China is becoming more tolerant of some regional Han languages

LI SIYI tucks her hair behind her ears and takes a deep breath. The high-schooler and aspiring journalist sits in a mock television studio in a basement of China’s most prestigious broadcasting university, practising scripts of the sort that she will soon have to tackle as part of its entrance exam. When the time comes examiners will grade her poise and delivery. They will also assess the quality of her putonghua, or “common language”, the official version of Mandarin that is supposed to represent its purest form. The pronunciation is based on the Beijing dialect, but even natives of the city, like Ms Li, find it tricky to attain the flawless accent that newsreading requires.

The languages spoken by ethnic-Han Chinese, who are more than 90% of the population, belong to half a dozen main groups (see map). Since the collapse of China’s last imperial dynasty in 1911, successive regimes have been obsessed about popularising just one of them: Mandarin. The Communist Party…Continue reading

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