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Gong Chu (龔楚) in his Memoir mentioned that the Chinese Communists in Jinggangshan soviet district between 1931 and 1934 had a shortage of representatives in a Cantonese unit of the red army because few communist leaders can speak Cantonese.

I wonder what language a Cantonese leader like Gong Chu himself spoke in a regular communist meeting. What language did Gong speak when he conversed with Zhu De or Zhou Enlai?

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The Communists' common language was probably Mandarin. Beijing had been the Imperial capital during the preceding dynasties, and its local language became the administrative tongue of the empire -- the language in which civil servants worked. This implication is the origin of the word "Mandarin", referring to bureaucrats. Educated people in the rest of the country were then as now, more likely to understand Mandarin, than its speakers were to understand the other regional languages.

  • Thanks. Mao is known to make no effort at all to speak any dialect other then his own; having difficulties to understand Mao's dialect had been a major complaint of his English interpreters. It is curious how these people hobnobbed and quarrelled with each other, not to mention picking up subtle emotional cues. – George Chen May 4 '17 at 16:37
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During the early 20th century, most people with some education can speak Mandarin. However, they tend to speak it with a heavy accent. What Mao speaks in his speeches isn't exactly Hunanese, but more like Mandarin with a very heavy Hunan accent. When the leaders (whom all are at least partially educated) have a meeting, they likely spoke Mandarin (many with heavy accents). By the way, Zhu De is Hakka and probably spoke Hakka natively; Zhou Enlai, from Huaian, Jiangsu, was probably the only of them who spoke a variety of Mandarin natively (yet his Mandarin is still quite different from the lingua franca, Beijing Mandarin).

You could also found recordings of Sun Yat-sen's and Chiang Kai-shek's speeches online; they both spoke with very strong accents, but they're still speaking Mandarin. The difference is that, if they speak Mandarin you'll have a hard time understanding them, but if they spoke their own dialect (Cantonese and Wu, respectively), you will likely not understand them at all.

That being said, many soldiers don't have any education and most of them couldn't speak Mandarin. That's why there was a demand for a officer corps that could speak multiple dialects.

  • Excellent. If you can cite some eye-witness account of these leaders' accents, that will be perfect. – George Chen May 6 '17 at 14:20
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    @GeorgeChen One could easily find Mao, Zhou, Sun or Chiang's speeches on YouTube. I didn't find Zhu De's speech, though, so that was pure speculation. – xuq01 May 6 '17 at 14:36
  • The question does not mention accents. – Aaron Brick May 7 '17 at 18:58
  • According to Zhang's interview, Zhang Xueliang (Northeast) and Chiang kai-chek (Southeast) had serious language barriers between them. Mutually intelligible phrases were very limited; there was no subtlety to speak of, not to mention emotional cues. Flatteries and ingratiations were often passed without being noticed, and were often misunderstood. Chiang didn't appear to appreciate the kind of humour that was pregnant in Zhang's speech. history.dwnews.com/news/2017-05-27/59817316.html – George Chen Jun 2 '17 at 16:34

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