Written by Linda Tsung.

China is one of the most multilingual countries in the world. The government of the People’s Republic of China promotes the country as a harmonious and unified nation with 56 distinct ethnic groups who speak more than 400 languages. The government has not only legally recognised multilingualism, but has also publicly encouraged and promoted a climate in which the teaching and learning of a variety of languages can flourish. Behind this objective there is a linguistic hierarchy and inequality between all language and minority groups. The dramatic rise in economic development in China has accelerated these inequalities and widened tensions. China’s multilingualism is not static and its movement in one direction or another is a result of many influences which can be at a macro or micro level, and may include political, economic, cultural, geographical and social factors.

The discourse of pluralistic unity invokes Fei Xiaotong’s (1989) framework of ‘pluralist-unity’ to describe the basic pattern of ethnic relations in China. There are two levels in the structure of this discourse. The first, at the national level, emphasises political unity under a Han Chinese-dominated society. The second, at the local level, emphasises cultural diversity within ethnic minorities (in language, religion, customs, and so forth). When considering the language usage and education for minorities, this ‘pluralist-unity’ framework provides a very comprehensive model for the central government.

The dichotomies between Han, the majority, in terms of a ‘core’, and Min, the minorities, in terms of a ‘periphery’, result in a language and education policy discourse promoting Chinese cultural imperialism. Scholars argue that notions of ‘unity in diversity’ for Han Chinese identity actually serve as a replacement for minority identities within China’s modernisation and that the ideology behind the emphasis on national identity as a priority in language education is clearly nationalist patriotism.

During the past decade, China’s fundamental agenda on multilingualism and language education has reflected recurring themes: cultural and linguistic diversity, political unity, and economic development at the centre. Two key discourses in government policy have been cultural and linguistic diversity, representing the discourse of cultural identity, and Han-dominated unity, representing the discourse of Han universalism.

On a fundamental level, the two themes of political unity and cultural and linguistic diversity are incongruent. The discourse of moral education, representing political unity, is based upon Han universalism; whereas, the discourse of cultural identity, representing cultural and linguistic diversity, is based upon local ethnic identity. The moral discourse focuses on patriotism and political loyalty to the CCP. From this perspective, promoting the priority of party-state, there is no room for cultural diversity. Minority language and culture, especially religion, are seen as ‘problems’ to be resolved. On the contrary, the discourse of cultural identity emphasises minority cultures as ‘valuable resources’, particularly in relation to languages, ideas, actions, objects of everyday existence and the construction of identity.

There appears to be an interaction / relationship between the two phenomena of ‘ethnic cultural and linguistic diversity’ and ‘Han dominated unity’, be it political, social, cultural, or economic. China’s multilingual / minority education is part of a ‘power / knowledge’ relationship. The greater degree of Han dominated unity, the less extensive the degree of ethnic cultural and linguistic diversity is likely to be. Conversely, more ethnic cultural and linguistic diversity implies less comprehensive Han-dominated unity.

The problem for policymakers is that the two competing discourses differ in such fundamental ways that any attempt to produce a hybrid discourse coherent enough to build and maintain hegemony is laden with difficulty. Since 2003, the general policy of promoting ‘unity in diversity’ has represented tensions between the logic of difference and the logic of equivalence, with economic development as the central influence.

The key features of this discourse in China’s context reflect the patterns and events of the historical policy for minorities and the emergence of a hybrid developmental neoliberalism. This discourse of language power, hierarchy and knowledge is fused in the practices that comprise the history of China’s multilingual education policy for minorities. Centring on economic development, China is lurching between accelerating Han universalism and accelerating cultural diversity.

The last three decades have also seen the rise of one language in China – Chinese (Putonghua). It is used as the common means of communication: in education, services, employment, media, entertainment, trade and everyday talk. Its national reach is arguably unprecedented. Languages such as Tibetan, Uyghur, Mongolian and Zhuang also have large demographic constituencies, though not as much national capital as Chinese, and their status and learning have been threatened. Some larger minorities have resisted the language challenge inherent in the spread of Chinese, while some minorities have taken the opportunity to protect their heritage. The promotion of national language and multilingual education has influenced ways of thinking and reasoning; ways of expressing feelings of resistance and sentimental values; ways of seeing the value of ethnic identities and cultural heritage; ways of protecting and reviving their languages.

There is now an opportunity for China’s leadership to shape multilingual education policy for minorities so that it creates cooperation rather than resistance. If Chinese minorities are to participate in the modern Chinese nation, the PRC should foster their languages, for languages are central to national identity. Enhancing the Han acceptance of minority language and culture benefits the nation as a whole. Such acceptance could also become a significant factor in China’s relations with the rest of the world.

Linda Tsung is Associate Professor in Chinese Studies at the Department of Chinese Studies, School of Languages and Cultures, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, the University of Sydney. Image Credit: CC by whitecat sg/Flickr


  1. Why not refer to the national language of China as Mandarin?
    The literal meaning of putonghua (普通話) is ‘common language’. I find the term ‘Chinese’ too vague when refering to languages in China, especially when the languages have names.
    I asked a student of mine in Hong Kong why they refer to Mandarin as 普通話, as in Hong Kong, the commonly spoken language is Cantonese (粵語,廣東話). The confusion on his face spoke volumes.
    The original name for Mandarin was 官話, but this was changed. Why it was changed and who made the decision lies within the Chinese Communist party ( I haven’t researched this myself but a good guess as to why normally lies with more control and unity of the people).
    I would like to use 官話 when discussing Mandarin, but more people are being told to use 普通話 and ‘Chinese’.
    This could be seen as another form of soft power manipulation by the CCP.
    One nation, one people, one culture, one language, one history – try not to promote this!

    1. That‘s because Mandarin and Putonghua are not the same thing, duh. Mandarin is one of several Chinese dialects/languages, which again diverges into different subdialects. So the ways people speak in Beijing, Tianjin and Xi‘an are all different versions of Mandarin. Putonghua, too, is a version of Mandarin, but one that was artificially defined as a standard by the PRC government, based on the dialect of Beijing. And no, that‘s not communist propaganda, it‘s just something countries do (see: Germany, South Korea, Italy etc.).

      Putonghua is Mandarin, Mandarin is not necessarily Putonghua

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