Minority Language Policy in China: An Extrapolation

April 12, 2021
Culture and identity are shaped and borne by language. But when language becomes a tool of political interests, that culture and identity can come under imminent threat. THE LUNAR TIMES spoke to Colin Williams of Cardiff University to explore notions of if and how the language revitalization process of Wales might give insight to the trajectory of regional languages being squeezed into a corner by the Chinese State.
An empty classroom in China.
Often thought of as uniquely human, the systematic combination of sounds and symbols to convey thoughts, feelings, and abstract ideas is said to be what sets humanity apart from other creatures. While the extent to which this notion is true remains widely contested, what is indisputable is the fact that the diversity and relativity of human language is something that paints this world in extraordinary color. How many of us have gazed with romantic eyes upon online lists of “untranslatable” words that include the likes of waldeinsamkeit in German (the feeling of being alone in the woods) or cafuné (running your fingers through the hair of someone you love) in Brazilian Portuguese? Sometimes, unique expressions just make sense when considered in their cultural and geographic context, such as the Hawaiian terms mauka and makai—directional words used for “toward the mountains'' and “toward the sea,” respectively. Other times, at first glance they seem to make hardly any sense at all: take the Swedish expression skita i det blå skåpet, for example, which directly translated means “to shit in the blue cupboard” (the phrase refers to the action of making a foolish mistake). In addition to specific phrasal curios, we ourselves also change up our vocabulary, expressions, or register (the situation-specific cumulation of our communicative modes—verbal, tonal, bodily, etc) in order to communicate identity or group belonging more often than we think, through a social behavior called code switching. And herein lies the essence of language: its inextricability from culture and, consequently, identity. But when overarching geopolitical interests enter the mix… Well, that’s when things can get a bit messy.

Language Policy as State Interest

Language often finds itself at the crux of geopolitics. Case in point: colonization. Imperial powers have long imposed their language onto native and minority populations as part of their sociocultural domination. This is, of course, why nearly half of all French speakers in the world reside in Africa, and why Spanish has the second-highest amount of native speakers in the world after Chinese. Language as a mode of subjugation is not unique to European colonial history, but its systematic utilization as such is characteristic of imperialism. In Hawai’i, for example, teaching and learning through the Hawaiian language was banned three years after the kingdom’s overthrow by the United States in 1893—a ban which would last until 1978. The ban’s overturn came long after 1) the Hawaiian language had lost its traction in society, 2) the former kingdom had been socioculturally expropriated into the American mainstream, and 3) the islands had become a military outpost for the States’ Asia-Pacific aspirations.

Across continents and oceans in Britain, the Welsh language was stripped of its official status far earlier—in 1536. It remained the tongue of the people, but state repression by the English crown became increasingly stringent through the centuries—a process only exacerbated by industrialization and the influx of English speakers into Wales during the Industrial Revolution, what with Wales’ essential role in the production of coal and iron. Sociocultural discrimination against the Welsh language reached something of a zenith in the late 19th century. By that time, Welsh was not being taught in schools, the citizenry were forced to speak English in courts and in business, and a punitive item called the Welsh Not terrorized Welsh schoolchildren: it was a piece of wood inscribed with the letters “WN”, and it was given to any student overheard speaking Welsh in school. If another student was heard speaking Welsh, the Not was passed to them, and whomever was in possession of the Not at the end of the week was punished—by flogging. It was not until the 1950s that Welsh would see some semblance of revival.

In a similar vein, hegemonic cultural expansion has been manifesting in several of China’s autonomous regions for some time.

The mare's Nest of China

According to a 2020 Human Rights Watch Report, recent years in Tibet have seen a dramatic shift in Chinese-medium school instruction in primary schools—and even preschools—which had for decades been the last stronghold of Tibetan-medium schooling. This is in combination with an increasing proliferation of Han Chinese (the predominant ethnocultural group of China) teachers who do not speak Tibetan into the region. Just as well, combined classes of Tibetan-speaking and Tibetan non-speaking students have contributed to the schoolhouse primacy of Mandarin Chinese. All of this exists in an already hostile Tibetan environment: the plight of a government and leader in exile, as well the repression of the citizens left behind, has been in the world’s consciousness for the past sixty years. Similar policies on the part of the Chinese State have formed an integral part of the schisms in Xinjiang, the controversies concerning which have intensified over the past decade.

Inner Mongolia is the latest autonomous region to face the implementation of stringent reforms to language and education. The first of China’s autonomous regions, Inner Mongolia was established in 1947 and has long been regarded as something of a success story in that regard, with high rates of intermarriage with Han Chinese and relatively high proliferation of Mandarin as an operating language. “Inner Mongolian society and culture remains ‘legible’ to Han Chinese in a way that Uyghur and Tibetan society and culture, seen through the lenses of Islamophobia and secularist discourses about ‘primitive superstition’, has not been,” writes Christopher Atwood, an expert on Mongolian history and politics at the University of Pennsylvania. Last autumn, however, the region made headlines for widespread civil disobedience against Chinese educational policy in the region. Parents pulled their children out of class, and protesters gathered in the thousands in rallies against sharp reductions of Mongolian-language instruction and the replacement of Mongolian-language school materials with Mandarin Chinese texts.

The developments in these three regions have once again raised the question of China’s overarching political and cultural goals for its autonomous regions. While China’s official policy is one of bilingualism that promotes competency in both the national Mandarin Chinese and regional minority languages, researchers, analysts, activists, and minority populations alike claim that the actual implementation of language policy in autonomous regions highlights Beijing’s covert position of monoculturalism and monolingualism—with mainstream Han Chinese culture and language at its core.

This strategy of monoculturalism and monolingualism cannot be considered without a look at the geopolitical roles of these regions: resource and energy–rich Xinjiang also plays a key role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Tibet is another gateway for China, and forms a strategic link with South Asia, informing India and China’s political relations—as well as holding symbolic significance for Beijing’s supremacy vis a vis Tibetan democracy and religious freedom. Inner Mongolia too carries with it a legacy of struggle for ethnic autonomy, as the modern configuration of an independent Mongolia and China’s Inner Mongolia is the result of historical three-way tensions between autonomy-seeking ethnic Mongolians and the neighboring powers of China and the then-Soviet Union.

Looking Ahead: Language Revitalization in China?

Over and beyond their histories of repression at the hands of an imperialist state, both Hawai’i and Wales have since become exemplars for language revitalization. Hawai’i’s successful educational endeavors have come to be seen as a model for other threatened indigenous languages, and the case of Wales is widely regarded for its success in terms of community-initiated political drive for language revitalization. Hawaiian and Welsh stand together with languages such as Catalan, Irish, and Basque as once-repressed languages and cultural identities that were able to find traction and are now seeing something of a modern renaissance.

Assuming the continuation of language repression and loss in China’s autonomous regions, do successful cases of school-based language revitalization and bilingual education, such as those of Hawai’i and Wales, offer some kind of optimism for the linguistic future of minority China? With language currently informing public dissent and precipitating Chinese state recoil in these areas, it’s difficult to say.

“In Wales [...] large numbers of people historically opposed bilingual schools, because they argued, perhaps with some sympathy, that they were nationalist training grounds. In other words, people’s heightened awareness of being Welsh, Welsh history, Welsh grievances in the past, Welsh economic exploitation, were identified in the formal education which Welsh-medium schools provided. I think that can be exaggerated for political effect, but there’s certainly an element of truth in that. If you are focusing on your own nation as opposed to imperialism, then by definition you are giving more oxygen to things like a separate history, a separate culture, a separate territory—which is very important,” says Colin Williams, Welsh language specialist and activist at Cardiff University.

Given China’s ongoing repression of minority language learning in autonomous region schools, it seems this is a perspective shared by Beijing. In theory, this does not have to be the case. As Williams remarks, “It [separateness] doesn’t necessarily translate to separatism. Being separate is not the same as being independent.” The returns to regional cultural and linguistic identity within the contexts of the semi-autonomous functionings of 1) Hawai’i within the United States, 2) Wales within the United Kingdom, and 3) Catalonia within Spain are a testament to this, though the existence of strong separatist sentiments in these regions must be acknowledged. Unfortunately, the wide variance in notions and desires concerning autonomy and “separateness” among all actors in the Chinese context largely disqualify this perspective as a point of departure.

And this, Williams acknowledges, is a crucial dimension reflected by the comparatively lesser divergence between Wales and Great Britain when compared to Chinese autonomous regions and Beijing. “Superficially, Welsh culture and English culture share the same British administration, politics, and identity in the broader world. The great advantage of Wales being close to England is that it has certain presumptions about the neutrality of the civil service, the professionalism of teachers, the resources available for the production of books, IT, etc.”

Williams continues, “You could argue that because there’s a great similarity in expectation between residence in Wales and residence in England, providing bilingualism isn't a threat or an undermining of British values or British expectations. In no way is Welsh-medium education a denial of Britishness. It’s just an extra layer of being British.”

This is in stark contrast to Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia, in which fissures in culture, identity, and language with the Chinese state run far deeper and with much more widespread antagonism. It seems that as far as Beijing is concerned, as long as regional identity and autonomy pose the shadow of a threat to the Chinese state, the primacy of the hegemony must be enforced—as its implementation of linguistic policies illustrate.

In considerations of their success in language revitalization, strong community voice and the tireless efforts of community activists in Hawai’i and Wales must be acknowledged—after all, as Williams puts it, “The impetus [for language revitalization] comes from the community. From parents, from activists, from students, teachers, intellectuals [...] Government policy is reactive. It’s not necessarily always innovative; it tends to follow social change.” Community will and motivation for language preservation is evident in minority China, if the protests and dissent are any indication. However, the basic foundation of receptivity on the part of the ruling government—even a hesitant receptivity, as was the case in Hawai’i and Wales—is a key aspect that is simply lacking in the Chinese context.

“If you are penalized for identifying as a certain category or group, then in time you learn not to be vociferous. You learn to be quiescent, supplicant. Not so true in democratic societies, but in authoritarian societies, you literally learn your lesson for being different, separate, and maintaining separateness. So some degree of political control, whether it be autonomy, regionalism, or a small-scale parliament, is almost vital to change the conditions of possibility for that language to breathe its own oxygen, to have its own internal strength recognized,” the expert remarks.

The relevancy of reflections on linguistic revitalization for ethnic minorities in autonomous regions of China, then, seems to lie far beyond the horizon. As long as sympathy from the central government is a requisite ingredient in this recipe—no matter how small a quantity—then existing models of language revitalization remain out of the question for minority China. “Without that, of course, it's a struggle, not a competition,” Williams concludes. “Languages are always in competition when they come in contact, but for those without any legal or political reinforcement, it's a constant struggle to survive.”
Andrew zoll
Copy editor of The Lunar Times.
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