Which came first- Chinese or Hokkien? You’ll be surprised

Mandarin Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world, with roughly 1.2 billion speakers. It is so useful that even non-Chinese are learning it, bravely attempting to memorise the thousands of logograms and enunciate the proper tones. Dialects such as Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, et cetera- are considered secondary to Chinese, so much so that they are called dialects rather than actual languages. In both China and Singapore, Mandarin Chinese (or Putonghua) is considered the standard. Most of us think of dialects as deviations from normal Chinese. However, you would be surprised to find out that this is not the case.

Cantonese is believed to have originated after the fall of the Han Dynasty in 220AD, when long periods of war caused northern Chinese to flee south, taking their ancient language with them. Hokkien (or Minnan in China) can be traced back to the Quanzhou and Zhangzhou dialects, which originated around a thousand years ago.

Mandarin was documented much later in the Yuan Dynasty in 14th century China. It was later popularised across China by the Communist Party after taking power in 1949 (Source: BBC). As a matter of fact, Putonghua takes after the Beijing dialect in terms of the sound system, with four tones; on the other hand, Hokkien has seven tones.

When the Peoples’ Republic of China was established in 1949, the Communist Party recognised the need for a common language to unite the Chinese people. China is a huge country, with hundreds of mutually unintelligible languages. This would potentially hinder national unity as the millions of Chinese would be unable to even understand each other. As such, Putonghua would be able to ease communication across the PRC and thus became the official language of China.

Singapore elected to echo this approach with the ‘Speak Mandarin Campaign’ in 1979. The objectives then were:

To simplify the language environment for Chinese Singaporeans.

To improve communication and understanding amongst Chinese Singaporeans.

To support the bilingual education policy


Simply put, it was also both a unifying and economic force. The scattered dialect groups of Singapore would have a common identity, and also be able to communicated with mainland Chinese for the purpose of trade. Radio Rediffusion, TV shows in dialect- they were banned from mainstream media to further supplement this policy.

Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich popularised the adage “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” It is merely governmental policy that gives different statuses to these languages. But in fact, dialects are languages in their own right, containing ethnic culture and history that standard Chinese cannot replicate. Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, and the hundreds of dialects spoken in and outside of China- they are just as legitimate as, perhaps even richer than, Chinese.

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