The Last Lesson — in Mongolian

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The Chinese government has prohibited  Mongolian language instruction in all schools in the Mongolian areas of Xinjiang:  "Southern Mongolia: Instruction in Mongolian Language Banned in All Schools", Unrepresented Nations & Peoples Organization (1/3/18).

The last school in the so-called Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to provide education in the Mongolian language, the Bayangol No. 3 High School, has banned its usage as language of instruction. According to the region’s Education Department, the ethnic language can be offered as an elective course, but all main courses must be taught in Chinese. This clearly demonstrates that bilingual education is no longer existent which sparked further outrage when articles and internet posts discussing this situation were removed by Chinese authorities. Southern Mongolians are deeply concerned and outraged by this as they feel their nation is being reduced to a Chinese colony.

The article excerpted below was published by SMHRIC (Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center)   New York.  It goes into much greater detail about the banning of Mongolian teaching in Xinjiang and the reactions of Mongolians to this move on the part of the government.

"Mongolian language banned in schools, Internet posts removed" ((12/22/17).

…On December 18, 2017, the first post from Mongolian parents of the affected area appeared on the Chinese social media WeChat: “Today, Mongolian language instruction in all schools across Bayangol Prefecture is put to an end. We are demanding a just solution from the State Ethnic Affairs Commission and the Eight Provinces and Autonomous Regions Mongolian Language Work Association.”…

…The news sparked widespread outrage among Mongolians across Southern (Inner) Mongolia. Posts of protest by Mongolian students, teachers, writers, and even ordinary herders have gone viral on the few available social media outlets in China including WeChat, Weibo, and Bainuu.

“Apparently our nation is reduced to a Chinese colony,” a Mongolian blogger named Rashizamts wrote in a post on his Bainuu space, along with a boycott sign on the word “Chinese” written in Mongolian.

Many cited the 19th century French novelist Alphonse Daudet’s “The Last Lesson,” which states, “when a people are enslaved, as long as they hold fast to their language it is as if they had the key to their prison.

“The prose ’The Last Lesson’ narrates about the Prussian occupation of France in the 19th century,” a Mongolian named Soyoloo wrote on his WeChat. “However, today in the 21st century, we still need to shout ‘down with fascism!’ loudly. My heart is bleeding. I will, and we will feel the deepest guilt and humiliation that will never be whitewashed if our nation is finished like this.

“Let us cry out, let us stand up in order not to feel the guilt and shame before our people and nation. Let us do only one thing, rise up!” Soyoloo continued.

Many Internet posts and even official news articles discussing this event have been removed by the Chinese authorities….

It's interesting that they refer to that part of Xinjiang as "Southern Mongolia".  I don't think I've ever heard it called that, even though I'm very familiar with that area.  It is indeed very Mongolian in its character and people.

The following paragraphs on the nomenclature of the Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture of Xinjiang under discussion here are mainly by Jichang Lulu, with some minor emendations by me.  Many readers of Language Log are familiar with Mongolian language issues, so we hope that they will chime in and supplement this account.

"Southern Mongolia" is what Inner Mongolia is called in Mongolian: ᠥᠪᠦᠷ ᠮᠣᠩᠭᠣᠯ (Öbör Mongɣol in 'Mongolist' romanisation, vUibur Muvqhul in Balk-Janhunen, Өвөр Монгол (Övör Mongol) in Cyrillic). Öbör is one of several ways of saying 'south', also meaning 'front' and (perhaps originally) the sunny side of a mountain (shānyáng 山阳). That is the neutral and official designation in Mongolian, but I understand it wasn't used in the Republican period. The Inner/Outer thing is Qing vocabulary, and it of course goes back to the divisions among Mongol polities in the 17th century that the Manchus were able to exploit to end up ruling over most of them, and Ming China.

From early Qing (certainly as early as Kangxi [r. 1661-1722]) times, there are terms referring to the Inner and Outer *Mongols* (variations of ᡩᠣᡵᡤᡳ / ᡨᡠᠯᡝᡵᡤᡳ ᠮᠣᠩᡤᠣᠰᠣ (might not display correctly) dorgi / tulergi monggoso in Manchu). The distinction didn't exactly correspond to the current geographical and political division.

Of course we could search for precedents for the classification of conquered peoples based on their degree of subordination to the Empire. An example would be the Khitan (Liao dynasty) rather un-PC talk of 'raw' and 'cooked/mature' Jurchen 生/熟女真 Shēng/shú Nǚzhēn / Rǔzhēn (there will be a separate post or comment on the pronunciation of the latter name)

We could speculate about why the PRC chose to maintain the 'Inner' name in Chinese while discarding it in the name of the 'Autonomous' Region. It is a bit strange, since in Chinese 'Outer Mongolia' Wàiměnggǔ 外蒙古 is not officially used. I suppose it's rather undiplomatic. Anyways, in Chinese there is officially a 'Mongol Country' Měnggǔguó 蒙古国 and an 'Inner Mongolia'. Perhaps a 'Southern Mongolia' in Chinese or English would invite an association with the PRC's claim over a 'Southern Tibet' Nánzàng 南藏 aka Arunachal Pradesh?

So the terminology is indeed puzzling. It would be perfectly natural to call Inner Mongolia 'Southern', as that's what everyone calls it in Mongolian; indeed, it would be consistent with the letter of official PRC translation policies, which generally favour translating and transcribing from minority languages into English, unmediated by Chinese. Don't official pinyin rules dictate that non-Chinese names should be transcribed from the original? (I've seen things like 'Nei monggol zizhiqu'– arguably overkill.) But as things stand, 'Southern Mongolia' and Nánměnggǔ 南蒙古 seem to be typically used by ethnic Mongolian dissidents. The most common examples are indeed a handful of websites like the SMHRIC and this blog.

The story about the end of Mongolian-language instruction in Bayangol was indeed widely shared among Inner Mongolians in December. Here's one such outraged reaction, from an Inner Mongolian scholar in Australia, in English and Mongolian in traditional script for which I provided a Cyrillisation.

Note the reference to « La Dernière classe » ("The Last Lesson") by Alphonse Daudet, also made in many other reports. It's a powerful one, because Daudet's story is included in the school textbook 语文 Yǔwén. It's associated to the spirit of the May the Fourth movement, and its first Chinese translation was by Hu Shi.

Here's Daudet's original in French.

An English translation.

The Chinese translation found in the Yǔwén language textbook:


Key quote:


And here's Hu Shi's earlier version:



« [Q]uand un peuple tombe esclave, tant qu'il tient bien sa langue, c'est comme s'il tenait la clef de sa prison… »

Needless to say the Alsacian(-Lotharingian) background can't be seen through this simple story.

Another issue of interest is the name of the Bayangol prefecture. The sources quoted above call it that, Bayangol, which is in my opinion the most reasonable romanisation. Elsewhere you can see Chinese- (and perhaps Uyghur-)influenced spellings. That was the case in what was possibly the first English-language report on this story, by RFA on Dec 22.  Reported by Qiao Long for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

The name is given there as "Bayingolin", which might come from some of the Uyghur spellings of the name. The Chinese form Bayinguoleng is also given, as is (I believe after my insistence) the Mongolian Bayangol. RFA's various language teams, and in particular Mudie as a Chinese-English translator and editor, do a lot of great work, but they don't have access to Mongolian expertise, so the transcription issue is understandable.

At any rate, the Mongolian name is ᠪᠠᠶᠠᠨᠭᠣᠣᠯ Bayan-ɣool in the traditional script, or Баянгол in Cyrillic. It means 'rich river'. It's also the name of a district of Ulaanbaatar, and I wouldn't be surprised if it occurred in other place names as well.

Here's the Bayangol Prefecture Mongolian-language homepage.  A cursory look suggests it's not updated very often, and I guess downscaling or suppressing Mongolian-language teaching doesn't augur well for its continued existence.

The Chinese-language version.

Even 'Bayangol' would be one of several possible romanisations of the Mongolian; as with many other languages, one has to become used early on to dealing with multiple conflicting transcription systems for the same script. Sinologists and Mandarin users sometimes take their pinyin for granted and fail to appreciate how much they owe to people like Zhou Youguang.

The "key quote" is extracted from the text of La Dernière classe, in the links I gave to its various versions:



Chinese by Hu Shi

Chinese as found in the Yuwen textbook

VHM:  I know a Mongolian graduate student who hails from Bayangol Prefecture.  She tells me that, about ten years ago, the Mongolian teacher’s college in Urumqi, which had a long history since before the arrival of the CCP, was closed down. That meant there was no more higher education in Mongolian language in Xinjiang. Her aunt, who used to teach there, has been teaching Chinese to Uyghur kids since then.  What a supreme irony:  a Mongolian educator teaching Chinese to Uyghur children!


  1. Eidolon said,

    January 11, 2018 @ 8:55 pm

    It seems the proponents of assimilation are winning the second generation ethnic policy debate within the CCP, at least with respect to Xinjiang – "no minority language, no minority identity, no minority independence movement." The long-term solution is to make them all "Zhonghua Minzu," which is now increasingly used in as a national identity, rather than an umbrella term.

  2. Bathrobe said,

    January 11, 2018 @ 10:01 pm

    The term 'Northern Mongolia' does exist in Mongolian (ар монгол ar mongol) in opposition to 'Southern Mongolia'. It is used by Mongolians to some extent, in non-political contexts, to refer to their land, although they prefer to think of their country as Монгол улс mongol uls 'the country of Mongolia'.

    For Mongolian place names, ᠪᠠᠶᠠᠨ is generally rendered 巴彦 bāyàn in Chinese, but for Mongolian place names in China it is usually rendered 巴音 bāyīn, which would seem to be the source of the Chinese romanisation. I'm not sure of the source of this, but it is not found only in Xinjiang.

    Bayangol is not part of Southern Mongolia. In fact it belongs to the area known as Dzungaria, which traditionally fell under the western Mongols or Oirats. Dzungaria was not part of Uighur country until Kangxi destroyed the Dzungar Khanate, followed up by Qianlong's decision to wipe out the Dzungars in 1755-1758 (the 'Dzungar Genocide').

    The Oirats traditionally used the Tod script, which was a reformed version of the traditional Mongol script, and this continued under the PRC. However, the teaching of this script in schools has been phased out in favour of the standard Mongolian script. It is ironic that the PRC should now be delivering the coup de grâce to the Mongolian linguistic heritage of Bayangol with its assimilatory policies.

  3. phspaelti said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 7:43 am

    I find it more than a little ironic that Daudet's story is being dragged in here, as if there is one country that comes to be as close as China is to being intolerant of minority languages, it is France. Daudet's story is about the switch to German in Alsace, but German was/is historically the language of the region, and the switch to German merely restored what was an earlier instance of language suppression.

    Daudet himself took great pride in his own "Provençal" roots, another area where the French did their best to eradicate a minority language, as they did also for Breton, Gascon, and Basque. And while this is a 19th century story, France is the one European country where such policies continue unabated.

  4. Ian said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 9:36 am

    Quite sad, but predictable I suppose. I got in a brief argument on reddit some months ago with a resident of the PRC regarding Xinjiang. We concluded the argument with me lamenting the fact that we couldn't all just get along, and the loss of unique languages and cultures in the process, he responded with something like "the best way to get along is to get rid of diversity and assimilate." I suppose he has a point, but such a different outlook than mine.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 10:54 am

    From Juha Janhunen:

    This policy, already followed in Tibet, is soon expected to spread to Inner Mongolia as well. Thanks to their education system in the native language, the Mongols in China have until now had a higher average level of education than the Han Chinese. This will certainly change. Fortunately, Mongolian is still the language of an independent country. It seems that in the future, as until now, Mongolian independence can only be guaranteed by Russia.

    We should remember that the policies of ethnic oppression in the PRC have the support of not only the Communist Party, but also of the so-called "liberal" and "democratic" forces opposed to the party – but equally chauvinistic as far as the unity of the "Motherland" is concerned.

  6. Frédéric Grosshans said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 4:06 pm

    Given the subject of the post, I find ironic that you cite two Chinese translations of “The last lesson”, but none in Mongolian. Of course the latter are probably harder to find, partially a consequence of the PRC’s linguistic policy I guess…

  7. Frédéric Grosshans said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 4:31 pm

    The Mongolian version of the sentence seems¹ to be on the SMHRIC website , more precisely this picture .

    ¹: According to the figure legend. I do not know Mongolian, so I cannot check the translation

  8. Thomas Rees said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 4:56 pm

    Even more ironic, Daudet was quoting/paraphrasing Frédéric Mistral:

    Car, de mourre-bourdoun,
    Qu'un pople toumbe esclau,
    Se tèn sa lèngo, ten la clau
    Que di cadèno lou deliéuro…

    Car même si, face contre terre,
    Un peuple tombe en esclavage,
    S'il garde sa langue, il garde la clé
    Qui de ses chaînes le délivre…..

    Lis Isclo d’Or – Les îles d’Or

  9. MikeA said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 10:22 am

    Over fifty years ago (so please excuse any lapses of memory) I read a biography of Albert Schweitzer, which included a passage about the people of what we now call Alsace-Lorraine "working to rule" in the sense that when the latest conqueror marched in, they would dutifully change all signage to the legally required language, but would also switch to speaking the formerly official language.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 11:01 am

    From Jichang Lulu:

    As phspaelti says, French in Alsace is a peculiar choice of linguistic suppression to complain about. This is what my comment quoted in the OP alluded to: the simple story obscures the linguistic background.

    The irony of Daudet's protest against the suppression of French is reproduced in its inclusion in Chinese textbooks. In the nationalist narrative the text is meant to support, the language and 'people' to be protected and defended are of course those of China. The Yuwen textbook is primarily designed for China's ethnic and linguistic majority, and the sentiment Daudet's story is supposed to instil certainly isn't the protection of the minority languages of China. (The latter is surely also proclaimed, but a PRC textbook would never compare China to a foreign oppressor.)

    When ethnic Mongolians in China bring up Daudet's story, they are in fact saying what phspaelti says. "Hey, you had us memorise this emotive story about how wrong it is to suppress a people's language; now you are doing precisely the same thing." The social media comments I've seen don't discuss linguistic diversity in France, which would be unfamiliar and irrelevant to many, and in fact the one reproduced in the UNPO story seems to be mixing up Daudet's story with the WWII occupation of France; but the France-PRC analogy is almost perfect. Mongolian speakers complaining about the hypocrisy of a state that teaches Daudet's story while cancelling Mongolian-medium education are just like Breton, Alsacian or Occitan speakers who might complain about reading Daudet's story in a French-language school. Per Thomas Rees' comment, the Occitan origin of the quote only compounds the irony.

    @Frédéric Grosshans

    Thanks for that. The picture comes from the source for the article Victor Mair quotes in the OP. It's a translation of the "key quote" (« quand un peuple tombe esclave… »), and I'm reproducing it below for completeness. Based on some non-standard spellings (of case endings, and the name of Daudet), I suspect it was made by the author of the comment, rather than copied from a published translation. I don't know if a Mongol-script translation exists; others might correct me, but as far as I know the Yǔwén textbook is used in Chinese-language classes in minority-language-medium schools; I don't know if it even has minority-language versions. My understanding is that Inner Mongolian commenters are acquainted with the Chinese, rather than Mongolian, translation of the story, and indeed the Mongolian version below is clearly translated from Chinese: хэлээ бат цээлжэх reflects 牢牢记住自己的语言 rather than 'tenir bien sa langue'; төр улс мөхөх translates 亡国, which is not in the French original. (An actual published translation could of course have been made from the Chinese version, and the typos might be just the commenter's.)

    The Mongol-script version is likely to display incorrectly for many, so I'm adding transcriptions in Balk-Janhunen romanisation (which transliterates the original), a form of 'Mongolist' romanisation (somewhere between a transcription and a reconstruction), and a Cyrillisation/Khalkha adaptation. Each of them, due to my choices and possible typos, will likely leave someone unhappy, to whom all due apologies.

    ᠲᠥᠷᠥ ᠤᠯᠤᠰ ᠨᠢ ᠮᠥᠬᠥᠭᠡᠳ ᠪᠤᠰᠤᠳ ᠲᠤ ᠪᠣᠭᠣᠯᠴᠢᠯᠠᠭᠳᠠᠭᠰᠠᠨ ᠠᠷᠠᠳ ᠲᠦᠮᠡᠨ ᠂ ᠺᠡᠷᠪᠡ ᠲᠦᠷᠦᠯᠺᠢ ᠺᠡᠯᠡ ᠪᠡᠨ ᠮᠠᠷᠲᠠᠭᠠᠳᠦᠢ ᠪᠠᠲᠤ ᠴᠡᠭᠡᠵᠢᠯᠡᠵᠦ ᠪᠠᠢᠢᠭᠰᠠᠨ ᠴᠠᠭ ᠎᠎᠎᠋ᠳ᠋ᠤ ᠱᠣᠷᠣᠩ ᠡᠢᠨ ᠡᠭᠦᠳᠡᠨ ᠪ ᠲᠦᠯᠬᠢᠭᠦᠷ ᠵᠢ ᠨᠢ ᠠᠳᠬᠤᠬᠤ ᠪᠠᠢᠢᠭ ᠠ ᠪᠠᠶᠢᠭ᠎ᠠ ᠶᠤᠮ ᠰᠢᠤ ᠁
    ᠠ᠂ ᠳ᠋ᠠᠤᠲ

    Tuiru ulus ni muigugat busut tu buqhulcilaqdaqsav varat tuimav, garbae tuirulgix gala bav mardaqhadui badu cagaczilaczu bajiqsav caq du shuruvg viv vgudav u tuilgigur ji ni vatquczu bajiqhe tai vadali yum siu…
    vA. dau'tx

    Törö ulus ni mököged busud-tu boɣolcilaɣdaɣsan arad tümen, kerbe törölki kele-ben martaɣadüi batu cegejilejü baiɣsan cag-[t]u šorong-[u]n egüden-ü tülkigür-i ni adquju baiɣ-a-tai adali yum siu…
    A. Dau[dai]

    Төр улс нь мөхөөд бусадад боолчлогдсон ард түмэн, хэрэв төрөлх хэлээ мартаадүй[=мартаагүй] бат цээжлэж байсан цагт шоронгийн үүдний түлхүүрийг нь атгаж байгаатай адил юм шүү…

  11. Janet Upton said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 12:35 pm

    It is highly likely that "The Last Lesson" exists in the officially Mongolian language and literature curriculum that has been in use in Mongolian speaking areas of the PRC for the last 20-30 years. It was included in the Tibetan language and literature curriculum that was developed in the 1980s, and I believe the process for developing the Mongolian curriculum was very similar — the Tibetan areas put together a committee that had representatives from all five administrative regions that have significant Tibetan population, and what resulted was what is called in Chinese the 五省区通便教材. The reference in the original article to the "Eight Provinces and Autonomous Regions Mongolian Language Work Association" (almost identical wording to the correspondent Tibetan committee name) reflects this parallel. These cross-regional committees tend to also take the lead in language standardization — for example, they have been responsible for compiling many of the dictionaries that try to modernize/standardize their respective languages. (Side note relevant to the discussion of how Bayangol is named: These cross-regional committees may also have been involved in place name standardization, though I think in most cases that was more localized. In Sichuan Tibetan areas, for example, there was a project very early in the 1980s to come up with official Tibetan names for places down to the township level — this resulted in a series of publications from the mid-late 80s at the county level called the xx 县地名绿)

    I wrote about curriculum development in Tibetan regions, and specifically the way I witnessed "The Last Lesson" being deployed in the classroom in the mid-90s, in my dissertation. I always found it interesting that they managed to get this text approved for inclusion in the minority language curricula. Very interesting, and tragic, to see it popping up again in this context.

  12. Jichang Lulu said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 3:50 pm

    @Janet Upton

    Many thanks. That's very interesting. If it is included in Tibetan-language materials, then a Mongolian Last Lesson is indeed likely to be in use as well. The typos in the comment must then be the commenter's, who might have been quoting the passage from memory (or even translating it on their own if they had attended a Chinese-medium secondary school).

    Do you happen to have the Tibetan text at hand? It would be great to compare the 'enslaved' quote with the other versions.

  13. Bathrobe said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 7:39 pm

    This is the text in Mongolian script. It works, but not well.

    ᠲᠥᠷᠦ ᠤᠯᠤᠰ ᠨᠢ ᠮᠥᠬᠥᠭᠡᠳ ᠪᠤᠰᠤᠳ ᠲᠤ ᠪᠣᠭᠣᠯᠴᠢᠯᠠᠭᠳᠠᠭᠰᠠᠨ ᠠᠷᠠᠳ ᠲᠦᠮᠡᠨ᠂ ᠬᠡᠷᠪᠡ ᠲᠥᠷᠥᠯᠬᠢ ᠬᠡᠯᠡ ᠪᠡᠨ ᠮᠠᠷᠲᠠᠭᠠᠳᠦᠢ ᠪᠠᠲᠤ ᠴᠡᠭᠡᠵᠢᠯᠡᠵᠦ ᠪᠠᠢᠭᠰᠠᠨ ᠴᠠᠭ ᠲᠦ ᠱᠣᠷᠣᠩ ᠵᠢᠨ ᠡᠭᠦᠳᠡᠨ ᠦ ᠲᠦᠯᠬᠢᠭᠦᠷ ᠵᠢ ᠨᠢ ᠠᠳᠬᠤᠵᠦ ᠪᠠᠢᠭ᠎ᠠ ᠲᠠᠢ ᠠᠳᠠᠯᠢ ᠶᠤᠮ ᠰᠢᠦ᠃

    Khitan (Liao dynasty) rather un-PC talk of 'raw' and 'cooked/mature' Jurchen 生/熟女真 Shēng/shú Nǚzhēn / Rǔzhēn

    It was not only the Khitans who used this language. The Manchus also spoke of 生 and 熟 in referring to non-Sinitic ethnic groups, with the implication that the 生 had been 'tamed' while the 熟 were still 'wild'. For example, it was used of the 黎 (Hlai) in Hainan.

  14. Bathrobe said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 7:42 pm

    Something strange is going on with the LL filter. Posting direct from Mongolia my comment failed to appear. Posting from Australia via a VPN, it appeared with no trouble. Does the LL filter block comments from certain countries?

  15. Bathrobe said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 8:07 pm

    @ Janet Upton

    Your comment is highly enlightening. How much oversight does the government, and particularly Chinese-speaking officials, have over the choice of materials for inclusion in textbooks? I ask this because Mongolian-language textbooks for primary-school students do include some quite Mongolian nationalistic material. One is lines a poem by a poet from Mongolia called 'I am a Mongol', which you can find here: ᠪᠢ ᠮᠣᠩᠭᠣᠯ ᠬᠦᠮᠦᠨ. The meaning is roughly: "I love this land [= homeland, local place] where I was born like my own body. I remember the waters of the rivers I was washed in like my mother's milk. I am the owner of this land, a child who grew in its caresses, I have taken the great responsibility to raise the future with our people' (my apologies if the translation is not totally accurate). This seems rather ethnic-chauvinistic for a piece included in primary-school textbooks.

  16. Bathrobe said,

    January 15, 2018 @ 6:29 pm

    I notice that I got the two categories reversed above. The 生 are the 'uncooked' or 'wild' people. The 熟 are 'cooked' or 'tame'. This kind of terminology is still current in everyday Chinese. If you say that you are very 熟 with a person, it means you know them very well. If you say of a child that it 怕生 (is afraid of 生), it means it is shy or afraid of strangers.

  17. Eidolon said,

    January 19, 2018 @ 8:54 pm

    "Daudet himself took great pride in his own "Provençal" roots …"

    Which would explain why he, per Thomas Ree, quoted Frédéric Mistral, who received the Nobel Prize in 1904 for "his lifelong efforts in restoring the language of Provence." That is to say, "Provençal". It seems that Daudet was acquainted with Mistral and likely that they shared a common love for their perceived Provençal background. Daudet, however, was more of a French nationalist, whereas Mistral seems to have been more specifically a proponent of Provençal. We can surmise, however, that both likely hated the Germanization of any territory that they considered French. Such was the strong linguistic nationalism of the 19th century, and which continues to this day in many countries.

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