The Language of Tang Poets: Linguistic Proximity to Antiquity and the Making of Han in Early Twentieth-Century China


In 2014, a Hong Kong student’s oral reading of Meng Haoran’s Tang-dynasty (618-907)
poem “At the Mountain-Lodge of the Buddhist Priest Ye” became an internet sensation in
Mainland China. While some praised his melodramatic facial expressions and exaggerated
movements, what struck many was the language in which it was recited—not Mandarin, the
national language of Mainland China, but the student’s native Cantonese. The clip’s popularity served as evidence of a widely-held belief that Cantonese is the most authentically “ancient” language of China, in particular hewing closely to the poetry of the Tang dynasty’s literary masters.
Yet it is not only Cantonese speakers that claim that their local language is the oldest Chinese language; from Fujian to Shaanxi, it is common to claim one's mother tongue has a linguistic proximity to antiquity shared by few. While evidence of such claims exist, the implications of these arguments often extend beyond language—rather, they often seek to prove the significance of that fangyan to the making of Han as a category.  From works by academics to interpretations of those works meant for a broader populace, the idea of linguistic antiquity was based in a belief that the etymology of local language could prove kinship, lineage, and migration patterns of a Han community and a Han people that has a traceable bloodline. In other words, the idea of linguistic proximity to antiquity emerged from and was mobilized to buttress a biological rigidity of a cultural practice.