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.

Translator Shortage and Tired Tales of Chinese Exceptionalism

Writes Dong Fangyu at China Daily in Translators Leave China Lost for Words:

Lenin's Kisses“. . . many Chinese novels that have won top prizes and been well received in China face delays in getting published abroad due to a lack of good translators.

Take the example of the novel Shou Huo (The Joy of Living,[受活]) by Yan Lianke [阎连科]. Although copyright contracts for it were signed with publishers from Japan, France, Italy and the United Kingdom in late 2004, to date none of the four translated novels have been published, as no competent translators are available.”

This is a claim rich in implications:

  • The Chinese language is too subtle and complex to be understood by outsiders
  • The Chinese-to-foreign-language translation task might best be left to us here in China
  •  There would be more than one Chinese Nobel Laureate if our works had been adequately translated.

[Read more…]

Chen Zhongshi’s “White Deer Plain”: Censored to Win Coveted Mao Dun Literary Prize

Au pays du cerf blanceWhite Deer Plain, a newly launched movie based on Chen Zhongshi’s novel of the same name (白鹿原, 陈忠实著), has aroused controversy both as a book and as a film. The novel tells the tale of two families, Bai and Lu, living through the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the beginning of the Republic and the rise of Communism in Shaanxi Province. It won the Mao Dun Literary Prize in 1997, but as documented in an article today (删改性写), not before the sensitive political content and sex scenes were appropriately trimmed:

《白鹿原》曾因其尖锐的历史政治观点及大胆的性爱描述,在竞选第四届茅盾文学奖前进行过一定程度的编辑和删减。据人民文学出版社副总编辑何启治(《白鹿 原》首版编辑)回忆,当时评委会负责人打电话给陈忠实,转述了一些评委要求他进一步修订作品的意见。这些意见主要认为:书中关于政治斗争的若干描写可能引 起误解,应以适当方式予以廓清;另外,一些与表现思想主题无关的较为直露的性描写应加以修改。陈忠实随后对《白鹿原》进行了适当修改。

Which makes you wonder: which version of the novel were Baoqing Shao and Solange Cruveillé working from when they translated the novel into French (Au pays du Cerf blanc)?

“Pamir Kyrgyz Traditional Song Conference” Held in Xinjiang’s Akto County

Just a few weeks after 40 Uyghur masters of the rhymed epic tales known as dastan gathered in Hami to stage and talk about their threatened art form (Dastan Training Session), some 60-plus performers of traditional Kyrgyz songs have gathered for a similar get-together in Xinjiang’s Akto County (阿克陶县) bordering on Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

According to the article (约隆歌) re-published on the China Ethnic Literature Network, there are a large variety of these songs known as 约隆歌 (Yuēlóng gē in Chinese, and 约隆歌, I think), including those reserved just for a man or a woman, satirical ones, or to welcome a guest. Similar renditions can also be found among other nomadic peoples of Central Asia such as the Kazakh, Altai, Tuvan and Khakas.

This traditional Kyrgyz musical form was designated an Intangible Cultural Heritage by China in 2008, and more than 800 songs have reportedly been collected in the Pamir region to date.

Quote of the Week (Jun 26, 2012): Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o on Mother Tongue

For to deny a child, any child, their right to mother tongue, to bring up such a child as a monolingual English speaker in a society where the majority speak African languages, to alienate that child from a public they may be called to serve, is nothing short of child abuse. (Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Kenyan author, in Speaking My Language)

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.

Translation of Century-old French-Buyi Dictionary Dogged by Concerns over Political Correctness

Published in 1908, a rare dictionary of the Buyi language—Essai de dictionnaire dioi-français reproduisant la langueDictionnaire Français-Buyi parlée par les tribus Thai de la Haute rivière de l’Ouest (布法辞典)—compiled by two French missionaries (Joseph Esquirol & Gustave Williatte) has long been slated for translation into Chinese. Attempts were made to complete the project in the late 1970s and again in 1989, but according to a recent report published on the Institute of Ethnic Literature’s web site (布依文化百科全书), for “certain reasons” they were not successful.

According to Wikipedia, the Bùyī  “live in semi-tropical, high-altitude forests of Guizhou province, as well as in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, and speak a Tai language.”

The report doesn’t explicitly state the past or current obstacles to the dictionary’s translation and publication. One reason noted is the fact that it is written in “old French” (古法语), a somewhat bizarre claim given that 19th–century French is still quite understandable to your typical francophone.

Perhaps more insightful, in its own way, is this explanation offered by Guo Tangliang (郭堂亮), head editor at Guizhou Nationalities Publishing House (贵州民族出版社), who is taking part in the latest attempt to prepare this reference work’s first-ever appearance in Chinese (my translation):

. . .publishing the French-Buyi Dictionary is a big project and should be undertaken with a scientific and serious attitude. Since this book was created by French missionaries who had penetrated deeply into ethnic minority regions, the culture and customs of China’s Buyi people are seen through foreign eyes, and therefore evidence a certain bias. If it were directly translated, published and distributed, there would be issues related to matters such as its authorship, copyright and relationships between different ethnic groups.

Put bluntly, it looks like we can expect the final copy to be “edited” to ensure that we get an “unbiased” view of the Buyi and their language.

Interesting. I wonder: has the same sort of “editing” been done on classics like the still widely-consulted Kangxi Dictionary  (康熙字典)—compiled  in 1716 when foreigners (the Manchu), not the Han, ruled China?

“Follow Me in Dai!” Soon to be Published

Two textbooks aimed at pupils in Yunnan have been approved and will soon be published (傣文教材出炉): Dai Reader IV for Xishuangbanna Elementary School Students (西双版纳傣文小学教材第四册) and Follow Me in Dai! (跟我学傣文).  The Dai Reader consists of 30 texts, 19 traditonal Dai pieces and 11 translations (I assume from Chinese). Follow Me in Dai! will be available in digital format.

According to Wikipedia’s Dai People (傣族), there are approximately 1.2m Dai in the PRC, 134,000 in Laos and 145,000 in Thailand. Those in China mainly speak one of two dialects: Dailü or Dai Nüa, and both are part of the Tai language group that includes Thai, Lao and Zhuang. “Various dialects of the Tai/Dai language family are spoken from Assam India to Taiwan and Shanxi Province in the North to [Indonesia’s] Java in the south,” notes Wikipedia.

In fact, the term “Dai” has been used officially in China—replacing “Tai” or “Thai”—only since 1953. If the goal of this policy was to create the impression among the mainstream Han that Dai people, language and culture are unique to China, it has been fairly successful. Even in Kunming, provincial capital of Yunnan, just a day’s bus ride from Xishuangbanna, most locals I meet are largely unaware that the Dai and their language are closely related to the country known as Thailand.

This reminds me of a visit I made to Kashgar in western Xinjiang near the ‘Stans (Uzbekistan, etc.). Linguists estimate that the language spoken by Xinjiang’s Uyghurs shares up to 70 percent of its vocabulary with modern Turkish, which isn’t surprising since both are Turkic tongues. But the young Uighurs I met in my brief stay there rejected the idea that their language or culture shares its roots with today’s Turkey. They appeared to be ignorant of any ties.

Tibetan, Daur, Evenki and Oroqen Databases Appraised by Experts

According to China’s Ministry of Education (数据库), several minority language projects underway during the current 12th Five-year Plan (2011-15) have been appraised and approved by experts. They are:

  • Database of Modern Tibetan Grammar Research (现代藏语语法信息辞典数据库研究)
  • Database of Daur, Evenki and Oroqen Voice Acoustic Parameters (达斡尔、鄂温克和鄂伦春语语音声学参数数据库)

Undertaken by the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (中国社会科学院民族学与人类学研究所), applications for these databases include promotion of minority language education, language engineering research, and in the case of the Tibetan database, text annotation and machine translation. [Read more…]

China Ethnic Dictionary Project: Yunnan’s Lahu Next in Line

The compilation of a Chinese-Lahu dictionary officially began in Kunming on April 14, according to a report on the拉祜族邮票 Institute of Ethnic Literature site (编篡工作在昆明启动). Some 100 Lahu scholars met to discuss the reference book, scheduled for publication in 2015, that will comprise over two million words of text.

The Lāhù (拉祜族) are one of the 56 peoples recognized by the PRC. In China they number 475,000 and are concentrated within the Lancang River Basin in Yunnan Province around Pu’er and Lincang, but some 160,000 also inhabit Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos. Experts believe the Lahu’s origins lie in the ancient nomadic Qiang people (羌人) of Gansu and Qinghai.

The China Ethnic Dictionary Project (中国少数民族大辞典) aims to compile 16 dictionaries. According to the report re-published by the Institute of Ethnic Literature, three have been completed (Bai, Hani and Naxi) and another two—for the Dai and Wa languages—will soon be.

Just how the dictionary will be formatted was not mentioned. However, the recently launched Miao-Han Dictionary (苗汉辞典) may well serve as a model. It featured:

  • Pronunciation using international phonetic alphabet (IPA)
  • Bilingual text
  • Sample sentences

Visit here for links to several Lahu films.