Letter to Chinese Friends: We Really Are Different
At a conference in Beijing last week, several Chinese academics marveled at the extent of Jewish influence in the United States. In general the Chinese, the world’s most numerous people, look benevolently on the Jews, one of the world’s smallest, noting the traits they have in common: Preservation of an ancient culture, strong family ties, a passion for education, and a practical approach to life that serves well in adversity. But the Chinese are mystified by the political influence of American Jews, which they tend to exaggerate and attribute to Jewish wealth. Four years ago I tried to explain what the Chinese and Jews have in common. This time I tried to explain to my Chinese interlocutors why we are so different.
Mandarin-speaking Chinese friends often complain that they have no common language with their grandparents, who speak only dialect. That is sad; not long from now their grandparents’ language will pass into extinction, following countless languages and ethnicities that appeared and disappeared within the greater realm of Chinese culture. Hymns, ballads, stories, poems, love-songs and lullabies that informed the intimate life of one of the many peoples within the Chinese empire will go still forever, as they have done during the four-thousand-year history of China. In the West, the extinction of a people is the object of horror; in China it is a fact of life.
Until the present generation it made no sense to characterize “Chinese” as a spoken language. “Chinese” is a system of ideograms that convey concepts but not sounds; each dialect has idiosyncratic sounds that correspond to the characters. The Beijing court dialect, or Mandarin, was spoken by a tiny minority, while the vast majority of Chinese spoke regional languages or dialects. The People’s Republic of China recognizes 56 distinct ethnicities with distinct languages, while linguists identify eight principle language groups and too many dialects to mention. Many of these are as different as Spanish and German; Cantonese, the largest southern language, has little in common with Mandarin or Shanghaiese.
The tribes and nations that comprise the Chinese empire are fragile. They appear and disappear, but China remains. China is eternal, and Chinese identity is eternal, but it is a cold and distant identity; until the recent spread of the Mandarin dialect due to a national education system and electronic media, no Chinese mother ever sang a lullaby to her baby in “Chinese.” The life of Chinese families and clans, and all the domestic and intimate relationships of the Chinese, were conducted in dialect. It is hard for Westerners to imagine what this feels like. Imagine if Europe emerged from the Dark Ages not with national languages that gradually suppressed and absorbed local dialects, but rather with Latin as a lingua franca and administrative language, while ordinary people spoke their local patois. Even this analogy fails to convey how different China is, for Latin is a spoken language with a great deal in common with all the dialects spoken on the European continent west of the Rhine and south of the Alps. The life of birth, courtship, family and death remains within the fragile sphere of ethnicities doomed to perish; the life of the empire and the literary heritage continue.