that these two models for a Chinese nation developed in tandem with one another throughout the twentieth century. From the final years of China’s imperial system through the present day, these two models for the Chinese nation—one homogeneous, one diverse—co-existed, evolving through their relationship with one another. By the 1960s, however, in an age where state rhetoric demanded exhaustive participation in “revolutionary” campaigns and total loyalty to the party line, the pairing of Mandarin with revolutionary action and the framing of fangyan as “backwards” made it difficult to openly criticize the state’s homogenizing project. This did not mean that pushback against the homogenizing project disappeared; rather, it simply became quiet and subtle, detected in the passive resistance of using local languages to laugh with friends, curse at neighbors, or bond with family members.

In the end, the persistent hum of revolution of the twentieth century, a century in China marked by several revolutions, has done little to change one consistent truth: that there were, and still are, competing notions of how language represents nationhood. There still exists a tension between those who see the Chinese nation as spoken in one voice, and those who see the Chinese nation as spoken in many.  

Gina Anne Tam is an assistant professor of history at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. Her first book, Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860-1960, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2020. She has also published in The Nation and Foreign Affairs on the relevance of the history of Chinese languages to the present day.

Title image: “Fourth National Putonghua Teaching Achievement Exhibition” published in Language Reform, .

Further reading:

Jeff Weng, “What is Mandarin? The Social Project of Language Standardization in Early Republican China” Journal of Asian Studies, Volume 77 Issue 3 (2018).

Yurou Zhong, Chinese Grammatology: Script Revolution and Literary Modernity, 1916–1958 (Columbia University Press, 2019).

2 thoughts on “What Makes a Language Policy Revolutionary?

  1. Today, less than 50% of people in Guangzhou speak Cantonese. Many people of teenage or younger do not even speak Cantonese at home. Hong Kong and Macau had been bastions of preservation of Cantonese language, literature, folklore, and film. Will the Greater Bay Area initiative, planned primacy of Shenzhen, and Putonghua “unification” succeed in killing the Cantonese spoken language? // In Taiwan, there is now a government policy of promoting and preserving Taiwan dialect, Hakka, and aboriginal languages at the same time that Putonghua remains the official language and lingua franca. This recognition of linguistic and cultural diversity evolved after the end of the Chiang dynasty and KMT one-party rule, and the emergence of political democracy. Another contrast between the PRC and ROC is the matter of simplified characters (jiantizi) and traditional characters (fantizi) in the promotion of mass literacy. Perhaps the contrasts present new opportunities for interpretation and analysis.

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