Skip to main content

Book Talk: The Sounds of Mandarin with Janet Chen

September 8, 2023

On Thursday, October 12 at 3:30pm in Thomson Hall 317 UW-TSP welcomed Professor Janet Chen to discuss her newly published monograph, The Sounds of Mandarin: Learning to Speak a National Language in China and Taiwan, 1913–1960. This talk was featured in person and online. To view the recording, please visit our YouTube channel or watch below:

Mandarin Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world today. In China, a country with a vast array of regional and local vernaculars, how was this national language created – and how did people learn to speak it? The Sounds of Mandarin traces the surprising social history of a spoken standard, from its creation as the national language of the early Republic in 1913, to its journey to postwar Taiwan, and its reconfiguration as the “common language” of the People’s Republic after 1949.

This book talk will focus on Taiwan from 1945-1955, when the triangular competition between Japanese kokugo, a newly arrived guoyu, and the island’s varied vernacular speech confounded the Guomindang’s attempt to mandate a change in speech norms. In the formative years of the post “retrocession” period, the government’s language agenda was derailed by an acute teacher shortage, and by the perception that mainlanders could hardly speak the national language themselves. Over the course of a decade, even as guoyu was elevated as the new prestige language, patchy enforcement and popular rejection indicated that the national language could not mask its uncertain status as an interloper.

Janet Y. Chen is Professor of History and East Asian Studies at Princeton University, where she has taught since 2006. She received her B.A. from Williams College and her Ph.D. from Yale University. She is the author of Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1913-1953.

This event is made possible by the generous support of the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange.