By Anqi Liu
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Based on Pekingese-like phonology and known as “common speech,” Mandarin (Putonghua, 普通话), formerly the universal standard language spoken by the educated and officials during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, has been adopted as the official national language since the early twentieth century. With all the varieties of languages in China, such as Mongolian, Korean, and Uyghur, Mandarin per se functions as a universal vehicle to connect people and the nation-state regardless of cultural, linguistic, and social differences. In 2000, the PRC government promulgated and implemented the “Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Standard Spoken and Written Chinese Language (Order of the President No.37),” which stated that the aim of promoting Putonghua as the normalization and standardization of the Chinese spoken and written language is to uphold “state sovereignty and national dignity, to the unification of the country and unity of the nationalities, and to socialist material progress and ethnical progress.” In other words, transcending the lexical and syntactical delimits, the hegemony of Mandarin is now developed as a political tactic in order to maintain national and ethnic unity. When all the citizens, Han and non-Han people alike, are required to learn and use Mandarin by the laws, the diversity and complexity of Chinese as a composite linguistic concept consisting of multiple languages are profoundly reduced and oversimplified.
Simultaneously, in the West, the hegemonic Mandarin largely homogenizes the question of “who can be Chinese?” As Chow claims, “Mandarin is, properly speaking, also the white man’s Chinese, the Chinese that receives its international authentication as ‘standard Chinese’ in part because, among the many forms of Chinese speeches, it is the one inflected with the largest number of foreign, especially Western, accents.” Speaking Mandarin then becomes a form of performative and epistemological symbol for recognizing one’s ethnic authenticity. Without questioning the validity of particularism-as-universalism, the enforcement of Mandarin in the West, as Chow suggests, “is rather a sign of the systematic codification and management of ethnicity that is typical of modernity, in this case through language implementation.” Mandarin, in this sense, replaces the plurality of other Chinese languages and now becomes the emblem of Chinese and Chineseness as a whole inside and outside China.
In the following sections, a focused analysis will be conducted on the role that language plays in marking the home, national identity, and ethnic borders. The writing experience of the Chinese diasporic writer Ha Jin will be contextualized to shed light on his struggle between language and national identity. Whereas Ha Jin proactively intervenes in the essentialist identity created by language through the other language, the following questions still arise: how solid is the relation between language and national identity? And as a literary diaspora who writes in non-Mandarin, to what degree is Ha Jin’s Chineseness affected? By closely examining Ha Jin’s self-Orientalist portrait of Communist China, this paper aims to debunk the myth that Ha Jin effectively constructs a more fluid and hybrid identity that transcends his predetermined Chineseness.
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