Are 'Minority' Languages Safe?

An outspoken poet believes Chinese authorities would respond more harshly to demonstrations in support of the Tibetan language than they did to those in support of Cantonese.
By Woeser
woeser-2002-305.jpg Woeser in the far west of Tibet in 2002.
Photo provided by Woeser

The Tibetan poet Woeser wrote this essay, originally titled "If Tibetans Took To The Streets For The Tibetan Language," for Radio Free Asia on July 28, 2010 in Beijing. It was translated into English by

We “ethnic minorities” took notice of thousands of Cantonese people recently taking to the streets fighting for their language, a spectacle that ended peacefully. Uyghurs have posted numerous articles about this on the Internet; the blogs on TibetCul were also full of articles titled “Maybe the Spanish language issue has inspired the Chinese,” thought-provokingly stating: when the past Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco, banned Catalonian people from using their own language, he created a scar that would not easily heal. At this year’s football World Cup, we were able to see Catalonian flags in the stadiums, thereby carrying the language dispute going on inside Spain to the outside world. This should be taken as a warning for the Chinese to avoid creating splittism by subjugating and suppressing local dialects; instead they should take this advice and “think about making Cantonese, Minan, Hakka, Tibetan, and Uyghur dialects official Chinese languages, thus strengthening different people’s sense of belonging to China.”

However, an article in the Beijing Evening News fiercely declares that “the promotion of Mandarin is a vital national policy, which does not need to be further discussed or questioned. Yet, what can be questioned and debated is whether Cantonese, as a local dialect, will naturally die out over time due to increasing urbanization or whether its extermination will be accelerated through human interference.” But “Cantonese” is by no means a minority language; it is a pure Han Chinese dialect. If even this language is being mistreated and neglected to the extent that it can hardly survive, what about the situation for Tibetan or other ethnic languages in this “big unified country?”

Support Cantonese Rally 305.jpg
A photo submitted by a netizen shows two women looking down on a rally held by the "Support Cantonese" movement in Guangzhou.
Photo submitted by netizen Cat730
I clearly remember in 2002, when I was still part of the system, I went to Yunnan to attend a literary conference on ethnic minority poetry. There I heard a cadre from Beijing outspokenly saying: “Many years ago the Party Committee Chairman Wan Li already expressed that those ethnic minorities that never had any written language also don’t need any written language today; and those minorities that do have a written language should just let it die out, our entire system uses one unified language, which is Mandarin, the Han language.” The cadre looked around at the minority poets surrounding him and said in a sonorous voice: “And I very much agree with his opinion.” Everyone was shaken by the overbearing manner of this cadre. I was taking notes and for the first time started paying attention to this issue. 

I previously interviewed an old Tibetan writer in Lhasa; he was deeply worried about the current state of the Tibetan language, but he said: “If we emphasize the importance of the Tibetan language, we will be accused of narrow nationalism, and the government’s official line reads: the higher the level of the Tibetan language, the stronger the religious consciousness, and as a result the stronger the reactionary behavior.” This old Tibetan writer’s name is Tashi Tsering; his ideas and thoughts are in fact very progressive and modern. When he was young, he returned home from the United States after completing his studies to serve his homeland but was put in prison during the Cultural Revolution. In his later years, he established and financially supported 72 schools in the poor and remote rural areas of the Tibetan U-Tsang region. Moreover, in 2007 he submitted an official statement to the Tibet Autonomous Region People’s Congress. With regards to the severe crisis that the Tibetan language is currently facing, he expressed that "using Tibetan in schools and establishing an education system for the study of the Tibetan language is not only an essential element in cultivating progressively thinking and talented people, but it also embodies the most basic human right of the Tibetan people, it is the foundation on which equality among ethnic minorities can be achieved."

An article in a Cantonese publication states that due to the Central Government’s drive towards cultural unity over the past few decades, many places have had to witness much of their original cultural features slowly disappearing. This is exactly what the Cantonese are worried about. Yet, the Cantonese can take to the streets to fight for their language. What about Tibetans? What about Uyghurs? Mongolians? The Cantonese can declare openly, written in black and white: “I am willing to speak Mandarin but don’t force me to speak Mandarin!” But we “ethnic minorities” only get to see slogans hanging at the entrances of our schools in Lhasa reading: “I am a child of China, I like to speak Mandarin” or “Mandarin is the language of our school” and no one dares to say a word.

So, is this not “treating insiders and outsiders differently” as a Chinese proverb says? In spite of the common claim that we live in one big family embracing 56 ethnic minorities, it still seems that Han Chinese and “ethnic minorities” are being treated differently. In fact, we all hope to live in a place where we can freely defend our own language in the same way we would defend our own home. Just as Tsegyam la, who used to work as a teacher in Tibet, sarcastically remarked on Twitter: “When thousands of Cantonese gather to take to the streets, demonstrate and fight for their own language, the curtain falls and ‘peace prevails;’ if in Tibet, thousands of demonstrators were to take to the streets and fight for their language, they would be arrested, put into prison, and be accused as ‘Tibetan separatists that incite splittism.’ A Uyghur comment on the Internet reads: in China, when Uyghur people from Xinjiang support their language or when Tibetans support their language, their actions are most likely to be labeled as “splittist activities.”


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Sep 23, 2010 04:03 AM