Bloody shovel

Don't call it a spade

Platters of loose sand

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.

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13 responses to “Platters of loose sand

  1. zhai2nan2 January 21, 2012 at 04:03

    This is a nice piece of anthropological research, available for free, without a journal to make things stuffy and difficult! Thanks.

  2. Vladimir January 22, 2012 at 01:30

    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.

    That’s just garden-variety Jacobinism, not something that should be a refreshing sight for a reactionary. Of course, this aspect of Jacobinism, like many other aspects of leftism in general, eventually got adopted by the mainstream right — which kept clinging to it even after it became unfashionable on he left, so that in more recent history it has had more right-wing connotations. But being a reactionary should be precisely about understanding such things.

    • spandrell January 22, 2012 at 12:54

      Well I’ve blogged about how the word ‘reactionary’ has its problems, tradition being a context-dependent concept.

      Still I don’t see why reactionaries should be for provincialism. De Maistre didn’t write in Arpitan.

      • Vladimir January 22, 2012 at 21:01

        Well, a reactionary should be, by definition, someone who is against projects of radical and massive social re-engineering. De Maistre wrote in French because in his day there was a tradition of intellectual writing in French. In contrast, as far as I can tell, he was happy to let the Arpitan peasants continue their tradition of Arpitan-speaking peasant life.

        I can imagine a reactionary supporting the forcible uprooting of a local language and culture as the act of annihilating a vanquished enemy. However, when such measures are taken under the banner of cultural uplifting and national unity and greatness, they are by definition innovative and reformist projects, forcibly imposing modernity and “progress.” What can possibly be reactionary about such undertakings?

        (On the other hand, I agree with your analysis of the modern European regionalism.)

  3. spandrell January 22, 2012 at 21:43

    Well that’s exactly the point I made here and here. But ever since Moldbug, many on the anti leftist & anti democrat blogosphere have been calling ourselves ‘reactionary’. I’ve been trying to phase out the word but ‘hbd progressive’ sounds lame and I can’t come up with anything better.

  4. Vladimir January 23, 2012 at 03:17

    This however sounds like a matter of disagreement on issues, not terminology.

    Nationalism can be opposed from the progressive left as too particularist (i.e. opposed to the dream of a united progressive world) or from the reactionary right as too universalist, liberal, and anti-traditionalist at the level of a single nation. Nowadays, nationalists espouse the ideas of yesterday’s left — strong sovereign democratic nation-states — against the modern globalist left, with yesterday’s right no longer existing as a serious political factor. So in a struggle between globalists and nationalists, a reactionary can indeed only sympathize with the latter. However, in those historical and contemporary struggles where nationalists have fought against sub-national local cultures and institutions — including those where the latter have existed under traditional supra-national umbrellas of churches and empires — it is also clear which side has been the reactionary one in every reasonable sense of the word.

    Even in those cases where consolidating, anti-localist nationalism was co-opted and promoted by rightists for whom I otherwise have much sympathy — or whom I at least see as the lesser evil in various conflicts — I just can’t bring myself to feel anything but revulsion at it. So it’s not like we’re just disagreeing over terminology here.

    • spandrell January 23, 2012 at 09:07

      We don’t disagree on the terminology because I conceded the point.
      I said that as a ‘reactionary’ I liked nationalism, and you said that a reactionary in its original definition should be a pre-nationalism, De Maistre style 18th century status quo-ist. I agree. So the conclusion is that I should not call myself a reactionary, and I really shouldn’t.

      As it seems you feel revulsion against national consolidation, so you are entitled to call yourself reactionary. Meaning we disagree on the issue. I feel a revulsion against modern provincialism, and feel no compassion for the peasants who lost their traditional culture.
      The process was certainly harsh and cruel, but once France did centralize itself, surrounding nations had little chance but to imitate the process, if only to avoid being attacked. All polities are ultimately forced to ape the strongest one, or they will be bullied or perish outright. That’s why I argue that the EU is a good idea, if only to avoid US hegemony.

  5. Some random commenter April 22, 2012 at 18:26


    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.

    你点知佢哋讲广东话?

    When I was in Shanghai in October 2011, young and old alike were happy to speak to me in Mandarin, although they also do speak Shanghainese.

    Finally, on what basis do you claim that they are erecting barriers to the flow of migrants? When I was in Guangdong in 2010 they were happy to speak to me in either Cantonese or Mandarin or English. My English was better than theirs, but their Cantonese and Mandarin was better than mine, although, for the most part I was speaking to people who were required to know all three languages. Moreover, I know lots of people who work in a large Chinese company headquartered in Shenzhen and they all speak Mandarin with many knowing some Cantonese but not being as good at it as I am.

    • spandrell April 22, 2012 at 20:51

      我識聽呀

      Shenzhen is migrant country, a big majority don’t speak native cantonese. But even there the language is making inroads, many kids of migrants speak it among themselves.

      Of course Mandarin is well spoken and will continue to be there or the foreseeable future. But not so long ago the central government’s policy was to stamp out the dialects forever. You would get beaten up at school for speaking anything other than Mandarin. The actual situation represents a change. A change that is gaining momentum.

      At this rate, it won’t be long until provincial governments make knowledge of the local dialect a requirement for applying for government jobs. The next step may be forcing the private sector to do the same. I think the incentives are there for this to happen.

  6. Pingback: Making Virtue out of Necessity | Bloody shovel

  7. A confused Catalan January 9, 2017 at 16:40

    This hits close to home.

    See, I am Catalan. I’ve lived the “bitter regional hatred” of those damn Castilians all my life. Public schooling here is mandatorily in Catalan, so everybody learns it. As the 30-odd% of the population that speaks it natively, I used to sneer internally at the kids in school that do their schwas or their /z/. It is, as you mention, also required to speak Catalan for a public service job.

    The independentist movement has become more prominent in the last few years, and it is totally an issue of money. There was an independentism before (and, even as a child, it was deeply ingrained in me), but it was a fifth or so of the population, fairly fringe. And, contrary to what you said in the article, Catalan particularism started in the 19th century when the capitalists pushed for textile industry protectionism (IIRC), with an accompanying amount of Catalan literary production. But this is beside the point.

    The question now is: why does the unity of Spain, or any other nation state, matter? For Spain in particular, one argument is that the transition to independence will have too severe costs, and that the maintenance for the institutions of a state (drawing up trade agreements, hopefully only outside the EU; getting a central bank; visa-less travel conventions) will make it a net economic loss. But is that really true? And I don’t want my culture to die (although its current situation within Spain is pretty safe): you may feel no pity for the peasants and their loss, but would you think the same for your own case, if you were a lossy peasant?

    Also, maybe independence will finally prevent the Catalan governmental institutions from blaming Spain, and vice versa, but something else will probably replace that.

    • A confused Catalan January 9, 2017 at 16:44

      Typo: “As the 30-odd% of the population that speak it natively, I used to sneer internally at the kids in school that didn’t do their schwas or their /z/”

    • spandrell January 9, 2017 at 20:54

      Heh, a reasonable Catalan. Benvingut.

      Of course the best thing would have been for the whole Catalan regionalist thing to have never happened in the first place. The people of Catalonia would have forgotten their topolect the same way the myriad topolects in France disappeared. Barcelona would still be an awesome city; you would’ve lost some access to medieval literature, but big deal. That’s the price that Low Germans, most Italians, French and Englishmen paid. And nobody really cares because it was never a political issue at the time and now it’s too late, as much as some people try.

      But of course Catalan regionalism did happen, it got big, and as far as I know it has spiralled recently into insanity. And apparently you don’t really have the money to pull off independence so the whole thing is just a farce. In a signaling spiral, and in a farce, the worst people, the conmen, the evil, the corrupt always end up on top, so if you wanna worry about something I’d worry about the quality of your leadership.

      An official breakup of Spain would be pretty traumatic for the EU in general; I’m not sure whether the consequences would be good or bad. In the abstract small countries (provided they are militarily safe) produce the Patchwork effect, competition breeding good policy and all that. But given that the EU basically makes all relevant regulations I really don’t see what the point of European regionalism is; besides creating a captive populace of dialect speaking provincials.

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