No Laughing Matter: Learning to Speak the "Common Language" in 1950s China

Colloquium | January 25 | 4-6 p.m. | 180 Doe Library

 Janet Chen, Associate Professor of History and East Asian Studies, Princeton University

 Wen-hsin Yeh, Professor, Department of History, UC Berkeley

 Center for Chinese Studies (CCS)

In the winter and early spring of 1956, a series of articles appeared in nationally circulating publications, featuring an earnest entreaty: please do not laugh at those who are trying to learn putonghua, the “common language” of the socialist state. Beyond the headlines, permutations of the same refrain echoed in different forums. At the opening stages of a campaign to “popularize the common language,” the message was a curious one. What were people laughing at, and why? What was so comical about learning the language recently anointed as the spoken standard? This paper explores the vexing issues that emerged in the campaign for speech standardization in the early years of the People’s Republic. From 1955-1958, Communist Party propaganda enjoined “everyone” to do their utmost to learn putonghua, while forecasting the achievement of linguistic unity in the near future. Yet in between the lines of such sanguine predictions, persistent allusions to confusion and mockery surfaced. Where did these attitudes come from? What did laughter signify about popular reactions to the ideological assumptions embedded in the project of unifying speech? I explore these questions by examining the social and political dynamics of learning to speak a new standard language in the mid-1950s.