Written by Li Wei.

Since 2006, China’s State Language Commission, an administrative department under the Ministry of Education, has been compiling an annual Green Paper on the so-called ‘language life’ in China. These Green Papers are published under the title Language Situation in China, and the English translation of the key parts of the reports between 2006 and 2013 are now available as Li Yuming and Li Wei eds, 2013, 2014, 2015. The reports detail many facets of the language policies and in China and have fast become an essential reference for those interested in the socio-cultural changes in Chinese society today.

Language has been key to the unity and identity of the Chinese nation. The Chinese people hold a deep-rooted linguistic ideology that they share one unifying language that has been in existence for over 5,000 years, and that the language has specific features that are superior to other languages in the world. As a result, the state’s imposition of a national standard language, especially a standardised written script, has rarely been questioned, even though the policies regarding language and language use in China are not always clearly or coherently articulated, and there are lots of contradictory policies that affect language practices in public domains and in people’s everyday lives. For example, the predominant language policy at the national level is the promotion of Putonghua and simplified written characters. The Ministry of Education expects schools across the land to teach accordingly, and the provincial language commissions administer standard tests for individuals who wish to hold public offices.

The Ministry of Culture, on the other hand, is actively encouraging the preservation of traditional cultural heritage including folk operas and festivals, all of which can only be done in the so-called dialects or regional varieties of Chinese rather than the national standard language. In the meantime, China recognises 56 ethnic groups amongst hundreds of different groups. Efforts have been made to promote bilingualism, in Chinese and the ethnic language, and bilingual education. But tensions exist in several key areas where there are concentrations of the so-called ethnic minority groups who feel the pressure of using Chinese in order to receive quality education and to obtain better employment. In October 2010, 19 October, staff and students from teacher training colleges and ‘ethnic’ schools in the Huangnan district of Qinghai province, where there is a large population of Tibetans, staged a public protest against the Education Reform Bill by the provincial government; this bill recommended the use of the ‘national language’, i.e. Chinese, in order to raise education standards. The bill specifically stated that by 2015, the national language (Chinese) should be the dominant language and the ethnic language (Tibetan and others) the supplementary language in schools in the Qinghai province. The protests quoted China’s laws protecting the rights of the officially recognised ethnic minority communities, including their language rights. The central government in Beijing had to send officials to visit Huangnan, and made the provincial officials apologise for the ‘error’ in formulating the Education Reform Bill. The ‘equal’ statuses of Tibetan and Chinese were subsequently reaffirmed.

‘Incidents’ such as this have prompted the Chinese government to take language policy more seriously. The policy imperatives for the Chinese government regarding the country’s languages include the following:

  • Building a harmonious society – China’s language policy or policies need to take into consideration the implications for ethnic relations within the Chinese borders while securing the central role of Chinese. They also need to consider the centre-periphery relations, allowing sufficient space for regional development which includes the use of regional varieties of Chinese or dialects, but securing Putonghua at the top of the linguistic hierarchy.
  • New geopolitics and China as a rising world power – Promoting Chinese as an international language and balancing it with raising the standard of foreign language education in China to meet the needs of modernisation and globalisation have come to the top of the policy agenda. And there is an increased awareness that language should be used as a important instrument in building relations between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan, between China and Southeast Asian countries where there are large ethnic Chinese populations, and between China and the Chinese diaspora worldwide.

In terms of policy initiatives, the Chinese government has invested heavily in the Confucius Institute (CI) and Confucius Classrooms (CC) through the Office of Chinese Language Council International, also known as Hanban. Hanban declares its ambition to establish 1,000 CIs and CCs by 2020, with at least 100 million learners of Chinese worldwide. As a result, the HSK (a standardised Chinese language test offered to foreign learners) and the annual Chinese Bridge contests are attracting a significant number of foreign students. The Chinese government has also lent its backing to projects such as the Global Chinese Dictionary, and the Cross-Strait Dictionary of Commonly Used Words. It is interesting to note that the former Chairman of China’s National Committee of the Political Consultative Conference and a member of the politburo, Li Ruihuan, and the late former Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, acted as consultants for the Global Chinese Dictionary, and the Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou attended the launch ceremony of the Cross-Strait Dictionary, giving an indication of the unprecedented shared interest in and support for these projects. Although the notion of Greater China is rarely mentioned in official Party discourse, it is clearly in the minds of the policy makers who see the shared cultural heritage, including language, as a key asset in building and maintaining China’s pivotal role in East and Southeast Asia.

Meanwhile, some Chinese scholars have expressed concerns over the ‘contamination’ of the Chinese language by foreign languages and ‘net language’. When the 6th edition of the authoritative Modern Chinese Dictionary was published in 2012, there was a public outcry over the inclusion of the so-called ‘alphabetic words’, words that contain abbreviations of English phrases such as MP4, GDP, and FTA. Some threatened to sue the compilers of the dictionary and the publisher for violating the law that gives the Chinese language special protection. Yet, the media seem to be happily embracing such terms and the new net language, created by the millions of Chinese netizens, and proudly report that words such as dama, tuhao, taikonaut, have been included in English dictionaries outside China. They see it as a sign of China’s increased influence on the world.

There are many challenges to China’s language policy and language planning. The government wants to strike a balance between building a modern, outward looking nation and maintaining its distinctive cultural heritage and characteristics, and language is a major resource in nation building. The media has realised that language is a commodity that can be exploited for profit and popular attention. In a new book by one of the leading language policy makers, Yi Yuming argues that a clear and coherent language policy is essential in China’s role as a world leader on the global political, economic and cultural stage, and individuals are becoming increasingly aware of the significance of the issue of language rights.

Li Wei is Chair of Applied Linguistics, UCL Centre for Applied Linguistics, UNC Institute of Education, University College London. Image Credit: CC by Marco Klapper/Flickr.

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