Episode 44: Who and What We Are

A feature story from The Guardian in 2010 highlighted fears among 7-million native Cantonese speakers living in Guangzhou that their language was under attack by Chinese state authorities, including a proposal to have local television programs broadcast in Mandarin, the ‘common’ language of the Chinese state, in an effort to promote ‘unity.’ The German philosopher nationalist Johann Gottfried Herder once claimed that “each nation speaks in accordance with its thought and thinks in accordance with its speech.”Advocates on all sides of the Chinese language debate tend to claim the cultural high ground of ‘authenticity’ for their particular culture or language, often making an appeal to ‘history’ for support in defining “who and what” the Chinese people really are.

Our History

“We birthed a nation from nothing,” says Rick Santorum, the goggle-eyed Christian nut job and former U.S. Senator. For Santorum’s audience it is all too clear who he means by “we” – an imagined nation of white Christian people hermetically sealed in time and exclusively responsible for the authentic American identity. Well, from the nothingness of Rick Santorum’s historical mind to the machinations of China’s language authorities, the history police never tire of telling us who and what we really are. According to historian Prasenjit Duara, the nation-state “stakes its claim to sovereign authority, in part, as custodians of authenticity,” and we regularly see efforts by sovereigns and stewards of the national interest to determine the cultural norms that most authentically define us. Our guest this episode, Gina Anne Tam is the author of Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860-1960, a fascinating look at how various sovereign interests and cultural arbiters in China’s nation-building project wielded language as a litmus for defining China’s ‘authentic’ identity. From melting pot to Middle Kingdom, we consider how claims of cultural authenticity reflect more often the interests of national marketing than the lived experience of people.

To hear Episode 44:

Click on this link to hear Episode 44 Who and What We Are

Gina Anne Tam

Sources Referenced and Items of Interest

Gina Anne Tam, Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860-1960

Gina Anne Tam, “Mother Tongues” (June 26, 2018 Los Angeles Review of Books)

Colin Jones, Review of Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860-1960 (August 18, 2020 Los Angeles Review of Books)

Edward Wong, “U.S. Labels Chinese Language Education Group a Diplomatic Mission” (August 13, 2020 New York Times)

Jesus Jiménez, “CNN Drops Rick Santorum After Dismissive Comments About Native Americans” (May 22, 2021 New York Times)

Michael Leroy Oberg, “Rick Santorum and His Critics are Both Wrong About Native American History” (April 29, 2021 The Washington Post)

Mexican inspired? Why do some people consider Taco Bell not to be Mexican food? How does their food differ from authentic Mexican food?

Phil Mongredien, “Mdou Moctar: Afrique Victime review – wild, virtuosic Tuareg blues“. (May 23, 2021 The Guardian)

Sam Sodomsky, review of Mdou Moctar’s Afrique Victime (May 20, 2021, Pitchfork)

“Their intoxicating aspirations for Chinese unity ushered in a subtle if not insidious amnesia among the next generation of reformers. China’s continuous history became normative – not critically analyzed as an invented narrative, but spoken about as fact. Such an imagining of China’s history imbues most descriptions of the nation today.”

Gina Anne Tam

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