|Pang Li / China Daily|
Dialects have their limitations, but they also have their place in our culture. While social mobility is working against them, it seems rash to relentlessly push them over the cliff of usefulness.
A recent proclamation from the regulating agency for the television industry has made it clear that hosts for TV shows must not use dialects, but Mandarin (Putonghua) only.
This surprised me a bit because, living in Beijing, I have not heard any programs in dialects. When I was growing up in Zhejiang province, I could tune in to radio programs in the Shanghai dialect; and while I was a graduate student in Guangzhou, a few TV shows were in Cantonese. As far as I know, dialect programs have always been in a small minority.
I used to hold a very negative opinion on dialects. There are scholarly studies on the number of dialects in China, but that really depends on how you define a dialect. Where I grew up, you could cycle for half an hour and the popular pronouns would begin to change. People could tell where you were from simply by the way you said "I" and "you" and "he". And that was not fun. It means a cluster of villages have their own variation of a dialect. Naturally, the farther you travel, the more difference you'll encounter in terms of the speaking tongue, until you reach a place where it is virtually incomprehensible.
I can imagine northern people who first arrive in Shanghai and their frustration in, say, asking directions. When I first heard Cantonese mention "afternoon", I thought they were referring to "next week". Generally speaking, the closer a dialect is to Mandarin, the easier it is to grasp it. So, the most difficult dialects are all in southern parts of the country as Mandarin is based on the Beijing dialect. But that's not taking into account ethnic minorities, many of whom have their own distinct languages.