Language Politics and Localism

China is so often viewed as monolithic that we ignore that keeping the appearance of unity is a costly endeavor. Chinese from Guangdong may not think that secession is a viable political option, but the rotation of both political and military officials in order to keep them from developing too deep of local ties, implies that Beijing still fears localism. In Sichuan, the use of language and dialect reminded me of the centrifugal forces present in the country.

Education is conducted in standard Mandarin (putong hua). Previously all radio and tv broadcasts were in Mandarin, and even in Beijing style Mandarin. Today, however, Sichuanese broadcasts are common on the radio now, although tv is still in the crispest of Mandarin. Everyone in Chengdu speaks Sichuanese and responds to my Mandarin in dialect.

Another random memory of localism’s presence comes from attending the Asian Cup (for football, I mean, soccer) at Worker’s Stadium. Whenever a player on the Chinese side would make a good play, the locals around me would explain, “oh that’s [name] from [province].” One’s province of origin is much more significant than one’s home state in the US. Do we even know where famous athletes are from? Kevin Garnett? Peyton Manning? One reason why it is difficult for even the most avid of fans to keep track is that American move more than Chinese. Dialects make provincial borders much more significant to cross than do silly inter-state rivalries in the US [Down with Kentucky!], which originate from collegiate or professional sports rivalries.

I am not redicting civil war or a Sichuanese independence movement, but not to consider the diversity within China is a great mistake.

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