Contemporary Fiction from China: Must it Be Penned in Mandarin?

Aug 23, 2020 Update: Bainuu, the only Mongolian-language social media application available in China, which hosted about 400,000 Southern Mongolians users, reportedly shut down by Chinese authorities.

A few years back I posted a piece entitled A Resounding “Yes” to Mother-tongue Literature — but for Whom and about What?

In this context, “mother-tongue” referred to indigenous languages other than Mandarin. This topic may be of interest to potential readers who perceive “Chinese literature” as encompassing writing in Tibetan, Uyghur, Mongolian, as well as oral literature (口述文学) for peoples who do not have a script widely used in the PRC, such as the Evenki, Zhuang and many others.

In my essay, I posed this question: Who is going to write in their native language — or read what is written for that matter — if they cannot receive a decent education in it?

Recently, news has begun to surface that the authorities in Inner Mongolia are intent on repurposing schools that formerly taught most subjects in Mongolian — with a separate Mandarin class part of the required curriculum — into the opposite, i.e., all subjects taught in Mandarin, with Mongolian taught separately and simply as a language. For details, see Authorities Cancel Mongolian-Medium Classes in Inner Mongolia’s Tongliao City.

Some parents of Mongolian heritage are not happy about this change, which “reportedly” will be fully implemented in Tongliao, Inner Mongolia, come September this year (2020). I write “reportedly” because the authorities have apparently not openly issued documents about this transition, which would allow the public to debate the pros and cons; it is simply being implemented based on oral instructions from officials.

This does not appear to be an “experiment,” either; Tongliao is a city of over 3 million, with a large Mongol population. See 关于当前内蒙古自治区蒙古语授课教育遇到困境的反映 for the details.

Interestingly, the above Weixin essay notes that there are currently two official approaches to bilingual education. Simply put, the first is to offer schooling mainly in an indigenous language, with Mandarin as a “second language,” if you will, and the other is the inverse. The essay skips over the third option, increasingly applied in Xinjiang since 2017, in which the Uyhgur language is banned from all classrooms and textbooks. In other words, Mandarin instruction. Period.

To close, a personal anecdote about fiction published in China in languages other than Mandarin: I recently took part in a videoconference with several persons, including a senior manager at Chinese Culture Translation & Studies Support Network (CCTSS) (中国文化译研网). CCTSS positions itself as “a platform of Chinese and foreign literature online translation and project promotion (working platform).”

We were discussing how to better promote the writing of China’s non-Han authors to publishers and readers overseas. I suggested that we could translate excerpts of writing by minority authors, for marketing to foreign publishers, including those originally penned in Tibetan, Mongolian, etc., and not yet available in Mandarin. The CCTSS executive politely but firmly indicated this option would not be considered.

7 thoughts on “Contemporary Fiction from China: Must it Be Penned in Mandarin?

  1. The policy on all real teaching being done in Mandarin is a backward step, as the Weixin essay demonstrates.

    One can understand the desire to make China strong and united, to eliminate internal differences, and give equal opportunity to all people of all backgrounds. But this policy does not help to achieve this. It is not a demonstration of strength and broader vision; it is an admission of fear, narrowness, and weakness. It appears to be a hybrid of good old-fashioned Han chauvinism — a belief in the superiority of the Han people and in the Chinese Great Tradition, and a desire to unite the country on this basis — and 19th century Western-style monocultural, monolingual state building. These have come together in a policy of nation-building that is focussed on eliminating differences of culture and thought and creating absolute uniformity.

    Uniting a country like China is a huge and unenviable task, but such uniformity will not produce the stability that the leadership desires. The current emphasis on absolute control and favouring the culture of the heartlands is equally incapable of dealing with sophisticated metropolises like Hong Kong and minority ethnic groups in the borderlands. It is a vision that cannot deal with variation and difference, a rigidity that demonstrates weakness, not strength.

    These policies appear to have emerged from the villages of the Chinese heartland which, whatever the sterling qualities of the people who live there, suffer from a narrowness of cultural vision and experience. People of such narrow backgrounds seemingly cannot appreciate a country as huge and varied as China. ’Education’ does not appear to have a broadening effect on their perspective, merely helping clothe ordinary prejudice against non-Han cultures in respectable official language.

    The drive to eliminate both dialects and minority ethnic languages — languages of major cultural significance in Chinese history — can only be described as vandalism. It will fail to create a richer, more vibrant China, instead irrevocably destroying what gives China its diversity and strength. New divisions will inevitably appear among the new uniform, but culturally impoverished Mandarin-speaking population. China will only realise the damage these policies have done when those who are responsible for them have passed into history, but by then it will be too late.

    Turning to your senior manager at the Chinese Culture Translation & Studies Support Network, he should have been ashamed of himself. This is not the thinking of a cultured man. Unfortunately he has little choice in view of national policies.

    In asserting control over the ethnic minorities, the party appears to have adopted a de facto policy of allowing access to the outside world only through the medium of Chinese. Possible reasons include 1) the urges of ethnic minorities to maintain their culture and language appear to be regarded as dangerous by the Party, which is biased towards the Han Chinese, 2) there is suspicion of people whose languages most of the leadership don’t understand, and 3) there is lack of respect for non-Han cultures in China. This has resulted in a situation where no direct translation is allowed between minority ethnic languages and foreign languages: all must go through Chinese.

    Many people are unfamiliar with this aspect of Chinese control over the ethnic minorities, but it is quite evident from facts on the ground.

    For example, dictionaries between Chinese and ethnic languages (e.g. Mongolian) are explicitly positioned as “internal dictionaries”. They are kept totally separate from dictionaries between Chinese and “foreign languages” (e.g., Mongolian as used in Mongolia). There is, in fact, no such thing as a Chinese-Mongolian dictionary that covers the entirety of the Mongolian language. There are dictionaries only of “our Mongolian” and “their Mongolian”.

    Terminological dictionaries between Mandarin and ethnic languages invariably involve literal translations of Mandarin terminology into the ethnic language (often poorly done by university students), with every effort to ensure that ethnic terminology exactly mirrors Chinese and proactively excludes usages from outside China. The political imperatives of ethnic Chinese policies have resulted in the total distortion of a basic activity like creating dictionaries.

    In fact, there are actually a few small dictionaries between Mongolian and English (mostly for students). Chinese is invariably present in such dictionaries. Including the national language is obviously useful for Mongolian-speaking students, but the same cannot be said for the few books of English-language stories published for the benefit of Mongolian-speaking children. These invariably carry a Chinese translation, making them trilingual, but unfortunately the ethnic language version is invariably translated from the Chinese, not from the English, distorting the meaning and detracting from their usefulness.

    All this betrays a fear of uncontrolled thoughts and independent access to foreign languages among ethnic minorities, and an obsession with maintaining strict ideological control.

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  2. Lenin once called Tsarist Russia a “prison of nations”. I think this description also applies to China’s policies towards ethnic minorities (as I noted above). They are not Han Chinese; their ethnic identities are suspect; they are not to be trusted; they must therefore be imprisoned within walls set up by China against the outside world.

    This is manifestly unfair. As the Weixin article points out, Inner Mongolia was liberated through the efforts of ethnic Mongols before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. They suffered great oppression during the Cultural Revolution from another son of the Central Plains, Teng Haiqing (滕海清). Despite this they have been at least as loyal to China as many Han Chinese. What kind of payback is it that the central government should decide to make them effectively abandon their language?

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  3. What Bruce describes for Mongolian-medium education has been happening for years, in various degrees, in Tibetan so-called autonomous prefectures and the Tibet Autonomous Region, but situation has been worsening sotto voce there in the last years. In March 2020, Human Rights Watch issued a highly recommended (and depressing) report about so-called Sino-Tibetan ‘bilingual’ education in the PRC (https://www.hrw.org/node/339144). In theory, as the report states, “Chinese analysts distinguish between “Model 1” bilingualism, which emphasizes the use of the local or minority language in classrooms, and “Model 2” bilingualism, which emphasizes the national language, Chinese.”
    Unfortunately, there is growing tendency (and pressure) to switch from Model 1 to Model 2, in which the “minority” language is relegated to one class or 2 per week, as we do in Europe for foreign languages. Still, Chinese authorities insist it is called “bilingual education”, because “native’ language is still taught in 1 class. Therefore, I suggest to rename it “bilingual education with Chinese (or CCP, or PRC) characteristics”. Because, here, “bilingual” just reflects the fact that 2 languages are used for teaching, no matter how much weight is accorded to each of the 2 languages. So even if you have 1 class of Tibetan per week, and the rest of your tuition (literature, maths, geography, history, art, sports, etc.) is in Chinese, then you are in a ‘bilingual’ curriculum, PRC-style.
    With all-pervading Chinese-language TV programs and smartphones, “minority” children are already becoming quickly fluent in Chinese. Imposing what amounts to Chinese-only education (in the garb of so-called ‘bilingualism’) and shamelessly calling it ‘bilingual’, following the ‘Model 2″ mentioned above, is totally unnecessary in terms of Chinese language proficiency. Moreover, it destroys all hopes for “minorities” to be a master of their own tongue, history, culture, heritage, literature (be it oral or written). But maybe this is exactly what is intended by policy makers.

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  4. PS: at it happens, the Party’s mouthpiece Global Times has just published today an online article about a school in Chamdo (spelt here Qamdo), in the TAR: https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1196476.shtml
    Obviously, the Party is paying attention to outside critcisms about “minority” education in the PRC (“some Western media outlets smeared China’s education of minority groups and claimed it’s brainwashing”).
    Although the article looks nice and rosy, one cannot fail to note that no mention whatsoever is made of the proportion of classes taught in Tibetan language (besides the Tibetan language class, obviously), and of those taught in Chinese. Avoiding crucial questions, and flooding the reader with fuzzy information, is quite typical.
    On another topic (demography), the article reveals that 60% of the children at that school in Chamdo are Tibetans. But the official statistics for the TAR are that 92% of its inhabitants are Tibetans. Either Chamdo is an exception, or ethnic demographic statistics in the PRC are flawed. You decide.

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  5. In 2012 President Xi Jinping vowed that he would 继续朝着中华民族伟大复兴目标奋勇前进 (continue to march courageously towards the goal of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation).

    It appears that president Xi believes the goal can only be reached if everyone in China becomes 汉族. This distortion of the concept of 中华民族, as understood in modern China, is an impoverishment of what it means to be ‘Chinese’.

    This narrowness of vision, which I have attributed above (and I believe rightly) to the cultural narrowness of people (including the president) who hail from dusty villages of the Chinese heartland, is a tragedy for China.

    It is a great loss for China and its history if its leaders and bureaucrats believe that the 中华民族 can only be ‘rejuvenated’ by repudiating the cultures and languages of the non-Han peoples (or, just as bad, appropriating their culture and incorporating a plastic Han-language version of it into the Chinese story).

    I do not believe history will be kind to Mr Xi and his vision.

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    1. To clarify, posterity is likely to see the Sinicisation policy in the same light as Mao’s environmental policies, which the Xi Jinping government is still trying to clean up after. But unlike environmental destruction, the despoliation of culture and language is difficult to fix. Once they are gone, they are gone. This will be the shameful legacy of the Xi government.

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