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Minority Languages Stare into the Abyss

Will China's minority languages survive the rush to modernity?


Not so long ago, Manchu was the official language of the most powerful empire in the world. The people who spoke it came over through the northern wilds to establish the Qing Dynasty in 1644, and managed to double China’s size while ruling her for nearly 300 years. Millions of people could claim to be native Manchu speakers, including several hundred thousand in Beijing alone, and these held a privileged place in Chinese society as the representatives and defenders of the emperor himself. Evidence of this time lives on in the 2 million official records they left in the Manchurian script, invaluable historical documents for the study of late-imperial China.

But that was then. Today native Manchu speakers can be counted on fingers and toes. They are all located in the small village of Sanjiazi in the northeastern Heilongjiang province, and all are over 80 years of age. There have been some efforts to keep the language alive, but it is on life support, expected to be doomed to history once the last of these old residents leaves this world behind. Uncontaminated Manchu will become a thing for specialists, presumably the same people who will be spending however many generations translating the archives of the Qing dynasty. That’s not to say, though, that the ethnic Manchu people have died out. 10 million claim to live in China today, but all natively speak some form of putonghua, the language of their ancestors having long since been forgotten.

This sad story is not an uncommon one. While China enjoys a fabulous linguistic diversity, many of them may not live out the next few generations. A recent Chinese study identified 129 “independent” languages being spoken within her borders but went on to say that 117 were facing the threat of extinction, and 20 of these could claim only 1,000 speakers or fewer. Although there are many contributing factors to this assault on human diversity, among the most obvious is the prevalence of putonghua, Mandarin Chinese, the native tongue of the Han people, who make up a whopping 93% of this country’s 1.3 billion person population.

The tides of recent history have not been friendly to China’s minority languages, with both communism and capitalism posing their different sets of challenges. Advocates of the former ideology had big plans when they declared the arrival of a “New China” in 1949. Seven years later there began a huge push to standardize the national language. Putonghua came as a national force with little regard for any regional variations, and since that time generations of schoolchildren have been trained in the centrally-mandated idiom.

Capitalism came with a new set of problems. Often these minorities are located in the impoverished fringe provinces of west or north China where they face obstacles to social mobility in a system that has long since been rigged against them. Even in those places that are ancestral homelands, Han Chinese hold the reigns of power and, in a culture where business and politics are often virtually one and the same, Han Chinese are awarded all the lucrative benefits that come with such advantages. As a result, many minority people have pulled up anchor, joining the many millions who are migrating through China in search of economic opportunities. Often this leads them to the wealthy cities of the east. Far from their homeland, and completely inundated with Han culture, their traditional ways of life have little chance of survival in these foreign surroundings. And what’s the point in mastering your esoteric mother-tongue when it might affect your fluency of Chinese, an indispensable tool for success in the 21st Century?

Nominally the government is supposed to protect the traditions and languages of minorities, but little of this has actually happened in practice. An obvious example is embedded in the words “Autonomous Region.” The implication is that these are parts of China where minorities are in fact majorities, and are by-and-large self-governing, working for the people and by the people to improve their lives and protect their cultures. It never really turns out this way, and the quality-of-life of minority people disproportionately lags behind that of the Han. Unsurprisingly, with Han Chinese in power in these regions, many of the laws passed in Beijing over the years, laws that claim to serve minorities, go unenforced on the local level. This hints at another obstacle in protecting threatened languages from extinction: that meaningful reform will fail due to the inability for national and regional authorities to coordinate their efforts.

In other instances the negative effects on minority languages are more deliberate. This usually occurs in regions with sensitive ethnic politics, such as in Xinjiang, the enormous northwestern province that has been the scene of conflict in recent years. Here the local Uyghur people claim that the central government is actively trying to destroy their traditional language by subsidizing Han migration and marginalizing them economically (though some might dispute this take).

While the government has failed to produce much by way of meaningful results in the preservation of China’s lesser-spoken tongues, the work of some NGOs has been encouraging. In Yunnan (which is home to 25 of China’s 55 minorities) the US-based Summer Institute of Linguistics has been working in conjunction with local authorities to help preserve the Bai people’s language. They have discovered that preschool children who receive two years of schooling in Bai before being introduced to lessons in putonghua are likely to do better on their test scores in latter years. One man involved in the project stated that “[kids] who learned their mother tongue first are much better at learning putonghua and show much better progress in cognitive development.” This statement may be more consequential than it sounds. For many minority parents, the concern for future test results (all tests being in Chinese) convinces them to underscore the importance of putonghua in the home – the death-knell of many a fading language.

Ultimately, in order to keep a language alive, the cultural life surrounding it must be a vibrant one. It remains to be seen how many more of these repositories of culture get confined to the dustbin of history before China and her minorities can figure out the right balance between tradition and modernity.


Image taken from imagarcade.com showing young Bai women in their traditional dress.

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