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Galloping uniformity in modernising China

1 January 2016

One thing that sets Xi Jinping apart from his predecessors is his mastery of standard Mandarin or putonghua. For the Chinese, who are accustomed to old revolutionaries speaking with thick regional accents, Xi Jinping's use of a standard neutral accent of the kind heard on the national media contributes to a feeling of familiarity and accessibility. Xi Jinping's language is the product of a process that began almost a century ago: the decision to adopt and disseminate a standardised language shared by the entire nation.

The increasing use of putonghua throughout China is covered in Andrew Kipnis's very perceptive article Constructing Commonality: Standardization and Modernization in Chinese Nation-Building (which appeared in The Journal of Asian Studies Vol. 71, No. 3 2012: 731–755). Kipnis argues that while it is common to focus on the effects of globalisation on China, this has masked the strength of the processes of "nation-building" in contemporary social change. He examines three arenas in which China has converged on a "commonality in lived experience and communicative practice": the educational system, the urban-built environment, and the spread of the Internet.

Kipnis's paper beautifully captures the peculiarly "PRC" cultural environment that has come to be shared right across China. Wherever they come from, whatever their living environment, ethnicity, or social status, citizens of the PRC partake in a shared experience that is shaped by the educational system, architectural practices, and Internet ecosystem that have grown up in China under the CCP.

The moulding of the educational system involves many aspects, including the systematic consolidation of schools and the annual ritual of the nationwide 高考 gāokǎo or National Matriculation Examination, which is a universal topic across the country when it is held. In the field of language it involves the heavy promotion of putonghua. The number of teachers able to speak putonghua has increased rapidly over the past decades, with inevitable results for language use. As Kipnis points out, "While I would not assert that local dialects are dying, I have met many young people from dialect-speaking areas who have told me that even when they are playing with friends, they speak Mandarin rather than a local dialect".

The development of this uniform PRC environment does not necessarily reflect the wishes of the government. For example, constantly evolving Internet slang also reflects an attempt to subvert government controls on thought and ideology. Kipnis illustrates this with the well known allegory of the 草泥马 cǎo ní mǎ 'grass mud horse' and 河蟹 héxiè 'river crabs', a covert reference to the swearword 操你妈 cào nǐ mā and government slogan 和谐 héxié 'harmony'. As Kipnis points out, "Such an allegory is not only opaque to non-Chinese speakers, it is also uninterpretable to those who are literate in Chinese but have not closely followed blogs and web-life within China, as it necessarily has to be if it is to evade the censors for even a few weeks."

Since Kipnis wrote his article in 2012, China's Internet continues to evolve apace. Under the dominance of a few Internet companies, young Chinese have now taken in droves to Web services like the taxi app 嘀嘀打车 dīdī dǎchē and smartphone payment services like WeChat's 钱包 qiánbāo and Alipay (支付宝 zhīfùbǎo). Like the spread of high-speed railways, the development of the Internet under the watchful eye of the government provides a supercharged environment for the creation of a single national culture that is cordoned off from similar developments in the rest of the world, a "national culture" that excites or repels (in varying degrees and proportions) people who have contact with China.

Kipnis's article also takes a close look at the spread of a PRC public architectural style across China, reflected in newly built urban spaces ("new cities" or 新城 xīnchéng and "development zones" 开发区 kāifāqū) and public buildings. The layout and style of such urban spaces is relatively uniform throughout the nation. While this leads to a numbing sameness (in particular, the emphasis on physical impressiveness and grand spaces), it also ensures that Chinese encounter familiar environments wherever they go in China. As Kipnis points out:

It is this shared background, birthed by the old Maoist system, fostered by government policies designed to create a common national consciousness, inculcate political obedience, and exclude foreign influences, and pushed to explosive growth by the dynamic of widespread interchange, ease of movement, and the expansion of a national Internet ecology, that has created the modern common culture of the PRC.

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