The Chinese language, as it exists today, is defined as both a state-determined standardized language and a myriad of mutually unintelligible dialects. This book traces the significance of dialect in the construction of Chinese national identity in modern China. I argue that elite and non-elite groups, inspired by diverse conceptualizations of nation, local place, and self, relegated China’s myriad local languages, called fangyan (方言) in Chinese, to the status of ‘dialect’ – a category that simultaneously webbed local communities to the broader concept of the Chinese nation, but also excluded them by placing them outside of the idealized form of “standard” Chinese. I also argue that the rearrangement of language and dialect into this hierarchical relationship has had mixed effects on Chinese nationalism. At the local level, pushback against this linguistic standardization project, and the categorization of fangyan as having a subsidiary role in a new, modern China, has created a distance between a narrative of nationalism promulgated by the state and the way everyday Chinese see themselves and their place in the nation. In this way, my book disaggregates Chinese national identity from the standard meant to represent it, thereby showing how Chinese—both the language and the national and ethnic moniker— was not just heterogeneous, but something that state-defined standards could not adequately capture.
Using a mix of archival sources, oral history interviews, multi-media productions, personal papers, and a wide range of periodicals and published works, I trace this history of fangyan from the late Qing through the height of the Maoist period. From nineteenth-century Western sojourners who saw fangyan as a means of access to the Chinese people to late Qing reformers who saw them as time capsules encasing a Han past; from Republican period folklorists who saw them as representatives of authentic Chinese culture, to linguists who saw them as subsidiary branches on the linguistic trunk represented by the national language; from Communist bureaucrats who saw them as representative of “thought obstacles” that prevented individuals from embracing their patriotic duty to build a socialist China, to everyday young people who saw them as their only way to communicate with their neighbors and relatives, each of these groups, with different motives, attached cultural meaning to fangyan that either perpetuated the state narrative of exclusivity or helped give shape to the pushback against it.