It has taken more than 2,100 years for China to achieve some form of linguistic unification. But it has a long way to go yet.
My wife and I decided to eat out at a loud, oily and authentic Chinese restaurant in Box Hill, a suburb of Melbourne.
An overworked Chinese waitress hurried over with a pad and pencil ready to take our order. She was no more than 20 years old, perhaps a student from China working to supplement her income. The restaurant is renown for its authentic home-cooked food and definitely not for its service.
When it comes to ordering at a Chinese restaurant, I have long given up that responsibility to my wife. Being a Shanghai born veteran from the good old motherland, her knowledge of Chinese foods far outweighs my usual 'lap cheong fan' pork sausage rice or Hainan Chicken Rice.
My wife spoke in Mandarin (pu tong hua) the national language of mainland China, the waitress answered in Cantonese, a dialect from the Southern region of China. I noticed the student's answers seemed slightly misaligned with my wife's questions. It became obvious, after a few more questions, the waitress did not understand my wife.
With growing frustration we pointed at the two dishes we wanted written in Chinese on the menu. Almost immediately the waitress understood and scribbled the order on her pad.
"lei huong gong lei ka?" (Are you from Hong Kong) I asked the young student in Cantonese. My Shanghai wife does not speak Cantonese.
"Hai a" (Oh yes) relieved that I could speak Cantonese.
"Ngo mm sek kong putong wa ke" (I cannot speak pu tong hua "mandarin ") placing the tea and two cups on the table and with a slight smile she scuffled off.
Obviously my wife and the waitress understood the written language on the menu, but could not communicate verbally. This juxtaposition of the Chinese language is an issue still facing China today.
The Chinese government recently launched yet another awareness program, targeting 400 million people who do not speak pu tong hua, a reminiscent of the attempt by China's first emperor Qin Shi Huang.
Emperor Qin Shi Huang unified the country with one written language and mandated one spoken language, 'Mandarin' to resolve the issue of mutually unintelligible dialects used by officials in the royal court. Without a follow-up mandate to use Mandarin as the standard spoken vernacular for commoners, Mandarin remained within the royal courts or at least the language of the elite and scholars. The emergence of a new nationalism in the 1900s created the modern vernacular Chinese adopting the new national standard 'putonghua'.
However, with this linguistic unity, why in the year 2014 one Chinese from Shanghai is still unable to communicate with another Chinese from Hong Kong unless they resort to the written language?
The 150-year British rule of Hong Kong may have something to do with it. British sovereignty had isolated the territory from changes in mainland China allowing its local dialect, Cantonese, to remain as the dominant means of verbal communication ahead of English and Mandarin. Hong Kongers understand the written Chinese language, but choose to use Cantonese as the preferred verbal expression of the language. Half the population in Hong Kong are still unable to or choose not to speak Mandarin replicating the issues experienced by the court officials of emperor Qin Shi Huang. Hong Kong even have their own written vernacular Cantonese informally used by the media to reach the masses. A mainland Chinese visiting Hong Kong may not understand some of the billboards around the city.
The linguistic unification of China started 2100 years ago is still ongoing. Give it another few more years, as China continues to flex its economic muscles, there will no doubt be compelling reasons to adopt pu tong hua. Hopefully by the next generation or two a Shanghai person would be able to order food at any Cantonese restaurant all over the world using one common language - Pu Tong Hua.