Shanghai Airlines just announced that from New Years on, it will start to make its announcements in Shanghainese, then Mandarin and English, in its flights to Shanghai. Original news link here.
They are doing this allegedly to “give native Shanghai people the feeling of getting back home”. Shanghai’s topolect is utterly unintelligible to anyone not in the immediate vicinity; and China had been imposing the standard language, Mandarin, with quite a lot of force for some time. So this is big news.
I have a complicated relation with nation-states. I find it very funny when Americans talk about the ‘American nation’, and go on talking about foreign nations as if they were natural beings. In Europe too, the official line that the State is simply the nation organizing itself for the benefit of its members, remains mainstream.
But of course all that is a huge pile of bullshit. Even in America, Yankees and Southerners are hardly one people. Its no coincidence that the modern White nationalist blogs are disproportionately Californian; as in California, just recently colonized, the various ethnics sort of merged in a pan-white identity, strengthened by contrast with the increasing invasion of Mexicans. So today you have white nationalist preaching a white American Nation, while in the east coast Yanks and southerners and the various ethnics all go on hating each other.
In the same way European nations were always, without exception, artificial constructs. English are not Scots, Parisians are not Provençals, Milanese are not Napolitans, Catalans are not Andalucians, Bavarians are not Silesians. All over Europe there’s tons of regionalist movements who want autonomy and ‘recognition’ (i.e. tax money) to promote their particular dialect/folkways. And there are horribly bitter regional hatreds.You could almost say that the nation is dead. Economic scale promotes continent-sized blocks, yet political scale is busy decomposing itself into ever smaller units.
How did this happen? Not so long ago people swore allegiance to King, God and Country, went happily to war for the fatherland, disdained regional dialects as ‘provincial’, and endeavored to give their kids a good education in the national classics. The nation building of the 19th century, with mass schooling and mass media tagging to give their peoples a national conscience, was wildly successful. So much that is has been exported all over the world, with different degrees of success. Yet at the same time the nation is dying in the land of its invention.
Some people blame postmodernism, with its penchant for ‘deconstruction’. Now the nation has been deconstructed. Others blame the Anti Nazi cult, that nationalism is allegedly bad because it caused the World Wars. Well postmodernists never had much influence besides loose Sorbonne chicks. And the antinationalist camp is certainly a big part of the ideology behind the EU project. But those are few, if powerful. The real movement in the ground here in Europe is regionalism. Devolution they call it in Britain. And that is neither postmodern nor anti-nationalist. It’s nationalism in a smaller scale, as xenophobic and discriminatory as any nationalist ever was. Its big all around the Old Continent, and now it seems is getting big also in China.
Now I won’t go into analyzing the legitimacy of every regionalist claim. Them provincialists mostly claim, not unreasonably, that modern nations are just the product of acculturizing via state propaganda, that regional languages and cultures were humiliated and killed on the process. Well of course, what else could they do? The only way for an authority to assert itself is violence. Humans left to themselves default fast to clan based culture, sorta like hunter gatherer bands, so to achieve any modicum of scale you need force.
The proof is that modern regionalisms are doing the very same thing. The Scottish Parliament is pushing Scots as the ‘national’ language, which must sound strange to any Gaelic-speaking highlander. The Basque language used to be a patch of mutually unintelligible rural dialects that no educated townsman would ever speak; today is the soul of the last indigenous people of Europe. All the difference between Czechs and Slovaks is that the former were serfs of the Germans, the latter of the Hungarians. And so on. It’s all bollocks; it has to be, there is no “truth” in politics.
So why are they doing it? Well besides a certain natural provincialism of the left half of the Bell Curve, today the money is in politics. We’re in a bad economy and the real money and job security is in the civil service. Regional politicians want ever increasing authority (and budgets), and the populace want to have privileges in the job market. So if you make it necessary to speak Basque, or Breton, or Welsh to get a civil service job; well the locals get an advantage. People dislike competition, particularly when they are prone to lose. Watch how all regionalist movement in Europe don’t even think about leaving the EU: this is not about power. It’s about money and job security.
And this is no particular European problem: see the news on China. Now China was dragged into modernity without having ever done any nation building. Sun Yatsen, the father of the Republic, used to say that Chinese didn’t care about national freedom, that Chinese were not a nation, but a “platter of loose sand”. Well that’s what peasants are. China was a centralized agricultural empire, the closest thing to the Roman empire. The bureaucracy worked in Classical Chinese, a 3000 year old written language, and spoke in some sort of educated koiné based on the court speech. Yet the peasants were mostly left alone. The demographic expansion and cultural superiority of the Han made it so almost all settled people speak variants of the same language family; but nothing remotely resembling a modern standardized speech. Standardization was only started with the foundation of the Republic, and only effectively enforced by the Communist government, which ruthlessly stamped out all regional dialects, beating children if necessary. The French teachers in the Provence used to do it to, 60 years earlier. Me being a reactionary, and we’re all sort of stuck in the 1900s, seeing the PRC effectively imposing a national culture was a refreshing sight. It filled me with respect for a rising, great nation.
Alas not anymore, it seems. I had a first peep when in Guangzhou, 2 hours from the border with Hong Kong. People in the province speak Cantonese, the non standard dialect with more cultural exposure, thanks to the Hong Kong content industry and the Cantonese diaspora. Still the Communist government used to crack down on ‘provincialism’, and made the proud Cantonese speak the Beijing based standard by force if necessary. Dialects were forbidden in any public broadcast. Not anymore now: you have Cantonese TV, bus and subway announcements, whatever. It seems like Shanghai, another snobby, proud city, is next. The massive flow of migrant peasants from the hinterland is scaring the natives of China’s eastern coast, who are using their wealth to create political privileges for them. The nation state is not good business anymore.