How Fangyan Became Dialects: Language Politics, Identity and Power in China, 1900-Today


Dr. Gina Anne Tam
Trinity University

Date/Time: February 9, 2023 (Thu) 4:00 pm (HKT) / February 9, 2023 (Thu) 9:00 am (CET)
Venue:  Room 201, 2/F, May Hall, HKU
Join us in person at May Hall or via Zoom using the following link:

What does it mean to speak the Chinese language? The most common answer to this question would be Mandarin, the national language of the People’s Republic of China. Yet within the PRC, the languages spoken on the streets are often not its national language, Mandarin, but rather one of the country’s many fangyan, local languages such as Shanghainese or Cantonese or dozens of others. Fangyan are rarely thought of as distinct languages in their own right; instead, they are most often termed „dialects“ of Chinese, despite the fact that many are linguistically quite distinct from one another and Mandarin. The purpose of this talk is to explore why Chinese fangyan are so often treated as dialects in public policy, academia, and popular discourse. From missionaries and revolutionaries to bureaucrats and academics, this talk will highlight those who helped solidify and normalize the categorization of fangyan as dialect from the late Qing through the present day, and explore how their translation has shaped and has been shaped by historical power dynamics.

About the Speaker
Gina Anne Tam is an Associate Professor of Modern Chinese History at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and the co-director of Women and Gender Studies. Her book Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860-1960, winner of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, explores the significance of local Chinese languages such as Cantonese or Shanghainese in the making of Chinese national identity. She is currently a Public Intellectual Fellow through the National Council on US-China Relations and a Wilson Center China Fellow.

This is an event organized by the “Delta on the Move: The Becoming of the Greater Bay Region, 1700 – 2000” Research Cluster.