This is my question, almost every program, TV Show, movie... everything has subtitles, one reason could be that there are many different accents in different provinces but I don't really find that convincing, because that happens in every language.

Does anyone know the real answer¿?


There are Chinese-language-only reasons like the many mutually-unintelligible dialects/topolects, the huge difference between spoken and written Chinese languages, but this doesn't explain why subtitling is ubiquitous, even when the entire show is in perfect Mandarin.

This is because subtitles are somewhat required under PRC state authorities, so there are a few other benefits/purposes for subtitling.

  • It improves literacy; according to OECD standards of literacy, China has about 80% literacy rate, meaning there are large sections of the populace that are illiterate. SLS (same language subtitling) has been shown to improve literacy, and apart from China this is also done in parts of India for the same reason.
  • It makes it easier to understand regional colloquialisms, as the subtitles will replace them with Mandarin versions. For example, the Cantonese "nei hai bin dou", instead of being shown as "你喺邊度", will be subtitled as "你在哪里".
  • It is more accessible to deaf viewers. Note that most other countries provide optional closed captions for this purpose.
  • It pushes Mandarin/putonghua hegemony, national unity and so on.

This is all enforced by SAPPRFT/SARFT (the equivalent of FCC, but much more powerful) under something called the Language Law. It is constantly evolving, and only really became prominent around the late 90s I believe. This is why if you look at older TV shows, they may not have subtitles. This state organ enforces many other things like requiring Mandarin proficiency for TV presenters, standardised Mandarin terminology, quotas for types of shows deemed less beneficial like reality-TV, historically-inaccurate dramas etc.

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There are not just different accents in different regions. There are different spoken languages, using essentially the same written language.

And on this point, very distinctive English accents such as Jamaican or deep country accents from Appalachia are sometimes subtitled on American English language television.

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  • Yeah, regional differences are much, much more dramatic in China. Comparing to the USA is a telling example... Before Europeans, there were many prominent and significantly different languages in North America, but they were largely wiped out. The groups of east Asia that ended up in modern China didn't face that and their languages continue. – Mike M Sep 18 '17 at 5:20
  • I think your view is correct. The most upvoted answer just talking about this is a rule of authorities, but he didn't go deeper to interfere why authorities need to do that. – Kevman Oct 4 '17 at 18:40

Chinese has a lot of dialects, but most of them are written the same way. And in the country with the most people in the WORLD, some of them are deaf or hard-of-hearing. Hardcoded subtitles are also the best option, because some people mightn't be able to switch on optional subtitles because they might have a very old TV or can't find the remote.

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