How the Sichuan Dialect Saved A Radio Station

(China Daily)  Dialects can survive by themselves.  By Cai Shangyao.  December 9, 2004.

China has always been a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-dialect nation. It is hard to guess how many dialects exist, but they can be roughly classified into one of the seven large groups: the northern dialect, Wu dialect, Xiang (Hunan) dialect, Gan (Jiangxi) dialect, Hakka dialect, Min (Fujian) dialect and Yue (Guangdong) dialect (or Cantonese). These dialect groups are largely mutually unintelligible.

When the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, the government began promoting Putonghua (the common language based on Mandarin) so that all Chinese citizens could communicate with other Putonghua speakers from other parts of China. In the context of social and economic development, the use of Putonghua is becoming more and more widespread, while the use of local dialects is decreasing and becoming less widespread.

This is, indeed, a positive sign of social progress. Nevertheless, there is some concern that - in the long run - local dialects and accents are likely to be diluted to death.

Dialectal differences are the result of a long geographical separation and lack of adequate communication facilities in ancient times, and have little significance in modern society. If local dialects are unduly emphasized, localism and regionalism will become more pervasive and more serious. If local dialects were used as the medium of instruction in schools, or if government officials dealt with the public in local dialect or dialects were commonly used in radio and TV programmes, what would become of our society and our country? It makes sense for SARFT to require broadcast media to use Putonghua, and it is right that government officials speak Putonghua on public occasions. 


Putonghua should be more widely used in public and private places, while the use of local dialects should be restricted. Putonghua should be the medium of administration in all government departments, the medium of instruction in schools, the language used for broadcasting and the language used in public services, since this not only is required for economic development, but also is the need of a civilized society.

Popularization of Putonghua and standard Chinese characters does not mean stamping out the use of the various local dialects. Dialects can develop freely in their natural environment. One of the characteristics of languages is that they do not remain static but instead change over time. This is pretty much the same case with dialects. From a long-term perspective, dialects should not and would not be wiped out. There is no need for any purposeful and deliberate attempt to protect dialects. Just let dialects take their natural course. The best way to protect a dialect is to use it in daily life and pass it down from generation to generation. 

(South China Morning Post)  You say 'lei ho', we say you're fired, TV hosts told.  By Kevin Huang.  September 15, 2005.

Mainland television and radio hosts have been banned from using Hong Kong and Taiwanese accents on air. Anybody breaking the rules could lose their job under new rules issued by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television.

The guidelines were released on Tuesday and include standards and requirements covering the way a presenter may dress, style their hair, sound and participate in commercial activities.

"Don't use regional dialects or imitate Hong Kong and Taiwanese accents," the new rules say. "Except in situations of special need, radio and TV hosts across the mainland should use standard Putonghua in their programmes."

Mixing "unnecessary" foreign language with Putonghua was also prohibited. The rules also require hosts to display "healthy and enterprising images" and to make sure their appearance and presentation is "in good taste and decorous".

"Be lively but not frivolous. Sensationalism and cute moves are not allowed," the guideline say. 

Now look at this carefully -- no Hong Kong and Taiwanese accents shall be allowed on air.  What about Sichuan accent (or even dialect) in Chengdu (Sichuan)?  There is no ban of the Sichuan dialect (as yet).  The following story appeared in Southern Weekend (via MediaChina).

The Sichuan Dialect Saved A Radio Station.  By Yuan Lei (袁蕾).  November 11, 2005.

In the city of Chengdu, most people use three 'languages': Sichuan dialect, putonghua and Salt-and-pepper putonghua (that is, the Sichuan variation of putonghua).  The brilliance of Feige, the host of the radio program "Eating in Chengdu," is that he can used all three 'languages' fluently in the program.

In May 2002, Feige was a radio program host for the Sichuan Economic Radio at night, as well as being the manager.  During the day, he had to sit at the station to sign documents and write reports.  Since he was there anyway, he might as well as host another day program.  At the time, the 5pm shift was 'garbage' time for all the radio stations, and the director was happy to let him work it with the condition that he must bring it some advertisement within three months' time.  At the time, most radio stations run medical forums with doctors at that time slot.  He wanted to run a comedic program related to 'sex' but unrelated to health and medical treatments.  However, it did not seem appropriate to tell 'sex jokes' during the evening rush hour.  Undoubtedly, he decided that 'food' was the safest subject (note: there is a Chinese saying that food and sex are natural human impulses).

"At this Farmers Delight restaurant, the pure chicken does not use lipstick, and the wildlife fish has never watched television, the fish hot pot has 6,640 grains of pepper lying at the bottom."  Feige is certified as Grade A competency in putonghua, but he broadcast in Sichuan dialect instead.  For most Chengdu residents, whether at home or work, they will use Sichuan dialect if they can instead of "salt-and-pepper" putonghua; they will use "salt-and-pepper" putonghua if they can instead of pure putonghua.  It is true that putonghua has always represented the authoritativeness of the radio stations.  So when people can listen to pure Sichuan dialect on an authoritative radio station, it proved to be very endearing to the listeners as well as letting them know that the authorities affirms Chengdu culture.

Within a month, "Eat in Chengdu" fulfilled the obligation to have "some advertisement."  Within a few more months, Feige could no longer handle the business by himself and so he brought in a female co-host, Lanmei'er.  Within half a year, the daily one-hour program "Eat in Sichuan" set a record for 160,000 yuan in advertising revenue -- whereas the entire station was only making 200,000 yuan!  Within one year, the radio station arranged for Feige and Lanmei'er to be simultaneously broadcast on two different frequencies at the same time, and the 160,000 yuan grew to more than 300,000 yuan.

"Without the Sichuan dialect, 'Eat in Chengdu' could not be where it is today.  'Eat in Chengdu' save the whole Economic Radio," said Feige.  In 2003, since this station's ratings were far too high, Sichuan Economic Radio printed a new rate card.  The previously 'garbage' time slot of 5pm now has a news special rate.  All those channels that broadcast this program had their rates raised.

On the other side, the Chengdu Traffic Station which broadcast a food program in pure putonghua saw its audience levels and advertising revenues go into a downslide.  Finally, the Sichuan Economic Radio which had always been the lesser player turned around.  The Traffic Station listeners were now turning to the Economic Radio.  So the Chengdu Traffic Station paid a huge sum to get Feige and Lanmei'er to switch allegiances and move over there, with the same time slot and program content, with the freedom to say whatever they want.  Under the influence of Feige and Lanmei'er, the other radio and television stations began to change their broadcasts from occasional Sichuan dialect to occasional putonghua.

"Putonghua is still a class higher than the Sichuan dialect.  If we use Sichuan dialect all the time, it would lower their class."  In order to ensure that restaurants from all classes can be represented in the program, Feige uses language to classify the restaurants: a small restaurant under 100 square meters would be done in Sichuan dialect with some colloquialisms (e.g. 你娃去嘛); Sichuan-style restaurants with more than 100 square meters but under 2,000-3,000 square meters would be presented in Sichuan dialect with putonghua terminology pronounced in Sichuan accent; restaurants that are refined in appearance with some bourgeois style would be presented in informal putonghua with a mixture of "salt-and-pepper" and Beijing accent; and when a listener hears pure putonghua, then this is surely a traditional western restaurant.  The program then switches back to 'salt-and-pepper', then to Sichuan dialect.  When listeners call in, they usually get the authentic 'salt-and-pepper' putonghua.