CHINA: Dialect use on TV worries Beijing

Government fears popularity of multi-dialect TV shows threatens national unity

Straits Times
Wednesday, April 12, 2006

By Larry Teo

Two Chinese swordsmen size up each other before the fight. One speaks Hokkien and the other, a dialect from north-eastern China.

It is a scene from Stories Of The Martial Arts World, a multi-dialect television comedy series that recently took China by storm.

Set in an inn in ancient China, the 80-parter satirises the Chinese martial arts genre through the misadventures of a bunch of braggarts who claim superhuman prowess when all they can do are some awkward tricks.

Apart from enjoying the antics, viewers across China found the series refreshing for its use of no fewer than 10 dialects, including Hokkien, Cantonese, Henanese and Shaanxinese.

"Some expressions definitely have a better effect spoken in dialect, especially when it needs to sound saucy, pungent or comical," said a columnist in China's People's Daily newspaper.

Up till recently, all TV period dramas were single-tongue programmes and it was usually Putonghua.

Putonghua -- literally "Common Speak" -- is derived from the native tongues of Beijing and north-eastern China and meant to be the country's universal language one day.

Elsewhere, it is called Mandarin. But China refrains from calling it Mandarin to avoid creating the impression that it is a language of high officials, which was the case during imperial times.

The Chinese language has about 18 dialect groups.

More than 133 million Chinese can claim Mandarin as their mother tongue, making it the biggest language group, while the Gan dialect of southern Jiangxi province is the least spoken, with about 31 million users.

For all its many languages, a multi-dialect production like the martial arts comedy, which ended its run earlier this year on the main China Central Television (CCTV) station, is rare.

But if anyone thought it heralded more such gems to come, a recent official announcement put paid to it.

On March 31, China's top broadcasting watchdog said programmes with a heavy dialect content would soon undergo stricter vetting before production can begin.

Some observers see this as a signal that Beijing wants fewer, not more, dialect programmes.

"Putonghua has been promoted for 50 years, but dialect programmes did not die out -- in fact, they have thrived," said Mr Hu Zhanfan, deputy head of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, recently.

"Now the government has to enhance its gatekeeping to ensure that dialects do not seep into Putonghua programmes, resulting in the spread of non-standard terms, phrasings and pronunciations."

Spelling out the standards expected, he said: "Pure Putonghua must be our broadcasting norm, untainted by improper loans from dialects or foreign tongues."

Corruption of Putonghua aside, it is clear Beijing is concerned about the increased use of dialect on TV.

The official Xinhua news agency reported that dialect programmes have been churned out in ever-increasing numbers across the country in recent years.

In Chengdu, capital of south-western Sichuan province, as many as 70 programmes are now presented in the native dialect.

In eastern Zhejiang province's capital Hangzhou, the best-known newscaster delivers news in the city's unique tongue.

Southern Hunan province's popular Economic Television (ETV) took the popular martial arts comedy series and dubbed all the dialects into Hunanese.

According to Professor Shao Peiren, who teaches mass communications in Zhejiang University, the increase in dialect programmes is profit-driven.

"In this time of growing competition, dialect programmes, especially drama, could at least corner a specific audience," he told The Straits Times.

According to a recent People's Daily survey, 56 per cent of China's population are faithful fans of dialect programmes.

But experts including Prof Shao worry that pandering to dialect tastes will hinder the spread of Putonghua.

"The resurgence of dialects, abetted by broadcasters, is threatening national cohesion," said Prof Shao.

The experts are concerned that increased use of local dialects could also lead to a rise of local protectionism, and even separatism. They point to Taiwan where the Minnan dialect is the mother tongue of the majority.

"Taiwan is one example of how a place's identification with China could be weakened once Mandarin is demoted to be just one of many dialects," said Prof Shao.

"Taiwan's government did that with the aim of separating the island from the mainland."

Mr Zhang Shuyan, a language researcher at China's Ministry of Education, felt that dialect TV programmes have their place, but Putonghua programmes should dominate.

Unsurprisingly, it is in places like Sichuan, Guangdong and Shanghai, whose dialects are popular, that the moves to tighten control on dialect programming have come under fire.

Sichuan Television has declared it would continue using dialect, while Ningbo Television in Zhejiang announced sarcastically that it is planning a long-running Ningbonese series that will "conform to every official regulation."

But some like Mr Guan Xiang, who coaches Cantonese newscasters in southern Guangdong province, think dialects are fighting a losing battle in broadcasting.

He noted that many broadcasters are so eager to comply with official requirements on the use of Putonghua, they are going to absurd lengths.

Some familiar faces on CCTV channels could be fired after recent tests showed that they speak Putonghua with a trace of provincial accent.

Even Ms Li Xiang, a well-known and popular ETV programme host, may face the axe for this reason.

"The message is that dialects are vulgar, backward and undesirable," lamented Mr Guan.

To Professor Cai Shangwei of Sichuan University, the Putonghua spoken on China's TV programmes often sounds "bland, uppity and rigid" and that is why viewers prefer their more lively dialects.

"Many also want to elevate their marginalised tongue to a status close, if not equal, to Putonghua," he told The Straits Times.

Given such sentiments, he felt that there was room for dialect in broadcasting and hoped they would not be wiped out.

"Chinese culture will be poorer if we lose the heritage that can be expressed only through our dialects," he said.