Chinese History in Translation: From Voice to the Printed Word
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Chinese History in Translation: From Voice to the Printed Word

Chinese History in Translation: From Voice to the Printed Word

Terracotta ArmyThe smallest acts can unearth the greatest stories of humankind. Take, for example, this tale from March 1974, when a group of Chinese farmers, who were simply digging a water well, unearthed the first clay fragments of what has been since estimated to be 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots, 520 horses, and 150 cavalry horses.

This “terracotta army” — recovered from four great pits measuring hundreds of meters long and hundreds of meters wide, and stockpiled with weaponry as well as figures representing officials, entertainers, and others — was built from 246 to 209 B.C. to protect the afterlife of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China.

Say what you will about the violent rule of Emperor Qin, the legacy of his rule is as vital to modern China as it was to the people of his own day. It was his administration’s quest for standardization of weights, measures, and a written language that makes today’s Chinese script possible.

But even the powerful might of Emperor Qin could not get the Chinese people to speak with one voice. That took another history to achieve.

One Language of 80 Parts

Travel the long length of the Yangzi River on an average day, you’ll travel the course of many of the country’s dialects. China is reported to have more than 80 dialects in total, most so distinct that linguists continue to debate whether we’re speaking of dialects or languages in their own right. It is as if you are a foreigner in your own country. If you speak one of the dialects from one region of China, you will not be understood by those from the country’s others.

The translation industry has Emperor Qin to thank that its script is not as diverse as its dialects. Incredulously, there are only two written versions of Chinese. On the mainland, it’s “simplified Chinese”; in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macao, it’s “traditional Chinese.” With rare exceptions, most of mainland China’s diverse speakers use simplified Chinese. Imagine that! How is it possible that 1.3 billion people, speaking some 80 dialects, still use the same one official written language, when a country such as Switzerland, with its 8 million residents, is using four?

The Inheritance of Voice

Different from written language, which is usually acquired through formal schooling, dialects are inherited, handed down from one generation to the next. Under 2,000 years of imperial rule, China was basically an agricultural country for much of its history. Most of the population worked on farms. Travel to and communication with other parts of the country were very limited for most, especially those in areas crisscrossed by mountains and rivers.

Unsurprisingly, these were the kinds of conditions within which dialects could blossom. Even today, there are 8 main branches related to the regions from which the dialects emerged, with 45 subdivisions that can be divided even further by their linguistic differences. If you were to create a digital map of Chinese dialects in which each dialect had its own color, you might need to upgrade your screen’s display to not miss any detail.

The New World

That was then. Now, while dialects continue to survive in the country’s diverse regions, some 30 years of aggressive urbanization of the agricultural country have quietly changed the linguistic landscape. Crossing city and countryside, road development brought travel and, with it, the need for communication.

The people are no longer staying in their hometowns for work anymore, even if their dialects are. With no one to understand their mother tongues in the offices and worksites on which they’re converging, another had to surface: Mandarin, albeit with all the local accents of distant homes. Back in the provinces, too, local populations are losing their local dialects: The native speakers have moved away and those who are moving in don’t speak the local dialect. Neither do their children.

Today, Mandarin plays a more important role in everyday Chinese people’s lives than the country’s many dialects. Nevertheless — as happens everywhere in the world and as evidenced by the Hollywood movie Windtalkers — dialects have their own ways of being remembered. Each represents its own lifestyle and culture. For many, it’s the language of home and childhood. Some part of you will always miss it.

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Four employees in Moravia’s Nanjing office: Emma Zhang, Sherry Li, Amiee Lee, and Ann Wan. Although their hometowns are within two hours of each other by regional bus, each of them has her own hometown dialect. The picture was taken during a company trip to a traditional Chinese water town, WuZhen. Of course, in the office, we won’t dress so traditionally anymore. And we only communicate in simplified Chinese and Mandarin.

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