In her Dec 24 analysis of a document designed to guide China’s future ethnic policies, China’s Prescription for ‘Improving Ethnic Work’, Shannon Tiezzi makes a reference to “local dialects”:
The document attempts to address governance and policy issues as well, starting with the sensitive topic of language. Beijing reiterates that all officials, including those from minority groups, must learn Mandarin. However, the document also urges Han officials to learn the local dialects in use where they are stationed. As James Palmer noted for Foreign Policy, though, such well-meaning directives are often disregarded by local officials. “Han officials are encouraged by official directives to learn Uyghur, but, despite the availability of excellent Uyghur-Chinese textbooks, it is rare for any of them to make it past the level of ‘Hello,’” Palmer writes.
No doubt Palmer’s observation is correct. But Tiezzi’s use of Uyghur as an example, and use of the term “local dialects,” are both very unfortunate.
First of all, Uyghur is not a Sinitic language or a dialect of Mandarin. It is a member of the Turkic language family.
The term “local dialects” is indeed used in the English-language Xinhua news item to which Tiezzi refers (Minority Officials). However, in a longer Chinese Xinhua commentary widely available on the Internet (意见), the actual reference is 在民族地区工作的汉族干部应学习掌握少数民族语言文字. This clearly means the (written and spoken) native languages of indigenous ethnic minorities. Han cadres are being urged to learn such languages, not a dialect of Chinese.
While some ethnic groups no longer widely speak their own language, millions of their member do, particularly Tibetans, Uyghurs, Mongolians and Zhuang. According to Wikipedia (Languages of China), the spoken languages of nationalities that are a part of the PRC belong to at least nine families. While specialists may debate how “close” they are to Mandarin in syntax, etc., the fact is that speakers of standard Chinese simply cannot understand or read these languages without training. To do so, they would have to invest the same amount of intense study time you or I would need to master a foreign language, i.e., several years.
Therefore, referring to them as “local dialects” is quite misleading, and coincides with Beijing’s desire to downplay the profile and inherent value of its indigenous languages.
Tiezzi should know better. She holds an M.A. from Harvard in East Asian Regional Studies, and has studied at Tsinghua U in Beijing.