Chinese Fiction by & about Ethnic Minorities (中国少数民族文学) Non-Han Languages in China (中国少数民族语言)

Korean Script in Mainstream China Media: Kosher at last?

For the first time ever — I’ve been watching such announcements for at least 5 years — official Chinese media has used an indigenous language other than Mandarin to publicize the winners of a major literary prize for writing in a minority language. In this case, the China Writers Association has issued a Chinese press release (檀君文学奖评奖结果揭晓) using Korean to cite the names of the winning titles for the 檀君文学奖 literary prize, a new competition for writing in Korean that will be held every two years hence. It is named after Tangun, the legendary founder of Gojoseon, the first Korean kingdom located around present-day Liaoning, Manchuria, and the Korean Peninsula.

In the past, winning titles written in Mongolian or Uyghur, for instance, were announced solely using Chinese characters. This was patently absurd, as many of these books did not even exist in Chinese, and interested readers could not easily use those invented Chinese titles to find the work online or in a bookstore.

There have been some suggestions that this was coming. For instance, the very official Baidu Baike has recently begun using the Uyghur’s Arabic-based script to note the names of some Uyghur artists (see Baidu Encyclopedia First?). Ironically, it refers to such names as “foreign,” but better listed than not, I suppose.

Here’s a partial list of winners (Chinese titles are translations and do not necessarily mean the work has been published in Chinese):


许莲顺 (허련순) for 누가 나비의 집을 보았을가 (谁见过蝴蝶的巢)

Short Story

张正一 (장정일) for 세모의 설레임 (岁暮随想)


李惠善 (리혜선) for  정률성평전 (郑律成评传)

For the full list that includes children’s books, poetry and other categories, see here.

Non-Han Languages in China (中国少数民族语言)

Language Policies Impede Tibetan Literacy in Tibetan Majority Regions

In Tibetans Fight to Salvage Fading Culture in China, Edward Wong explores how recent changes to China’s language policy in areas populated mainly by speakers of Tibetan are — intentionally, it appears — making it much more difficult for many students to attain basic literacy in their mother tongue:

When officials forced an informal school run by monks near here to stop offering language classes for laypeople, Tashi Wangchuk looked for a place where his two teenage nieces could continue studying Tibetan. To his surprise, he could not find one, even though nearly everyone living in this market town on the Tibetan plateau here is Tibetan. Officials had also ordered other monasteries and a private school in the area not to teach the language to laypeople. And public schools had dropped true bilingual education in Chinese and Tibetan, teaching Tibetan only in a single class, like a foreign language, if they taught it at all.

If this trend continues, then the logical next step for Tibetan speakers is to push for more money and resources to be funneled into the teaching of Tibetan, even if it is taught separately and not used as the main language of instruction during the school day.

Policies regarding the teaching of non-Han languages have not, contrary to what one might expect, been consistent since 1949. As recounted in English, a coming-of-age-novel by Wang Gang set in Xinjiang at the outset of the Cultural Revolution, middle school students — including Han — were originally taught the Uyghur language. This made sense, since outside Urumqi, many towns and villages in Xinjiang then were majority Uyghur.

But as far as I know, nowadays few if any Han students are “forced” to learn any languages except Chinese and English, even if they live in an area where they are effectively a minority ethnic group. I still recall my Kashgar-born-and-raised Han driver in Kashgar, Xinjiang, which is overwhelmingly Uyghur, who only spoke enough of this Turkic tongue to haggle over items in roadside markets.

On a not so subtle level, the signal this policy sends to the population at large is that our language is Chinese, and other languages — be they Uyghur, Tibetan, or Dai — are for them. One result is that the study of non-Han languages (tho’ English remains “cool”) is stigmatized even among native speakers. For example, see Mongolian Fluency Drops among Minority Students in Hulunbuir for details on  the “Mongolian is useless” school of thought (蒙语无用论).

Non-Han Languages in China (中国少数民族语言)

Baidu Encyclopedia First? Uyghur Author’s Name Noted in Uyghur Script

An entry I read today in Baidu Encyclopedia (百度百科), a domestic site which serves as a (politically correct) Wikipedia for mainland Chinese — the latter is often firewalled — may signal a change in the policy of referring to members of minority ethnicities by Chinese name only.

Hello, my name is قۇربانجان سەمەت
Hello, my name is قۇربانجان سەمەت

Qurbanjan Semet, author/photographer of the recently launched I Am from Xinjiang on the Silk Road, is Uyghur. His profile on Baidu Encyclopedia lists his Chinese name as 库尔班江·赛买提 and his foreign names as Kurbanjan Samat and  قۇربانجان سەمەت . The latter is his name in the standard Arabic-inspired, Uyghur script used in Xinjiang.

Granted, the Uyghur name is categorized as “foreign,” but in the two years or so that I’ve regularly used Baidu Encyclopedia, this is the first time I’ve seen Uyghur appear in any profile of a personality.

Could this be a trend? I think it might. One reason: Wikipedia has been providing such information about China-based, non-Han persons of note for quite a while now. Take French Wikipedia’s entry on Tibetan cineaste/writer Pema Tseden, for instance:

Pema Tseden ou Wanma Caidan (tibétain པད་མ་ཚེ་བརྟན།, Wylie : pad ma tshe brtan), chinois simplifié : 万玛才旦 ; chinois traditionnel : 萬瑪才旦 ; pinyin : Wàn mǎ cái dàn)

China’s online editors and publishers will tell you that reproducing non-Han script on their sites is technically difficult, yet Wikipedia — and my blog — both do so with little problem. The real obstacle to occasional use of other languages, I suspect, has been that Han-dominated media 1) Has not been specifically instructed to cite names of persons or written works in any language except Chinese, or 2) Has been specifically instructed not to use Tibetan, Kazakh, Uyghur scripts etc., in the interest of national unity.

The result: Information about the “other ten percent” — 90 percent of the Chinese population is Han — is sometimes laughably useless. A case in point: Reports that list award-winning minority authors and works of fiction written in their mother tongues.

For instance, Nationalities Literature Magazine (民族文学), which is published in five different languages, gave one of its 2013 annual “best novel awards” to 江阿古丽 • 哈代 for her novel, 双拇指姑娘 . Given that the book was published in Kazakh, potential readers fluent in Kazakh will have a devilish time figuring out either the name of the author or the book, and then locating it online or in a bookstore!

Non-Han Languages in China (中国少数民族语言)

Compiling New 150,000-entry Tibetan Dictionary: Any Role for the Tibetan Diaspora?

1902 Tibetan-English Dictionary: Compiled by an Indian spy for the British Empire
1902 Tibetan-English Dictionary: Compiled by an Indian spy for the British Empire

Xinhua reports that the first 3 volumes of a new all-Tibetan dictionary will be published within 2015, with another 27 to be gradually launched through the end of 2018 (新版《藏文大辞典》). The aim seems to be to create the Tibetan equivalent of the much respected《辞海》(Cihai), the large-scale dictionary and encyclopedia of the Chinese language.

Anyone who follows the PRC’s dictionary scene knows that the Chinese authorities can be more than a tad political about these reference tools – which script they employ, which words make the cut (or don’t), and crucially, who actually edits them.

The news item informs us that there are some 8 million potential end-users out there in China, Bhutan, Nepal and India. Given that about 120,000 Tibetan refugees are located in India (source: Wikipedia), many of whom have been educated in English and have unfettered access to the Internet (unlike their compatriots who live behind the Great Firewall of China), one might imagine some ethnic Tibetan scholars in India have been invited to take part in the compilation. Or academics worldwide, for that matter.

There was nothing in the news item about whether anyone outside mainland China would play a part in the massive project. Over the years I have used and/or reviewed many dictionaries compiled in China (see Turkish-Chinese Dictionary or Vaporware), and the prevailing spirit is well captured in an old Chinese idiom: Fabricating a cart behind closed doors (闭门造车). In fact, it wasn’t until recently that Taiwan-based scholars began to be officially consulted about all-Chinese dictionaries, a development that has helped to make them more inclusive and representative of Chinese as it is actually used worldwide.

Just take a look at one of China’s leading works, The Chinese-English Dictionary (《汉英大辞典》,吴光华主编) published in 2010: Well over 500 names of compilers/editors are listed for the past and current three editions, but not one is in English, and none of the names look faintly non-Chinese, i.e., have more than 3 syllables, etc.

Non-Han Languages in China (中国少数民族语言) Tibetan Topics (藏话题)

Bilingual Han Cadres: Coming Soon to Tibet Autonomous Region?

In Han Cadres Required to Learn Tibetan Language, the Global Times reports that Xi Jinping and company are getting serious about implementing the “bilingual policy” (藏、汉双语方针) that was legislated in Tibet way back in 1987:

Mastery of the Tibetan language will become a requirement for non-native cadres in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region.

All seven prefecture-level cities in Tibet have started organizing Tibetan language training for non-native cadres, according to the regional bureau of compilation and translation on Monday.

Qoizha, deputy director of the bureau, said they have handed out 40,000 books on basic Tibetan language for daily conversation.

In a country where statistics and quantifiable targets pepper most news reports — e.g., 90 percent of Tibet residents are Tibetan, 40,000 handbooks distributed — there are several key numbers missing from the report:

  • Percentage of Han cadres who can currently conduct their daily tasks in Tibetan
  • Percentage who must attain basic fluency within 2015
  • Date when formal testing of Han cadre fluency in Tibetan will begin

Although the new announcement regarding the implementation of the old bilingual policy is certainly a step in the right direction, it sounds like a statement of intention rather than the “requirement” being suggested in Global Times’ lead paragraph.

Here are a few suggestions on how to make bilingualism among civil servants in Tibet a reality:

1) Announce a realistic timetable and a budget for implementing the program. It will certainly take at least 5 years to get this project off the ground;

2) Gradually introduce examinations in oral and written Tibetan for would-be and current civil servants. Gradually tie promotions for cadres to ability to communicate in both Putonghua and Tibetan;

3) Offer free, intensive Tibetan language training to current and new civil servants;

4) Do not refer to ethnicity of candidates in recruitment ads. Instead, note the level of Putonghua and Tibetan required for each job;

5) Send a delegation to Hong Kong to see how 1-4 were fairly successfully implemented for Cantonese and English during British rule, and continue to be implemented in the post-1997 Hong Kong SAR.

For the Chinese-language version of the news item, see 西藏动员全区汉族干部学藏语 “接地气” .

Chinese Fiction by & about Ethnic Minorities (中国少数民族文学) Non-Han Languages in China (中国少数民族语言)

China’s Ethnic-themed Fiction: Mongolian Author Raises the Bar with Call for Bilingual Skills

Xi Jinping’s recent media blitz reminds China’s propaganda workers that — as Chairman Mao told us back at the 1942 Yan’an Forum — art should serve politics. No ifs, ands or buts, Comrades.

To ensure the message gets across to the 55 ethnic minorities that weren’t born Han, “learn from Chairman Xi” study sessions targeting non-Han writers are underway, and one was held on October 29 in Beijing (学习习近平总书记). Jointly organized by China Writers Association and Chinese Minority Writers Society, it featured several speakers who hold important positions in state-run bodies such as Ye Mei (Tujia, editor-in-chief, Nationalities Literature Magazine),  Malchinkuu (Mongolian, editor, Inner Mongolia Literature Magazine) and Dan Zeng (Tibetan, former deputy chairman of China Writers Association).

But in the midst of (predictable) lavish praise for Xi Jinping’s recent talk on the role of art, Mongolian author Guo Xuebo (郭雪波) issued this

Guo Xuebo: Calling for authors to bone up on minority tongues
Guo Xuebo: Calling for authors to bone up on minority tongues

challenge to those authors who wish to write about China’s ethnic minorities:

Non-Han Languages in China (中国少数民族语言)

Annual Fund: Xinjiang Spending to Inspire Translation, Writing in non-Han Languages

In 新疆双翻工程 (Xinjiang Two-way Translation Project), Kyrgyz female translator Saina Yiersibaike (赛娜·伊尔斯拜克) introduces a well-funded project based in multi-ethnic Xinjiang. A few factoids from the article:

  • 2011: Project founded by the Xinjiang government to stimulate mother-tongue writing in languages spoken in Xinjiang other than Mandarin + translation between those languages and Mandarin.
  • US$1.63m: Annual budget.
  • 2013: Project widened to facilitate “cross-fertilization” among different ethnicities, i.e., translation of writing between non-Han languages of Xinjiang.
  • 2014: 173 works published to date (100 original works, 73 translations)
Non-Han Languages in China (中国少数民族语言)

Tungusic Twilight: Languages of Reindeer-herding Evenki and China’s Last Dynasty Threatened with Extinction

The mid-term outlook for the five main Tungusic tongues of the People’s Republic — Manchu, Xibe, Evenki, Elunchun and Hezhen — is frankly bleak, at least insofar as classifying as “living languages.” Such is the impression one gets from China’s linguistic experts who spoke at the “Academic Conference: Tungusic Language & Culture Under Threat,” held on July 28, 2014, at Heilongjiang University.

This post summarizes a Chinese-language news report on the conference published by Chinese Social Sciences Today (抢救临危语言). I’ve also added comments of my own, and done my best to separate the two.

Granted, according to a 2010 census, there are reportedly more than ten million people — over 95 percent Manchu — who claim to belong to one of these five ethnicities, living mainly in Heilongjiang, Liaoning, Jilin, Beijing, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang (Xibe speakers). But only a tiny fraction of them speak the language of their people fluently. For instance, according to fairly recent field research noted at the conference, there are less than 100 native speakers of Manchu in Heilongjiang villages. A study of Hezhen people who live in settlements with other members of their ethnicity found that even there, less than one percent classify as speakers of the language, and they too are over 60.

Non-Han Languages in China (中国少数民族语言)

Tungusic Languages Under Threat: Statistics, Research Projects, Strategies for Protection

Following a conference on the dire straits of Tungusic languages in China — virtually all of which are under threat — four very informative articles have just appeared on the Institute of Ethnic Literature site.  Since they are in Chinese, I hope to summarize the best parts later, but for now, I site some basic statistics here, and follow with a brief description of the articles and list their URLs.

Tungusic languages in China: Hezhen, Evenki, Elunchun (Oroqen), Manchu and Xibe

Distribution: Heilongjiang, Liaoning, Jilin, Beijing, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang

Populations (2010 census): 10.6 million total, of which 10,387,958 Manchu; 190,481 Xibe; 30,875 Evenki; 8,679 Elunchun; and 5,354 Hezhen

Used as mother tongue: 30,000 persons


  • Proposals for measures such as bilingual education and establishment of a “linguistic and cultural eco-protection zone” for threatened Tungusic tongues.



  • History of field research in San Jia Village since the 1960s, famous for its population of native — but aging — Manchu speakers.


  • Details of discussion at the conference by experts in various Tungusic languages, including up-to-date assessments of the state of each of the major languages, and proposals on how to address the threat of extinction.
Non-Han Languages in China (中国少数民族语言)

3 New Books Document Manchu-Tungusic Languages, Feature Multilingual Glossaries

A conference was recently held in Beijing by China Social Sciences Press to celebrate the publication earlier this year of three scholarly works of interest to researchers of Manchu-Tungus languages (研讨会). They are all authored by Dulor Osor Chog (aka Chao Ke, 朝克) an Evenki who holds a Ph D. in Japanese Culture and Language that was earned in Japan. All three are mainly in Chinese but have indexes in various languages including English (English titles below are publisher’s, not mine):

满通古斯语族语言词源研究 (Etymological Research of Manchu-Tungusic Language)

  • Includes references to vocabulary with Mongolian, Altaic and Mandarin roots.

满通古斯语族语言研究史论 (Research History of Manchu-Tungusic Language)

  • Lists and assesses various reference works.

满通古斯语族语言词汇比较 (Comparison of Manchu-Tungusic Basic Vocabulary)

  • Includes 5-language glossary of vocabulary in Manchu, Xibe, Evenki, Oroqen and Hezhen, as well as a limited number of Jurchen words. Indexed in Chinese and English.