China is a vast country with a vast spectrum of culture, and while there are various ways to examine those differences – rural/urban, rich/poor, and east/west, I’d like to take a few weeks and hone in on one in particular — north/south. Many other nations can be seen through the same lens – Israel from Dan to Beersheba, marking the boundaries for census-taking, and the U.S. with its Mason-Dixon line, marking the boundary for sweet tea sipping — and China is no different.
So far we’ve considered differences in climate and diet. This week we’ll see how even language isn’t exempt from northern/southern differences.
I’m sure that most readers are already aware that there are many different Chinese languages. There are Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, and Hokkien, just to name a few.
What I’m learning on deputation, however, is that many Americans don’t realize that Mandarin is the official language of the country. Back in 1911 when Dr. Sun Yat Sen overthrew the Qing dynasty and established the Republic of China, Mandarin was made the official language.
Since then, it is the language of education in schools and the language of the business world. Over the last 100 years or so, the other dialects have pretty much fizzled out. There are speakers of those dialects (my wife speaks a little Hakka and her grandmother is fluent in Hakka), but most everyone nowadays speaks Mandarin.
All of that is to say that when I talk about differences in language in northern and southern China, I don’t mean differences in what languages are spoken. Rather, I mean differences in how the Mandarin Chinese language is spoken.
We in America have a similar situation. Listen to whether someone says “Ya’ll” or “You guys” or even “Yousens”, and we can guess the general region of America they hail from.
In China, different words are used in the north and the south as well. In northern China, tomatoes are “fanqie”. In the south, they are “xihongshi” (or “xihongsi” if you are from Fujian province). In the north you have “malingshu” for potatoes, but in the south you have “tudou”.
Teh-mae-toes, teh-ma-toes, right? What’s the big deal?
Well, what makes things even more complicated is the “r” sound in Chinese. People in the north love the “r” sound, and people in the south can hardly say it for the life of them.
For example, in northern China, if you ask someone where they are going, you would say, “qu nar?” But in the south you would say “qu na li a?” Pretty big difference, right?
My wife and I often tell the story of us going on our honeymoon to Hainan, China. We went to what is the southernmost city in China and fully expected everyone’s Chinese to be more or less like our own seeing as how we lived in southern China as well.
We were dead wrong! It turns out that Hainan is the place for Chinese snowbirds from the north in the winter and early spring. Yes, you read that right, Hainan is China’s version of Florida!
Getting off the plan, it didn’t take us long to realize we weren’t in Kansas anymore. Not only did all the shops sell noodles and dumplings (northern Chinese food) and no rice (southern Chinese food), but the people all talked with “r”‘s in their mouths.
We joking say they all sounded like sea lions or pirates. “Arrrrr!”
Again, I digress.
Point is, there are great differences in the speech of Chinese people, and listening to people from different regions in conversation can be about as humorous as listening to a Bostonian and a Mississippian or a New Yorker and an Georgian talk!
One similarity between America and China is that it seems like northerners in both countries talk relatively fast, and southerners in both countries talk relatively slow.
I know I’m weird, but I find that really interesting. The only reason I can come up with for it is that northern people talk fast to keep up their body temperature in the cold and that southern people talk slow to keep their body temperature as low as possible in the heat.
Maybe I’m wrong in my guess, but it makes sense in my head.
So, there you have it. Northerners and southerners are different regardless of whether they are in China or America. China is a diverse place and it needs more people to surrender to go and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to them. Will you?