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.