Some thoughts on the role of ethnic elites in language maintenance in the People’s Republic of China

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Enwall, J. (2016). Some thoughts on the role of ethnic elites in language maintenance in the People’s Republic of China. International Communication of Chinese Culture, 3(3), 443-457.


The purpose of this paper is to present a framework for investigating the minority language policies of the PRC and their actual outcomes in four case studies of minority languages of the PRC. It forms part of my long-term project “Plurality in Unity: The Outcomes of PRC Minority Language Policies for Miao, Mongolian, Tibetan and Uyghur”. The crucial role of ethnic elites and their activities in the field of corpus and status planning stands in focus, as the presence or absence of such groups tend to influence the results of minority language work. They play a central role between the policies and decisions on the state level and the implementation on the grass-roots level. The present study is based on more or less extensive field-work among four of the ethnic minority group of the PRC, viz. the Miao, Mongols, Tibetans and Uyghurs. These investigations have been carried out since 1989 and the methods employed are not unified, which makes the results attained up till now only tentative. However, due to the complexity of the matter, only tentative conclusions may be expected. 


The Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) led to a sharp decline in the use of ethnic minority languages in all spheres of life. A new theory of ethnic relations was forwarded which was founded in Marxist theory but drastically changed as to the time span required. Although the late Guomindang policy of ethnic assimilation was condemned, this new theory of ronghe, ‘amalgamation’, moulded on the Soviet concept of sliyanie, was in practice an even stronger incentive for immediate assimilation, because of the theory that all ethnic differences would disappear in the Communist society. Hence, activities in the field of minority languages were seen as a threat to the necessary historical development and were thereby reactionary. As a consequence, large parts of the traditional elites of the ethnic minority groups were virtually obliterated. However, this did not mean that the use of minority languages had been prohibited, and in some regions, especially in Xinjiang and Tibet, the local languages continued to be used on a limited scale.

The turning point of the minority policies was the third plenary session of the 11th CPC Central Committee in 1978. Soon afterwards, at the Third Conference on Nationality Languages, Yang Zhengwang (1980, pp. 33–34) presented a paper on the minority work of the PRC from 1949 until 1979. He wrote:

There were some comrades who, due to a lack of experience, had a one-sided understanding and too early used the slogans “nationality amalgamation” and “direct transition” in connection with questions of writing systems, and by way of administrative orders interfered in the trial propagation of the newly devised writing systems. […] The minority writing was in some areas called “elementary school study”, but strangely enough, the teaching in the first three years of elementary school was conducted strictly in Chinese; only after that was it permitted to study the minority writing. The reason was that if the students first studied the minority writing, they would learn it quickly and would be able to keep accounts and write letters. Afterwards, they would not want to study Chinese. […] The Gang of Four […] said nonsense like ‘the minority writing systems are “artificial”’, and they completely refuted the minority language policies of the Party. Three years have already passed since the Gang of Four was crushed, but people still have a lingering fear and the minority language writing policies have not yet been brought into effect. Very many comrades think that the newly devised writing systems are a restricted zone, which is not to be talked about or probed into.


In 1921, a conference was held in Tashkent; there it was decided to revive the Uyghur as a self-designation for the Turkic people in Xinjiang speaking a fairly unified Turkic language and claiming ancestry from the ancient Uyghur Empire. Earlier self-designations had been simply “Turk” or names related to geographical origin, like “Xotänlik”, person from Khotan. This revived self-designation was adopted by the Uyghurs in Xinjiang during the 1930s and 1940s. As early as 1893, the Swedish Mission Board decided to set up a printing-office in Kashgar, and in 1901, publishing activities were initiated on the basis of cyclostyled publications. During the early years, there was a certain variation in the Uyghur orthography, but after the appearance of a spelling guide in 1929, the orthography became standardized for all publications issued by the Swedish mission press in Kashgar. This standard orthography was an important step towards a standardized orthography for Uyghur, but it also differs from the standard established in the 1950s, as the first was based on the Kashgar dialect in south-west Xinjiang, while the present standard is based on the northern Taranchi dialect, which is also spoken by the Uyghurs living in Kazakhstan. This was also the dialect which served as the standard for the Cyrillic orthography for Uyghur in the Soviet Union.

After the establishment of the PRC, Xinjiang was incorporated in 1950, and large literacy campaigns were carried out during the 1950s. The Uyghur language was efficiently standardized, becoming widely used in all spheres of life in Xinjiang. In order to facilitate communication between Uyghurs and Han cadres sent to the area, translation offices were set up in all administrative organs.

A new Latin-based script for Uyghur, the yeni yeziq, was introduced in 1965 (Uyqur yengi yeziqining fang’əni, 1965), and this was the only script taught in the schools of Xinjiang until 1983. However, the old Perso-Arabic script continued to be used even in the state translation offices. In 1984, when the minority policies of the PRC had radically changed, the Perso-Arabic script was officially reintroduced in accordance with popular demand. In 1985, orthographic reforms were carried out, with the introduction of full distinction in the diacritics for vowel marking. In the sphere of vocabulary, some of the Chinese loanwords forcibly introduced into Uyghur during the Cultural Revolution were removed and replaced by the terms earlier used. Nonetheless, the fact that another writing system had been used for 15 years created a lost generation of Uyghurs, who learnt a writing system at school that is no longer in active use, and who only to a limited degree have learnt the Perso-Arabic writing system reintroduced in 1984.

Since the mid-1980s, Uyghur has been used in parts of the administration of the autonomous region, as well as in a great number of publications, scholarly and literary, from various publishing houses in Xinjiang. Since the turn of the century, the emphasis on competence in Chinese, spoken and written, has increased.

Since the establishment of the Xinjiang classes, the number has increased from 12 to 27, and the total enrolment is over 5000 (Xinjiang ribao wang 2007). For future development, there are plans to enlarge the number of bilingual preschools, and the target is set at 258,000 Xinjiang ethnic minority pre-schoolers in 2010 (Renmin ribao haiwaiban 2006). A further result is that the Uyghur teachers also have to pass exams in Chinese in order to keep their employment at the schools (Xinjiang ribao wang 2006).


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