SHANGHAI — Thousands of years of Chinese linguistic heritage have come down to this: a squabble over Tom and Jerry.
Dubbed into regional Chinese dialects, the warring cat and mouse have been huge TV hits -- and a good way to pass home-grown culture down to the younger generation, programmers say.
Not so fast, says the central government up north in Beijing, which for decades has promoted standard Mandarin as the only Chinese language worthy of the airwaves. The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television has ordered an end to broadcasting in dialect, saying kids should be raised in a "favorable linguistic environment."
The move has put Tom and Jerry -- or "Cat and Mouse," as the show is called here -- at the center of a long-running debate about how to maintain national cohesion amid a linguistic sea of highly distinct regional accents, dialects and wholly separate language groups.
"As an artist, I think dialect should be preserved as a part of local culture," said Zhang Dingguo, deputy director of the Shanghai People's Comedy Troupe, which does Tom and Jerry in Shanghainese.
"Schools don't allow Shanghainese to be spoken, and now TV doesn't either. It looks like Shanghai comedy will be dying out," he added.
The government calls the Mandarin policy vital to promoting a common Chinese identity in this vast land of 1.3 billion people, 56 ethnic groups and seven main Chinese dialects spoken by the Han ethnic majority.
"Thank you" is pronounced "xie xie" in Beijing, "do jey" in Hong Kong and "sha zha" in Shanghai. Need to know a price? Ask "wa tsui gim" in Fujian, but "duoshao qian" in Mandarin-speaking northern China.
The pronunciation of Chinese surnames can induce mild identity crisis. Mr. Xu (pronounced "shoe") in northern China becomes Mr. Ko in Fujian, which itself is called Hokkien in the local dialect.
Promotion of Mandarin -- known here as "putonghua," or "common tongue" -- began in the 1920s and became policy in 1955, six years after the communists seized power. Its use has been encouraged through an unending series of social campaigns, including the current one featuring TV presenter Wang Xiaoya on billboards exhorting Shanghainese to "speak Mandarin ... be a modern person."
In the latest campaign, Shanghai city officials are being required to attend classes on perfecting their pronunciation, schools are nominating contestants in citywide Mandarin speech contests, and foreigners are being invited to Mandarin classes.
Totally distinct from Chinese, the languages of minority groups such as Tibetans, Uighurs and Mongolians are officially recognized and taught in schools. Important documents are translated into major minority tongues and four of them -- Tibetan, Mongolian, Uighur and Zhuang -- appear on Chinese bank notes.
Chinese dialects are based on the same system of writing. That means that Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong can enjoy subtitled Mandarin movies and Mandarin-speakers can order off Chinese menus in the far west of the country.
Rising incomes, greater travel freedom and the spread of education are also helping to break down linguistic barriers. Yet no one is predicting that they'll dissolve entirely -- or soon.
"Many parts of China are heading for a situation of what linguists call diglossia, where there is one 'high' or public language ... and one 'low' or local language that is used among friends and family," said Stevan Harrell, an expert on Chinese languages at the University of Washington.
Use of dialects may even be strengthening in some areas with strong local identities, sometimes for economic reasons. In Guangzhou (that's Mandarin for the great southern city of Canton), broadcasters are allowed to speak Cantonese to compete with the nearby Hong Kong stations.
In places like Guangzhou and Shanghai, prevalence of the local dialect helps exclude outsiders from social networks that are key to securing good jobs and entry to better schools. Outsiders say it smacks of bigotry.
"If you want to find a good job and be a success in Shanghai, you have to speak Shanghainese. Even if you do, they can pick you out by your accent and discriminate against you," said Steven Li, an accounting student flying home to the western city of Chongqing.
Preservation, not exclusion, was the purpose of Tom and Jerry in dialect, said Zhang, the producer.
"You've got Shanghainese kids who can't even speak Shanghainese," he said. "I have friends who've moved to Shanghai and want to learn the language to better integrate into local society.
"Isn't watching TV easier than studying textbooks?"
Zhang cites semi-legal Shanghainese broadcasting that pops up on local radio as evidence of continued demand for dialect programming. For now, Tom and Jerry will continue in Shanghainese on video, along with other versions in close to a dozen dialects.
Oddy enough, Tom and Jerry didn't speak in the original cartoons, so the dialect versions give them voices they never had.