Language Diversity in the Sinophone World: Historical
Trajectories, Language Planning, and Multilingual Practices

Edited by Henning Klöter and Mårten Söderblom Saarela

Reviewed by Ashley Liu

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright March, 2021)

Henning Klöter and Mårten Söderblom Saarela, eds. Language Diversity in the Sinophone World: Historical Trajectories, Language Planning, and Multilingual Practices London: Routledge, 2020. xv + 330 pp. ISBN: 9780367504519.

Language Diversity in the Sinophone World is a collection of studies on the language policies and practices in polities that “pursue official language policies on the use of one or more Sinitic languages,” which include the PRC, Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, and Singapore. Whereas the study of language policies and multilingualism in the Chinese-speaking world is not new, the unique contribution of this volume is its “intervention in the developing field of Sinophone studies” (1). Regarding the importance of this volume, Klöter and Saarela highlight the “paradox” that Sinophone studies place an inherent emphasis on language but rarely address issues of language policies and practices (1). The Sinophone world as constructed by Klöter and Saarela is significantly different from that characterized in existing Sinophone studies. Whereas existing Sinophone studies, following the vision of Shu-mei Shih, mainly involve postmodern, postcolonial, and postnational critiques and analyses of literature and cinema, Klöter and Saarela’s volume primarily relies on historical, linguistic, sociological, and quantitative approaches regarding language policies and practices. In doing so, they expand a domain previously dominated by scholars of literature and cinema to include historians, linguists, sociologists, language policy experts, and those who employ quantitative methods. As someone who belongs to the former category—the status quo in Sinophone studies—I evaluate this volume’s usefulness to literary and film studies.

The volume is divided into three main parts: “Historical Trajectories,” “Language Planning,” and “Multilingual Practices.” Part I provides the historical contexts for the formation of language policies, practices, and identities in the modern Chinese-speaking world. Chapter 1, “What was Standard Chinese in the Nineteenth Century? Divergent Views in the Times of Transition,” by Richard VanNess Simmons, disputes a misperception regarding Mandarin that presumes the language of the region around the political capital has long represented a linguistic standard. He demonstrates that the language of Beijing began to acquire that status only by the mid-nineteenth century. Chapter 2, “Manchu, Mandarin, and the Politicization of Spoken Language in Qing China,” by Saarela, explores the politics and culture of plurilingualism in the early to mid-Qing period; he finds that the Qing rulers’ continuous re-negotiation of the status and function of Manchu vis-à-vis literary and vernacular Chinese reflects “a high awareness of societal plurilingualism and the importance of language planning” (39). Chapter 3, “Romanizing Southern Mǐn: Missionaries and the Promotion of Written Chinese Vernaculars,” by Don Snow, examines Western missionaries’ attempt to romanize Southern Min and promote written vernaculars, which was “the most sustained Protestant missionary effort to popularize a written local Chinese vernacular” (60).[1] He argues that, despite the script potentially having been used by as many as 100,000 people at one point (65), it “only left a small historical legacy” (60). Chapter 4, “Interactions across Englishes in Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macao, and Singapore,” by Christiane Meierkord, is a historical overview of the use of English in China, Hong Kong, Macao, and Singapore. She identifies the language’s function as a first, second, or foreign language among different demographics. In addition, she observes its role in creole languages and as an “intra-national interethnic lingua franca in the sinophone world . . . in competition with Mandarin” (93).

Part II examines official language policies in different polities in the Sinophone world and their role in shaping language usage. Chapter 5, “One Legacy, Two Legislations: Language Policies on the Two Sides of the Taiwan Strait,” by Klöter, argues that the language standardization ideologies of 1920s Republican China have been the foundation of language policies in mainland China and Taiwan; this standardization has led to “a growing marginalization of topolects” on both sides of the Taiwan Strait (101). Chapter 6, “Language Policy and Practice in Taiwan in the Early Twenty-First Century,” by Su-Chiao Chen, studies changes in Taiwan’s language policies since the 1980s—namely, the shift from a “‘Mandarin-only’” strategy to one that promotes English and local Taiwanese languages alongside Mandarin (122). Despite the apparent commitment to multilingualism, she finds that the implementation of local language education has been weak and inconsistent compared to that of English and Mandarin. Chapter 7, “A Tale of Two Special Administrative Regions: The State of Multilingualism in Hong Kong and Macao,” by David C. S. Li and Choi-Lan Tong, describes the language policies in Hong Kong and Macao as aiming at ‘“biliteracy and trilingualism,”’ indicating “the ability to read and write Chinese and English, and to speak and understand Cantonese, English, and Mandarin” (147/142); this multilingualism has resulted in language contact phenomena such as lexical borrowing from English or Portuguese and code-switching among different languages (146/147). Moreover, they identify socio-economic-cultural hierarchies that favor the command of certain languages over others; for example, the command of English carries more prestige and allows better educational opportunities than Cantonese and Mandarin (152-155). Chapter 8, “One People, One Nation, One Singapore: Language Policy and Shifting Identities among Chinese Singaporeans,” by Yeng Seng Goh and Yeow Wah Fong, explores language policies in Singapore since 1965, during which time English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil have been designated as official languages to reflect the multiethnic and multilingual nature of the population. The authors posit that for Chinese Singaporeans, Mandarin increasingly functions as a foreign language rather than a home language—despite the official emphasis on bilingualism (i.e. the command of both English and a “mother tongue” like Mandarin, Malay, or Tamil)—whereas English is overwhelmingly dominant in the public and private spheres.

Part III emphasizes the disparity between official language policies—the focus of Part II—and real-world multilingual practices. In their general introduction, Klöter and Saarela clarify that despite the widespread success of the enforcement of Mandarin in the Sinophone world, there are many examples of failed language planning and the “unintended consequences” of such planning; in addition to official policies, factors that determine multilingual practices include migration, “loyalty to ancestral traditions, or the influencing force of popular culture” (7). Chapter 9, “Speakers of ‘Mother Tongues’ in Multilingual China: Complex Linguistic Repertoires and Identity Construction,” by Sihua Liang, challenges the notion of “mother tongue” and demonstrates that in Guangzhou, ethnolinguistic identities and perceived ancestry often obfuscate what one considers to be one’s “mother tongue.” She argues that the “meaning of mother tongue is socially and historically constructed and highly context-dependent” (185/186). As someone born and raised in Guangzhou, I can testify to the fact that the question of “mother tongue” confuses many people from Guangzhou. Even among those who speak Cantonese at home, it is very common to have an “ancestral” language—referred to in Cantonese as hoeng haa waa(乡下话)—from other parts of Guangdong province that differs significantly from and can even be mutually unintelligible with the Cantonese of Guangzhou and Hong Kong. (Liang uses the standard Mandarin term jiangxianghua 家乡话 to designate “hometown speech” [190]). Taking my linguistic background as an example, the Cantonese side of my family’s hoeng haa waa is that of the Zengcheng 增城 region, which is only a few hours from Guangzhou; when they converse in the language of Zengcheng, which can probably be seen as a variety of Cantonese, I can barely understand it. For many local speakers, it might even be unclear if their presumed “mother tongue” refers to the Cantonese of Guangzhou or a hoeng haa waa from another region in Guangdong. To illustrate this issue, Liang offers the example of someone with a perceived ancestry in Chaozhou 潮州 and the Teochew language culture; despite being a second-generation immigrant in Guangzhou who needs to put in conscious effort to maintain his ability to speak Teochew, he sees Teochew as key to identifying his ‘“hometown speech”’ (193-194). In my experience, having another cultural-linguistic identity from a region within Guangdong is different from having one from somewhere outside Guangdong, as the former does not conflict with a Cantonese identity in the same way as the latter.

Chapter 10, “Multilingualism and Language Policy in Singapore,” by Peter Siemund and Lijun Li, argues that Singapore’s official language policies have facilitated the transition from “a diverse multilingual society toward one characterized by individual bilingualism” (205). For Chinese Singaporeans, the government sanctioned bilingualism refers to the command of English and Mandarin; this policy has led to a rise in Mandarin usage at the expense of other Sinitic languages, and a simultaneous reduction of multilingualism within Sinitic languages. Chapter 11, “The Discourses of lào yīngwén: Resistance to and Subversion of the Normative Status of English in Taiwan,” by Hsi-Yao Su, uses the slang term lào yīngwén “‘to speak English fluently (in a showy manner)’”—commonly written as 烙英文, 落英文, or 撂英文—to explore Taiwanese attitudes toward English and English-Chinese code-mixing (229). She finds that the negative perception regarding lào yīngwén as a bilingual behavior reflects “the tension between local identity and global/translocal identity/aspiration,” and reflects local attitudes toward English as a status symbol of the privileged (245). Chapter 12, “Conventionalized Code-Switching in Taiwan: English Insertions in Taiwan Mandarin,” by Julia Wasserfall, studies the practice and perception of Mandarin-English code-switching; this linguistic practice is bound up with socio-cultural values, such as forming a sense of belonging and in-group code (250). Chapter 13, “Ubiquitous but Unplanned: The Utterance-Final Particle ê in Taiwan Mandarin,” by Chin-hui Lin, examines this particle and its origins in the “complex patterns of migration from mainland China to Taiwan before and during the twentieth century and the resulting social structures of Taiwan’s society” (274). Lin shows that the prevalence of ê in Taiwan Mandarin is “unplanned” in the sense that it originated from Jiāng-Huái Mandarin and not the standard Mandarin enforced by the Taiwan government; this demonstrates how factors other than official language policies, such as immigration, affect language practice. Chapter 14, “Diverse Language, Diverse Grammars: On Quirky Phenomena in Mandarin,” by Jeroen Wiedenhof, discusses “many phenomena in Mandarin which are left undocumented in descriptive accounts and reference grammars” that exemplify the paradox between the “enormous diversity [in Mandarin] due to a vast number of speakers” and the demand for “fixed standards due to its prestige as a national language” (291). He illustrates many instances of locative markers, nominal predicates, endearment tones, and the /r/ phoneme in Mandarin that are dismissed as “rare or exceptional” by linguists and argues that the widespread existence of such phenomena begs for a re-examination of linguistic standards (291).

Despite the book’s apparent attachment to Sinophone studies, it does not dedicate substantial effort to clarifying how its historical, linguistic, sociological, and quantitative research regarding language policies and practices can be integrated into existing literary and cinematic Sinophone studies. Although the methodological and disciplinary gaps between this volume and existing Sinophone studies is wide, only a few brief paragraphs in the introduction, concerning the relative absence of language issues in Sinophone studies, are offered by way of bridging these gaps (1). Unfortunately, for scholars whose primary expertise is in literary and film studies, integrating linguistic, sociological, and quantitative insights into our craft is a difficult task that requires guidance. Whereas scholars of literary and film studies could obviously learn things from the innovative perspectives in this collection, the volume fails to make a substantial or concerted effort to forge interdisciplinary connections, leaving unanswered precisely how its findings can complement the current preponderance of literary and film studies in this young discipline.

This is not to say that the volume has entirely failed in this regard. It can be seen as gesturing toward new pathways I believe can inspire scholars of literary and films studies—myself included. I offer a few here. This volume contains two categories of insights relevant to literary and film studies. First, it sheds much new light on the ways that language usage reflects cultural hierarchies and is not merely a tool for writing and speaking. Second, linguistic-cultural identities are shaped by language standardization and planning policies. Both of these facts point to the ways larger forces are imbricated in the transmission of language as it contributes to the construction of cultural and ethnic identity—that is, it is not merely a simple matter of inheriting one’s “mother tongue” from one’s family and peers. For scholars of literature and cinema, this first insight is crucial in deciphering the inherently ideological and hierarchical nature of language choice and usage (whether in reference to authors, directors, characters, readers, viewers, censors, advertisers, etc.). For example, Snow’s chapter reveals that Western missionaries’ attempt to romanize Southern Min was motivated by disdain for Chinese culture and intentional disregard for the connection between non-Western people and their native cultures. On the one hand, the romanization effort was meant to increase literacy among locals by introducing a simplified way of writing; on the other, it aimed to sever the locals’ connection to Chinese culture in favor of developing a new bond with Western Christian culture. Snow articulates, “while the missionaries knew that writing serious texts in the vernacular was a dramatic break from Chinese tradition, many felt this was a good thing rather than a problem.” To illustrate this attitude, he quotes the missionary John Campbell Gibson (1849-1919): ‘“substitution of Roman Vernacular for the Book language in letter-writing would go far to abolish in that department the artificiality and falseness by which Chinese society is honeycombed in all directions”’ (70). Other chapters, such as those by Li and Tong, Su, and Wasserfall, illustrate the role of English in reflecting and enforcing Western supremacy in the Sinophone world. Much more than a mere tool for international communication, English is a symbol of prestige and status. Li and Tong find that in Hong Kong students in schools with Cantonese as the language of instruction are perceived as “failures” compared to those in schools with English as the language of instruction (154). Su argues that the negative perception of code-switching between Chinese and English in Taiwan is rooted in the awareness that “Taiwanese who migrated to the United States have generally been viewed as more privileged than the general Taiwanese populace” (242). Similarly, Wasserfall finds that Chinese-English code-switching in Taiwan can be viewed negatively as “pretentious” and ‘“showing off”’ due to the prestige attached to English (264/265-266). All of these insights concerning the cultural hierarchies saturating language usage and policies could prove beneficial in exploring neglected linguistic phenomena related to Chinese fiction and cinema.

The role of language policies in creating ethnicities and cultures is reflected in Saarela’s chapter on Qing Manchu rulers’ use of language to enforce ethnic identity and legal status, Klöter’s chapter on the formation of Mandarin language cultures in mainland China and Taiwan based on the language standardization ideology of 1920s Republican China, and Chen’s chapter on the impact of “Taiwanization” on local Taiwanese languages and identities. Chapters by Goh and Fong and Siemund and Li examine how Singapore’s language planning created an arbitrary link between Chinese ethnicity and Mandarin. In Singapore, one’s cultural-ethnic-linguistic affiliation with Mandarin is determined by one’s perceived patrilineal ancestry. Siemund and Li explain:

regardless of what language may actually have been spoken by a child in early childhood, the ethnic group of the child’s father determines which language is officially assigned as their “mother tongue.” In other words, even if a child whose parents are ethnically Cantonese spoke Cantonese in childhood, Mandarin would still be regarded as the child’s official “mother tongue” in Singapore. (208/208-209).

Goh and Fong point out that this imposition of Mandarin on all ethnically Chinese Singaporeans regardless of ancestral province and topolect is due to the political consideration that Mandarin was a “common language among the Chinese diaspora” and “‘neutral’” in the sense that it does not favor any topolect group (168-169/170). Despite many Chinese Singaporeans’ lack of ancestral link to Mandarin, a Mandarin-inflected identity is enforced to maintain Chinese Singaporeans’ connection to their Chinese ancestry (169-170). In Lee Kwan Yew’s (1923-2015) words, learning a [government-specified] “‘mother tongue’” (i.e. Mandarin) allows one to embrace “‘good traditional values that are worth teaching and transmitting’” that will shape one’s character; in addition, it allows one to become aware that one is “‘descended from civilizations that are thousands of years old,’” which fosters a sense of identity and belonging (171). The discrepancy between Mandarin and many Chinese Singaporeans’ actual linguistic ancestry and affiliation determines that this sense of identity and belonging lauded by Lee is highly artificial and arbitrary. This could be a profoundly meaningful insight for literary and film scholars, because the construction of ethnic and cultural identities is central to Sinophone literature and cinema.

Overall, despite its absence of a detailed methodological explication and forging of connections between linguistic and cultural (literary and cinematic) methodologies, the volume’s innovative approaches to language issues are a valuable contribution to Sinophone studies. As the editors do state explicitly, language policies and practices should be fundamental to Sinophone studies.

Ashley Liu
University of Maryland


[1] There are some slight discrepancies between the pagination found in my digital e-book version and Routledge’s hardcover volume. This quotation, for example, is found on page 61 in the hardcover volume. When two page numbers are indicated below, the second refers to the hardcover version.