June Training Sessions: Authors of Five Major non-Han Languages Meet their Translators

During June 5-9, Nationalities Literature Magazine (民族文学) organized an intensive “editing/rewriting training course” (改稿班) that brought together the magazine’s editors with twenty-plus Kazakh writers and their translators. Mandarin and Kazakh aside, the magazine appears in Mongolian, Korean, Tibetan and Uyghur, and training sessions for writers and translators of the latter four languages are also scheduled to take place within June, according to the article (改稿班).

We can expect that this will—eventually—lead to fiction written by non-Han authors in their own tongues being published in English. The first step is to get their writing into Mandarin, possibly via Nationalities Literature Magazine, or People’s Literature (人民文学). It will then stand a good chance of appearing in Pathlight, a magazine dedicated to Chinese literature in English translation that is jointly produced by People’s Literature and Paper Republic.

In fact, the Spring 2014 edition of Pathlight will feature writing solely by ethnic writers: fiction by Alat Asem (阿拉提·阿斯木, Uyghur), Ayonga (阿云嘎, Mongolian), Jin Renshun (金仁顺, Korean), Guan Renshan (关仁山, Manchu), Li Jinxiang (李进祥, Hui), Memtimem Hoshur (买买提明·吾守尔, Uyghur),Ye Guangqin (叶广芩, Manchu) and Yerkex Hurmanbek (叶尔克西·胡尔曼别克, Kazakh);  poetry by Artai (Mongolian,阿尔泰), Aydos Amantay (艾多斯·阿曼泰, Kazakh), Jidi Majia (吉狄马加, Yi-Nuosu), Luruodiji (鲁若迪基, Pumi), Ma Huan (马桓, Hui) and Nie Le (聂勒, Wa); and non-fiction by Patigul (帕蒂古丽, Uyghur), Ye Fu (野夫, Tujia), Ye Mei (叶梅, Tujia) and Tenzin (丹增, Tibetan). The full contents aren’t up online yet, but the cover, contents page and link to purchase should be here soon. [Read more…]

Minority Language Big Dictionary Project: Linguistic Reference Tools, Encyclopedias or Vaporware?

As of early May 2014, China has published its first Wa-Mandarin dictionary, according to a report by China Nationalities Newspaper republished at Chinawriter.cn (佤汉大辞典问世).

According to Wikipedia, the Wa (佤族) reside mainly in Burma (800,000), China’s Yunnan (400,000) and Thailand (10,000). Like many of the peoples in China’s border areas, they had no widely used indigenous script prior to 1949; a Romanized script was officially proposed in 1956 but apparently never popularized, while the use of scripts used by Wa outside China has not been promoted either.

This effectively means that peoples like the Wa couldn’t read or write in their own language before 1949, and precious little has been done to change that in the 65 years since. (Meanwhile, read what one lone school teacher is doing to Rejuvenate the Tujia Language.)

The press release states that the “Big Wa-Mandarin Dictionary” contains almost 30,000 entries of Wa words, phrases and idioms spelled according to the Barao dialect. It also features information about Wa history and culture. It doesn’t say how the sounds were expressed, but I’d assume the 1956 official romanization system has been used.

The Wa dictionary is the latest entry from Yunnan in a national undertaking, the “Minority Language Big Dictionary Series” (中国少数民族大词典系列), that aims to publish one “big dictionary” for each of China’s official 55 non-Han nationalities. The authorities in Yunnan are charged with compiling 16 of them, and at various times over the last 3 years, I have seen reports that those for the Bai (白族), Naxi (纳西族) and Hani (哈尼族) have been duly completed on schedule.

You may have noticed that I have not provided a picture of the new Wa dictionary, or provided a hyperlink to it on an online bookstore. That’s because none of the news items showed the physical book, and I can’t find out online where it can be bought or even . . . who publishes it. The Naxi dictionary is reportedly published by Guangxi Nationalities Press (广西民族出版社) , but I’ve also had trouble locating it online.

In case you are wondering why this matters, consider these factoids based on China’s own media reports in 2012 (full text): [Read more…]

Teaching of Minority Languages in China a Touchy Subject

There is a sizable population of Tibetans in truly multi-ethnic Yunnan, and I was keen to take advantage of this and learn a bit of Tibetan alongside my studies of classical Chinese in Kunming back in 2012. The head of my private language school had difficulties finding a teacher, however, because he utterly refused to advertise for one.

Why? Because he risked losing his school’s license if the authorities learned a foreigner there was learning Tibetan.

Switch focus to Xinjiang in northwest China. A few years earlier I had visited a friend whose mother was on the staff at a major university in Urumqi, and he introduced me to a long-time teacher of the Uyghur language who lived in the same courtyard. She told me she was earning just 2,000 yuan a month, though she’d been on the job well over a decade; even by Xinjiang standards that’s a pittance. Given that only a handful of universities in China teach Uyghur—and there are more than 10 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang—I got the impression instruction in the language isn’t exactly a high priority. [Read more…]

Daur Dictionary Revamp on the Cards

A brief news item on January 13, 2014, 《达斡尔语辞典》征求专家修订意见, informs us that a meeting was recently held at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences where experts were invited to discuss revising the existing 《达斡尔语辞典》, a dictionary of the Daur language. It took more than three decades to compile, and a contact of mine tells me it was originally published by Harbin Publishing House (哈尔滨出版社).

According to Wikipedia, Daur is a Mongolic language with 96,000 native speakers in China as of 1999.

This project is just one of many started or completed since 2011 for dictionaries involving non-Han languages.  For background on some of the others, see French-Buyi Dictionary Dogged by Concerns over Political Correctness; Premier Tibetan-Chinese Legal Dictionary; Chinese-Lahu Dictionary; Miao-Han Dictionary, and Rejuvenating the Tujia Language. Read a few of them of these items and you’ll be reminded that language — or in this case — language reference tools such as dictionaries, can be rather political. [Read more…]

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: [Read more…]

Capturing Endangered Tongues of Yunnan

After decades of Chinese central government policies that baldly aimed at replacing non-Han languages with Mandarin, or at best simply tolerated their existence, real money is apparently now being spent to document and preserve them in ways that meet international standards.

According to an article published at Chinawriter.com.cn (临危语言), several linguists from the Yunnan Endangered Languages Audio Laboratory (云南临危语言有声语实验室) were sent to University of London for training, and related equipment has been imported and installed.  The lab now boasts 4 specialists and 20-plus researchers.

Yunnan’s most highly endangered languages have been identified, with 9 used by less than 500 native speakers.  For instance, Xian dǎo yǔ, the language of the A Chang people (阿昌族的仙岛语) has only 76 living speakers.
The laboratory is currently implementing basic steps for these endangered languages such as establishing audio databases and developing recording software. Unlike earlier homegrown efforts, these files aim to be consistent with international best practice, and include documentation in IPA, Hanyu Pinyin, literal translations in Mandarin and English, and free translations into both languages.

The laboratory is a project of the Endangered Languages Research Center at Yunnan’s Yuxi Normal University  (云南玉溪师范学院民族文化语社会发展研究所 临危语言研究所中心). A senior manager for the center, Professor Bai Bibo, said that considerable work has also been done to document and teach one of Yunnan’s living languages, Hani (哈尼语), spoken by over 700,000. A Hani language center has been established in Red River Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture (pictured: bright red, bordering on a dark green Vietnam) where the training program aims to cultivate professional linguists who can speak, read and write Hani, and document and translate the language. They have published several research papers, such as An Analysis of Hani Discourse (哈尼语话语分析).

Teaching Mongolian in the PRC: Written Trumps Spoken & Befuddles the Foreign Learner

The khanbaliqist has written an informative and witty post, Spelling Pronunciations as a Method of Teaching, based on his own experiences learning Mongolian on the ground . . . in Inner Mongolia, I believe.

His description of how written Mongolian is emphasized—almost to the point of banning spoken Mongolian from the classroom—reminds me of my mother’s unhappy schooling in Taiwan many years ago.  Her teacher, whom I referred to as a “Beiping antique” (北平古董), was born in pre-1949 Beijing and taught strictly “proper” Mandarin.  The vocabulary she insisted on was so passé that my mother, whose Chinese was actually not bad, often found that the locals hadn’t a clue what she meant.

She eventually quit school out of frustration.  “The only people who speak Beijing hua here in Taipei,” she said at the “farewell” lunch to which she kindly invited her living-fossil teacher and me, “are you and my son.”

But back to the way Mongolian is taught in China. Writes the khanbaliqist:

After discussions with Inner Mongolians I know, I’ve discovered that this approach to teaching [in my class] mirrors the normal method for teaching to children to read in Inner Mongolia. Mongolian-speaking children start out learning to read words exactly as they are spelt. This means that, even though they speak Mongolian at home and already have a basic proficiency in the language, children are initially taught to read texts using spelling pronunciations, not the normal everyday pronunciations. It is only in the third year that pupils are quite explicitly told to switch over to the spoken pronunciation. The objective of this method of teaching is clear. In a language like Mongolian, where the spelling of the traditional script is in many ways far removed from the spoken language, this is a way of ensuring that correct spelling habits are put firmly in place.

The implications of this approach for the perceptions of language are interesting to contemplate. While speakers of Mongolian in Inner Mongolia and Mongolia can communicate with each other quite freely (allowing for differences in pronunciation and vocabulary), perceptions of writing and spelling appear to differ markedly between the two. Despite the primacy that linguists give to speech, it stands to reason that the habits acquired when learning the script as a child last a lifetime and cannot help but mould the way that words and their ‘canonical forms’ (including acceptable variation) are perceived. My impression from admittedly limited experience with native speakers is that the different writing systems have a subtle impact on the way that language is perceived and handled. This is a topic that appears to have received virtually no study.

For non-native speakers learning the language, the consequences are less subtle. With ordinary spoken language banished from the classroom, an important aspect of language acquisition is blocked out until a much later stage in the learning process. This effectively postpones acquisition of the spoken language for several years and makes it difficult for teachers to develop even simple verbal strategies at an early stage to help students acquire the language, for instance by using spoken Mongolian for certain aspects of communication in the classroom.

Echoes of Samarkand: Salar Literary Conference Held in Qinghai

A conference highlighting writing by Salar authors  (撒拉族文学) was held in January 2013 in Xunhua County (循

The Registan in Samarkand

The Registan in Samarkand

化), Qinghai Province, home to most of the 100,000 Salar  (撒拉族) who consider themselves descendants of Muslims who migrated in the 13th century from Samarkand (present-day Uzbekhistan, and once home to Omar Khayyam) in search of religious freedom.

Subsequent contacts and intermarriage with Han Chinese, Tibetans and Hui have created a unique culture and strongly impacted the Salar language. Wikipedia notes that there are two large dialect groups: one branch influenced by Tibetan and Chinese, and another by Uyghur and Kazakh vocabulary. [Read more…]

By the Numbers: Endangered Tongues in the People’s Republic

In <四成少数民族语言临危,> Wang Bo at Chinanews.com reports that up to four of ten languages native to minorities in China are threatened with extinction.

Here are a few numbers that appear in the report:

  • Non-han languages: 55 officially designated “peoples” (民族) speak an estimated 130 languages
  • Scripts in use: 40, including Mongolian, Tibetan, Uighur, Kazakh, Kirghiz, Korean, Yi, Dai, Lahu, Jingpo and Xibe
  • Populations: one-half of non-Han languages are spoken by groups that number under 10,000 members, of which 20+ have 1,000 speakers or less
  • Endangered languages: Manchu, Tatar, She, Hezhen can no longer be used for conversation; another 20 percent, such as Nu, Yilao, Pumi and Jinuo are approaching that state; and a total of 40 percent are in danger of extinction in the mid-term.
  • Manchu: 11 million ethnic Manchus, but only 100 or so can speak fluently and less than a dozen read and write well.
  • Jing (京族): with a population of 20,000 in Guangxi, one-half can still speak their mother tongue.

Wang Bo notes that fluency in seven non-Han languages continues to be passed on to the next generation fairly well: Mongolian, Tibetan, Uighur, Kazakh, Korean, Zhuang and Yi. He attributes this partly to the fact that they have a written script, and interpreting services are often offered at official meetings.

What he doesn’t note—like many PRC-centric writers—is the fact that except for Zhuang and Yi, these other languages are spoken and written by large numbers of native speakers outside China.

Oddly Monolingual Manchu Emperors and “New Qing History”

In The Charms of Qing TV, The Economist takes a closer look at the popular Qing historical dramas that are so popular on China’s video-sharing sites.

Is Mark Elliot—author of The Manchu Way, one of the first studies to use Manchu sources in the research of Qing history—bothered by Chinese TV’s monolingual Manchus?

“I’d say there is little doubt that the Manchu emperors could all speak decent Chinese. Kangxi’s was almost certainly not as good as that of his son and grandson, but he could get by just fine. Still, it seems he was more comfortable speaking Manchu, and preferred communicating with the Jesuits at court in Manchu rather than in Chinese. So the issue is not so much that the emperors are speaking Chinese, but that they are never found speaking Manchu, which they most definitely could and did do, especially in dealings with Manchu officials.”

This soap opera representation of the Manchu ruling class as curiously dependent on the Han tongue is at odds with a fresh but problematic interpretation of rule under the Manchus, known as “New Qing History.” For the details, see The Charms of Qing TV.