The ethnopolitics of National Language in China

« previous post | next post »

Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), the official language of the People's Republic of China, is designated in four different ways, depending upon the country in which these terms are used:

Guóyǔ 国语 / 國語 ("National Language") — Taiwan / ROC

Huáyǔ 华语 / 華語 ("Florescent / 'Chinese' Language") — Singapore

Hànyǔ 汉语 / 漢語 ("Sinitic Language") — linguists

Pǔtōnghuà 普通话 / 普通話 ("Common Language") — China / PRC

Although these four designations convey distinct, yet subtle, nuances, linguistically they basically refer to the same language with only minor variations.

In recent years here on Language Log, we have had numerous vigorous debates over the relationship between topolects and "minority" languages on the one hand and MSM on the other hand.  These debates have to do with ethnic identity, language preservation, and national unity.  By chance, I received from Max Oidtmann an extraordinarily detailed report setting forth his observations made on a recent (late May-early June) study trip to Xinjiang.  These included his incisive remarks on the terminology pertaining to MSM in Xinjiang:

I was struck by the ubiquitous use of the term “Guoyu 国语”, not "Hanyu 汉语", to refer to MSM by both Han and Uyghurs in Xinjiang. I was told by an official from the Kasghar foreign affairs office that Xi Jinping had mandated the use of the label Guoyu in order to demonstrate that Chinese was the national language of the Zhonghua minzu [VHM:  Chinese people / nationality / ethnicity], not the unique possession of the Han, underlying the notion that the government is promoting “Chinafication” and the Zhonghua minzu consciousness, not Sinification or Hanhua. Although there is a vast difference between Homo sovieticus and the Zhonghua minzu paradigm, my prediction is that Xinjiang in ten years will—ideologically speaking—much more closely resemble Soviet Uzbekistan in the 1980s, where society had been profoundly secularized and there was considerable indigenous identification with and loyalty towards the national project.

Indeed, I was really surprised by the ubiquitous and careful use of the name "Guoyu" for MSM, especially since this language hearkened back to the Republic of China (ROC) and Taiwanese usage. Although no one I asked about this would cite Chiang Kai-shek's China's Destiny, it was clear that the current scholarly and official elite were definitely thinking along these lines and wished to return to the ROC era's clear emphasis on a single guozu — national race.

Max's perceptive comments offer much food for thought on the relationship between the official language of the nation vis-à-vis the many languages of the various peoples and locales that come together to constitute the nation as a whole, whether they be Uyghur, Tibetan, Cantonese, Taiwanese, or Singlish.


  1. Paul M said,

    July 2, 2018 @ 11:03 pm

    “你说’中文’说的不错!” We cannot forget “zhongwen”…

  2. Chas Belov said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 12:02 am

    Please be so kind as to note which country uses what in your post.

    When I was learning Hong Kong Cantonese they taught us MSM as being called 國語, gwok yu in Cantonese.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 5:07 am

    @Chas Belov

    Thanks for pointing out that oversight on my part. I had originally intended to include them, but it was getting late, and I was tired. Fixed now.

  4. Bathrobe said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 9:59 am

    国语, if I remember rightly, originally came from Japanese as the name for the 'national language'.

    Wikipedia also gives 中文、华文、唐话、中国话、and 汉文. Needless to say, they have somewhat different semantic scopes and are not of equal frequency.

  5. Stephen Hart said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 10:53 am


  6. Victor Mair said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 1:30 pm


    I probably should have included this in the o.p.:

    "Bahasa and the concept of 'National Language'" (3/14/13)

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 1:32 pm

    How is Mandarin referred to "officially" in Malaysia, where as I understand it it's not an "official" official language, but is used as a language of instruction in some government-funded primary schools (even though the students in those schools are statistically more likely to have any of a number of other Sinitic topolects as their L1)?

  8. Ian said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 3:21 pm


    I don't think the article you linked to explains the term "Florescent", as Bathrobe was asking about and I too am confused about. At least after reading the post and searching for the term on the page I couldn't find anything on it. Google likewise assumes that it's a misspelling of "Fluorescent".

  9. David Marjanović said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 3:26 pm

    "Flowering", "flourishing"?

    Max's perceptive comments offer much food for thought on the relationship between the official language of the nation vis-à-vis the many languages of the various peoples and locales that come together to constitute the nation as a whole, whether they be Uyghur, Tibetan, Cantonese, Taiwanese, or Singlish.

    Makes perfect sense. Conveniently, mínzú is ambiguous between "people" and "peoples", so that several Zhōnghuá mínzú can be parts of a single Zhōnghuá mínzú…

  10. Victor Mair said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 4:44 pm


    Bathrobe was not asking about "florescent". He was talking about the origins of the term Guóyǔ 国语 / 國語 ("National Language"), and the article I linked to gives detailed information about that.

    As for "florescent", it is the adjectival form of

    (flô-rĕs′əns, flə-)
    1. A condition or time of flowering.
    2. A condition or period of great vigor. See Synonyms at bloom1.

    [New Latin flōrēscentia, from Latin flōrēscēns, flōrēscent-, present participle of flōrēscere, inchoative of flōrēre, to flower, bloom; see flourish.]

  11. julie lee said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 4:45 pm

    @Stephen Hart ,

    Yes, "florescent" is correct. Hua (華) means flower, florescent, flowering. "Central Flower" is an old name for China. "Hua ren" (Hua people, or Hua person) is one way many Chinese communities and Chinese people outside China refer to themselves. It means they are of Chinese descent but not necessarily loyal to, or citizens of, present-day China. Another way of spelling Hua is Hoa.

  12. Bathrobe said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 5:18 pm

    The discussion at the cited article on Bahasa is long and illuminating. I'm sorry I missed it at the time.

    I've long been aware of the distinction between 国語学 kokugogaku (national language studies), 日本語語学 nihongo-gaku (Japanese language studies), and 言語学 gengogaku (linguistics) in Japanese. It was the first thing that struck me at university in Japan in the 1970s. There is a large and still (in many ways) unbridgeable gap between 国語学 and 言語学. 国語学 kokugogaku tends to be highly insulated and looks back to domestic studies of grammar, which partly have their roots in native language studies of the Edo period but also in early attempts to adapt Western grammar to Japanese. It is definitely kind of fusty. But it forms the basis of Japanese grammar as taught in schools and can't be ignored. 日本語語学 tends to deal with Japanese as a second language and is more eclectic. And 言語学 is modern Western linguistics, itself a pretty protean entity.

    I have written about this in a meandering sort of way at Thoughts on the Universal Dependencies proposal for Japanese: The problem of the word as a linguistic unit. Modern Japanese language studies are still insulated from international currents by the 国語学 / 言語学 distinction.

  13. Chris Button said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 10:07 pm

    Hua (華) means flower, florescent, flowering. "Central Flower" is an old name for China. "Hua ren" (Hua people, or Hua person) is one way many Chinese communities and Chinese people outside China refer to themselves.

    This reminds me of a discussion a while back on LLog regarding the possible association of 華 with 夏 that mentioned a paper by Beckwith (2016). Pulleyblank's 1999 "Peoples of the Steppe Frontier" article makes an interesting suggestion in this regard:

    "Hua 華 EMC ɤwaɨ, which also means 'flower', and Xia 夏 MC ɤaɨ’, which read in the departing tone as EMC ɤaɨh means 'summer', the season of flowering, are quite likely etymologically related words."

    My take is that labiovelars alternating with velars provides evidence for uvulars in Old Chinese. A nice xiesheng series in that regard is that of 圭 EMC kwɛj < OC *qáj which includes unrounded words like 街 kaɨj < *kráj and also has 桂 kwɛjʰ < *qájs which quite possibly came from earlier *qjáts via an association with Hebrew qetsia "cassia" with its uvular onset.

  14. Ian said,

    July 4, 2018 @ 2:07 am


    Oops! You're right, I misread Stephen Hart's comment as Bathrobe's, and then saw your reply to Bathrobe assuming it was clarifying the nature of "florescent". I understand now, though.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    July 4, 2018 @ 6:15 am

    @Chris Button

    I like what you say about Old Sinitic "桂 kwɛjʰ < *qájs which quite possibly came from earlier *qjáts via an association with Hebrew qetsia 'cassia'". I had a learned old German friend, Elfriede Regina Knauer, whose nickname was "Ketzia", and she always suspected that it had something to do with Sinitic guì 桂: 1. osmanthus; sweet osmanthus 2. cassia; Chinese cinnamon quotations ▲ 蒙舍蠻以椒、薑、桂和烹而飲之。[Classical Chinese, trad.] 蒙舍蛮以椒、姜、桂和烹而饮之。[Classical Chinese, simp.] From: Tang Dynasty, Fan Chuo, Manshu, chapter 7, part 7 Méngshè Mán yǐ jiāo, jiāng, guì hé pēng ér yǐn zhī. [Pinyin] The Mengshe Barbarians use pepper, ginger, and cinnamon to boil as a drink. 3. true cinnamon; Saigon cinnamon; Indonesian cinnamon 4. laurel; bay laurel 5. of or relating to Guilin, Guangxi, or the region of the Gui River 6. A surname​. Source:

  16. Victor Mair said,

    July 4, 2018 @ 6:34 am

    For the discussion of 華 and 夏, plus a host of important observations on the possible relationship of Old Sinitic to other language groups, see the extensive comments to:

    "Censored belly, Tibetan tattoo" (8/28/17)


    VHM, "Was There a Xià Dynasty?", free pdf available at Sino-Platonic Papers, 238:

  17. B.Ma said,

    July 6, 2018 @ 3:43 am

    On my recent trips to Taiwan I only heard people saying 普通話 and not 國語. Same in Hong Kong Cantonese, although people in my family still say 國語.

  18. Eidolon said,

    July 6, 2018 @ 10:14 pm

    Max Oidtmann seems quite a bit more optimistic about the potential effectiveness of "Chinafication" than most observers of the situation in Xinjiang. But perhaps that is the side he saw, being a foreign traveler; I doubt he would have conversed with any of the Uyghurs recently incarcerated in reeducation camps.

  19. Ponder Stibbons said,

    July 7, 2018 @ 10:43 am

    I don't know how Malaysian authorities refer to Mandarin officially, but colloquially the usage is the same as Singapore's (hua yu).

  20. Eidolon said,

    July 8, 2018 @ 1:52 pm

    @Victor Mair

    You asked the following in a different discussion, but the comments section were closed by the article going out of date, so I'll answer it here since it is topically similar:

    "What is your politico-linguistic ideal — an autocracy with one national language for All-under-Heaven?"

    No, I do not trust in either autocracy, nor unfettered democracy. My political *ideal* is a constitutional republic, preferably without political parties, but that might be asking too much. Such a republic should have a shared national language and an unified civil society, but it can be culturally and linguistically pluralistic, otherwise. I believe in the rule of law and the necessity of a strong charter constitution, one designed to last and which is not subject to the passions of the public.

    The US was and perhaps still is an example of such a system. But I feel the modern US is moving away from its constitutional roots and towards a partisan democracy where the separation of powers is no longer operative and anything can happen. By contrast, in the East, China and Russia are both becoming increasingly autocratic and away from the rule of law. In that sense, the world is moving away from my political ideals.

  21. Bathrobe said,

    July 8, 2018 @ 5:51 pm

    I will not comment on your political ideals, only this:

    Such a republic should have a shared national language and an unified civil society, but it can be culturally and linguistically pluralistic

    You have publicly declared your distaste for efforts to preserve languages that are going to die anyway. As a steely, unflinching proponent of Mandarin as the national language, you don't appear to realise that China's current approach, along with Han cultural attitudes, will ensure the near extinction of several major written languages within a few generations. (Or perhaps you approve of this while not necessarily approving of the methods being used.)

    You also appear to have a kneejerk reaction to pick nits with anyone taking the Chinese to task over this.

    Your concern with 'national language' and the prerogatives of the Chinese state seem to me more than anything reminiscent of the 'realism' of Henry Kissinger's approach to foreign policy.

  22. Eidolon said,

    July 9, 2018 @ 8:25 pm


    Too extreme. I don't despise language preservation efforts. I disagree with characterizing national language promotion as "evil." I oppose the suppression of languages, but I don't believe that every effort to promote a national language is suppression. In other words, it's not a zero sum game. It's possible that "China's current approach" and "Han cultural attitudes" make it a zero sum game, in which case the approach and the cultural attitudes are at fault, not the overall goal. Maybe this wasn't clear? But that's why I go to such great lengths to explain it – because too often, critics act like the distinction is binary, such that you're either on the side of language preservation, or on the side of language destruction.

    Kissinger refused to consider morality as a factor. I consider morality to be one of many factors. If you wish to compare my attitudes toward language policy to that of any contemporary Western polity, the best comparison is with the policies of the French Republic, but minus the claims of cultural or linguistic superiority.

  23. Bathrobe said,

    July 11, 2018 @ 6:28 pm


    It is deflating to discover that you have not been engaged with me at all, but with some hypothetical critic who characterises national language promotion as "evil" and believes in a stark choice between language preservation and language destruction, with no ground in between.

    It is also disconcerting to discover that you were arguing in theoretical terms, without much regard for the facts on the ground. If your theoretical shoe doesn't fit, it appears to be the fault of the foot.

    Your French example is, in fact, an extreme model of language standardisation. It is a huge leap to apply this model to a country the size of China, with its many different languages and cultures and several independent literate traditions. Since Qing times China has given recognition to several of these written traditions. Recent moves to embrace your "French model" are a drastic break with this approach and are rightly controversial in a way that your theory has trouble accepting.

    I will, however, agree with you on this: it is difficult to find the right balance between preserving local cultures and languages and ensuring that there is a common language shared by all citizens.

    I do not agree with your contention that it's too hard for people to master several different languages. I have, for instance, met very ordinary Ewenki who were fluent in Ewenki, Mongolian, and Chinese.

    But there is probably a limit to the number of written languages that most people can reasonably master. Mongolian-stream education in Inner Mongolia outfits its students for proficiency in two languages: Mongolian and Chinese. Such students are certainly able to read written Chinese, but whether most would develop the ability to write Chinese at a high level is another question. (At any rate, there are plenty of people in English-speaking countries whose command of written English is purely functional.)

    One big problem in China is the nature of the written language. Memorising Chinese characters places an extreme burden on students and requires total dedication. Add to that the emphasis in the Chinese school system on acquiring a polished literary style (which can be easily seen from Chinese-language textbooks for primary-school students), as well as the emphasis on the ability to quote old aphorisms and literary allusions, and I would suggest that Chinese-language education might even have a 'crowding-out' effect on students' ability to learn other languages.

  24. Eidolon said,

    July 12, 2018 @ 7:08 pm


    Thanks for explaining your position better. I completely agree, in accordance with your explanation, that our discussion has existed more on the level of political and linguistic ideology, than that of facts on the ground – a situation that I will attempt to correct. I also agree that present day PRC policy is a departure from historical Chinese policy, and even early PRC policy, to the detriment of linguistic diversity in the country. After all, the PRC constitution even calls for the primary and secondary schooling of minority nationalities to be in their own languages, as opposed to "Chinese" – an obvious contradiction to recent policy changes in Hotan, where officials banned using Ugyhur as the primary language of instruction.

    But when you say that France is an extreme example of language standardization, I think you might be ignoring the progress. Over 70 varieties of languages are, in fact, still spoken in France, including many French regional languages as well as distinct "native" languages not closely related to French, like Basque and Breton. Though the French government heavily repressed minority languages during the Third, Fourth, and early Fifth Republic, contemporary France, which is what I was talking about, is more tolerant, and French regional councils provide both local language media content, as well as bilingual education. Private schools are also free to teach whatever they want, with the only caveat being that, past high school, student assessments are done in the national language, which is French, or in English, in the case of international schools.

    I'd say that this latter point is the most significant one, in the context of modern societies. It is certainly possible for people in Xinjiang, and else where in China and around the world, to be educated primarily in their mother tongues, but an Uyghur student who learns only Uyghur to the end of high school – and then suddenly finds himself in a business environment or tertiary education system dominated by users of Standard Mandarin, would be set up to fail. There would be effective segregation along linguistic lines, development of an ethnic linguistic under class, and growing discontent due to lack of opportunities relative to the rest of the country – essentially what Chinese language hard liners accused earlier PRC policy of achieving.

    In an ideal world, bilingual education, with fluency in both the person's mother tongue and the common language of the country, would be the perfect solution: it's moral *and* it's practical. But is it practical, in the PRC case? There is the problem of the Chinese written language, as you mentioned, but there is also the fact that bilingual education doesn't have the best record in even developed countries, like the US, where the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was essentially the US government saying that bilingual education has failed to deliver effective English proficiency. I will concede, however, that these examples are balanced by other examples, like Hong Kong and Singapore, where bilingual education has been more successful and where the population is better off for it. I'm certainly not against this outcome – only curious why it works in certain places, but not others.

  25. Bathrobe said,

    July 15, 2018 @ 6:42 pm

    Thank you for your reply. We seem to be on the same page.

    Yes I was talking about the French Republic historically, not the present situation, so thank you for bringing me up to date.

    You raise important questions about the practicalities of bilingual education, which is a very large and (I think) contentious field requiring more than cursory discussion. I doubt that there are any pat solutions to these issues.

    With regard to China, our divergence of views appears to be related to the motives and intentions of the Chinese authorities.

    China has three main autonomous regions that are culturally distinct from 'China proper'. (The Manchus no longer exist as a separate linguistic community and their cultural separateness lost much of its validity when they lost their status as the ruling group. Zhuang autonomy was a gift from the government, IIRR Zhou Enlai.)

    After the secession of (Outer) Mongolia, Inner Mongolia has proved to be not only a relatively docile region — Inner Mongols were deeply implicated in the Qing government and did not share the strong separate identity of Xinjiang and Tibet — but also provides an example of the kind of integration that the other regions might expect.

    There has been strong Han migration since late Qing times, continuing in the Republican period, due to hunger for land and economic opportunities. There are parts of Inner Mongolia where the Han have settled in agricultural communities that are indistinguishable from provinces like Hebei or Shandong. Apart from established agricultural regions, the Han mainly settle in the cities, which they dominate. But they can be found wherever economic opportunities exist, including the running of 'authentic' cultural attractions for visiting tourists like small vacation villages featuring yurts and Mongolian food. Such 'authenticity' does not extend to the ability to speak Mongolian.

    Mongols are largely found in grassland areas, where they pursue something that looks like the old nomadic lifestyle, minus the nomadism due to the enclosure of the land, and in settled agricultural areas of the east, where they have lost their nomadic culture but retain their language.

  26. Bathrobe said,

    July 15, 2018 @ 7:44 pm

    The preceding was posted by accident before I had finished the post.

    You point out that the PRC constitution calls for the primary and secondary schooling of minority nationalities in their own languages. Inner Mongolia shows what happens in reality in Chinese 'autonomous regions' under the concept of 'autonomy' and 'schooling in their own language'.

    Autonomy is very different from independence. If you settle in another country, there is some expectation that you will make some attempt to conform with existing customs and language. If you settle in an 'autonomous region', there is no such expectation. There are Han Chinese in Inner Mongolia who can speak and understand a basic level of Mongolian. But they appear to be very much in the minority. In meeting Han Chinese in Inner Mongolia, even in areas that still have a strong Mongol presence, I found virtually zero comprehension of even simple Mongolian beyond 'hello'. Any foreigner who spends more than a few weeks in China quickly picks up mei you 'we don't have any'. Han Chinese shopkeepers in Inner Mongolia are almost INVARIABLY unfamiliar with the Mongolian equivalent baihgui. If you speak to a Han Chinese in Mongolian, nine times out of ten the response will be: "I'm Han Chinese. I don't speak Mongolian". There are, of course, reasons for this. Han Chinese are pragmatic. They don't want to learn anything that won't be useful (especially for making money). Han Chinese feel secure that this is 'their country' and that Chinese is all they need. (On several occasions I was complimented on having better Chinese than the Mongols in Inner Mongolia). And the Mongols themselves have become bilingual, removing any need for Han Chinese to learn Mongolian to communicate with them. When Mongols marry Han, the children are almost invariably brought up Chinese speaking.

    The history of assimilation in Inner Mongolia is one of slow but relentless chipping away at the status of the Mongols and their language. The government of China has continued to encourage heavy Han migration to Inner Mongolia (not known or heavily publicised but continuing through to very recent times). The Mongol intelligentsia were heavily persecuted during the Cultural Revolution for allegedly wanting to join (Outer) Mongolia, later proved to be false. There have been mutterings about the death of Mongol leaders in the autonomous region in mysterious circumstances. China continues to surreptitiously restrict opportunities for Mongol children to receive an education in their own language, mainly, I understand, by amalgamating schools. Given the huge area of Inner Mongolia, this means that children are effectively unable to attend schools that have been consolidated in central locations. And of course, the government does not mandate any kind of education for newcomers in the local language. Mongolian can be effectively ignored.

    There are other disturbing phenomena such as the widespread adoption of official Mongol ethnic status by Han Chinese who want to take advantage of affirmative action policies designed to help minority students attend university. A figure I heard from a government official was that up to one third of the ethnic Mongolian population was composed of these people, but this cannot, of course, be substantiated. (I did meet one such person in Beijing.)

    It is clear that 'autonomy' does not indicate the ability to maintain your own language and culture within your own autonomous region. It is simply a kind of recognition that the minority group, its culture, and its language will receive official recognition and certain rights, even as the central government continues to implement policies that are based on Han as the mainstream ethnic group.

    The future of Mongolian in Inner Mongolia is bleak. Because the future is increasingly found in the cities, the language of the future for young Mongols is Chinese. Mongolian is becoming the preserve of the people mainly engaged in traditional rural occupations. Young men have trouble finding brides as the women move to the cities to pursue careers.

    As a result of the superficial implementation of 'autonomy' by the Chinese government, the cultural positioning of Mongolian as the language of the local minority that can be safely ignored, and the huge economic change of recent decades, Mongolian is now poised for slow extinction in Inner Mongolia.

    I do not think that the powers that be have overlooked the Inner Mongolian example. I believe that they see it as a general template for the assimilation of Tibet and Xinjiang. By encouraging a massive influx of Han Chinese into these areas, to the extent that the Han Chinese will eventually account for the majority of the population, and by ensuring that schooling of local children is completely conducted in Chinese, the Chinese government's ultimate aim is to turn these huge areas into Han Chinese provinces, marginalising the local native languages and leaving only a sprinkling of the old culture among minority groups, denatured and sanitised in a way that does not pose a threat to the 'Zhonghua' identity.

    I have heard anecdotally that Han Chinese who emigrated to Xinjiang after 1949 actually interacted with the locals and learnt the local language. This is not going to happen when the scale of immigration is so immense and Han attitudes towards the local 'minorities' are so contemptuous and dismissive.

    The right of these people to maintain their own languages and cultures is being subjected to an all-out, deliberate onslaught from the Chinese central government, with the ultimate goal being almost total Sinification (Hanification). The fact that this will largely lead to the loss of languages and literatures that have close to or well over a millennium of history is of no concern to the Chinese authorities, who are motivated not only by practical concerns of 'national unity' but also an underlying conviction of the superiority of Chinese mainstream culture. The loss of a few pesky minorities is of no concern to these people.

  27. Eidolon said,

    July 16, 2018 @ 7:30 pm


    Thanks for the detailed description of the situation in Inner Mongolia – it is an insightful summary and helps to better contextualize the issues you're raising. I will take it into account in the future.

RSS feed for comments on this post