Education in Xinjiang

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A government sponsored mural in Kashgar:

This is one in a series of 14 murals published in "The colourful propaganda of Xinjiang" (BBC News, 1/12/15).

I am particularly intrigued by the mural reproduced above because it depicts the Han notion of what education should be for Uyghurs. The fuming fellow dressed in black at bottom left represents an evil Muslim extremist / radical / terrorist / ideolog (a constant theme in most of the murals). He is upset that the mother in red is taking her child to a school — he would prefer that the child go to a madrasa for religious training.

On the positive side, what do we see? The mother dressed in yellow is leading her child through a gateway, on the arch of which is written the word x uéxí 学习 ("study; learn"). This is a word that we know well from "Good good study; day day up" (1/14/14) and other Language Log posts.

What is surprising is that the child's hand holds a card on which is written the letter "A" of the alphabet. Since Chinese is already represented by the xuéxí 学习 ("study; learn") on the arch, this probably stands for English, not pinyin. The Latin alphabet was formerly used to write Uyghur, but it was replaced by the Arabic alphabet in 1987.

This sends a powerful message that the government wants Uyghur children to learn Chinese and English rather than Uyghur written in the Arabic alphabet.


  1. richardelguru said,

    January 14, 2015 @ 7:12 am

    For a moment there I thought 'Why is he so happy to get a "D"?'

  2. Eidolon said,

    January 14, 2015 @ 8:01 pm

    Going off of what richardelguru has alluded to, I wonder whether the 'A' stands, in fact, for the child's scholastic grade rather than the English alphabet. My first instinct was to reject this reading on the basis that the A-F grading system is specific to Western education, but on a second look, it's used in China too:

    Given the recent language sanctification moves by SARFT, I found it odd that the PRC government would promote English learning by Uyghurs. Further, the propaganda images immediately after this one in the link show positive images of Uyghurs reading PRC documents written in Arabic. The combination of the two makes me think the 'A' stands for the child's scholastic achievement, which is what the Chinese government wants to see Uyghurs striving for over religious training.

  3. Matt said,

    January 14, 2015 @ 8:02 pm

    Wait, so is there actually an implication that the child is learning English, or is it just supposed to be a letter grade?

  4. Victor Mair said,

    January 15, 2015 @ 3:01 pm

    From Zhang He, a native of Khotan, Xinjiang:

    The mural painting IS interesting to me in two ways, which I will explain below. The letter A, to me, as one of the comments below guesses, is the grade A, meaning the best. It is typical Chinese way to encourage students. It could also mean Roman alphabets in Uyghur writing, which was implemented for two generations in Xinjiang. I learned one year Uyghur in middle school in early 70s with Roman alphabets.

    For English study in Xinjiang, I do not know exactly when it started before the cultural revolution, but definitely in 1974 when Deng Xiaoping was first allowed to come back to work, many high schools in Xinjiang started to open English classes. In other major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, Nixon’s visit in 1972 definitely triggered reopening English classes in the country.

    The article reminds me of two things:

    I wrote about my English learning experiences in Chinese some time ago. I am sending the link to you, you may get some idea if it is not difficult for you to read Chinese.

    I will also send you a cartoon picture of a mural painting by my mother done in 1960s in Renmin Square in Urumqi. A typical propaganda of the time. In it, you will see two girls holding a card with big 5 on it, which means a grade 5, the highest score back then. You will also see a boy and girl holding another board with Chinese characters “Wipe out Illiterates”.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    January 15, 2015 @ 3:47 pm

    Additional comment by Zhang He:

    My mother was a trained artist (both my parents graduated from Northwest Institute of Art in early 1950s 西北艺术学院,西安). She was assigned to work as editor in fine art in Xinjiang Women’s Magazine (新疆妇女画报) in Urumqi until 1961 when my father was titled as “having Rightest speeches” and both were sent to Khotan. They both also worked as editors in fine art in Khotan Daily Newspaper for most of their lives. The mural painting was conducted in 1964-1965 for celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Autonomous Region, when my mother was “borrowed” back to Urumqi. She and another woman artist painted whole thing on the walls surrounding the square.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    January 15, 2015 @ 6:36 pm

    More from Zhang He:

    Forgot to mention: nowadays in Xinjiang, parents send kindergarteners to English- learning school.

    My daughter became English class representative in her third grade in a Urumqi public elementary school when I took her to my parents’ home during my sabbatical leave. Many years later, she went back to visit grandparents and volunteered to help an English class full of pre-school kids (both Han and Uyghur) in Urumqi.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    January 15, 2015 @ 8:34 pm

    From Tim Grose:

    The images are extremely fascinating! Thanks for sharing!

    Your question about English is a rich one. In Xinjiang, English instruction (and how early it begins) largely depends on the mode of schooling and the location of the school.

    Until 1992 the vast majority of schools in Xinjiang used ethnic minority languages as the language of classroom instruction (the so-called 民考民 schools); Putonghua was most commonly taught for four to five hours per week, essentially as a foreign language. If English was introduced, it wouldn't have been until senior-secondary school (高中), and the course would have been an elective, as these students would have essentially tested in Chinese for the"foreign language" component of the 高考 examination. According to a teaching plan (教学计划) I have from Kashgar, English was completely absent from the first 6 years of 民考民 schooling.

    However, in 1992 “experimental bilingual classes” (试验双语班) were introduced in Xinjiang wherein Putonghua is used for all mathematics and science-related courses. I've spoken to many individuals who have graduated from these schools. Some students received formal English instruction during their three year gaozhong education , while others did not. Often it came down to whether a local school had someone capable of teaching English.

    In 2001, China's Ministry of Education stated that "if resources are available," English instruction in Xinjiang should begin in the third year of primary school (regardless of the type of school). But in many cases, rural schools, especially those in southern Xinjiang, do not have competent English teachers.

    In 2004, another mode of "bilingual schooling" was introduced in Ürümqi wherein Putonghua is the language of instruction for all classes; minority languages and English are taught as "foreign languages." It is my understanding that since these schools follow the national curriculum, English is always part of the schools' curriculum. Currently this third type of school can only be found in Xinjiang’s “developed” cities such as Ürümqi, Shihezi, and Karamay (i.e. cities where there are substantial Han populations); however, all primary schools are expected to adopt this model by the 2016-7 academic year.

    In yet another option, students from Xinjiang can attend the Xinjiang Class (内地新疆高中班), boarding schools located in China proper, if they score high enough on an annual standardized test. Xinjiang Class students study at least three years of English at the gaozhong level.

  8. Ellie Kesselman said,

    January 16, 2015 @ 7:10 am

    These sort of astute observations, in the post and comments, reminds me why linguists are so valuable to intelligence-gathering organizations ;)

    P.S. Thank you for sharing Zhang He's mother's artwork. Her two murals are beautiful.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    January 17, 2015 @ 7:52 am

    @Ellie Kesselman

    Thanks for your appreciation.

    Don't forget to check out the "embiggen" feature by clicking on the pictures.

    I would like to acknowledge Ben Zimmer's help in posting the artwork.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    January 17, 2015 @ 9:31 pm

    From Josh Summers:

    When I first arrived in Xinjiang in 2006, there were a handful of schools that still taught entirely in the Uyghur language. That has since changed. In my personal experience, this has presented an interesting challenge for young Uyghur kids who often only use the Uyghur language at home until they reach school age. In many cases the Uyghur children are having to learn Mandarin during their first couple years in school, so adding English on top of that was quite confusing.

    I can really only speak to the two cities where I have lived here: Karamay and Urumqi. Nowadays, most private kindergartens have some form of English class, although this education isn't mandatory as you know. The majority of students start English classes in elementary school and continue them through high school.

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