The latest issue of The Atlantic has an article entitled "The Uighurs, China's Embattled Muslim Minority, Are Still Seeking an Identity".
The comments on language usage and policy in Xinjiang will be of particular interest to many Language Log readers, since they reverberate with a number of recent discussions that we've been engaged in.
Language, like so much else, is contentious in Xinjiang, where many Uighur grow up learning, at best, rudimentary Mandarin (putonghua), China’s official language. For most Chinese citizens, mastery of Mandarin is a priority. Local “dialects” are discouraged in the media and in education, and heavy accents turn many employers off.
Yet the language policy of the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) was surprisingly flexible from the start when it came to the ethnic minorities, giving minority tongues equal status as official languages in their own region, establishing minority-language schools, and encouraging Han cadres sent to the border regions to learn the local languages. Chinese bank notes throughout the country are written in five different scripts, including Uighur.
Among the Uighur, however, the policy has created two distinct groups: the minkaohan, minorities educated in Mandarin, and the minkaomin, educated in their own language. Minkaomin education is not taken seriously by non-Uighur employers, and not speaking Mandarin shuts minkaomin graduates out of jobs. In turn, they often resent minkaohan students as opportunistic and unfaithful to their own heritage.
It seems that, in a very vague fashion, Uyghur is being thought of as one of China's many "dialects". At least the author, James Palmer, realizes that this is a problematic usage, so he puts the word within scare quotes. Yet referring to non-Sinitic languages as fāngyán 方言 (almost universally mistranslated as "dialect") is nothing new, since I have encountered references to Uyghur (and even Italian!) as fāngyán 方言 in premodern Chinese texts.
For several recent Language Log posts that grapple with the problem of "language" vs. "dialect" in China, see:
- "Signifying the Local"
- "Zazaki: a West Iranian language"
- "English is a Dialect of Germanic; or, The Traitors to Our Common Heritage"
- "Spoken Hong Kong Cantonese and written Cantonese"
Since the author cites the key terms mínkǎomín 民考民 and mínkǎohàn 民考汉, but doesn't translate them (the translations given by Google Translate, Bing Translator, and Baidu Fanyi are completely useless), I should note that the first means "ethnic group is tested in the ethnic language" (i.e., Uyghur, in this case) and the second means "ethnic group is tested in Han language" (i.e., Mandarin).
The author states that "the language policy of the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) was surprisingly flexible from the start when it came to the ethnic minorities…." That may have been true "from the start", when the PRC was under the tutelage of the USSR, which did indeed have enlightened policies with regard to languages other than Russian. But things have changed greatly since the 50s and early 60s, when China broke with the Soviet Union, and so — by now — Uyghur is often no more than window dressing. See "Uyghur as ornament".
[Hat tip to Mariah Deters]