Everyday I run into people from different parts of China. Living in one of China’s major cities it is quite common to meet someone from any one of the over 25 differences provinces and special zones in China’s landscape. I’ve spent the last 30 years learning Chinese so communication in Mandarin is not too big of a problem for me but what might not be inherently obvious is that 100 years ago that level of communication between people from different provinces would have been much more difficult, perhaps even impossible.
How could that be? While China has shared a common written language for many hundreds of years they haven’t always shared a common spoken language. Consider the Chinese word for Mandarin. The Chinese word is putonghua which literally means “common language” when referring to oral language.
When you travel throughout China you quickly begin to realize that people in different cities and provinces speak a different form of oral Chinese. These different forms of oral Chinese are referred to by the government as “dialects” but linguists who have researched these “dialects” have said that in many cases they are really different languages.
While China has long been unified by a common written language it has only recently been more unified by a common spoken language. The Communist party centralized and systematized the primary and secondary education and in that education system they revolutionized China. More people than ever before were able to receive a basic education and part of being educated meant learning putonghua or Mandarin. A common oral language was a strategic move because the party could more easily spread propaganda that way.
In modern China there is a greater ease than before with which people from differing regions can communicate with one another because of this common oral language that they learn as part of their formal education. As China urbanizes, this common language helps. Having a common language allows for a greater level of communication between people from vastly different parts of China who gather and settle in China’s urban centers which in turn helps with commerce and governmental affairs.
A common form of communication, a higher level of education and greater ease of connecting people from all parts of China all have another unexpected consequence. They are all factors in contributing to the spread of the gospel in China. In the ancient Roman Empire the roads, the common language (Greek) and the political unity that characterized the empire, all contributed to the spread of the gospel in the first few centuries of the early church. China, like the Roman Empire, has experienced a combination of similar factors that have contributed to the churches amazing growth.
There is one more similarity as well between China and the Roman Empire. Both are/were ruled by leaders who were hostile to the gospel but ultimately set up a system that unintentionally promoted the growth of the church. I think that’s called divine irony.