Chinese Project Promotes Local Dialects, but in What Capacity?

Surveying a wide swath of regions, Chinese officials aim to preserve and promote local dialects. The country’s human rights record, however, stands at odds with the recent measures.

Home to hundreds of dialects and ethnic minority languages, China has begun a project to preserve language resources and protect the record of the region’s rich linguistic history. The Chinese Ministry of Education and the State Language Commission began conducting surveys in 2015 to determine the state of local dialects around China. The survey has found that at least 100 local dialects are endangered, prompting the National People’s Congress (NPC) deputy to put forth proposals to protect endangered languages and promote inheritance of dialects.

The project stands to become the largest language preservation project in the world. As of this month, the project has collected more than 10 million entries for 123 Chinese dialects and ethnic minority languages after surveying the language resources of over 1,700 locations. Along with the language surveys, the NPC has made a call to promote local dialects in schools, though apparently in the form of

In terms of the spoken languages, much of the world associates Chinese language with either Mandarin — often referred to as “Putonghua,” or common tongue, in Mainland China — or possibly Cantonese, the predominant language spoken in the southern Guangdong province. The Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and the rise of television and film media prompted the Chinese Government to enact policies that would make Mandarin the predominant language for mass broadcasts, most mainstream media, and most educational disciplines. Mandarin is often a second language, and an increasingly necessary language to learn. 

However, while Mandarin is the official language of the country, the linguistic diversity of China is immensely diverse. Besides Mandarin and Cantonese, both distinct from one another, 14 million people speak a dialect commonly referred to as Shanghainese, and Shanghai is made up of even more languages. Language is not tethered to region, either. Hakka is a cultural language of the Hakka people, who live among several provinces. 

In statements for a 2005 New York Times article, one linguist from the Fujian province in China said, “We have an expression, that if you drive five miles in Fujian the culture changes, and if you drive 10 miles, the language does.”

Similarly, a professor of linguistics said in the same article, “No one can clearly answer the question how many dialects there are in China. The degree of difference among dialects is much higher than the degree of difference among European languages. In Europe they call them languages, but in China we share a culture, so the central government would like to consider that one language is shared by many different peoples. It is simply a different definition.”

Needless to say, the project of collecting records of all these languages will be a massive undertaking, not to mention pressing. Many of the measures to promote Mandarin since the Cultural Revolution have resulted in a sharp decreases in opportunities for speakers of local languages to maintain their own dialects, especially with laws requiring Mandarin instruction in many K-12 educational disciplines. In fact, just in August this year, ethnic Mongolian communities in the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region (IMAR) — located in China’s north border with Mongolia — staged mass school boycotts in response to a new curriculum that would scale back education in the local Mongolian language.

Likewise, in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), many of the local dialects are in danger due to similar educational policies as those in IMAR. In its report on China’s “Bilingual Education” in TAR earlier this year, the Human Rights Watch suggested that “TAR authorities are using a strategy of cultivated ambiguity in their public statements while using indirect pressure to push primary schools, where an increasing number of ethnic Chinese teachers are teaching, to adopt Chinese-medium instruction at the expense of Tibetan, such as allocating increasing numbers of ethnic Chinese teachers who do not speak Tibetan to positions in Tibetan schools.”

Considering the threat many of these languages face due to Chinese language policies, one might see the creation of a language preservation project as an attempt to make up for human rights abuses that necessitated such preservation measures in the first place. Furthermore, the cultural erasure occurring in many of the autonomous regions begs the question of whether these recent measures are meant to protect people, or rather simply to preserve language as artifact while the cultures themselves go extinct.

While the project to survey, protect, and promote local dialects in China is still new and will likely evolve in upcoming years, human rights advocates stress that such measures must be complemented with active cultural preservation as well. In her Atlantic story on Chinese repression of the Uighur people in Xinjiang, Yasmeen Serhan writes, “Safeguarding a culture requires more than simply maintaining a historical record of its existence. Cultures, after all, can’t be placed behind glass like museum artifacts; much like the people who inhabit them, cultures are meant to grow, adapt, and evolve.”

Preserving and promoting local dialects and ethnic minority languages will thus require not merely the collection of documents, but an even more more massive undertaking: promoting the cultures themselves. The project has so far resulted in a rich collection of language data and resources, and likely a better understanding of China’s broad swath of cultures and languages. How this information will translate to policy, or reform, still remains a question.

Jonathan Pyner
Jonathan Pyner is a poet, freelance writer, and translator. He has worked as an educator for nearly a decade in the US and Taiwan, and he recently completed a master’s of fine arts in creative writing.


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