For as long as I could remember, Cantonese has been the Chinese dialect that carries the most abundant culture. At a very young age, I learned about traditional Cantonese nursery rhymes and folk-tales in my Chinese textbook, and the lively scenes and intriguing historical stories of Canton they presented accompanied my early days in primary school; I listened to popular Cantonese songs and the Cantonese opera, and I even learned to hum to some lines. No other dialect in China is comparable to Cantonese in terms of a rich and multifaceted culture. Besides, Cantonese was recognized as the official language of Hong Kong and Macau, which further granted Cantonese an “international” status that distinguishes Cantonese from the other Chinese dialects. In my mind, other dialects in China were considered inferior to Cantonese; when it come to the other Chinese dialects, I treated them so differently from the way I think about Cantonese that only recently did I realize that I used to discriminate them in the way racism and regional discrimination worked, and that every dialect is a legacy of a culture and deserves equal levels of appreciation.
My prejudice towards dialects can partly be attributed to past experiences visiting my father’s hometown in the countryside of Jiangsu province. During the celebration of Lunar New Year in late winter, when local peasants put down their work in the fields and wait for the next round of sowing, people clustered together during the eve of the celebration that troubles me every time I attend the celebration. They played card games and mahjong, inevitably making too much noise for any quiet person’s liking; they were always talking and laughing louder than necessary which made it hard for me to focus on reading while staying in their vicinity; the frequency that they utter rude words while smoking and drinking was so high that even I am able to recall words like “Pau tzi” (meaning “prat”) and “Denm Ma zend” (similar to “dirty pervert”) which were extremely assaulting in the dialect, as if they couldn’t find anything interesting to say besides shouting out bad words. With all these not-so-pleasant memories associated with the Jiangsu tongue, the dialect seemed like a symbol of impoliteness, even vulgarity, since those who spoke in the Jiangsu tongue behaved in such manners.
Plus, my encounters with people speaking other Chinese dialects are by no means good either. It is always those speaking dialects that talk on the phone in inappropriately loud voices in the metros or restaurants. Most of the time, I come across those unfamiliar dialects on taxis, construction sites, shabby eateries and farmers’ markets, where the smell of smoke and sweat mingles in the air.
Such dialects, I automatically inferred, must have evolved from the northern countryside of China where illiterate peasants cultivated the fields and quarreled with each other all day long while making little intellectual achievement; the Jiangsu dialect, like many other dialects of China, was nothing more than a “barbaric” tongue that was not worthy of serious respect or preservation.
On the other hand, my memories about Mandarin and Cantonese were mostly about my peer students and teachers, who would always lower their voices and constrain their laughter in public so as not to cause any trouble to others; they often discussed interesting international affairs and academic subjects in standard Cantonese or Mandarin instead of gossiping marriages of their relatives in dialects. It was hard not to label those dialects as “loutish” and “uncivilized” while regarding Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese as more “elegant” and “educated.”
However, a lecture on Chinese poetry changed my thoughts. While the lecturer talked about the ancient Chinese tradition of singing poetry, he mentioned that contemporary scholars seldom sang poetry in Mandarin, the standard Chinese language, but instead in the dialects of the original poet, because the poems were initially written in dialects, and only in the unique tone and pronunciations of a certain dialect could the poem’s sentiments be felt and sung. It struck me at once that so many poems, which I admired so much that I could recite them forward and backward, were not supposed to be read, or even understood, in Mandarin or Cantonese, the language that I considered the most “literate” and “dignified.” I had long learned that the famous Chinese romantic poet Li Bai was born and raised in a small southern county that was only known because of him, but I have seldom connected the great literary works of Li Bai, my favorite romantic poet, with the “vulgar” and “uncivilized” dialects that I despised.
Was it right to label a dialect based on the manners of those who speak it? Or was it right to label a dialect at all? I recalled that my classmates in junior high school were once scolded for mocking the Indian language and referring to the Indian people in an assaulting and discriminatory tone. The boys argued that Indians were poor, crowding on the roof of trains to save transportation fees, and they thought that the Indian accent sounded hilarious, but the history teacher simply spit out: “Aren’t you behaving just like those racists, judging people based on their frailties for fun and your stupid sense of superiority?” And I instantly sensed the uncomfortable similarity in the behavior of my former classmates and my discrimination against Chinese dialects. I once made the same mistake as racists and the boys did while I was criticizing the exact behavior that I practiced. I was wrong about judging the dialects, but now I have realized the cultural significance of so many Chinese dialects and my foolish hypocrisy of labelling them and looking down upon them.
Indeed, I used to look at Cantonese as a cultural asset worth preserving, while considering other dialects of northern China as merely countryside memories of grandpas and grandmas, as if those dialects were worn and outdated cotton coats, lagging behind Mandarin and Cantonese and fading into oblivion. But they are not. I had come to know that Chinese dialects carried their history and uniqueness in every pronunciation of words and every variation of tones.
I could have spoken the Jiangsu dialect as my mother tongue if my father had never decided to settle in Canton instead of Jiangsu. The difference in the speakers of dialects was only a result of governments’ policies or the ancestor’s decisions. But dialects could only be spoken but could not speak for themselves against discrimination, and I would protest for them: the dialects shouldn’t simply fade into memories; these vessels of culture and history ought to be cherished and inspected by every Chinese as if we cherish our own culture and history.