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Preserving Ethnic Identity
A project is under way to save endangered ethnic minority languages
By Yin Pumin | NO. 27 JULY 6, 2017

Performers practice Yimakan, an art of storytelling unique to Hezhen people, in Tongjiang, northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, on May 25, 2016 (XINHUA)

Long Xiang has been in Beijing for more than 10 years. After studying at college, he found a job and stayed in the metropolis. Until today, however, few of his friends and colleagues know he is a member of the Mulam ethnic minority, from south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, because nobody has ever heard Long speak his mother tongue.

"In fact, I can only speak a few words of the Mulam language," 30-year-old Long said in regret. According to him, in his hometown in Luocheng Mulam Autonomous County in the northern part of Guangxi, only elderly people use the language in their daily communication. Young people have abandoned the language in favor of Mandarin.

As Long recalls, in his family, only his grandparents could speak the Mulam language when he was a child. "I'm so sorry I didn't learn the language when my grandparents were still living. I'm afraid our language will become extinct someday if we don't take action to preserve it," Long said.

In fact, Mulam isn't the only language in China that faces extinction. Nearly all of the 130-plus languages of the 55 non-Han ethnic minority groups face the same problem, according to data from the Research Center for Protecting the Language Resources of China.

The data show that 68 languages have fewer than 10,000 speakers; 48 have no more than 5,000; and 25 have 1,000 at most. The languages most at risk of extinction are Hezhen and Lhoba, each of which has fewer than 100 speakers.

"Language is the foundation and spirit of an ethnicity's culture. To preserve culture and history, we must take necessary action to save those languages in danger," said Ding Shiqing, a professor with the Minzu University of China (MUC) and Vice Director of the Research Center for the Protection of Chinese Ethnic Minority Languages.

To preserve endangered languages, the Chinese Government launched a large-scale project for protecting the language resources of China in 2015, deciding to conduct field investigations into the language resources around the country and create a multimedia language database.

Ding said the move taken by the government indicated that a nationwide campaign, with central government departments, local governments and experts working together, had been put on the fast track. "The project will be marked as a great undertaking in saving our diversified culture in future history," Ding told Beijing Review.

To further promote the project in a regulated and scientific way, the State Ethnic Affairs Commission of China issued its Work Plan for Preserving Ethnic Minority Languages During the 13th Five-Year Plan period (2016-20) in April this year, vowing to put the freedom of ethnic minorities to use and develop their own languages under more effective protection by 2020.

A serious situation

In China, more than 40 percent of the ethnic minority languages are in danger of extinction, according to Huang Xing, a researcher with the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).

Take the Hezhen ethnic group in northeast China, for example. There are more than 4,600 Hezhen people scattered around Heilongjiang Province. Today, only 2.14 percent of them can speak or use the Hezhen language. "The language has come to the brink of extinction," said Dai Qingxia, a professor with the MUC.

According to Dai's investigation, only 15 people use Hezhen as their only language. In the village of Bacha in Heilongjiang's Tongjiang City, one of the locations in which the Hezhen language is best preserved, only six elderly people can use the language fluently.

"The Hezhen language only has a spoken form. When those elderly people die one day, the language will vanish along with them," Dai said.

The same fate faces the Tujia language, even though the Tujia ethnicity's population numbers more than 8 million, mainly in the provinces of Hunan, Hubei and Sichuan. According to Dai's investigation, only 3 percent of the Tujia people can speak the language.

"Like the Hezhen language, Tujia only has a spoken form. If no appropriate measure is taken to save it, the language will disappear in the near future," Dai said.

Xu Xiangrong is an 84-year-old Tujia farmer living in the Xiangxi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture of Hunan Province. His 22-year-old grandson, who is now studying at college in the provincial capital of Changsha, can speak Mandarin and English but not a word of Tujia. This makes the old farmer very sad.

Even worse, the situation with Xu's grandson is typical among young Tujia people. "In my village, only people around my age speak Tujia language. I'm afraid nobody will know Tujia language after old people like me die," Xu lamented.

The Manchu language is another of those at high risk of extinction, although the Manchu people comprise the third-largest ethnic minority in China, with a population of 10.41 million.

Dekjin is a native Manchu young woman who works in Beijing. She said many of her friends are also Manchu, but few can speak the language. "Manchu people have their own spoken and written language. Today, maybe some people can read a bit of Manchu, but few have the ability to speak the language. It's a pity for us Manchu people," she said.

To change the situation, Dekjin and her friends set up a training center for Manchu language learners in Beijing in 2007. While searching for suitable teachers, Dekjin discovered that the Manchu language is still used by the Xibe ethnic group, whose members originated in northeast China and now also inhabit Qapqal Xibe Autonomous County in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

"Fortunately, a large part of the Xibe people can speak the Manchu language. This provides a rare opportunity for us to revive the language," Dekjin said.

According to Feng Hui, a professor with Xinjiang Normal University, in some parts of Qapqal Xibe Autonomous County, the Manchu language is still in daily use among Xibe people. "Although few can write Manchu characters anymore, many people can speak the language fluently," Feng said.

Feng advises combining Manchu writings with the language spoken by the Xibe to facilitate revival of the Manchu language.

"A language represents an ethnicity's culture, history and characteristics. It can strengthen the ethnic people's sense of identity. We must take every possible measure to keep our languages alive," Dekjin said, vowing to put more energy into training more people to be able to speak Manchu.

A long way to go

Experts say there are many reasons why languages approach extinction. "The loss of the function of communication is one of the most important reasons," said Sun Hongkai, a professor at the Graduate School of the CASS.

"The situation of the Manchu, She, Hezhen and Tatar languages is due to this reason," Sun said, adding that population base alone cannot guarantee a language's future.

Whereas only a few of the 10 million Manchu people speaks the language, over half of the 20,000 or so members of the Jing ethnic group in Guangxi use their traditional language for daily communication.

"In the 1980s, many experts thought the Jing language would soon disappear. Out of their expectations, the language lives on because of its function of communication among the Jing people," said He Siyuan, a professor with the Institute of Chinese Minority Languages at the MUC.

Another important reason for the precarious situation of ethnic minority languages comes from the fast development of modern society and the economy. "Today, with the development of the global economy, there needs to be some common languages that can easily link different nationalities. Against such a background, it is irreversible for weak languages to be replaced by powerful languages," Sun said.

According to a survey of Linzhou Middle School in Lhasa, capital of Tibet Autonomous Region, by Sichuan Normal University, 80 percent of Tibetan students believe that Mandarin is more important than Tibetan.

This situation is typical among all 55 ethnic minority groups.

Some experts argue that the trend of extinction of minority languages is inevitable. "It is a rational choice by the ethnic minority peoples, because their education and employment opportunities are limited if they cannot speak Mandarin fluently," said Li Ziran, a professor with the College of Politics and Law at the Ningxia University in Yinchuan, northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.

Pan Shouyong, Vice Director of the Institute of Anthropology at the MUC, also believes that the choice lies in the hands of minority peoples. "But we professionals and the government have an obligation to preserve endangered languages," Pan added.

Huang with the CASS said cooperation between government, professionals, ethnic minority people and society at large is needed to preserve languages.

"The most important part is the government support, including policies, finance, management and talent," Huang said.

Bilingual education is one of the important methods proposed by the government to preserve minority languages. According to statistics provided by the Research Center for Protecting Language Resources of China, bilingual education is offered to more than 20 ethnic minority groups, with 4.1 million students currently being educated in more than one language.

The protection project launched by the government in 2015 and documents subsequently issued in 2016 and 2017 laid a solid policy foundation for language preservation work to go deeper, said Professor Ding from the MUC.

"There will be a series of follow-up initiatives in the following years. Language preservation work is a long-term task needing efforts from every part of our society. The cultivation of talent is an important aspect. We must grasp every opportunity to find and cultivate excellent talent for the project, which is expected to benefit future generations," Ding said.

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

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