In the winter and early spring of 1956, a series of articles appeared in nationally circulating publications, featuring an earnest entreaty: please do not laugh at those who are trying to learn putonghua, the “common language” of the socialist state. Beyond the headlines, permutations of the same refrain echoed in different forums. At the opening stages of a campaign to “popularize the common language,” the message was a curious one. What were people laughing at, and why? What was so comical about learning the language recently anointed as the spoken standard? This paper explores the vexing issues that emerged in the campaign for speech standardization in the early years of the People’s Republic. From 1955-1958, Communist Party propaganda enjoined “everyone” to do their utmost to learn putonghua, while forecasting the achievement of linguistic unity in the near future. Yet in between the lines of such sanguine predictions, persistent allusions to confusion and mockery surfaced. To cope with the disarray and fortify the people’s commitment, linguists and educators embarked on efforts to improve language pedagogy and ameliorate perceived deficits of linguistic knowledge. In doing so, they explicitly invoked the expertise of Soviet linguists, but also implicitly drew on a reservoir of research and experience dating back to the 1920s and 1930s, when Euro-American linguistics had been significantly influential. Thus the attempt to consolidate a “common language” repackaged different forms of linguistic knowledge and practices for the needs of a socialist state.