"National Language" in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

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Many people have been asking me about the use of the term Guóyǔ 国语 ("National Language") for "Mandarin" in Xinjiang today.  Here's an inquiry from Peter Moody:

I have encountered what seems to be an anomaly in contemporary Chinese usage, and have been assured that you are among those most capable of addressing it.

I was reading an analysis by a Darren Byler, a "Xinjiang Scholar," of a 2017 classified directive from Zhu Hailun, Gauleiter of Xinjiang, on how properly to run the concentration camps in that territory (https://supchina.com/2019/12/04/a-xinjiang-scholars-close-reading-of-the-china-cables/). (I have not looked either at the full English translation of these directives, or the Chinese text, although both are available. I figured the analysis would give the gist of them.)

In Section 8 of the directives, Zhu is cited to the effect that the educational program in the camps must stress Guóyǔ 国语 ("National Language"), according to Byler "a term that is used to replace Hànyǔ 汉语 (literally, "Han Language"). I can understand that in the context Hanyu would not go down too well. But I had been under the impression that Guoyu was Taiwan usage or, actually, KMT usage going back at least to the 1930s. The preferred term on the mainland, I thought, was Pǔtōnghuà 普通话 ("Common Speech"). I read a study some years ago by S. Robert Ramsey on contemporary Chinese linguistics discussing the (rather minor) differences between the two. Also, I think, Ramsey said the distinction had ideological implications, although I don't remember what they were and my reading notes from that time are all packed away somewhere.

I haven't seen any hints anywhere that the internal documents coming out of Xinjiang have been faked, although this may arouse at least the hint of a doubt. Do you know whether the term Guoyu has continued to be used on the mainland, or is it coming back into use, or what? I guess this is a small thing, but my curiosity has been piqued.

And here's my reply to him:

These are good questions.

As a matter of fact, a lot of people are perplexed by this surfacing of Guóyǔ 国语 in the context of the Xinjiang concentration camps.

So far I haven't determined a definitive reason why the CCP has decided to resurrect / popularize Guóyǔ 国语 in that context.

Here are some explanations I've encountered:

1. Hànyǔ 汉语 comes across as too "Han-centric" (but why should the CCP care about that since many observers feel that they are committing culturecide, if not genocide, against the Uyghurs anyway?)

2. Guóyǔ 国语 emphasizes the state, the nation (but it's so wrapped up with the KMT / Republic of China; why would the CCP want that?)

3. What's wrong with Pǔtōnghuà 普通话?  Some people say that it's too closely identified with the CCP.

4. Maybe the CCP is doing this as a way to seduce Taiwan into thinking they care about the speakers of Mandarin on Formosa.

I'll be thinking more about this and will get back to you if I can come up with any better explanations.

I proceeded to ask my colleagues on the Xinjiang Studies (XJS) list what they thought the reason for this striking use of the term Guóyǔ 国语 for "Mandarin" is in the context of the Xinjiang concentration camps.  It just seems so bizarre for the CCP to be at all sentimental about this, yet there must be some reason in their minds for using "Guóyǔ 国语" instead of "Hànyǔ 汉语" or "Pǔtōnghuà 普通话".

James Millward, a member of XJS, wrote back this morning (Saturday the 14th):

The increasing use of the term guoyu 国语 for what was once generally called Hanyu 汉语 (even, in Xinjiang vernacular sometimes, 汉话)and putonghua (common speech) 普通话 fits into a broader ideological shift in China: the rise of the Xi / CCP centered party-state cult, and the deemphasizing of the former minzu system, rhetorically but now even institutionally) in favor of the pan-Chinese national identity Zhonghua minzu 中华民族 . This is evident in many ways: Xi's playing up of Confucianistic language and rituals; the push for "national studies" 国学 in universities, the sinicization 中国化 of religion campaign with its odd focus on domes and other architectural features of mosques as "Arab" and therefore to be expunged as well as the anti-Halal and de-Saudification campaign and similar attacks on Christian architecture; the flag-raising ceremonies and mandatory posting of lists of Xi quotes and CCP aphorisms in religious institutions. On the popular level, the Hanfu "Chinese clothing" movement that Kevin Carrico wrote about, reflects a kind of popular Han "white nationalism" arising around similar sentiments, though often arrayed in southern China against the use of Cantonese (if I remember Kevin's book correctly).

Here, the switch to "guoyu" has little or nothing to do with the KMT / Guomindang use of the term, and CCP now is on very good terms with the KMT in any case, deploying means both open and surreptitious to interfere in Taiwan's elections on behalf of the KMT presidential candidate. (This raises a question–is guoyu still the common term for "Chinese language" used in Taiwan? Incidentally–that KMT candidate's given name is in fact Kuo-yu, and he's running against someone named Ying-wen–the pun only works in Romanization).

In the Xinjiang context, the argument is this: Uyghurs need to learn the "national language," therefore extraordinary measures must be taken. Besides guoyu, another term one hears and reads often is 国家共同语言 the national common language–which has a slightly different, more nationalistic, connotation than "common speech" 普通话。The goal, I assume, is to disassociate Mandarin from the Han minzu per se, and to argue through terminology that the "common national language" is that which much be spoken by all Zhonghua minzu. It's nativism challenging the institutional and linguistic legacy of a formerly pluralist system (though pluralism often only observed in the breach) and similar in many ways to Modi's Hindutva in India, which is claiming, contrary to founding principles of modern India, that Hinduism and the Hindu language are the national religion and language of India. In China, it's the CCP cult and northern Mandarin that are now being raised up as central and supreme to other beliefs and languages.

Usually states teach "the national language" to kids in schools. PRC has had 70 years to do that, but according to its own rhetoric, the effort has apparently been an abject failure in Xinjiang. Now, then, they argue that middle-aged men must learn mandarin in concentration camps aka "concentrated educational transformation training centers."

There's a Chinese-language bilingual charter school in DC called Yuying.  I met a kid who's been going there for a few years (her parents brought her to a party at my house).  She speaks pretty good conversational Mandarin. I asked her what they called the language, e.g. when the teachers scold them "don't speak English, speak Chinese," how do they say that in Chinese?   Her response was "Zhongwen"  "中文。  我们必须说中文。“    That's a sample size of one, and she's five years old, but I'd be curious what the generic term for "Chinese" is in Mandarin in these schools and similar settings outside of PRC and Taiwan.  "Zhongwen" is used for the spoken language as well as written, and does more or less avoid ethno-national connotations.

All of this give much food for thought about which way the CCP / PRC is moving, both politically and linguistically.


  1. Guan Yang said,

    December 14, 2019 @ 3:50 pm

    According to these two tweets by Chenchen Zhang, the use of 国语 as a contraction of 国家通用语言文字 is used outside majority Han areas in part because 普通话 is opposed to the topolects 方言, while 国家通用语言文字 is opposed to non-Han languages.


  2. Victor Mair said,

    December 14, 2019 @ 5:25 pm

    From Peter Moody:

    For what it's worth, on Taiwan c. 1970 the ordinary "street name" for Chinese was Zhongwen, whether referring to either the spoken or written languages. Guoyu, I think, in common usage, was used mostly in contradistinction to Taiwanese (or Minnan, as the authorities preferred). English, in turn, was usually Yingwen.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    December 14, 2019 @ 7:17 pm

    From yhmx, a member of the Hui "nationality":

    I am not sure when it started. But pretty sure it is a recent practice, maybe several years ago. Even in chinese-speaking Muslim regions now, people began to use 国语, instead of 汉语 or 普通话. The republic- era 国语 policy is for sure a part of nation-making. Now it is the expression and representation of assimilation of non-Han populations.

  4. Michael Watts said,

    December 14, 2019 @ 7:56 pm

    中文 is also the ordinary term for "Chinese" in mainland China, or at least in Shanghai. 汉语 is, according to my friends, overtly fancy.

    I'm about 80% confident I heard someone on the street say 中语 once.

  5. B.Ma said,

    December 15, 2019 @ 12:09 am

    In Cantonese 中文 is also used to refer to spoken Chinese, which could mean any Chinese language or a specific one, which may not necessarily be Cantonese. I would only say 广东话 when indicating Cantonese specifically in contrast to other Chinese languages. E.g. 佢唔识讲中文 (they don't speak [any language of] Chinese) vs 佢唔识讲广东话 (they don't speak Cantonese [but may speak Mandarin]) (those were singular theys btw).

    In Hong Kong Cantonese my family and family friends always used 国语 to mean Mandarin, but this term seems to be gradually being supplanted by 普通话 perhaps due to media absorption.

    Sometimes various PRC tourists encounter me in public places in Europe, and because I look Chinese they either say "You Chinese?" in English (sometimes with better grammar) or in Mandarin, invariably "你会说中国话吗?" rather than some other term. At university PRC students also used Zhongguohua.

    I don't think I've ever heard someone say 汉语. My Singaporean acquaintances and friends all say 华语.

    In Kaohsiung a shopkeeper mistook me for a Taipei native but when I said I was from the UK and Australia with HK (+Guangdong) ancestry he exclaimed something along the lines of my 普通话 being free of a Hong Kong accent – not sure if he would have said Guoyu if I was really from Taiwan.

  6. Michael Watts said,

    December 15, 2019 @ 3:22 am


    What's your view of 粤语?

  7. Michael Watts said,

    December 15, 2019 @ 3:50 am


    I don't think I've ever heard someone say 汉语. My Singaporean acquaintances and friends all say 华语.

    It is my understanding that this is basically synonymous, with 华 being an even older name for the Chinese than 汉 is.

  8. Alison said,

    December 15, 2019 @ 3:56 am

    I am living in Guangdong and by far the most common usage i come across in professional contexts is 中文, whereas on the streets 普通话 seems more common. I do hear 国语 amongst working class people from time to time, but that usage doesn't seem to be politically correct in the white collar world where i work. I've never heard anyone say 汉语 outside of Chinese teachers.

    Something interesting i noticed in B. Ma's answer (above) is "佢唔识讲中文" but "你会说中国话". My Chinese teachers taught me to 说 Chinese, not to 讲 it, but on the streets here people almost always 讲 it. I wonder if that's one of those things that came over from Cantonese in the Guangdong-style Putonghua?

  9. Michael Watts said,

    December 15, 2019 @ 7:37 am

    My Chinese teachers taught me to 说 Chinese, not to 讲 it, but on the streets here people almost always 讲 it. I wonder if that's one of those things that came over from Cantonese in the Guangdong-style Putonghua?

    My impression (again, from Shanghai) is that 讲 and 说 are more or less interchangeable. I have specifically heard someone say (complaining to his girlfriend that he was uncomfortable talking to me) 我想讲中文.

  10. Michael Watts said,

    December 15, 2019 @ 7:40 am

    On the other hand, I'm slightly surprised by 说 in "你会说中国话吗?" because I was under the impression that it is normal to just say e.g. 我会英语, with no 说.

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    December 15, 2019 @ 11:59 am

    B.Ma ( "你会说中国话吗?"). Interesting. For me (very much a beginner), the most natural form of the question would be "你会说中文吗?" ("Nǐ huì shuō Zhōnɡwén mɑ ?" ). Is "中国话" ("Zhōngguó huà") considered more correct that "中文" ("Zhōnɡwén") ?

  12. James Wimberley said,

    December 15, 2019 @ 1:35 pm

    Slightly OT, though prompted by "Gauleiter". Did the Nazis have a language policy within the German-language community? I assume they did not try to root out Austrian usages. Were they opposed to regional dialects like Plattdeutsch, Swabian and Alsatian?

  13. Sense Hofstede said,

    December 16, 2019 @ 1:29 am

    My elderly and super orthodox pro-KMT, pro-China, anti-independence language teacher in Taiwan explained to us that the ‘correct’ terminology was that ‘Chinese’ is called 中文, and that 國語 as Mandarin and 閩南語 as Taiwanese are a kind of 中文. Then she laughed about how stupid her two younger colleagues were for thinking that they could call Taiwanese Hokkien 台語, which is obviously incorrect.

    In practice, in Taiwan, I'd hear people use 中文 to mean Mandarin and 台語 to mean Taiwanese Hokkien.

  14. David Cowhig said,

    December 16, 2019 @ 1:49 am

    I remember when I was teaching English at Tunghai University (1979 – 82), there was a Huayu Zhongxin 华语中心 for teaching Chinese language to foreigners. I remember there was a Chinese language teacher at Tunghai who was quite insistent in saying "You foreigners don't speak Guoyu ["the national language"], you speak Huayu [the language of China]" to the point of being obnoxious.

    Travelling in Fujian twenty years ago, I remember hearing someone say "Guoyu". I assumed calling Mandarin that was just a habit that hung on from the old days. Kind of like when I read an a traveler's account of visiting a small city in Guizhou published in the Hong Kong magazine Zhengming [Contending] in the early 80s — the comment was they hadn't taken down the Cultural Revolution banners yet!

  15. Jeffrey Kwong said,

    December 18, 2019 @ 12:38 am

    It is interesting to note how the term guoyu has evolved in Taiwan— the language authority’s Chinese name remains 國語推行委員會 (Guóyǔ Tuīxíng Wěiyuánhuì) but as the term 國語/国语 is not marked for number, the English name has changed from the “Mandarin Promotion Council,” to the “National Languages Promotion Committee” until 2003 under Chen Shui-bian, and now the “National Languages Council.”

  16. Jeffrey Kwong said,

    December 18, 2019 @ 1:22 am

    Examining other renderings of “Guo Yu” in the Sinosphere, in Hong Kong where law is written and interpreted in English and Chinese, statutes generally render the “Chinese language” as 中文. When specifying spoken Chinese, interestingly, statutory language renders all Chinese languages as topolects — (such as this legal form swearing in a court interpreter in estate matters)

    “duly interpreted to the affirmant/deponent* in……… dialect of the Chinese language”

    Elsewhere, “dialects” seems to be used interchangeably with “language” such as here— (Ch. 621, § 72)


    “if the advertisement is solely or principally in Cantonese, Putonghua or other Chinese dialect, must contain the statement in that language or dialect specified …”

    This is also the only instance where 普通話 was used in a statute that I was able to locate; it renders 普通話 as “Putonghua” in the law’s English version.

  17. Baz Free said,

    December 19, 2019 @ 11:41 am

    Don’t fotgrt that prior to the 1911 overthrow of the imperial system (actually the bureaucracy didn’t change until later) Mandarin really was “Mandarin speak” or 官话. I have old language leaner texts that show 官话 as Mandarin, As spoken in Educated Beijing.

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