China’s government is using a policy of “linguistic imperialism” to marginalize the Uyghur language in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) as part of a bid to “eradicate the ethnic identity” of the Uyghur people, according to a new report by a Uyghur rights group.
In their attack on Uyghur culture and identity, Chinese officials have portrayed the Uyghur language as “incompatible with modernity” and are removing its relevance from the education system and public life, Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) said Thursday in a statement accompanying the release of its report “Resisting Chinese Linguistic Imperialism.”
“Following a pattern of broader development policy that has promoted the adoption of [majority] Han [Chinese] civilization as central to modernization, China has moved to diminish the status of the Uyghur language in society,” UHRP said.
In the face of such an attack, UHRP said it is imperative for Uyghur families to ensure a future for spoken and written Uyghur by passing the language and culture from parent to child at home.
“When a heritage language is maligned as having low status and value, or stigmatized through association with criminality, the family domain would appear to be the final safe space for intergenerational transmission,” the group said.
UHRP’s report also includes a section on the struggles of Uyghur scholar and linguist Abduweli Ayup to protect the Uyghur language through grassroots initiatives.
Ayup, who had sought to set up “mother tongue-based” schools to promote the Uyghur language, was ordered jailed 18 months for “illegal fundraising” in August 2014 by the Tengritagh (in Chinese, Tianshan) district court in the XUAR capital Urumqi after being detained for a year, but was released three months later when his partners appealed their cases.
Uyghurs in exile say that the charges against Ayup and his partners were politically motivated, after the U.S.-educated linguist’s essays and lectures on maintaining the Uyghur language in schools drew widespread support in China’s Uyghur community.
Ayup said in Thursday’s statement that the UHRP report “demonstrated how the CCP’s [Chinese Communist Party] campaign to achieve Mandarin language assimilation includes a shift from tolerance to the prohibition of minority languages indigenous to East Turkestan,” using a name preferred by many Uyghurs to refer to their historic homeland.
“Although scholars support this mode of education, which builds upon the linguistic repertoire and cultural knowledge of students, the CCP terminated my schools because they conflicted with the Chinese government’s imperative to eradicate markers of ethnic minority identity.”
Ayup urged ethnic minority communities in the XUAR to “form a strong family language policy” so that Uyghur and non-Mandarin indigenous languages are maintained.
“The CCP is making every effort to erase our culture,” he said.
“This report serves as documentation of this effort and provides guidance on resisting the Chinese government's attempt at linguicide.”
Language as identity
Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, told RFA’s Uyghur Service that China has aggressively assaulted the Uyghur language because “language is the most important component of one’s ethnic identity.”
“China is doing everything in its power to erase the Uyghur language—beginning in kindergarten—from every aspect of life, which is in violation of the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law, the constitution and the country’s international obligations,” Isa said.
“The Uyghur language is one of the most ancient Turkic languages and has been used to make significant contributions to human civilization,” he added.
“If the Uyghur language is erased, an inalienable part of human civilization will be lost. Therefore, it is not only the duty of Uyghurs to save and preserve the Uyghur language, but also the duty of the international community.”
Reported by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.