Candidates for Romanized Zhuang Exam: Few and Far Between

Some 318 candidates took part in Dec 6 exams testing literacy in the written Zhuang language held in Guangxi’s Nanning and Baise, according to a report in Nationalities Newspaper (会说不会写). Mind you, that’s a microscopic figure for a people who reportedly number around 18 million speakers.

The most numerous non-Han ethnicity in China, the Zhuang reside mainly in Guangxi, but are also present in Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangdong and Hunan.

Curiously, the article points out that schools offering bilingual education (双语教育) are on the rise. In Guangxi, there are reportedly now 108 bilingual elementary schools, up from 64, though we aren’t told when there were just 64.

I say “curiously,” because this is happening when it is getting more difficult for other ethnic groups such as the Uyghur, Tibetans and Mongols, to be taught in their own language.

I don’t know Zhuang and haven’t studied the history of central government policies regarding the language since 1949. Predictably, the article makes no mention of any statistic or date before 2009, which—to me—suggests past policies didn’t actively promote Zhuang literacy, to put it mildly.

I’d hazard that these factors figure in the current campaign to promote Zhuang literacy:

  • Zhuang-Han relations are fairly good. The Zhuang have not actively resisted learning Mandarin, and are not known for advocating  separatist activities, so they are not considered a threat to China’s unity;
  • Unlike the Uyghur, Tibetan and Mongolian languages, which all have well developed scripts that have been used both in China and abroad for centuries, this is not the case for Zhuang, so all content is essentially new and publication can be easily supervised;
  • The standard Zhuang script promoted by China uses only Latin letters and did not develop organically over the centuries.  There have been other indigenous scripts such as Sawndip and even one modern one that used some Cyrillic letters as tone markers (Wikipedia), but the current script is a synthetic invention that was developed in China post-1949, and is thus politically correct.

It will be interesting to see if the number of candidates rises noticeably as time goes on. That obviously won’t happen unless certified Zhuang literacy is perceived as a plus, economically speaking, and unless the romanized version is truly “understandable” to the Zhuang-speaking layman to the same degree as, for example, the Vietnamese or Korean script are to its speakers.


  1. The reason why Zhuang literacy hasn’t taken off is because the whole idea of “Zhuang Language” is as much a fiction as “Chinese Language”. The standard written form is based on the Wuming Dialect near to Nanning, which is so different from the language spoken in the north and south of Guangxi that very few people can understand the written form or the spoken form used in radio broadcasts unless they come from near Wuming. I did meet a few young people from the Guangxi University of Nationalities who had learnt romanised Zhuang and could read it, but all of them came from the area around Wuming. As for the people in other parts of the region, they didn’t even call themselves Zhuang, those in the north said they were speaking “Yay” and those in the southwest told me they spoke “Nong”. Then others told me they were forced to call themselves Zhuang in order to get the percentage of minority people up in Guangxi, so that it would be eligible to be an autonomous region rather than a province. It’s very hard to find materials that talk about any of this, especially in Guangxi, but in Yunnan the situation is a little more relaxed, and they recognise three subsets of Zhuang, the Nong, Tu, and Sha. Another factor is that there is almost nthing to read in Zhuang available except for a couple of textbooks. The Guangxi Nationalities Publishing House is not much help either, I went looking for Zhuang books at their bookshop and found a whole two books on minority languages in Guangxi…a disturbingly large amount of shelf space was taken up by their prints of Li Yang’s Crazy English. Even though this was back in 2008 however, long before Li Yang’s wife-beating scandals, I somehow suspect that little has changed.

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