Kids say openly what comes into their mind – in their native language
If you walk past a kindergarten at the moment the doors open to let kids out, you will see kids running out happy and excited, they often have a card, or something they’ve made which they’re anxious to show the adult who picks them up. They’ll excitedly tell the adult what they’ve achieved and chatter non-stop, often while waving to their friends and shouting goodbyes to the teachers who supervised them until the pick-up arrived.
In Guangdong, the language is usually Cantonese but high migrant cities such as Shenzhen and Dongguan might be different, a mix of both Cantonese and Mandarin. When I travelled in Xinjiang and saw the same, the language was a form of Arabic. I recently spent three weeks in Shanghai and the language there was Mandarin, in 2017 and again in 2018, I spent periods of time working in Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia and the language I heard there was Mongolian. I’m currently in Hainan province and in the region of Ling Shui, I couldn’t understand the language they were speaking around me but then I found out I was in the Lingshui Li Autonomous County. More on that in a moment.
297 languages in multi-ethnic China
All these different regions have something in common; they are in China and are all Chinese. China has 56 ethnicities, 55 of which are known as the “ethnic minorities” or Shaoshu Minzu (少数民族), Han is the big ethnicity. But there are also 297 languages and Mandarin is the big one.
Many people outside of China are unaware that languages here are not always indicators of ethnicity. For example, Cantonese speakers are one of the largest groups, all of Hong Kong and Guangdong, much of Southern Guangxi and even parts of Hainan speak Cantonese as their first language but most of them are Han Chinese.
5 main languages on Chinese currency
People who support China, point to the fact that the five main languages in China are shown on the currency. Examine any Chinese note to see Mandarin, Tibetan, Mongolian, Uyghur and Zhuang, we can also see, for the benefit of readers of most other languages, especially English, the use of Pinyin, which is the “romanization of Chinese”.
That China uses these languages has been criticised as tokenism by some “experts” but it is far more significant than either they know, or they are willing to tell us. Each of the languages presented on the paper currency is a language of one of the Autonomous Regions: Xinjiang (Uyghur); Tibet (Tibetan); Ningxia (Hui), Guangxi (Zhuang) and of course Inner Mongolia (Mongolian). None of these regions existed before 1950, they were created by the CPC, to give these larger minorities some degree of autonomy over their own governance.
Evolution of language
Critical linguistic experts often point out that there are errors in the language but they don’t live in the region and are usually linguistic purists who should understand that written forms of languages, such as the Uyghur’s Arabic script have changed over many years, these have been changed by both time and geography not by the CPC!
The language used in Xinjiang is that of the local people of Xinjiang, they brought it to the region when they arrived about 1000 years ago. In the same way that the English language used in America is that of Americans and no longer reflects pure English as spoken by the royal family (or the BBC). Both the Uyghur and English languages have evolved. At the time Uyghurs were moving into Xinjiang, William, Duke of Normandy, was conquering England.
We should not be critical of minor changes, we should be in awe of the fact that these languages still exist at all in these days of modern communication, widespread media and globalisation. Most regional and minority languages don’t.
Travel through China and note the differences. Throughout China, almost every sign is in Chinese and Pinyin, we can at least read the destination of the bus even if we don’t know where that location is. When you arrive in an Autonomous region though, all the signs are all in Chinese and local language. All the shops have signage in local language, restaurant menus are in Chinese and local language, this is not a tourist gimmick, this is a genuine need to communicate with people who have not learnt Chinese, usually elders who didn’t have the good fortune that young people now have of at least 10 years free education. Except in Tibet where education is free for 15 years, from kindergarten all the way to university graduation.
The Tibetan language is compulsory for all students, including the Han !
Yes, part of the education is in Mandarin but then, most of the university places will not be taken up in Tibet, there are only three universities there and 39% of students graduate to higher education so they mostly travel to other parts of China; which they do for free. Tibet now has 99.5% literacy rate compared to 5% in 1951. What’s more, in Tibet, it’s mandatory for ALL students to learn Tibetan, even if they are Han. Another little-known aspect is that if the family rural and is in poverty, their child attending school and/or winning a place in university means the family gets a cash allowance too, because the child isn’t available to work with them or support them until after completing education.
Inner Mongolia, despite what we read in Western media, such as the recent Economist article, has the same kinds of rules, they were implemented in September 2021 in time for the new school year and are making headlines again, mostly because of either a misunderstanding, or perhaps, because of misinformation. The new regulations call for Mandarin education in Language and Literature, Politics, and History, while Mathematics, Sciences, Art, Music, and Physical Education continue to be taught in Mongolian.
There is no effort to eradicate the language from schools, and certainly no intent to eradicate it from society. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, the Inner Mongolian government, which itself is comprised of a large number of Mongolians issued a statement to confirm they have no intention of phasing out Mongolian language in schools. Bear in mind that, because of the nature of Autonomous governance, if the language was to be phased out, it would be due to a decision by local ethnic leaders and not Central Government which is another reason why we can be assured it’s not.
Disinformation from “The Economist” refuted by the local government of Inner Mongolia:
Many different languages and one common language
China, we all know, is a vast country, geographic barriers, historical migration and boundary changes over millennia have created ethnic diversity under one modern flag. But, within the boundaries of what we now call China, there is one language understood by all; that language, we in the West know as Mandarin but in China is called Putonghua (普通话), literally meaning common speech. For the country to teach in any other language than this one would be folly. But each region has its own TV stations, Radio Stations, media and newspapers in its own language, so people can remain in touch with their cultural roots. China Central Television One (CCTV1) in Inner Mongolia, for example broadcasts in Mongolian
There’s a clear example here of the pot calling the kettle black. A country of a comparable geographic size to China is the USA; it also has Ethnic Minorities. The US formally recognises 574 “American Indian Tribes”. But instead of being encouraged to retain their culture, language and traditions, they were marginalised and sent to Reservations where many live to this day in poverty and ill-health. Several efforts have been made to assimilate them into “white man’s culture” all unsuccessful.
Ethnic minorities being discriminated against in China or in America?
Other ethnic minorities in the USA are a little luckier, New Mexico has the highest rate of non-whites with 47.7% Hispanic or Latino but who have no autonomy. However, NM is the only state in the USA to provide a Constitutional right to Spanish learning in schools, the other 49 States, despite 23 of them having between 10% and 39% Hispanic populations, have no such rights.
There are no public schools in the USA which teach in any of the Native American languages, there are only 11 states where schools even mention Native Americans in their curriculum and there is no evidence anywhere in the United States of any effort to write any native American language presumably because at the time of settlement, there were no known writings in North America, although Central and South America did have; but even they are all gone now.
Whilst we’re looking at the irony of a colonial power criticizing China for something it has done itself while China is not doing it, let’s not forget the ultimate irony of one major factor in this debate: Mongolia the country and Inner Mongolia the Chinese Autonomous Region, share the same language but only one of them uses the ancient written form. Mongolia the country abandoned Mongolian script in 1941. China is very proud of the fact that, if you want to read Mongolian, you can’t do it in Mongolia, it only exists in historical or artworks there, you need to come to the Chinese Autonomous Region of Inner Mongolia, where it’s a vibrant and living language.
Stand outside of a school in North America and listen to kids chattering and almost certainly you will hear English, visit Wales or Scotland and again, you’ll hear them speaking English. Compare that with my experiences this week of hearing Li Minority language for the first time, of seeing kids in Ningxia one day, and Gansu the next, a week later in Xinjiang and a few months later in Inner Mongolia all speaking their own languages.
Inside a Guangdong school you’ll hear Mandarin but inside the Mongolian school, you’ll hear a mix of Mongolian and Mandarin, inside the Tibetan school, you’ll hear Tibetan and Mandarin, inside the Xinjiang school you’ll hear Uyghur, Kazakh, Tajik, or any one of a dozen other languages plus Mandarin.
This is exactly as it should be. A blend of linguistic, cultural and traditional retention with an education that allows them to live, work, study or even marry in any other part of the huge country they live in.
Experts would criticize China if the country didn’t teach Mandarin to its minorities; that would be a fair criticism indeed.