Chinese regions fight back against surge of Mandarin

Mon Nov 22, 2010 2:48am EST
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By James Pomfret and Farah Master

GUANGZHOU, China/SHANGHAI, China (Reuters) - From the remote mountains of Tibet to the soaring skyscrapers of Shanghai and Guangzhou, an unlikely issue has emerged to both anger and unite China's disparate peoples -- their language.

The country's 1.3 billion people may be almost all exclusively educated in one tongue, the official medium of Mandarin, but decades of its promotion has failed to stifle popular attachment to regional vernaculars and dialects.

The banishing or planned banishment from the airwaves and classrooms of languages such as Cantonese, Shanghainese and Tibetan has sparked rare public protests, as people push back against a government with little time for cultural diversity.

At a rally in the booming southern city of Guangzhou in late July, protesters thronged against police and shouted obscenities, demanding the protection of their mother tongue, Cantonese.

"The protesters were very united. We all had just one aim: to protect our own language," said Michelle, one of the self-proclaimed "cultural defenders" at the rally who asked her full name not be used because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Protests against cornerstones of government policy are rare

in a country where the ruling Communist Party values stability above all and comes down hard on dissent.

"Cantonese people speak Cantonese!" many yelled, in a surprisingly venomous retort to authorities, and a passionate defense of culture that caught officials -- more accustomed to simmering unrest over issues like land grabs, corruption and pollution -- off guard.   Continued...