Since the turn of the 20th century, languages in southern China suffered a downturn that extended from high society to the lower classes. When leaders that spoke southern languages began to extol the northern language Mandarin, they quickly propelled the entire society to follow suit.
Our story begins in 1895, when the Qing government lost the First Sino-Japanese War. It was perceived by the rulers as utter humiliation to lose to a nation that once kowtowed to the empire.
Since then, Chinese people increasingly studied abroad in Japan and Western countries, in hopes of bringing home foreign knowledge and know-how.
One of the ideas imported from the West was racialism (racism)—not the ensuing discrimination, but the fundamental idea of dividing human beings into ‘races’.
Creation of the Han ethnicity
In 1897, Hokkien scholar Giâm Ho̍k (Cantonese: Jim4 Fuk6, Mandarin: Yan Fu) translated Thomas Huxley’s lecture Evolution and Ethics into Classical Chinese, which facilitated the dissemination of Darwin’s theory of evolution inside China.
Many readers in the country, inspired by the theory, viewed the global political situation as a struggle between the ‘yellow’ and ‘white’ races.
Yet this wasn’t enough for those who were planning a revolution against the Qing government. For the express purpose of inciting hate against the ruling Manchus, they advocated for a finer division of the ‘yellow’ race, in order to isolate Manchu communities.
‘Han Chinese’ is an ethnicity that was conceived at the time. In May 1899, revolutionary Zhang Binglin began to label and alienate the Manchu rulers and people as foreign barbarians. His writings outlined his definition of ‘ethnic Han’ people, which made him the originator of the clearly delineated Han identity.
Before the 20th century, ‘Han’ didn’t denote an ethnicity. Instead, it was an umbrella term for Chinese agricultural society by northern nomadic tribes and other communities outside the region. ‘Han’ at the time is comparable to today’s ‘Malaysian’ or ‘American’ identities, which are more pluralistic than a single ethnicity.
Traditional Chinese society, which was divided by kinship, lineage, or clanship, had no such concept as ‘ethnicities’. In fact, its Chinese term—民族 (man4 zuk6)—is a Wasei-kango (和製漢語), or words coined from Chinese characters in Japan, then imported into Chinese languages. It had never existed in earlier Chinese literature.
The Yellow Emperor mythology
Intellectuals in the late Qing period would have read about the Yellow Emperor (黃帝 Wong4 Dai3), an ancient mythological figure mentioned in Si1 Ma5 Cin1 (司馬遷)’s Records of the Great Historian (史記 Si2 Gei3). While his existence remains unproven, the anti-Qing revolutionaries found the idea of him incredibly useful towards cutting ties with the Manchus.
As they constructed the Han identity, they aggressively promoted the idea that all Hans are descendants of the Yellow Emperor. In 1903, nationalist and racialist Zau1 Jung4 (鄒容) published his booklet The Revolutionary Army, pushing for xenophobia against the Manchus, which became the most influential piece of revolutionary writing of the time.
The fourth chapter of the book shed light on racial and ethnic divisions within the ‘yellow’ race, in particular between Hans and Manchus. To instil the myth of the common ancestor into his readers, Zau1 made sure to bring up the Yellow Emperor as often as he could in the book.
Once everyone saw the Yellow Emperor as their ancestor, the kin-based society would transform into one enormous family. And once southern figureheads identified with the newfangled Han ethnicity, southerners would eventually concede to being a minority group within the bigger ethnicity.
After the formation of this new identity, these figureheads would start to believe in the need for a common language for all Hans. Since speakers of the northern tongue—Mandarin—were more numerous, it logically became the common language within this big family, and southern languages were redefined as ‘dialects’.
Under the current of Han nationalism, southern leaders began to advocate for Mandarin education. Han nationalism provided the theoretical basis for the promotion of Mandarin, allowing it to cross into southern territories and take over in domains where southern languages had previously prevailed.
As it seized various occasions in daily life that would’ve called for southern languages, especially in the field of education, it gradually removed the social status and the value from them.
Southern Sinitic languages today
In the ensuing decades, a plurality of southern tongues were forced into oblivion or extinction by policies favouring Mandarin, resulting in a considerable linguistic and cultural decimation in human history.
Unless the general public begins to rethink the concepts of language and ethnicity right now, and unless the current language policies are reverted, southern languages eventually fade away not only in China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore, but even in Hong Kong.
We need to restore the status of these languages, add to their utility, and allow them to populate schools and other parts of daily life. That is the only way to stop this cultural calamity before it’s too late.
(Adapted and translated from the Hokkien video The Death and Life of Hokkien: How an ideology wiped out your language with the creator’s permission. Please visit Speak Hokkien Campaign to support southern Sinitic languages!)
(Lindsay Williams also did an interesting mini documentary on this slice of history with members of the Speak Hokkien Campaign and the Penang Hokkien Podcast.)