go to top
A calligrapher in Beijing, China. Photo: Calligrapher in Beijing, China, Oct. 3, 2005 (photo by Wikimedia user floybix licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license).

China’s Language Policy Goes Global

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Twenty years ago, hardly anyone outside of China and Taiwan gave any thought to Chinese. Though spoken by a whole lot of people in a rapidly developing country, the language was seen as obscure, possibly nearly unlearnable. Nowadays, however, Mandarin Chinese language instruction worldwide is experiencing huge growth. Increasingly, Chinese is not just being taught in elite U.S. secondary and tertiary schools, it is also being spoken more in areas where China has secured access to key natural resources, like Australia, Kazakhstan and sub-Saharan Africa.

Meanwhile, Mandarin has also eclipsed all other varieties of Chinese as the premier language of China. And despite the huge amount of economic development China has carried out in its minority areas, ethnic-based flare-ups continue to persist in regions like Tibet and Xinjiang. In all of these cases, language identity and Chinese language policy is key to understanding events.

[ SPECIAL FREE TRIAL OFFER: Get 14 days of FREE ACCESS to World Politics Review—including access to 10,000+ articles in the library and daily updates about global affairs—right now. And when you act today, you’ll also receive a FREE copy of the special report Trump and the Death of the Liberal World Order: What Comes Next? Sign up now! ]

Language as Central to China's National Identity

Language has been an enduring pillar of China's national identity. When the People's Republic of China (PRC) was triumphantly established in 1949, two of the first tasks that the new government undertook in its nation-building project were to promote Mandarin Chinese and to classify the languages within China's borders. These two acts resulted not only in the formal recognition of over 50 ethnic groups and their languages, they also set the stage for Mandarin's ascendance over all other kinds of Chinese.

Neither the number of official languages nor Mandarin's ascendance was a given at the time; China is a highly multilingual nation, with about 200 languages now represented, including about 10 separate languages considered to be Chinese. But speakers of Mandarin, for example, cannot understand anything much of what speakers of Cantonese say, even though both Mandarin and Cantonese are kinds of Chinese; such mutual unintelligibility is, from a purely formal perspective, what distinguishes one “language” from another. But determining separate languages also involves questions of national identities, including national boundaries, ethnicities and writing systems. So although Dutch and German speakers understand each other, they are considered to be speaking two different languages. And while academic linguists correctly identify Cantonese and Mandarin as different languages, in the popular view, Cantonese and Mandarin are “dialects” of Chinese.

Chinese is known as Hanyu, the language of the Hans. All of the people who identify ethnically as Han would say that they all speak one or another “dialect” of the same Hanyu language. So Hanyu is an umbrella concept for all the varieties of Chinese, and Han for all the ethnically Chinese speakers of Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Hakka and other varieties of Chinese, whose written forms all use basically the same Chinese characters. Many of these different Han groups have very different local and regional identities, noticeable not only in the contrast between the numbing fire of a Sichuan dish and the soothing comfort of Cantonese dim sum, but also in a north-south divide of negative stereotypes that can be compared to U.S. northerner-southerner stereotypes.

Language has been an enduring pillar of China's national identity

The vast majority of China's population—nearly 92 percent, or about a billion people, as of 2010—is Han Chinese; the remaining 8 percent of the population comprises China’s 55 ethnic minorities. Ethnic minorities are numerous in China’s vast border areas, especially in the west, whereas the Han Chinese population is concentrated in the eastern and southern parts of the country. All are “Zhongguo ren,” or citizens of China.

China’s linguistic landscape reflects the broader worldwide phenomenon of rapidly shrinking linguistic diversity. In China, as in North America, there were likely nearly twice as many languages 60 years ago as there are today. Back then, limiting the number of official languages even to 56, the seemingly unworkable number currently recognized in China today, was a massive undertaking. In the early 1950s, after researchers fanned out into remote villages in China’s peripheries, the identification of languages and ethnic minorities, or “shaoshu minzu,” was both a bottom-up product of detailed ethnographic work based on Stalinist criteria, as well as a top-down process of lumping and splitting.

Some heterogeneous groups were lumped under one ethnolinguistic macro-group encompassing millions of speakers and many languages, such as Tibetan, Mongol, Yi, Miao and of course the Han Chinese themselves. On the opposite extreme, closely related groups were split into two or more official ethnolinguistic groups, with occasionally mystifying results. For example, take the group of Mongols originally from a town called Bao'an: Those who stayed in the town were identified as the Tu ethnicity, while those who had left and, crucially, also had become Muslims got officially designated as Bao'an. In theory, language, culture and economy were all part of recognition as an ethnic group in China; but without a distinct language, people were liable to be classified as belonging to the dominant regional group. This meant, for example, that some Manchus who no longer spoke their Manchu language were classified as Han Chinese, and some Uzbeks who no longer spoke Uzbek were classified as Uyghur.

Language is therefore the feature that defines an ethnic group in modern China, with one important exception: Islam. Most Muslims in China are either Turkic-speaking—Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, among others, totaling about 15 million people in western China—or Chinese-speaking, such as the so-called Hui (Dunggans), totaling about 12 million people in 2012. Many of the Chinese-speaking Hui Muslims trace their ancestry to Han Chinese as well as to Arab and Persian merchants, but officially, the Hui are a separate ethnic group from the Hans. And Chinese linguists have toiled and published in the service of the entirely fictitious and ideological claim that the Chinese spoken by Huis in a given place is different from the Chinese spoken by Hans there. Even a non-Hui who has become Muslim will generally be officially categorized as Hui; so upon adopting Islam, for example, Tibetan speakers who are descendants of Tibetans become officially Hui. Likewise, the 4,500 Muslim Tsat people on Hainan Island in southeastern China speak a Malayo-Polynesian language; by linguistic criteria, the Tsat uncontroversially count as an unrecognized ethnolinguistic group, but they, too, are officially classified as Hui, purely because of their Muslim religion. This de facto policy of defining Muslims as an “other like no others” is not applied to Chinese citizens who embrace Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity or other religions.

The official recognition of 56 ethnic groups thus served as the basis for defining a Chinese nation-state that is multi-ethnic, encompassing both Han and non-Han, but centrally unified with an overarching Chinese identity as Zhongguo ren, citizens of China. China’s nominally pluralistic identity dominated by a highly ideological national identity closely parallels that of the former Soviet Union. The overwhelming numerical and political dominance of the Han Chinese in China—like that of the Russians and the Russian language in the Soviet Union—is mitigated by pluralistic discourses that all 56 groups share a pan-Chineseness.

How Mandarin Became King: Societal and Economic Implications

The promotion of Mandarin as the premier variety of Chinese and the national language of China was a cornerstone of national development and ethnic unity. Termed Putonghua, “the common language,” by the nascent Chinese state 60 years ago, modern Mandarin is based on a variety of northern Chinese. This choice, and the capital's location in Beijing, raised the prestige of the language of northern Chinese cities like Beijing and Xian by association, and subtly lowered the prestige of languages spoken in southern cities like Shanghai, Fujian and Guangdong. These are cities where other varieties of Chinese are spoken—Wu, Min and Yue, respectively—and where there has been considerable concern about Mandarin and northern Chinese culture hastening the demise of local Han Chinese cultures and languages. Even these concerns within the broader Han group have the potential to be destabilizing.

The learnability of the characters with which Chinese has been written for several thousand years was also a source of concern to the founders of the PRC. Planners worried that teaching such a complex writing system might hamper the achievement of the goal of widespread literacy. Thus, another cornerstone of the unified national Mandarin language policy became the promotion of simplified Chinese characters. With a Latin-based system called pinyin as a learning bridge, simplified characters have been established as a successful standard in the PRC today, promoted because of their practicality and as an aid to literacy. Traditional Chinese characters are in use in Taiwan and to some extent in Hong Kong and Macau, and among overseas Chinese. Those lamenting the demise of traditional characters in mainland China note that PRC citizens are now cut off from any works written in Chinese prior to the 1950s, amounting to at least 3,000 years of classical literature, history, philosophy and so on. In 2009, there was even a campaign in Taiwan for World Heritage status recognition for traditional characters. The debates between proponents and opponents of simplified characters continue, motivated partly by pedagogical and cultural concerns, but also by geopolitical concerns centering on the status of Taiwan, as well as the influence of the PRC on its special administrative regions Hong Kong and Macau.

China’s officially recognized ethnic groups have, according to Article 53 of the 1949 Chinese Constitution, the right to freely develop their language, customs and religion. Additionally, such ethnic minorities have benefitted from some preferential policies, for example in university admissions and the number of children they are allowed to have. In the 1950s, alongside the nationwide effort to teach Mandarin and simplified characters, major minority languages were taught in area schools, and Latin-script writing systems were developed for a number of unwritten official languages. But supporting minority languages in broadcast and print media, as well as the language of instruction in schools, only proved practical for the largest and most influential dozen or so minority languages, including Tibetan, Mongolian and Uyghur. Thus even in the early nation-building period between 1950 and 1970, the PRC supported minority languages only when they had political clout, and usually also a significant literary production. After all, the very word for “civilization” in Chinese is wenhua, “having a writing system,” so by implication those without a writing system are without a culture or civilization.

Aside from the practical challenges of supporting minority languages, some minority groups, such as the Turkic-speaking Muslims and Tibetans, appeared singularly and consistently ungrateful for China's economic development and "civilizing mission." What to Chinese language planners was a reasonable pedagogical means to stabilize the vast territory and “lift all boats” economically was to many of these regions' ethnic minorities a flat-out attempt at cultural and linguistic assimilation. Other historically autonomous ethnic minorities, due to their smaller sizes and more central locations, have appeared resigned to if not accepting of Chinese language policy.

Still, especially for the minorities on the periphery, an ever-widening gap between official language policy and its implementation has led to severe disillusionment. These are ethnic minorities who were once keen on or at least grudgingly accepting of the pan-Chinese nation-building project. Despite a 1984 Act of Regional Autonomy for Ethnic Minorities reiterating the right to “use and develop” languages, despite a 1995 education law allowing “institutions for minority nationalities” to use the “language in common use among ethnic group or in the locality as the language of instruction” and despite continued funding to this day for academic research, when it came to using and developing minority languages, those languages were tolerated rather than fostered.

From its inception, the central tenet of PRC language planning was to promulgate Mandarin Chinese, no matter the ethnicity of the speaker. Until the late 1980s, minority-language education and media were supported in the name of “bilingualism,” with mastery of Mandarin as the goal. For the problematic areas—indeed, all the major areas on China's western periphery—the gradual restriction since then of the domains in which the minority languages could be used has resulted in the impression to many non-Hans in these areas that their languages are being assimilated to Mandarin. The Chinese state emphasizes that fluency and literacy in Mandarin are key for individual economic advancement. These individual-empowerment arguments are accurate, but intentionally simplistic.

In the past decade, language has increasingly become an instrument of China's soft power. Some of China's language policy is overt and some covert.

Why is Mandarin being promoted at the expense of all the other languages in China? Is it a zero-sum game, or can minority and non-Mandarin Chinese languages also be maintained? Might the PRC have other reasons to ignore the fate of non-Mandarin languages to the greatest extent possible? What barriers are there to economic development that might be obscured by focusing only on Mandarin? Recent outward-facing policies reveal some answers to these questions.

Recent Policy on the Margins and Its Motivations

China now has the communications and educational infrastructure, the economic resources and the potent political motivation of national stability to make efforts to foster non-Mandarin languages. China's central government has surely seen that countries like India and Singapore can pursue economic development, fostering both a national and a regional language, an argument I have made elsewhere.

In the past decade, language has increasingly become a vehicle of choice for soft power within and outside of China; some of this language policy is overt and some covert. Overtly, Mandarin is being successfully promoted nationally and internationally; major languages including Mandarin are now broadcast from Beijing as well as in minority areas, and such areas have often become hot destinations for internal tourism, characterized for example by the swaying coconut skirts of Hainan Island, the grandiosity of Lhasa's Potala Palace and the taut bare chests of Mongolian wrestlers.

At the same time, especially in the past 20 years, the policy-driven Han population transfer to minority areas begun in the 1950s has rapidly accelerated, as has voluntary economic migration of Han Chinese to these areas. The stated intentions of such policies are economic development, via Mandarin use, tourism and population transfers; national pride, via Mandarin's rising profile overseas; and national language support, via promotion of both Mandarin and minority language media. Few people contest the economic benefits of these policies. Some other results of these policies, however, are noticeable. Minority-language media increasingly follows a Mandarin script, which is translated into the minority language for broadcast. And population transfer accelerates the spread of Chinese languages into once minority-dominant areas and the elimination of minority languages from schools, whether on the Inner Mongolian, Tibetan or Xinjiang grasslands or oases.

In schools, Mandarin is completely replacing major minority languages as a language of instruction: Tibetan language education beyond primary school is to be phased out of all Tibetan areas except Qinghai province by 2015; in Xinjiang, the phase-out of Uyghur began in 2002 and has reached from the university level down through the primary schools. “Bilingual” education has in these areas been replaced by Mandarin-only education.

Mandarin is far more than a means of imparting facts; it is also a primary means of socialization of minority and non-Mandarin Han students. But the socialization into Beijing-sanctioned Mandarin Han culture in minority areas alone was apparently not seen as sufficient, so in the mid-1980s, Beijing began transferring minority pupils to schools in Han-dominated China under the “neidi ban” or inland classes policy. It is likely that at least a quarter of a million Tibetans and Uyghurs have been transferred: Fully a third of secondary school graduates from the Tibetan autonomous region were transferred, and by 2001, more than 23,000 Tibetan primary school graduates had been transferred. The Xinjiang Ministry of Education also noted this year that “qualified high school graduates” are sent to inland China for four years in so-called “Xinjiang classes” to “always carry out educational work. . . love the socialist motherland [and] safeguard national unity.”

These Tibetan and Uyghur pupils are being socialized into Han culture during a critical developmental period. The uprooting of children from their families, languages and cultures in service of the national project is reminiscent of the residential boarding schools that the United States and Canada subjected First Nations peoples to. Little wonder that Tibetans and Uyghurs consider these policies to be at best linguicide.

In the past decade, China has achieved some success in its image management by arguing to the international community that these internally problematic minorities are actually terrorists.

Recent Policies Regarding Mandarin and Their Effect on National Cohesion

The most striking feature of recent Chinese language policy is the degree to which it is internationally focused: Beijing seems to be betting that winning over the world is as important as winning over citizens back home. At home, besides continuing to promote universal literacy and highly educated Mandarin-speaking elites, as well as using reading studies to tweak the simplified character set, the central government is also promoting English language learning, with a unique twist: portraying learning English as an exercise in Chinese nationalism. Already beginning in 1994, English was being taught in a sort of megachurch speaking-in-tongues meets Chinese nationalism technique that was branded Crazy English. This patriotic Chinese take on English language learning cleverly co-opts the potentially destructive force of English, which can take out many languages in its path.

Those with English skills can better participate in the global economy, and a small subset of those can also consider a career with a Confucius Institute abroad. These institutes, which are run jointly by a proxy organization of the Chinese central government and the host institution in a foreign country, are an excellent example of a long-term internationalized Chinese language planning strategy. Cash-poor universities are delighted to receive the funds of anywhere from $100,000 to $2 million that the Chinese government offers the host university; China supplies trained and individually selected teachers for these “Hanban,” or Chinese classrooms, and hopes to stimulate a large jump in the number of people worldwide who speak Chinese as a second language. Such institutes on campuses have been called Trojan Horses and raised issues of academic freedom—especially in discussion of ethnic or religious minorities—and academic governance.

More subtly, these Hanban, whose very name echoes the current assimilationist boarding schools for minorities in inland China, create a sense of normalcy about the deep integration of Chinese government agencies into foreign institutions. They also create a sense of ordinariness about the practice the institutes promote of learning Chinese from primary school through adulthood in preparation for doing business with China. Ironically, a Criticize Confucius project was central to Chinese nation-building in the 1960s, and the ever-venerated Chairman Mao Zedong famously hated Confucius. What's Confucian about the Confucius Institutes may be not so much Confucius’ vaunted morality, but rather his voluntary exile for a greater political aim.

The Contest Is Global

We are witnessing nothing less than a linguistic arms race between Chinese and English. Taken together, the 7 or 11 Chinese languages are the language with the most native speakers on the planet; English has fewer native speakers, but as a global language is the language with the most total speakers, native and nonnative combined. China has every intention of making its language the world's No. 1 language, likely as a reflection of its larger geopolitical ambitions.

Chinese is already the second-most-common language of the Internet. China has clearly been hard at work to de-anglicize both computer code and the Internet: Already in the early 1990s when a flavor of Linux called Red Hat was popular in the West, I encountered a clone in China called Red Flag, in honor of the PRC flag. A Chinese-character-based replacement for the MS-DOS operating system was another project. And now, the advent of multilingual web addresses should mean that with the exception of protocols like http, Latin characters even resembling English can be entirely avoided.

Through soft power initiatives like the Hanban of the Confucius Institutes, and the penetration of Chinese resource companies settling in for the long term on nearly every continent, the number of Mandarin speakers is increasing rapidly. English is widely spoken as a global language, but the proponents of Chinese have population numbers, massive trade and specific government language policies on their side in their efforts to insert Mandarin directly into foreign universities and school classrooms—something the British Council or L'Academie Francaise never had. Will nations like Germany and the United States one day promote learning Mandarin as a patriotic duty, as China is doing now with English? Before the century is out, Chinese will likely be co-dominant as a global language of commerce and politics, if not the dominant language.

Meanwhile, minority language planning in China remains faintly visible in the international arena. While Chinese media cast them as hooligans, Tibetan and Uyghur indigenous organizations advocate for linguistic and cultural maintenance, if not outright autonomy. Nevertheless, almost forgotten back in China, the languages of other minorities are disappearing, while a few lucky groups are able to maintain their language at least in spoken form. The Chinese mother tongues of many Han, too, are disappearing under pressure from Mandarin. If the basic maintenance of such key languages were supported by the central government alongside Mandarin, it would contribute to national stability. It is the concrete threat of language loss that creates anxiety and hostility, and if followed by restrictive state action, quickly results in a downward spiral. Of course, territory and economic livelihood also play roles, but the power of good language policy is never to be underestimated.

Arienne Dwyer is a professor of linguistic anthropology and co-director of the Institute for Digital Research for the Humanities at the University of Kansas. Her work bridges linguistic typology and ethnography, critical discourse analysis, indigenous advocacy and digital humanities. Her linguistic corpora are available at https://iaia.ittc.ku.edu and https://uyghur.ittc.ku.edu.

[ SPECIAL FREE TRIAL OFFER: Get 14 days of FREE ACCESS to World Politics Review—including access to 10,000+ articles in the library and daily updates about global affairs—right now. And when you act today, you’ll also receive a FREE copy of the special report Trump and the Death of the Liberal World Order: What Comes Next? Sign up now! ]

What are your thoughts on China's language policy? We would like to hear them. Scroll down to comment on this article.