BEIJING (Reuters Life!) - China is hoping to make big money from supporting a once marginalized and repressed regional language which is widely spoken in affluent Taiwan and many Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, including Singapore.
Hokkien, which is termed a dialect in China but cannot be understood by Mandarin speakers, comes from southeastern Fujian province and, due to centuries of immigration, is the native tongue of around 80 percent of Taiwanese.
In Taiwan, where Hokkien is usually called Taiwanese, its public use was once suppressed by the Nationalist government, which pushed Mandarin as the official language. But it is now widely used once again, as an expression of national pride.
Now, China is hoping to make some money from those linguistic links and the Hokkien cultural renaissance. In China itself, where the government has also tried to remove dialects from the official arena, Hokkien is being given greater prominence.
“Cultural industries in the whole province are increasingly important, and Hokkien opera and other folk operas have deep roots,” Luo Jian, the Fujian government’s deputy general secretary, told a news conference.
Fujian’s first cross-strait culture expo last year saw some 5 billion yuan ($732 million) of contracts signed, and the second one to be held later this year hopes to build on that, he said.
“There is a vast amount of space for cross-strait cultural exchange and cooperation,” Luo added.
The expo will feature traditional Hokkien singing competitions as well as other aspects of the native culture.
“Everyone knows, Fujian and Taiwan are separated only by a narrow strip of water, and blood is thicker than water,” said provincial government spokesman Zhu Qing.
The event will give Taiwan companies a chance to sell their television shows and cartoons to a wider audience, Luo added.
“Though these industries are quiet well developed in Taiwan, their market is limited, and they need to develop outside and sell abroad,” he said.
China and Taiwan have for decades promoted Mandarin as their national languages, seeing it as a unifying force in a culture with thousands of mutually unintelligible dialects.
China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since defeated Nationalist forces fled to the island in 1949 ahead of the advancing Communists, and has vowed to bring Taiwan under mainland rule, by force if necessary.
Yet since Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou took office last year, the China-friendly leader has eased tension through trade and tourism deals.
Part of China’s recent policy toward Taiwan has been to encourage cultural exchanges. Taiwanese actors and singers are hugely popular in China, where they are seen as cooler and more sophisticated than their mainland counterparts.
In the past, Taiwanese pop stars have been banned from singing in Hokkien in China and films and soap operas have been dubbed into Mandarin, though that is starting to change as the language policy eases and government ties warm.
Editing by Miral Fahmy