Taking aim at the conventional narrative that standard, national languages transform 'peasants' into citizens, Gina Anne Tam centers the history of the Chinese nation and national identity on fangyan - languages like Shanghainese, Cantonese, and dozens of others that are categorically different from the Chinese national language, Mandarin. She traces how, on the one hand, linguists, policy-makers, bureaucrats and workaday educators framed fangyan as non-standard 'variants' of the Chinese language, subsidiary in symbolic importance to standard Mandarin. She simultaneously highlights, on the other hand, the folksong collectors, playwrights, hip-hop artists and popular protestors who argued that fangyan were more authentic and representative of China's national culture and its history. From the late Qing through the height of the Maoist period, these intertwined visions of the Chinese nation - one spoken in one voice, one spoken in many - interacted and shaped one another, and in the process, shaped the basis for national identity itself.
Gina Tam is an associate professor of history and co-chair of Women and Gender Studies at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas; she is also a Public Intellectual Fellow at the National Committee on US-China Relations, a Wilson Center China Fellow, and the Book Review Editor for the Journal of Asian studies. Her interest, at its core, is how the identities we ascribe to ourselves or are ascribed to us-- including gender, national identity, race, ethnicity, and class-- translate into access or the removal of access to cultural, political, and material power. Her research has examined these themes in the history of modern China. Her first book, Dialect and Nationalism, winner of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Best Book Prize, explores the relationship between language and national identity from the late Qing through the height of the Maoist period.