The languages on Chinese banknotes

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Ian Barrere has sent in the following photograph of a one jiao (equal to ten fēn 分, a fēn being like a cent in our system) banknote and requested that I explain the languages printed on it:

China has 56 recognized ethnic groups (there are many others that are not officially recognized), and each of them except the Hui (Muslim) people supposedly has its own distinctive language, although many of these are dying or already dead for all functional purposes. Since there are also hundreds of mutually unintelligible Sinitic topolects, one might say that there are far more than 56 different languages in China. Be that as it may, 5 of these have been chosen to be printed on Chinese national banknotes: Han, Mongolian, Tibetan, Uyghur, and Zhuang (after Han, China's largest minority, but one that few people outside of China have ever heard of [it is closely related to Thai]).

Before I dive into the identification and explication of the languages on the yi jiao (like ten cents) banknote pictured above, I should point out how ironic it is that — aside from the Mandarin, which is represented on this side of the banknote only in Hanyu Pinyin (Romanization) — all of the other languages belong to ethnic groups from the periphery whose lands a) for the most part were incorporated into the empire by the Manchus during the Qing Dynasty (in the latest instance [the Mongols had done it before during the Yuan Dynasty, but they were largely lost again under the Ming Dynasty -- a return to "China Proper" -- and had to be regained by the Manchus]), and b) constitute over half of the land area of what is now the People's Republic of China. See Peter C. Perdue, China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2005).

Now, beginning with the Mandarin version, adding characters and tones, we have Zhōngguó rénmín yínháng yī jiǎo 中国人民银行 1 角 ("China People's Bank 1 jiǎo").

Incidentally, on the pronunciation of yuán 元 (the main denomination of the RMB ["People's Currency"]), which is composed of ten jiǎo 角, see the comments to this post: "Puns to Make You Yuan".

Next, on the bottom left, we have Mongolian:

dumdatu ulus-un arad-un bankki arban mönggü
dumdadu ulus-un arad-un bangki arban mönggü
"Middle Country’s people’s bank ten silver (coin, money, etc.)"

Unlike the other three non-Sinitic versions, the Mongolian actually translates Zhongguo, albeit with a nice Russianism thrown into the mix. The word for China here is "Dumdadu Ulus", lit. "Middle Country". This calque translation of Zhongguo appeared in the nineteenth century, but only became widespread in Mongolian after 1911; in Khalkha Mongolian it was never used much and rapidly replaced by Khitad Ulus "(Han) Chinese Country".

Then comes Tibetan:

krung go'i mi dmangs dngul khang / sgor zur gcig
"People's Bank of China / one currency-unit part [lit. 'corner'] ('currency-unit part' = jiao)

Comments on the Tibetan by Bill Hannas:

The only identifiably Sinitic parts are the first two syllables: Drunggo (China). The fourth symbol (just before the second dot reading left to right) is the genitive case marker (like "ui" in Korean), which is purely Tibetan, as is everything else from "People's Bank" ("Mimang Ngulgang") through to "currency one-tenth" (i.e., 10 cents) at the end.

Now I say "purely Tibetan" but it doesn't take much imagination to see Chinese "hang" in Tibetan's "kang" (gang) and maybe even Chinese "yin" in Tibetan "ngul". Similarly, Tibetan "jig" (one) is clearly Chinese "yi". All numbers 1 through 10 in Tibetan are (distant) cognates with the Sinitic series. Of course, this doesn't mean Tibetan borrowed from Chinese but rather that the two shared important morphemes long ago.

After that follows Uyghur, which is the most problematic. I received the following Roman transcriptions of the Arabic script Uyghur:

on fung, zhongguo helq bankisi
on fung — Junggo Xäliq Bankasi
on fung, junggo xelyq bankasi
"Ten fen ('cents'), China People's Bank"

The third version is transcribed by Jun Sugawara in accordance to UKY (Uyghur Kompyuter Yeziqi). Jun notes:

It is interesting that the People's Bank still uses the old writing system. According to the present orthography (imla), the second vowel of "xelyq" should be spelled without two dots. We can observe this old style in Burhan's Wei-Han-O cidian (Uyghur-Han-Russian Dictionary) in the 50s.

Eric Schluessel explains:

In today's Uyghur, it would indeed be xälq (or khälq or khelq), but that's not what's written on the note: خەلیق. Jun has a point transliterating it with "y," since the "i" in xäliq is spelt with a double-dotted yod, reflecting pre-Kona Yeziq [VHM: pre-Arabic alphabet] orthography, instead of an undotted one. If we follow David Brophy's transliteration of Eastern Turki from "The Qumul Rebels' Appeal to Outer Mongolia," which is closer to the Encyclopedia of Islam's system, we get ḫäliq. But we could pretend that there is a clear distinction between front and back <i> and transliterate it as ḫälïq. We could remember that the word came from Arabic by way of Persian and write ḫalq, but that disregards the clear nativization of the word reflected in its spelling.

Yakup Mahire remarks:

I looked at one of the banknotes I use for teaching. It says:

on fung
ten cent
Jonggo xelyq banka-si
China people bank-3rd POSS

It was printed in the 1980s. At that time, the spelling system was not standardized. This was probably due to the fact that Uyghur had just returned to an Arabic-based script system from the Latin system (Latin new script system) that had been instituted early during the PRC. The old script system could be standardized by adding the different vowels such as o/u/ü/ö and how we used the Arabic Persian based words in Uyghur system. Such was the way in which the script system changed during the 1980s. It was precisely at that time when the old Latin script we used during the Cultural Revolution was switched to the new Arabic based Uyghur system. I remembered that it was slightly after 1980 that we completely switched to using the Uyghur Arabic-based script system.

[VHM: I travelled to Xinjiang frequently during that period, and I still remember how -- in the Regional Museum -- pieces of paper with handwritten Arabic script Uyghur were hastily pasted over the neatly painted Latin script Uyghur on labels for the display cases.]

Another point is that rising vowel harmony, in which a/e/ at the end of a syllable changes into I or mid-vowel é, was not used.

It should be bankisi instead of bankasi. If we look at the money that was printed after 1999 (the money that I have), the spelling system was changed to be the regular one that we use now.

Finally, the last and most mysterious version, Zhuang. I cannot duplicate the orthography here, but Bob Bauer has given a very detailed description and analysis:

The romanized Zhuang phrase exactly corresponds syllable for syllable with the Chinese.

This romanization appears to be the one that was first developed back in the mid 1950's. The letter "b" after "cung" marks the syllable with tone 1, mid tone 33, and the "reversed s" marks the syllable with tone 2, low falling tone. The "b" and "reversed s" were later replaced with "h" and "z", respectively.

The tonal systems of Zhuang and Cantonese are remarkably/strikingly similar with their neat splits into upper and lower registers.

For syllables with stop endings -p, -t, -k, the Zhuang romanization distinguishes between Upper Ru [VHM: "entering"] and Lower Ru by spelling syllables belonging to the latter category with -b, -d, -g. This means that "it gak" belongs to Upper Ru.

According to one of my sources on Zhuang, both the Wuming and Longzhou varieties have three words for "one", one of which is [it7] (7 = tone category seven with tone value of 55). The character 角 has three pronunciations, gaeu [kau1], gak [kak7], and gok [kok7] (the first item has a short vowel, as indicated by "ae"; the two stopped syllables have long vowels so tone 7 has a tone value 35). My Chinese-Zhuang dictionary notes that gak [kak7] is used in connection with money.

As for the topolectal origin of the pronunciation [kak7] for 角, it does not appear to be from a Yue dialect in Guangdong, since all of my references for the dialects in northern, western, and Pearl River Delta Guangdong mostly have rimes [ok] (where "o" equals "open o"), while a few have [oek] (where "oe" equals the open-mid front rounded vowel).

As for varieties spoken in Guangxi, one valuable source I have is on Pinghua, the classification of which is still not settled, is it Cantonese or a separate topolectal category? You find both analyses. This reference lists eight diapoints for which the pronunciation of 角 is [kak] and three diapoints have [kok] (where "o" = open o). I would conclude this pronunciation [kak] is one that is associated with Guangxi. I don't have much material on Yue dialects spoken in Guangxi, so this is about as much as I can say at this point.

For reference purposes only, here is the equivalent Cantonese:

zung1 gwok3 jan4 man4 ngan4 hong4 jat1 gok3

The standard Zhuang language is described here.

As to what is written on the banknote to represent Zhuang, where every syllable is derived directly from Chinese, it is doubtful whether it accurately reflects the way any Zhuang people actually speak. This is what one scholar of the region has referred to as "the whole fake / improved ethnic language phenomenon. Whatever is written there may have only a limited relationship to the way Zhuang is spoken in real life. It's the same with Yi."

Before closing, I would like to compare the five languages on the reverse of Chinese money to the situation with regard to Indian money. Here, we find that on the back are displayed the denomination of the banknote in 15 of the 22 official languages of India.

The status of these official languages in India is quite different from that of the languages other than Mandarin — both Sinitic and non-Sinitic — in China. Every Indian citizen who submits a petition seeking redress of a grievance to a government official has a constitutional right to present it in any language used in India. Not only do the citizens of India have the right to use their own Mother Tongue, the various states that make up the Republic also have the right to use their own languages for official and judicial purposes. In China, there is only one official language: Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) or Putonghua.

One wonders how the principles whereby India, the world's largest democratic republic, and China, the world's largest communist republic, persist as unified nations can be so different and yet both result in similar outcomes — or perhaps not, since the experiment for both is still young.

[Thanks to Bob Bauer, Bill Hannas, Matthew Kapstein, Johan Elverskog, Chris Atwood, Nicolo Di Cosmo, Jun Sugawara, Yakup Mahire, Eric Schluessel, Mark Bender, and Sara Davis]



  1. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 16, 2013 @ 12:52 pm

    Interesting to see how this selection of five does and does not overlap with the "Five Races" propaganda theme of the early ROC. I guess the Manchus are not doing well these days in terms of either linguistic distinctiveness or political salience, and the wikipedia piece says that back then "Hui" meant more broadly "anyone-who-is-Muslim" which I assume would thus have included the Uighur and other denizens of Sinkiang speaking non-Sinitic languages. So call it 70% overlap (3.5 out of 5)? And I don't know if the old "Five Races" theme ever manifested itself in pentalingual government documents.

  2. Ian said,

    September 16, 2013 @ 1:04 pm

    Excellent writeup, thanks! I now see that "it gak" is part of the Zhuang translation, I was assuming it represented a language of its own before.

  3. David B Solnit said,

    September 16, 2013 @ 4:12 pm

    Regarding your remark "it is doubtful whether it accurately reflects the way any Zhuang people actually speak": I don't know for sure, but it seems possible that this is what you might call Sino-Zhuang: a conventional system of reading Chinese characters, parallel to Sino-Japanese, Sino-Korean, and the rest, with pronunciations that were established at some premodern time. If that's the case, it may well be that no Zhuang speaker would say "one jiao" like this, unless they were reading it from a text written in Chinese characters–but that would not make it exactly "fake."

  4. Ellen K. said,

    September 16, 2013 @ 4:32 pm

    What's that in the two boxes, one just below "YI" (yi) and the other on the other side by the large 1?

  5. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 16, 2013 @ 4:57 pm

    The pluralistic-sounding bits of the Indian constitution need to be balanced against, e.g. "It shall be the duty of the Union to promote the spread of the Hindi language, to develop it so that it may serve as a medium of expression for all the elements of the composite culture of India and to secure its enrichment by assimilating without interfering with its genius, the forms, style and expressions used in Hindustani and in the other languages of India specified in the Eighth Schedule, and by drawing, wherever necessary or desirable, for its vocabulary, primarily on Sanskrit and secondarily on other languages." Due to the political dynamics on the ground (which are quite different from those in the PRC, not least because of the existence of state governments that are accountable to the local voters rather than imposed from the center), my impression is that that rather grandiose ambition has remained more aspirational than actualized.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    September 16, 2013 @ 5:48 pm

    @David B. Solnit

    The Sino-Zhuang pronunciation is one thing, the Sino-Zhuang vocabulary is quite another.

    @J. W. Brewer

    The second clause of your last sentence does not follow logically from the first. And what do you know about the history of, for example, Bengali and Tamil literature? Merely "aspirational" rather than "actualized"? You've got a lot to learn.

    Have you ever heard of Tagore? Listen to him recite his poetry in the link provided by Samuel Hughes, senior editor of the Pennsylvania Gazette, who remarks:


    I had forgotten, or not realized, a Penn connection–(in)famous Penn alumnus Ezra Pound was briefly a champion of his work, as can be seen in this 100-year-old article in the Fortnightly Review (which here has a link to Tagore reading one of his own poems!):

    His beard is indeed a thing of beauty. And I still have not seen that movie, "Charulata", but would like to.


  7. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 16, 2013 @ 7:29 pm

    Perhaps I was unclear. What I meant was that the nationalist ambition to promote Hindi at the likely ultimate expense of, e.g., Bengali and Tamil has not gotten as far as various people in India might have hoped/predicted/feared in 1947, not least because non-Hindi-speakers (especially but by no means only Tamil-speakers) pushed back politically against Hindi expansionism, and the federal/decentralized nature of Indian politics (above and beyond their actually having competitive elections in the first place) made that pushback more efficacious. I suppose officially Hindi expansionism was only supposed to take place at the expense of the alien/colonialist de facto national language (English), but I tend to think the Tamil-speakers who assumed that moves to replace English with Hindi would be bad for the Tamil-speaking community probably had good reason for that concern.

    I quite like Pound, but I assume I should not treat his translations of Chinese poetry or Chinese philosophy as reliable. Tagore in the English translations which were the basis of his original fame among Anglophones a century ago is very much not to my taste, but I do not know Bengali and it seems quite possible he was badly served by those translators from a strictly aesthetic perspective (although obviously well-served in terms of contemporaneous reaction and the ensuing fame and fortune).

  8. Lazar said,

    September 16, 2013 @ 8:51 pm

    @JW Brewer: Indeed it doesn't. One detail that no one has mentioned so far is that the four non-Chinese languages on the money were evidently chosen because they're the languages which are associated with China's autonomous regions (Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Guangxi, with Ningxia not having its own), which are the highest order of ethnic autonomy in the PRC. Below the provincial level there are also autonomous prefectures, counties, townships and villages for the various smaller ethnicities. This system of ethnic autonomy was a synthesis of Lenin's nationalities policy with older Chinese notions of autonomous peripheral territories. From what I've read, Guangxi as a whole was not thought of as a Zhuang area and never had a Zhuang majority, but the Zhuang were numerically China's largest minority group, so the nationalities policy dictated that they must have an official territory.

  9. Marcos said,

    September 16, 2013 @ 9:01 pm

    The Zhuang appears to be written in the older Zhuang orthography rather than the currently official one. As far as I am aware, newer banknotes do use the current orthography, perhaps this is also the case for Uyghur?

  10. Victor Mair said,

    September 16, 2013 @ 9:34 pm

    Many people believe that the five stars of the PRC flag (also known as the "Five Star Red Flag" [wǔ xīng hóng qí 五星红旗]) represent the five main ethnic groups (with the Han being the largest one around which the others form a semi-circle), but the government apparently denies it.

    It seems that the symbolism of the five stars has not been entirely clear and consistent since the time the flag was designed.

  11. Wentao said,

    September 16, 2013 @ 10:10 pm

    @Ellen K.

    It says "Seal of the Governor (of the People's Bank of China)" and "Seal of the Vice Governor" in seal script respectively.

  12. julie lee said,

    September 16, 2013 @ 10:40 pm

    @Victor Mair (and Samuel Hughes):

    How wonderful to get a link to hear Tagore read his own poetry !! I have watched several films based on stories by Tagore made by the great Indian director Satyajit Ray. I've watched the movie "Charulata" several times, and have a copy in my collection of movie favorites. It probably can be ordered online. I have a number of Ray's movies on video or disk—and am always looking for copies to order. Satyajit Ray's movies are marvelous and can be watched again and again. They are the opposite of bombastic overblown Bollywood movies.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    September 16, 2013 @ 11:48 pm

    @Ellen K. @ Wentao

    Here's the historical background of such seals:

  14. Vanya said,

    September 17, 2013 @ 7:58 am

    "Unlike the other three non-Sinitic versions, the Mongolian actually translates Zhongguo, albeit with a nice Russianism thrown into the mix."

    What is the "Russianism"? "bankki"?

  15. Victor Mair said,

    September 17, 2013 @ 9:45 am



  16. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 17, 2013 @ 10:41 am

    Backing up to a point in the original post, I'm not sure it's that ironic that the regional languages used should all be from the "periphery" outside the core of historic Ming-era "China Proper," especially in view of Lazar's observation that the languages used correspond quite nicely to four of the PRC's five "autonomous" regions (with the fifth not currently having a distinct language associated with it). I think it's been established in prior threads that Chinese nationalists generally seem to have no problem acknowledging that many of the PRC's non-Han minority groups have distinctive languages (often written in distinctive non-hanzi-based scripts); rather, the repeated point of conflict between outsider descriptive linguistics and Chinese nationalism seems to be the latter's frequently strong reluctance to accept that that there is no single "language" unifying the majority Han ethnic group. Because of different historical circumstances, Indian nationalism has not been able to pretend that a common language can, at present, be the basis of a common sense of Indian identity (although I think some are or were hopeful that Hindi could over time develop into that role), so even in its stronger and more controversial formulations ("Hindutva" etc.) it has had to point to other things as the basis for a common identity while accepting the existing multiplicity of languages.

    US currency still bears text in two languages (English and Latin), although it would probably be hazardous to infer anything about US language policy in general from that fact.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    September 17, 2013 @ 12:17 pm

    @J. W. Brewer

    On the matter of "periphery", I was speaking strictly in geographical terms. Would you deny that the four non-Sinitic languages featured on the banknote are geographically peripheral? Isn't it ironic that the four non-Han languages chosen to be featured on Chinese national currency are all from the periphery?

  18. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 17, 2013 @ 12:50 pm

    I certainly agree that the other four languages are peripheral, whether considered geographically or demographically. Whether it is "ironic" to give greater recognition to e.g. Uighur than to e.g. Cantonese (less peripheral either geographically or demographically) may be in the eye of the beholder, but I would think we could both agree that the disparity in treatment is significant. On the other hand, PRC sovereignty over most Cantonese-speaking areas is afaik not seriously contested these days but support for an independent Tibet and (with a lower Hollywood-celebrity profile) independent East Turkestan is certainly out there (not sure about any active irredentist claims seeking to reunify Inner and Outer Mongolia under non-Chinese sovereignty . . .), so using linguistic symbolism to communicate the message that those "peripheral" and ethnically-distinct regions are integral parts of the PRC whose status should not be considered up for debate might be a non-ironic political motive for the display.

  19. Naveed Chowdhury said,

    September 17, 2013 @ 6:50 pm

    I am not an expert on the matter, as my experience is with Bangladesh rather than India, but my understanding is that promotion of Hindi as government policy has been a dead letter in India for many decades now. Every Indian government is dependent on the support of Dravidian parties, all of whom are resolutely anti-Hindi.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    September 17, 2013 @ 8:38 pm

    @J. W. Brewer

    There is the geographically peripheral nature of the four regions / ethnicities in question, and then there is the irony of their sparse population. So much prominence given to so few people!

  21. Mark Dunan said,

    September 18, 2013 @ 1:13 am

    I visited mainland China for the first time last year and was struck by how much more beautiful the older notes are, with their intricate design work and varied obverse faces, than the new ones (all of which seem to bear Mao's picture).

    @Marcos – The newer ones have a different orthography ("Cunghgoz Yinzminz Yinzhangz") for Zhuang. How anyone could prefer to have letters that are to be analyzed as the numerals they vaguely resemble, and not "pronounced" at all, is beyond my understanding. ^_^;

    Is it still possible to find banknotes for one yuan and over in the old style? The only old ones I saw during my brief visit (in urban Beijing) were for 1 and 5 jiao.

  22. Jens Ørding Hansen said,

    September 18, 2013 @ 5:24 am

    "Now, beginning with the Mandarin version, adding characters and tones, we have Zhōngguó rénmíng yínháng yī jiǎo 中国人民银行 1 角 ("China People's Bank 1 jiǎo")."

    I congratulate Victor Mair on his misspelling of "renmin" as "renming". This is a mistake usually made by native Chinese speakers rather than foreigners, so I take it as an indication that Mr. Mair is a true 中國通 with long and deep exposure to the language.

  23. Keith said,

    September 18, 2013 @ 5:38 am

    Interesting… I was surprised to read that Tibetan is one of the five languages on the Chinese banknote since they're trying to destroy the Tibetan culture… but then again this could be one of their tactics.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    September 18, 2013 @ 7:00 am

    There is something that has been in the back of my mind since I began to write this post, but it has only now come to the surface. Namely, the whole idea of five main ethnic groups as constituting the most important parts of the Chinese empire goes back to the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty. Moreover, there is a distinctly linguistic representation of this manifestation of a multiethnic empire, viz., the polyglot dictionaries sponsored by the Manchu rulers. Of these polyglot dictionaries, the largest and I believe the best known was the pentaglot behemoth known (in Manchu) as the Han-i araha sunja hacin-i hergen kamciha Manju gisun-i buleku bithe. It also has titles in the four other languages that it contains (i.e., Tibetan, Mongol, Turki, and Chinese), but I don't have time to type all of them out this morning before rushing off to a dissertation defense. You can find them, and other detailed information about this huge pentaglot, in item #126 of Bibliographies of Mongolian, Manchu-Tungus, and Tibetan Dictionaries, compiled by Larry V. Clark, John R. Krueger, Manfred Taube, Hartmut Walravens, and edited by Hartmut Walravens (Harrassowitz Verlag, 2006), pp. 198-199. It is available online in Google Books:

    Now, isn't that interesting?! These are the same exact groups as are found on the PRC banknote discussed in this post, with one exception: the Zhuang have replaced the Manchus.

    How do we account for that? There are at least a couple of reasons why this happened. First of all, as has been pointed out in the comments to this post, the Manchu language is essentially extinct. Secondly, the PRC sees itself as succeeding the Manchus (the ROC was merely an ephemeral, transitional empire), so it wouldn't have done for the Chinese Communist Party to include the Manchus on their people's currency. Thus, again, we are faced with another irony about this banknote: the founders of the very linguistic model on which it is premised, the Manchus, have been displaced in favor of another peripheral (to the East Asian Heartland) group, but one which never played a significant role in greater Asian politics, as did all four of the other groups.

    Oh, one last thought: this model of the compilation of polyglot dictionaries as constituting an important statement about the confederational composition of an empire goes back beyond the Manchus, but I leave it to other commenters to document that.

  25. Victor Mair said,

    September 18, 2013 @ 7:09 am

    @Jens Ørding Hansen

    Thank you for your compliment and for catching that (fixed now). Actually, however, there is a much simpler explanation. Namely, it was some "中國通 with long and deep exposure to the language" at Google Translate who is responsible for adding the "g" to the end of "rénmíng" in "Zhōngguó *rénmíng yínháng". Although many of my Chinese friends would do that, I myself would never do so: I'm not THAT much of an old China hand!

    BTW, if you put 人民 by itself in Google Translate, it gets it right: rénmín. It's only when you put in the whole name that the "g" is erroneously added.

  26. David Dettmann said,

    September 18, 2013 @ 8:44 am

    Something else that is very interesting here, the phonetic Mandarin word for China (Zhōngguó) has now found its way into many of the minority languages' lexicon (at least in terms of printed dictionaries in autonomous regions). On the above banknote Uyghur uses Junggo, Tibetan uses Drunggo, and Zhuang uses Cungbguz. But Mongolian is a translation.

    I was surprised last when I began to learn Mongolian, inching my way through traditional script with a recently published Inner Mongolian dictionary, that "China" (i.e. 中国) was translated at xitad. Likewise, "Han" (as in Han person 汉族) was also translated as xitad.

    This was the tradition for languages west of Xinjiang, considering China (or "Khitay") a unique land and people. Nowadays though, for Uyghur and Kazak in the PRC, (at least officially) Junggo has replaced that word, and xänzu/xanzu was introduced for 汉族. I find it strange that this wasn't pushed into PRC Mongolian as well.

  27. Victor Mair said,

    September 18, 2013 @ 9:54 am

    From a colleague:

    Thanks for forwarding the stream about the "five language, five ethnicity" puzzle. Several things come to mind, including Tom Mullaney's argument, in Coming to Terms with the Nation, that PRC ethnicity policy is based to a great extent in Republican ethnicity ideology, since the anthropologists and linguists who undertook the 民族識別 were all, of course, trained during the Republican period by professors who had imbibed the spirit of its ethnic politics. Tom argues that language, more than any other single ethnic attribute, lay at the heart of the 1950s "ethnic identification" (or creation) project, thus making the same deep connection as you do between ethnic identity and language.

    On the replacement of Manchu by Zhuang, one of the crucial "facts" of that political act lay in the direct and ineradicable association of the Manchus with the Japanese after 1931. (See Shao Dan's excellent book, Remote Homeland, Recovered Borderland.) Anti-Qing sentiment certainly played a role, since they were the last "feudal dynasty," but Puyi's puppet regime and his representation of his 民族 were crucial both in the demonization of the Manchus and their "disappearance" in the 1940s and 1950s. Their re-emergence as a numerical (though not cultural) fact in the census came only with the re-valorization of the diverse 民族 identities as positive after the rise of Deng Xiaoping. For a while, it seemed as if Manchus were coming out of the woodwork everywhere, because it was finally OK to be a Manchu.

  28. julie lee said,

    September 18, 2013 @ 11:04 am

    @Victor Mair
    "as if Manchus were coming out of the woodwork everywhere, because it was finally OK to be a Manchu."

    I had some first-hand experience of pro-Japanese sentiment among Manchus. Of course we Chinese were supposed to hate the Japanese for what they did to us in WWII.
    But many years ago in Taiwan, after WWII, I took painting and calligraphy lessons from Prince Pu (Pu Xinru), first cousin of the last Manchu emperor, Pu Yi. Now in his fifties, he was in reduced circumstances, living in a small Japanese-style house (from the Japanese era in Taiwan), as we refugees from the Communist Mainland all did then. We students would stand around his low table as we watched him produce one landscape painting after another with the ink-brush. Among his reminiscences, he would tell us how very gracious the Japanese were to him in Manchuria (where Pu Yi had been invited to be puppet emperor), and his face would become tender in fond memory. Then his face would become angry when he spoke contemptuously of the 1911 Revolution (when the Manchu dynasty was overthrown and China became a republic). He refused to call it Revolution or Uprising, as our textbooks did. He called it a "revolt"(造反zaofan), spitting out the word.

  29. julie lee said,

    September 18, 2013 @ 11:58 am


    Sorry, "revolt" is the wrong translation. Zaofan造反 should be "rebellion", not "revolt". A "revolution" or "uprising" is commendable and glorious. Zaofan "rebellion" is a pejorative term. (Geming 革命“revolution" is literally "change in Heaven's mandate" (a bad ruler loses Heaven's mandate to govern). Qiyi 起義 "uprising" is literally "rise in the cause of justice" . "Revolution" and "uprising" are heroic; "rebellion" is reprehensible, according to the traditional Confucian view.

  30. Victor Mair said,

    September 18, 2013 @ 3:36 pm

    From another colleague:

    An interesting phenomenon across Eurasia in which the Mongol Empire played an important role. You might take a look at Tom Allsen's chapter in The King's Dictionary. The Rasûlid Hexaglot: Fourteenth Century Vocabularies in Arabic, Persian, Turkic , Greek, Armenian and Mongol, ed. P.B. Golden (Leiden: Brill 2000).

    VHM: As I suspected, the Manchus appear to have picked this up from the Mongols. I wonder whether the Mongols originated it or whether it goes back even earlier.

  31. Victor Mair said,

    September 18, 2013 @ 4:11 pm

    From an eminent Tibetologist:

    I’m always annoyed by the fact that the Potala is on reverse side the 50 RMB note, Mao being on the front….

  32. Victor Mair said,

    September 18, 2013 @ 4:30 pm

    From a specialist on the intellectual history of the late imperial period:

    I've always thought that the communist flag's five stars was meant to exert a subliminal appeal to adherents of the Nationalists' five races policy, but of course the Reds wouldn't admit to that. In that sense, though, the flag's design is meant to exert a United Front effect on politically uncommitted nationalistic (i.e., patriotic) modern Chinese who aspire to recovering the grandeur of the Qing, by assuring them that the great project of a Chinese Republic, as enunciated by Sun Yat-sen and his colleagues, has not been subsumed under the universalist pretensions of marxism. This is what is sometimes called the Jiànguó dàyè 建國大業; it is simply the Manchu imperial dynasty redefined as a Han republic, meaning that Han migrants dominate the indigenous minorities in their own homelands, which are often called, by a blatantly condescending sexual metaphor, the "dowry" 陪嫁 that the minorities bring to their (fortunate) "fusion" 融合 with the Han, borrowing the latter image from the American "melting pot". Much of symbology of modern China is a response to their admiration for America, e.g. "China Dream", etc.

  33. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 18, 2013 @ 4:44 pm

    If you believe what you read on wikipedia, is a really cool-sounding Yuan-era structure which contains the same Buddhist text carved into the walls in six different languages (using six different scripts). One of the six is Sanskrit, the other five overlap heavily but not completely with subsequent sets of five as discussed in this thread. I believe that pre-Yuan there were various bilingual steles in the western parts of the now-boundaries of the PRC and maybe further west into Central Asia, but I don't have much sense of whether those had the same sort of message (i.e., Behold my power and might: I am sovereign over multiple language communities) or a different one (e.g., I am erecting this stele near the frontier of my domains and am accordingly inscribing it in both my own language and my neighbors' language).

  34. Victor Mair said,

    September 18, 2013 @ 5:33 pm

    @J. W. Brewer re: Juyongguan

    I've been to that site many times and indeed find it to be most impressive. It was fun trying to read all of the different languages on it.

  35. JQ said,

    September 19, 2013 @ 12:49 am

    Slightly OT, but I thought that everything 1 kuai and below had been replaced with coins? How often does one see a 1jiao note these days?

    What languages are represented on the coins?

  36. Jean-Michel said,

    September 20, 2013 @ 7:08 am

    No minority languages are on the coins, only Chinese characters and pinyin.

    As for the notes, they're still being printed and still in circulation. The exception is the two-jiao note, which was withdrawn in 2004; I still see it on occasion, but it's become quite rare in the wild (the two-yuan note was withdrawn the same year and is rarer still). The one- and five-jiao notes haven't been redesigned since 1980 and newly-printed notes still read "1980," which is also why they still use the old Zhuang and Uyghur spellings. Presumably they didn't feel it was worth creating new plates for notes of such low value. The one-yuan notes were last updated in 1999 and are still more common than the coins in many parts of the country (in my experience, the coins are more common in major cities, particularly those with subways).

  37. dw said,

    September 20, 2013 @ 11:15 am

    My understanding (which may well be wrong) is that the original motivation for the promotion of Hindustani in independent India was to unite Muslims and Hindus against the British. Hindustani was seen as ideal for this purpose, since it was widely spoken both by Hindus (as Hindi) and by Muslims (as Urdu). The Indo-Aryan/Dravidian split was not at the forefront of people's minds in those days.

    I've heard several people (mostly from the South) express the opinion that Sanskrit would have been a better choice of national language. This would have served as an interesting parallel to the resurrection of Hebrew in the state of Israel; however, I can't imagine Muslims would have very happy with Sanskrit.

  38. Victor Mair said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 4:08 pm

    From a Manchu specialist:

    I think you are right that the Chinese have simply adopted the five nationality scheme originally promulgated by the Manchus and then put themselves in the top spot, dropping Manchu entirely and adding Zhuang.

  39. Hilário de Sousa said,

    September 26, 2013 @ 7:39 am

    The older layer of Sino-Zhuang is most similar to Southern Pinghua. (This is true even for the Kra-Dai languages in North/Northeastern parts of Guangxi where the local Pinghua dialects have become significantly Mandarinised.) For instance, in Nanning Pinghua taŋ˨˩ 唐 'Tang', kak˧ 角 'horn/ 0.1 yuan'; Sino-Zhuang dangz 唐, gak 角; Cantonese tʰɔŋ˨˩ 唐, kɔk˧ 角.)

    There is the story of Qin Fengyu buying veges in Nanning many years ago: she handed the veges that she wanted to purchase to the stall owner, and the stall owner replied: [ŋɔ˩˧ ka˧]. She interpreted that as Cantonese 我o架 'it's mine', which she found very strange. (Cantonese is also spoken in Nanning.) She later learnt that what the stall owner said was Nanning Pinghua /ŋɔ˩˧ kak˧/ 五角 '0.5 yuan'.

    Back to Sino-Zhuang. Newer official Sino-Zhuang is based on Guilin-Liuzhou-type of Mandarin, and hence Cunghgoz Yinzminz Yinzhangz 中國人民銀行 in Sino-Zhuang. (The four tones in Guilin-Liuzhou Mandarin are something like ˧, ˨˩, ˥, ˩˧, and the Middle Chinese entering tone usually becomes ˨˩. In Zhuang spelling, those four tones are rendered as h, z, j, ). In Nanning, you see the name of the city written in Zhuang with either the Mandarinsed version of Nanzningz, or the traditional version of Namzningz (c.f. Cantonese/Eastern Nanning Pinghua [nam˨˩ nɪŋ˨˩] 南寧.)

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