“From the Gold Rush to the Property Rush: Mandarin Speakers” – Musings from an Australian perspective

The next excerpt from Barry Li’s The New Chinese is part history part statistics. Let’s just say outright that the numbers he provides from 2010 – 60 million native Cantonese speakers, 365 million native English speakers (one million for every day of the year!), and 960 million native Mandarin speakers – are incomprehensibly scary. How does the number of native English speakers from UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Zimbabwe and all the others not even match half that of Mandarin speakers? If there were 960 million native French speakers in the world, I guarantee you most schools would be teaching French as a second language. Why does it feel like the Western world is so behind on learning all/any Asian language? (If you’ve arrived here having no idea who Barry Li is, what ‘new Chinese’ means, or why it may even all be relevant, then feel free to jump back just a few posts.)

Other statistics in the excerpt include the number of Mandarin speakers in Australia, based on the 2001 and 2011 census. The finding from the 2016 census (of which I was a very handy Field Officer with my yellow satchel, knocking on your door and asking for your papers, please don’t hate me) were released a few weeks after the publication of this book, so we can now add them in. The count for ‘at home Mandarin speakers’ in 2016 came in at over 590,000, a jump from the 336,000 in 2011. Compare this to the rate of change from 2001 where there was a recorded 220,000. In the last five years alone, arrival from predominately mainland China, has grown significantly, highlighting Australia’s ever changing diversity landscape and the demand to greater understand what Li calls the ‘new Chinese’.

With statistics like this it’s easy to forget that not all Chinese people speak Mandarin or Cantonese. Most certainly do, and many both. But age and location can play a part in changing this ability to communicate in a central language. When I was in Hainan a few years back, in a very small rural village, I was part of a teachers’ ‘home visit’ to families, reminding parents that the school holidays were approaching. Notes had been sent out earlier, but they couldn’t assume all parents understood the full contents. The group of teachers split into different parties and they were very fussy about what people went in which group. I understood why when we encountered a student’s grandmother; she spoke only the local dialect, Hainanese. In each of the teachers’ group they had made sure to have a teacher who had grown up in Hainan province. Sounding nothing akin to Mandarin, Hainanese is only learnt informally on Hainan.My ignorance in the complexity of language showed when I watched two Chinese women converse, added by another Chinese woman translating (and I comprehended none of it).  Whether you speak that language or not marks you as a Chinese from the same hometown or as someone from outside. The same is true for other provinces and dialects. I met a northern Chinese women who had married a Hainan man and had gone to a lot of effort to learn Hainanese to be accepted as one of them, even though she could already converse with nearly everyone fluently already in Mandarin! Talking about those in Shanghai, Li explains that the older generation especially, “often despise people who do not speak Shanghainese (a trait they share with some Cantonese speakers)”. In schools, at work, the language is Mandarin. In shops, on the street, at home, the language is the local one. As someone who has grown up in a country without dialects it is rather disconcerting watching two people have a conversation in one language in one particular setting, and then both change to another language when they’re in a different situation.

There’s another important aspect Li touches on, that I’m sure he will return to, which is his belief that Australians have the misconception that all mainland Chinese are Communists with “aggressive political views”. “This could not be further from the truth”, Li says, with “many of the younger generation [having] zero knowledge of or interest in political matters in China”. Whether it’s because any political decision or change seems impossible to have sway in as an individual (not only for because of the political structure but also because of the population size), or whether it’s because there’s little impact on the younger generation from the Chinese government, meaning little need to become politically aware, will be interesting to find out in further chapters.


Photo taken in Beijing, April 2017. Not a photographer – just going through the photos I have and finding a new purpose for them.