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'Save our cultural code'

By Mei Jia, Han Bingbin and Zhang Xiaomin (China Daily)

09:56, September 17, 2012

Supporters of a campaign to save China's dialects from dying out are recording representatives from diverse communities in what will become a national project. Mei Jia and Han Bingbin in Beijing, and Zhang Xiaomin in Dalian, Liaoning province, report.

Nine residents from Dalian, Liaoning province, have been chosen to record their voices and represent the Dalian dialect, says China Audible Database of Language Resources organizer Chen Dejing. She is talking about an event that was part of an initiative to record and protect local dialects, as the prevalence of Mandarin is thought by some experts to be causing local dialects to die out, possibly within decades.

Linguistics professor Chi Yongchang at Liaoning Normal University believes now is the time to protect dialects, from the State level to the local level.

Ju Lihua is among nine finalists out of 500 candidates to represent Dalian's dialect. The 65-year-old has stayed in no other city besides Dalian, and her parents spoke the dialect, too.

Ju is being trained for the recording, along with the other eight people selected, who range in age from 34 to 68.

Chen, the event organizer and director of the city's Language Commission, says it was a tough job to locate qualified speakers of the local dialect and the process took six months.

She believes the Dalian dialect embodies the character of its people.

"It's bold, zealous and forthright, bringing a taste of oyster," she says.

"We found the younger the age group, the weaker the mastery of the local tongue," Chen says, adding this is why there are no teenage representatives in the nine-person group.

China has been promoting Mandarin for more than half of a century.

Related: A language to love

More recently, residents of Guangdong and Fujian provinces have launched large-scale non-governmental campaigns to preserve, respectively, Cantonese and Min dialects.

Meanwhile, deputy from Zhejiang province proposed protecting dialects at the National People's Congress in 2012. The supporters of protecting dialects believe they hold people together and connect them to local culture.

It's worrying, say these individuals, that the younger generation is losing its cultural code.

Li Lan, linguist in dialect studies with Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, believes: "There's no such problem as dialects dying out, because the number of speakers of the several main dialects remains in the tens of millions."

"But there's a growing generation gap. Children are losing the ability to speak local tongues, and also losing the key to their cultural continuity, which is really horrible," Li adds.

Li cites the case of a woman in Henan province who couldn't speak her dialect after a car crash caused a brain injury. She complained that relatives, neighbors and others kept their distance from her, because she was no longer able to speak in the local dialect.

"Dialects are not only for discourse. They contain information of social acceptance and human emotions," Li says.

Li believes dialects should not be over-protected.

"No further suppression will be the best protection."

But professor Chi in Liaoning says dialects are endangered like the panda, and action to protect them is necessary now.

To linguists like him, the seven major (some say 11) dialects are living fossils of ancient Chinese and the medium for regional arts. They vividly exist on stage and in theaters. And they're loved, Chi says.

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