China Policy Institute: Analysis


Chinese Language

Identities of Migrant worker: From Nongmin Gong (农民工) to Xin Shimin (新市民)

Written by Wei Wang.

People’s identity is very much reflected on and constructed by how they are named by others. Internal migrant workers in China have experienced huge differences in terms of how they have been perceived and named during the last thirty years. During this time, economic development and rapid urbanisation in China has propelled massive internal migration. Large numbers have migrated from the countryside to towns and cities, especially to megalopolises such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, usually individuals in search of jobs and higher wages.

Official statistics (China’s National Bureau of Statistics 2014) place the number of internal migrants in China at about 20% of its population of 1.3 billion, having increased from roughly 30 million in 1989 to more than 269 million in 2013. Yet when migrants leave their homesteads, they are confronted with discrimination and a range of inequalities, many of which are perpetuated by China’s longstanding social orders and political system. How they have been named during these years can partially demonstrate the migrant workers’ tough experience of integration into urban social life.

Since the early 1980s and the advent of “reform and opening”, migrant workers have been called Nongmin Gong or Dagong Zai/Mei, which literally means peasant workers/labourers. Implicit in these terms is a strongly derogative stigmatization. Although migrants have made a great contribution to China’s development, their integration to cities has not been warmly welcomed by local governments or established city residents. They have often been regarded as ‘abnormal individuals’, due to the fact that for a long time they came into the cities, only providing cheap labour without proper social identification papers. While the migrant workers as a social group have often been blamed as possible sources for robbery, stealth, and other civil disorders, public discourse in China often regards migrant workers as people who deviate from the ‘norm’ and thus need to be corrected and educated. According to Foucault, the norm is the rule of conduct, the tacit law, the principle of order and conformity, against which irregularity, disorder, disorganisation, dysfunction, deviation are measured and disqualified. In this sense, the discourse of abnormality around migrant workers may result from its possible introduction of disorder to and its disruption of the normative system, with which city residents are familiar.

In the context of the public discourse of abnormality around Nongmin Gong, Party-State leaders and State-run media have attempted to provide a counter-discourse by tempering the perception of abnormality of migrant worker’ identities and advocating their normality or even their “super-normality”, manifest in personal traits that greatly exceed the normal or average in their peers. However, recent research indicates that there is a huge difference between the State-run media and the local/social media coverage of migrant workers. The advocacy of the migrant workers’ identities by the State-run media is in line with its role as the mouthpiece of the Party, in which the media is fulfilling its noble responsibility to help the masses ‘distinguish truth from falsehood’.

In their effort to curb discrimination and promote the integration of migrant workers into urban social life, the State leaders and the governments at various levels adopted a term Xin Shimin (new city residents) to refer to the migrant workers. This term was first used in 2006 by Qingdao Municipality Government in Shandong Province, and has been widely accepted by both the government and media since then. In July 2014, Premier Li Keqiang advocated the adoption of the term Xin Shimin to refer to migrant workers in a State Council executive meeting. While acknowledging the social contribution made by this floating population, he requests stop of treating migrant workers as second class citizens. It is not common in the Chinese history for a government head to be engaged in the naming of a social group in society. His advocacy of a new name for this social group have also been underpinned by changes of the government’s policy concerning this floating population. Among them, the most important is the government’s attempt of abolition of the rural-urban dual hukou system, which has had or will have a huge impact on the migrant workers.

In this sociolinguistic construction of migrant worker identities, the context, ‘space’ and ‘place’, and the purpose of communication shape the identities of migrant workers. Although both the two names, i.e. Nongmin Gong and Xin Shimin, are based on aspects of their personal identities (i.e. peasant, worker, new city-residents, etc.), the way that the names are used and the points being highlighted depends much on the manipulation of the public, the media and/or the government. For instance, if the media highlighted the representation of ‘diligence, frugality, confidence, and action with vision’ in migrant worker identities, that can be regarded as shaping the super-normality of their identities for the purpose of the public media. In this case, ‘new city residents’ would more likely be used to refer to this social group.

However, people can (and do) shift places frequently and delicately, and each time, in very minimal ways, express different identities. So in this sense, even the same migrant worker being covered in the media can be called Nongmin Gong in another place by another person for another purpose. It can be argued that the identities of migrant workers presented in the State-run media are often just the desirable facets of migrant worker identities that they attempt to present to its audience for fulfilling the media’s social function. It might have a long way to go before the identity of migrant workers advocated by the government and the media can be accepted and this new name of Xin Shimin be adopted by the general public.

Dr Wei Wang is a Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Sydney. Image Credit: CC by Matt Ming/Flickr.

Language, National Identity and Nationalism in China

Written by Yingjie Guo.

The close relationship between language, national identity and nationalism is rarely disputed. Though few would insist on a strong interconnection between language and the development of ‘intellectual peculiarity’, it is easy to agree that ancestral language and national continuity are intertwined and that nationalism has been inextricably bound up with language. In China, however, there have been quite different views about the language–identity relationship, and Chinese nationalists and intellectual elites in general have been divided over what to do with Chinese.

China’s cultural and political nationalists both look upon language as an instrument of thought, a form of national culture, and a depository of traditional ideas, values, beliefs and practices. This has consistently been the case over the past century. Cultural nationalists and conservatives believe that is the reason for preserving Chinese; they are adamant about its indispensability to the transmission of cultural Chineseness and the maintenance of national identity. But from the viewpoint of iconoclastic political nationalists, language should not be preserved but must be transformed, modernized or standardized so that it will contribute to ‘national salvation’, state-building and the creation of a new, modern China that is economically prosperous and politically and militarily strong. It is worth noting though that anti-traditionalism has waned over time and dramatically since the crackdown of students in Tiananmen Square in 1989. A consequence is the gradual convergence of political and cultural strands of nationalism in a new synthesis in the last two decades that finds no parallel between 1919 and 1989.

Anti-traditionalist nationalism prevailed in China in the early decades of the twentieth century as a result of overlapping consensus which emerged amongst liberal thinkers and left-wing intellectuals as the New Culture Movement swept across the country. In contrast, the voice of cultural nationalists who spoke in defence of Chinese civilization was hardly audible. Despite the various means that political nationalists opted for, they were united in their endeavour to ‘save China’. They were also unanimous in holding China’s cultural heritage, including the Chinese language, responsible for the country’s backwardness and humiliation in the hands of Western powers. In their view, Chinese civilization had decayed to such an extent that it had to be revitalized whatever it took, that the social-cultural-political order of the past must be treated as a whole and rejected as a whole. The Chinese language, as part of Chinese culture, must be remade too. Thus, language became a site of fierce contestation and language reform constituted a key component of the national project of ‘national salvation’ and self-strengthening.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) carried on the ethos of the New Culture Movement. The new socialist state of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) required a compatible nation to go with it, which would be constructed, among other things, by ‘revolutionalizing’ the written and spoken Chinese and making it the people’s language. The language represented a ‘culture of proletarian consciousness’ and constituted the new instruments of revolutionary expression and knowledge and symbolised the power of the workers, soldiers and peasants. Following repeated assault on cultural traditions and social customs, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, the modernizing fervour generated by the re-launched ‘four-modernisations’ in the late 1970s gave new impetus to the ‘modernisation of Chinese tradition’.

The systematic modernization of the Chinese language and speech dates back to the New Culture Movement. Since then modernization has included vernacularization – or the popularization of ‘plain speech’ (baihua), the simplification of the ideographs, the reduction of ideographs, and the Latinization of the script. Strikingly, irrespective of their partisan affiliations, modernizers have been mostly radical in their approach to reform, with those who despaired of Chinese calling for its replacement by English or a universal Esperanto. What came to be known as ‘plain speech’ started to spread across Chinese cities in the Republican era. At about same time, a large number of phonetic plans had emerged, but for the sake of unity, only the Phonetic Alphabet, which consisted of 39 symbols for representing the sounds of the standard ‘national language’, was adopted by the Republican Ministry of Education. In 1930, the Chiang Kai-shek government instructed that the Alphabet be introduced in Party organizations, government institutions and the country’s education system.

Consistent with the New Culture tradition, the CCP adhered to phoneticization as the direction of language reform, while treating the simplification of Chinese characters as merely a transitional measure to facilitate phoneticization. In 1955, 1,022 variant characters (yitizi) were eliminated in a bid to standardize Chinese vocabulary. The State Council formally released ‘The Plan for the Simplification of Chinese Characters’ in 1956, and two years later, ‘The Chinese Language Phonetic Spelling (pinyin) Plan’, based on alphabet orthography, was officially adopted. This was accompanied by comprehensive standardization of pronunciation and mass campaigns to popularize ‘common speech’ (putonghua), while local dialects were banned in film and national mass media and discouraged in the schools. In 1965, the State Commission for Language Reform standardized the structure of 6,196 characters (and an additional 854 in 1988). The modernizing fervour generated by the re-launched ‘four modernisations’ in the late 1970s gave new impetus to the modernization of Chinese, culminating in the publication of ‘The Second Plan for the Simplification of Chinese Characters’ in 1977.

From then to the late 1980s, however, official language policy started to shift from ‘proletarianization’ to ‘modernization’. Between 1985 and 1986, Pinyin bao – the only regular official pinyin publication – was suspended and the Chinese Post stopped using pinyin in telegraph. The government withdrew the second chart of simplified characters in June 1986. These events marked the end of the Latinization and simplification of Chinese. Another dramatic shift took place in late 1985, when the State Commission for Language Reform was renamed the Commission for Language Work. Its priority was no longer language reform but implementing language policies, laws and regulations, promoting language standardisation, and popularising ‘common speech’. Henceforth, the state authorities would be language regulators and police instead of language reformers, although even this role has become more limited since the late 1990s.

Meanwhile, no small number of cultural nationalists questioned China’s language reforms and the theories upon which the reforms are premised. The journal Chinese Character Culture (Hanzi wenhua) has been a key platform since it was launched in 1989. Though they maintain their assault on the Latinization and simplification of Chinese, they are more pragmatic than to call for the abandonment of pinyin and simplified characters. Rather, their objective is to lobby for increased use of traditional full-form characters, so that young Chinese are able to write modern Chinese and read classical texts. They justify this objective on the grounds of fostering unity and identity among ethnic Chinese all over the world and enabling young people in mainland China to reconnect with their cultural heritage.

Until recently, such views were openly expressed only outside of officialdom, but this has no longer been the case since April 2015, when eminent film director Feng Xiaogang and film and television celebrity Zhang Guoli lobbied, at the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, for the introduction in school textbooks of fifty or more full-form characters to replace the simplified characters, which they believe fail to signify the original ideas. Their proposal sparked a nation-wide debate over what to do with the Chinese script and how to teach Chinese in the schools. This has happened against the background of President Xi Jinping’s promotion of traditional Chinese culture, including Confucianism, which has empowered cultural nationalists and delegitimized and silenced anti-traditionalism. In the light of President Xi’s ‘Chinese Dream’, Chinese civilization is not an obstacle to China’s modernization and self-strengthening but a wellspring of ‘positive energy’ and a source of soft power.

While the CCP recognizes that the use of two scripts in Greater China is not conducive to unity or identity, it is not receptive to the suggestion that the PRC government should encourage increased use of full-form characters for the sake of national unification. There is no lack of perception amongst dedicated supporters of language reform in the PRC that simplified characters are the CCP’s creation and therefore any retreat from its current position will compromise its authority and legitimacy. There are also those who insist that modern standard Chinese, simplified characters and pinyin are the three pillars of the PRC’s socialist culture. The political identification and symbolism make it all the more difficult for the CCP to lift restrictions on full-form characters. Nevertheless, less political control over language in the PRC has led to noticeable increase in the use of full-form characters in the mass media, film subtitles, bill boards, business cards, shop signs, and so on. The number of schools which use classical texts has increased too, thanks to the sustained advocacy of cultural nationalists and the Party-state’s promotion of traditional culture in the schools and society at large. This trend is set to continue, and there can be no doubt that more young Chinese will be able read classical texts and tap into China’s cultural heritage than during the greater part of the Mao era. In any case, China’s decades-long radical language form has truly come to an end.

Professor Yingjie Guo is the Chair of the Department of Chinese Studies, School of Languages and Cultures, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Sydney. Image Credit: CC by kvitlauk/Flickr

Linguistic Challenges to China’s Centralizing Control

Written by Susan D. Blum.

Challenges to authoritarian states’ control of language can be so complex that they exceed the states’ ability to manage them all. Electronic expression of resistance and increasing embrace of non-Mandarin linguistic varieties reveal powerful linguistic insights in China, which are evident too in the so-called Umbrella Revolution that took Hong Kong by storm (hah!) in fall 2014.

While a controlling state wishes to limit expression, citizens creatively employ every possible communicative modality—music, video, images, Arabic numerals, puns, Chinese characters, Roman letters, foreign words, writing, speech, sound, vision—and choose among varieties of speech and writing at their own discretion. The resources they employ reveal limits to the officially enforced boundaries—linguistic and conceptual—of China.

Like similar efforts underway in Catalonia and Basque regions of Europe and Francophone areas of Canada, challenges to the grip of a single linguistic variety for educational and political purposes challenges the hegemony of the centralized nation-state. But because of the complexity of China’s writing system, spoken forms and written forms interplay, adding other semiotic resources as well.

Through linguistic playfulness people manage to evade internet censorship about sensitive topics within China. Faster than terms become “sensitive” or taboo, “netizens” find a way—or several ways—around the blockage.

Some writers use nonstandard varieties of Chinese or foreign language terms to represent a repressed term. Some use Romanization rather than Chinese characters. Some use visual puns, as in the seminal cao ni ma (grass-mud horse: a term that began in 2009 with a cloying video featuring a fanciful animal whose name sounds nearly like terms meaning “f**k your mother”). Some mix Roman letters, Arabic numbers, and Chinese characters, with puns woven throughout. Even math jokes appear.

We have just passed the twenty-sixth anniversary of the Tian’anmen Massacre. Each year, leading up to this date all permutation of “June 4” and “1989” and “Tiananmen” that the censors can think of are blocked: “May 35” and “89”, June+4th [in English], TAM, “8的平方” (the square of 8, i.e. 64), combinations such as六4 [six 4], using a character and a numeral, even今天 [today]. But the censors are only reactive; creative alternatives continue to be generated.

The semiotic play—serious play—reveals limits to the hegemony of Chinese and, in turn, the ideological construction of a unitary, bounded, homogeneous state. The Chinese state, like some but not all others, defines a standard language, tests broadcasters’ pronunciation against the standard, determines acceptability of words, controls dictionaries, and enforces teaching of Putonghua in schools.

It is true that China enshrines linguistic diversity within its Constitution, where Article 4 states that “All nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages and to preserve or reform their own folkways and customs.” But Article 19 is clear: “The state promotes the nationwide use of Putonghua (common speech based on Beijing pronunciation).”

Chinese policy toward non-Putonghua varieties is less repressive than it could be, but the ideological construction of a unitary form of Chinese endures with the claim that speakers of every variety of Chinese can use the same writing system, This is not actually true. Victor Mair writes of the “fundamental unwritability of the nonstandard Sinitic languages.”

At least 20 percent of spoken Taiwanese, for example, has no corresponding sinograph, and increasingly self-conscious attempts to define written forms unique to Taiwanese (Hokkien, Minnan) presents a challenge to China’s monoglot, monomodal standard.

A 400-word list of characters unique to Taiwanese has been generated and is gaining popularity.

In the case of post-Handover (1997) Hong Kong, with PRC power regarded by some as an occupying force, language too has become a domain of contestation. “Chinese” is under-specified in the Basic Law of Hong Kong, and the difference between writing and speech tends to slip among popular usage. In 2014 a tone-deaf Education Bureau learned how strongly people are bound to Cantonese when they attempted to state that Cantonese was “not an official language.”

As Mandarin makes inroads in education and commerce, Cantonese is emphasized, and is gaining political salience.

Both trends—toward multimodal aspects of semiotic resources and toward proud embrace of non-Mandarin varieties—converge in the semiotics of the Umbrella Movement.

Occupy Central With Love and Peace” descended upon Hong Kong in October 2014 in response to China’s August announcement that election of Hong Kong’s executive leader would, essentially, remain in Beijing’s hands. Students and allies made demands for representative elections. Over several weeks this was transformed into what became the “umbrella revolution/movement,” with a yellow umbrella its symbol, after students had shielded themselves from pepper spray with umbrellas.

The Cantonese word for ‘umbrella,’ 遮打zedaa, is the local way to transliterate the proper noun, Chater Road. So Zedaa = Chater, but the combination of ze and daa also means ‘umbrella’—but only in Cantonese. The Mandarin word for ‘umbrella’ is entirely different (雨傘 yusan). The addition of English also points outward toward the world to which Hong Kong is linked. In this context, even the name “umbrella revolution” (or “movement”) has political implications.

The elevation of linguistic diversity promotes Hong Kong identity, and exemplifies resistance to being lumped together with the People’s Republic, despite China’s legal sovereignty over the territory.

The overall effect of promoting Cantonese is to challenge the hegemony of the standard Chinese language, and of China’s domination.

Student-led televised protests since the Arab Spring have employed countless semiotic resources for conveying their messages to diverse audiences, but Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution provides illumination of several concepts simultaneously, employing limitless sets of semiotic resources that themselves have meaning. And a state would have to be incredibly sophisticated to forbid the lot of it.

This has not occurred, but it is not for lack of trying.

Susan D. Blum is Professor at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. Image Credit: CC by Pasu Au Yeung/Flickr.

The Avalanche of the 500,000: Why China is Exporting Students

Written by Guido Santevecchi.

Beanstalk International Bilingual School (BIBS) is an unconventional international school in Beijing. Scattered in the garden in front of the building, one can see lines of tables covered by tents, providing shade from the daylight (being suntanned is not in keeping with Chinese culture). What is peculiar about these lines of tables is that at lunchtime, pupils and teachers sit at them together, in a familiar way arguably unknown to the education system in the People’s Republic of China, where a barrier of deference is apparent.

Beanstalk counts around two thousand students in its seven branches, starting from kindergarten up to International Baccalaureate. “73 per cent of our pupils are Chinese, but we pay attention to having at least six foreigners per classroom so as to assure the bilingual, multi-cultural and globally-minded character that is required nowadays”, stated Enrique Eddy, the PR manager at the school.

Beanstalk and a growing number of other such international schools in China serve the aspirations of the emerging ‘Mandarin middle-class’. “Chinese parents send their children here because they want them to get ready to attend universities abroad, preferably in English-speaking nations such as the US, Great Britain, Australia, Canada,” said director of courses Craig Boyce.

Last year alone, 459,800 students went overseas to study, according to China’s Ministry of Education (up 11 percent from 2013). According to a recent survey by market research company Mintel, nearly 87% of Chinese parents said they were willing to fund study abroad. This summer, more than 500,000 Chinese high school students will take part in expensive overseas study tours: these types of trips are costing the middle-class family an average of 47,900 yuan (around 6,000 euros). It’s big business: revenue for the entire industry is estimated to hit 12 billion yuan.

This education fever also puts pressure on family spending: a Euromonitor survey reported by the BBC found that per capita annual disposable income in China rose by 63.3% in the five years up to 2012, and yet consumer expenditure on education rose by almost 94%. This massive increase is not confined to the upper and middle classes (which represent around 300 million people) – according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a third of Chinese students abroad in 2010 were from working-class families; the burden on families is huge. There have been reports in the Chinese media about cases of rural parents neglecting to buy the necessary healthcare in order to spare money to spend on their children’s education. Many families buy expensive homes close to good schools with a national reputation. Yet parents keep sending their children overseas to broaden their horizons, and to improve their English-speaking skills and develop their cultural adaptability.

But there is a problem – a very political one. Earlier this year, Education Minister Yuan Guiren ordered education departments to, “Firmly keep universities away from textbooks that spread wrong Western ideas.”

On the one hand, an increasing number of Chinese families hope to send their children abroad; on the other, the Communist Party plays a rearguard battle in order to preserve the integrity of Chinese culture (mainly in order to serve the sacred principle of keeping political orthodoxy and to maintain social stability: “weiwen” in colloquial Mandarin).

Beanstalk has an answer to this issue. On the walls of its classrooms stand portraits of Chinese ancient philosophers and thinkers with catchwords both in Mandarin and English, such as ‘kindness’, ‘learning’ and ‘achievement’.

“Chinese parents tend to be more open and are trying to shelter their children from the pressure of the school system in the People’s Republic, that is very strict and demanding, but they do not want their sons and daughters to lose contact and their cultural roots,” said Mr Boyce. This is the reason that at Beanstalk, classes are in English, but Mandarin is the common language around the playground both for Chinese and international pupils, with one important exception: mathematics is taught in Mandarin and with Chinese rules, which are arguably the best around the world, according to the OCSE PISA ranking.

The annual fee for Beanstalk is placed at 168,000 yuan, plus 15,000 yuan for other services such as school buses and meals, plus 2,500 yuan for uniforms (totalling around 30,000 euros). Beanstalk prides itself on excellence – and this is expensive.

I recently visited the Evergrande International Football School in Guangdong: it provides normal classes from primary school up to preparation for ‘Gaokao’ (the Chinese national examination that gives those who succeed access to university) in addition to football lessons which serve the central government’s aspirations to become a football powerhouse in the world arena. I spoke to some of the pupils at the school; one of them told me, in Mandarin, “Of course [I] study English, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to understand my European coach, and I’m one of the best in my class, but I must confess that I’m much better at reading than speaking it.”

Guido Santevecchi is the China correspondent for Corriere della Sera, an Italian daily newspaper published in Milan since 1876. Image Credit: CC by faungg’s photo/Flickr

Multilingualism, Discourse and Identity in China

Written by Linda Tsung.

China is one of the most multilingual countries in the world. The government of the People’s Republic of China promotes the country as a harmonious and unified nation with 56 distinct ethnic groups who speak more than 400 languages. The government has not only legally recognised multilingualism, but has also publicly encouraged and promoted a climate in which the teaching and learning of a variety of languages can flourish. Behind this objective there is a linguistic hierarchy and inequality between all language and minority groups. The dramatic rise in economic development in China has accelerated these inequalities and widened tensions. China’s multilingualism is not static and its movement in one direction or another is a result of many influences which can be at a macro or micro level, and may include political, economic, cultural, geographical and social factors.

The discourse of pluralistic unity invokes Fei Xiaotong’s (1989) framework of ‘pluralist-unity’ to describe the basic pattern of ethnic relations in China. There are two levels in the structure of this discourse. The first, at the national level, emphasises political unity under a Han Chinese-dominated society. The second, at the local level, emphasises cultural diversity within ethnic minorities (in language, religion, customs, and so forth). When considering the language usage and education for minorities, this ‘pluralist-unity’ framework provides a very comprehensive model for the central government.

The dichotomies between Han, the majority, in terms of a ‘core’, and Min, the minorities, in terms of a ‘periphery’, result in a language and education policy discourse promoting Chinese cultural imperialism. Scholars argue that notions of ‘unity in diversity’ for Han Chinese identity actually serve as a replacement for minority identities within China’s modernisation and that the ideology behind the emphasis on national identity as a priority in language education is clearly nationalist patriotism.

During the past decade, China’s fundamental agenda on multilingualism and language education has reflected recurring themes: cultural and linguistic diversity, political unity, and economic development at the centre. Two key discourses in government policy have been cultural and linguistic diversity, representing the discourse of cultural identity, and Han-dominated unity, representing the discourse of Han universalism.

On a fundamental level, the two themes of political unity and cultural and linguistic diversity are incongruent. The discourse of moral education, representing political unity, is based upon Han universalism; whereas, the discourse of cultural identity, representing cultural and linguistic diversity, is based upon local ethnic identity. The moral discourse focuses on patriotism and political loyalty to the CCP. From this perspective, promoting the priority of party-state, there is no room for cultural diversity. Minority language and culture, especially religion, are seen as ‘problems’ to be resolved. On the contrary, the discourse of cultural identity emphasises minority cultures as ‘valuable resources’, particularly in relation to languages, ideas, actions, objects of everyday existence and the construction of identity.

There appears to be an interaction / relationship between the two phenomena of ‘ethnic cultural and linguistic diversity’ and ‘Han dominated unity’, be it political, social, cultural, or economic. China’s multilingual / minority education is part of a ‘power / knowledge’ relationship. The greater degree of Han dominated unity, the less extensive the degree of ethnic cultural and linguistic diversity is likely to be. Conversely, more ethnic cultural and linguistic diversity implies less comprehensive Han-dominated unity.

The problem for policymakers is that the two competing discourses differ in such fundamental ways that any attempt to produce a hybrid discourse coherent enough to build and maintain hegemony is laden with difficulty. Since 2003, the general policy of promoting ‘unity in diversity’ has represented tensions between the logic of difference and the logic of equivalence, with economic development as the central influence.

The key features of this discourse in China’s context reflect the patterns and events of the historical policy for minorities and the emergence of a hybrid developmental neoliberalism. This discourse of language power, hierarchy and knowledge is fused in the practices that comprise the history of China’s multilingual education policy for minorities. Centring on economic development, China is lurching between accelerating Han universalism and accelerating cultural diversity.

The last three decades have also seen the rise of one language in China – Chinese (Putonghua). It is used as the common means of communication: in education, services, employment, media, entertainment, trade and everyday talk. Its national reach is arguably unprecedented. Languages such as Tibetan, Uyghur, Mongolian and Zhuang also have large demographic constituencies, though not as much national capital as Chinese, and their status and learning have been threatened. Some larger minorities have resisted the language challenge inherent in the spread of Chinese, while some minorities have taken the opportunity to protect their heritage. The promotion of national language and multilingual education has influenced ways of thinking and reasoning; ways of expressing feelings of resistance and sentimental values; ways of seeing the value of ethnic identities and cultural heritage; ways of protecting and reviving their languages.

There is now an opportunity for China’s leadership to shape multilingual education policy for minorities so that it creates cooperation rather than resistance. If Chinese minorities are to participate in the modern Chinese nation, the PRC should foster their languages, for languages are central to national identity. Enhancing the Han acceptance of minority language and culture benefits the nation as a whole. Such acceptance could also become a significant factor in China’s relations with the rest of the world.

Linda Tsung is Associate Professor in Chinese Studies at the Department of Chinese Studies, School of Languages and Cultures, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, the University of Sydney. Image Credit: CC by whitecat sg/Flickr

“I have an accent”: British Chinese Young People on Learning and Speaking Chinese

Written by Ada Mau.

Going to ‘Chinese school’ at the weekend is an experience shared by many young people of Chinese heritage growing up in the US, UK, Australia and other Western countries. Many children start attending these community-based schools from a young age in order to learn Chinese language(s) and sometimes cultural activities such as dance, martial arts, and musical instruments. Experiences of Chinese school vary – while some young people develop an interest in their heritage language and culture, learn how to read and write Chinese, and enjoy socialising with other Chinese children, some students find learning Chinese difficult or regard the routine of going to Saturday / Sunday school as a chore.

The major development of Chinese schools in the UK began after post-World War II migration as the demand for Chinese education for British-raised children steadily grew. Cantonese was the chosen language to teach in most early Chinese schools established by post-war migrants. In recent years, newer Mandarin schools were established, and some of the Cantonese-based schools have also added Mandarin classes to accommodate the changing population and growing interest in Mandarin. These schools are generally organised and run by voluntary, community-based Chinese associations or religious groups.

Although a significant portion of British Chinese young people attend Chinese schools, and a number of studies have documented the benefits of such schooling, there are some British Chinese young people who do not go to these schools at all, or only attend for a short time. In my research, I spoke to British Chinese young people (aged 12 – 18) in Southern England from a diverse range of Chinese backgrounds and found their experiences of Chinese language learning varied. I found that the majority of the youths interviewed received some exposure to Chinese at home or from their extended network; many of them also attended weekend Chinese schools, and a few had private tutors or were taught by their parents at home. Some of the students went to Chinese schools for many years and a few had obtained their Chinese GCSEs. A small minority never learned Chinese at all.

Among the students who went to Chinese school, there were some students who were positive about their experience, but more students reported not enjoying it. A number of the young people found learning Chinese difficult or boring, and some felt that the limited contact time they had at Chinese school, 2 – 3 hours a week, was insufficient. Arthur explained that, “When we learn stuff we don’t properly memorise it in our heads and normally I forget it the next week.” Emma and Matthew, siblings who grew up in a predominantly English-speaking family, both described being “bad” at Chinese and not learning much at Chinese school. They reported not being able to speak much Chinese despite being at Chinese school for years. Matthew said, “I never really learn[ed] any grammar so I can’t really talk.” Nevertheless, they both expressed positive attitudes towards learning the language. Callum, who quit Chinese school, explained his frustrations: “I did try and like Chinese school but I did not, I didn’t like it, the way they were teaching was completely different to the English way, so I found that quite hard, because they expect too much… because I don’t speak Chinese at home, so it was harder and I didn’t get very much time to practise.” Callum’s UK-raised Chinese mother only had limited Chinese knowledge herself, and thus he felt that his home environment put him at a disadvantage.

Although Chinese schools are set up to teach UK-educated children, the schooling is often taught as ‘mother tongue’, and teachers usually expect children to possess some knowledge of Chinese. Certain knowledge such as grammar, which Matthew felt ignorant of, might not therefore be explicitly taught at these schools due to time constraints, lack of teaching resources and presumed prior knowledge. Perhaps unsurprisingly, almost all of the students who expressed having a positive experience at Chinese school regularly used Chinese with their families, and many also accessed other Chinese media at home (such as Chinese television and pop music).

Additionally, some of the young people I spoke to described their spoken Chinese as “not very good” and some explained that they “have an accent”. Although a number of the young people spoke Chinese regularly, they perceived their English-accented Chinese as a sign of having limited competence. Some also reported their Chinese being made fun of or ridiculed by fluent speakers. Research in Chinese heritage language learning in the US points out that even learners with robust Chinese language may still acquire a so-called ‘overseas Chinese’ accent, which was referred as having a “bad” or “English” accent by these young people. The ability to speak Chinese, as well as having a ‘good’ accent, is often seen as a requirement to be an ‘authentic’ Chinese person by many within Chinese communities. A couple of the young people I spoke to admitted they simply chose to avoid speaking Chinese altogether to avoid such ridicule or embarrassment. When I visited Dac at a Chinese school, one of his teachers described his Chinese as “quite good” while he self-assessed as “not good”. Dac explained: “When I had a supply teacher last time for my class… she told us that we have a accent when we read… when she read it, you could clearly hear the difference, so yeah I do think I’m Chinese but not fully Chinese I guess, or not proper Chinese.”

The sense of deficiency and the resultant shame and guilt, perpetuated by other Chinese speakers, is potentially very powerful emotions that may affect young people’s attitudes towards their learner identities as a heritage language learner.

Learning Chinese as a British Chinese learner is undoubtedly closely bound to notions of Chinese heritage, and the experiences of these learners can vastly vary depending upon connections to family / friend networks and Chinese language resources; their identities as Chinese heritage language learners may also impact their social and cultural identities. Language development is an ongoing process, influenced by the learner’s individual circumstances but also by social and political changes. Therefore a more holistic and non-essentialised view of bi / multilingualism should be incorporated into Chinese learning spaces to support these young people from a diverse range of linguistic and home backgrounds both within the British Chinese community and wider British society.

Note: All participants have been assigned pseudonyms.

Ada Mau is Research Associate in Department of Education & Professional Studies, King’s College London. Image Credit: CC by Steve Webel/Flickr.

Blog at

Up ↑


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,933 other followers

%d bloggers like this: