The quest to unify China’s language began during the Qin Dynasty (221-206BC), when the emperor standardised its written characters. When the Chinese Communist Party came to power, it extended the ambition to the spoken language, promoting a standard dialect known as Putonghua – literally “common speech” and often referred to in English as Mandarin.
But implementing Putonghua across the nation hasn’t always been well-received as some people feel it threatens their local culture. Just last month, for example, Hong Kong students protested against university regulations requiring them to pass a Mandarin test before graduating (Hong Kongers traditionally speak Cantonese).
Shanghainese was once as pervasive in Shanghai as Cantonese in Hong Kong, but its us-age has diminished significantly. The local authorities began promoting Mandarin over Shanghainese in 1992 and today many locals can’t speak the Shanghai dialect as fluently.
So last month there was furore on Sina Weibo when a Shanghai contributor pointed out that a primary school textbook had made some changes to its language.
The textbook, printed by state-owned Shanghai Education Press, features a well-known piece in which the author shares a boyhood memory of his grandmother. In the original, the author refers to his grandmother as “waipo”. But in the latest textbook, the word has been changed to “laolao”.
Both words mean grandmother but their usage is somewhat regional. Laolao is typically used in the North, while waipo is more common in the South, including in Shanghai. “I have never even heard the word laolao before,” one Shanghaier complained.
Online sleuths soon discovered that this wasn’t the first time that the publisher had replaced the regional waipo with the northern laolao. Responding to a query in February last year, the publishing company explained that, according to the Chinese dictionary, laolao is Mandarin while waipo is from dialect.
“Growing up I always thought that laolao was dialect and waipo was the proper word!” one netizen said, expressing a sentiment shared by many Shanghaiers. Others were more confrontational, rebutting, “Laolao is the dialect term. We don’t say that in the South.”
It may seem trivial, but for people already concerned by the loss of their local cultures, the change was seen as part of a broader move to impose northern Chinese norms. “This is the same as when the media says ‘During Chinese New Year, everybody eats dumplings’. But we don’t do that at all in the South,” one popular commenter complained.
Shanghai Education Press fought back, arguing that waipo and laolao are both part of the primary school curriculum and that waipo had been included elsewhere in the book.
Then an entirely different line of criticism emerged: the publishing house was accused of copyright infringement because it had edited the text without the original author’s permission.
This seems to have won the argument. Days later, it issued a public apology and promised to revise the changes. “We recognise that we did not solicit the author’s opinion when editing the text, we only considered the curriculum requirements. By not consulting the author, we failed to fully consider the local language customs, which was inappropriate,” the publishing house acknowledged.
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