Political regulation of Chinese languages

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The following article was published more than eleven years ago.  I do not recall being aware of it at that time.  It provides a wealth of still relevant information about the state of language affairs in the PRC — including Mandarin vs. the topolects and traditional forms of the characters vs. simplified — as well as other essential aspects of language pedagogy, such as challenging what it calls "Mandarin monoculture" and the inculcation of semi-literacy.  Since this insightful, informative essay was recently called to my attention by Jichang Lulu, I have decided to circulate it to students and colleagues via this post.

"Confucius Institutes and Controlling Chinese Languages"
Michael Churchman
The Australian National University

China Heritage Quarterly, 26 (June 2011)

What follows are the first two paragraphs of the lengthy article, preceded by a portion of the introductory remarks of the editor, Geremie Barmé, and also followed by part of the concluding remarks by the editor .  Click on the title to read the rest of the article

From the editor:

The following article adds to the growing corpus of material related to New Sinology published by China Heritage Quarterly. A crucial aspect of our approach to Chinese Studies is how, in an age of prosperity for China and concomitantly Chinese Studies, diversity of approach and of understanding of 'things Chinese' can be fostered and protected. The present essay highlights issues related to 'Chinese language literacy' in the context of China's state-sponsored Confucius Institutes, Chinese language orthography and non-standard forms of Chinese, be they written or spoken.

Beginning paragraphs of Churchman's article:

A Mean Standard

In late April 2011, a ten-metre high statue of Confucius was quietly removed from its prominent position outside the refurbished National Museum of China on the eastern flank of Tiananmen Square. Its appearance in January 2011 in a space associated since 1949 with the trenchant anti-Confucian politics of the Chinese Communist Party occassioned no small amount of comment. Although in form the ancient sage has been plucked from the heart of the People's Republic, the institutes that bear his name show no sign of emulating the mysterious disappearing act. Indeed, now over three hundred Chinese government-sponsored Confucius Institutes are operating worldwide. Educational institutions in numerous countries have had the carrot of a Confucius Institute and the funding opportunities that come with them temptingly dangled in front of them and numbers indicate that many have succumbed.

The official reason given for the propagation of Confucius Institutes is that they promote interest in and appreciation for Chinese culture and language abroad; proliferation of Confucius Institutes is often mentioned against the backdrop of a larger effort to increase China's cultural 'soft power' worldwide. The logic of the foundation of Confucius Institutes is that encouraging non-Chinese to understand more about China and Chinese will lead them to develop more positive attitudes towards China itself. Other significant nation-states (France, Britain, Germany and Japan) have been funding similar projects for decades. The difference between the new Confucius Institutes and other state-backed institutions such as the Goethe Institute and the Alliance Française is that Confucius Institutes are founded within pre-existing international educational institutions; consequently there is a widely-held suspicion that these institutes are aimed less at fostering interest in China and Chinese culture itself, and more at ensuring that such interest is guided along lines approved of by the Chinese party-state. Much discussion has already taken place internationally concerning the potential of Confucius Institutes to stifle academic discussion in their home universities, in particular in relation to a long list of topics that the Chinese Communist Party finds unsuitable for discussion, such as the status of Taiwan, Tibet, Falungong, human rights, democratic reform and so on.

From the concluding observations of the editor:

The Chinese Character—no simple matter

In early March 2009, delegates to the National People's Political Consultative Congress in Beijing argued over whether the state should move to reintroduce traditional-style Chinese characters. The Chinese written language was standardised and its orthography simplified during the 1950s and 60s as part of the socialist transformation of China under the Communist Party.

On 12 March 2009, Zhang Xinsheng 章新胜, the vice-minister of education, along with a number of prominent educators took up the cause when speaking to journalists covering the congress. They defended simplified characters and in a legalistic tone of high dudgeon they declared that, since the simplifications were protected under the law, there would be no change. Meanwhile, China's Confucius Institutes, an officially supported network of educational endeavours aimed at inculcating the language and culture of China as interpreted in the People's Republic internationally, will continue to teach the simplified characters. Of course, for those educated solely in simplified characters, and therefore literally 'unlettered', the grand corpus of pre-1960s Chinese literature, history and print culture can prove to be challenging if not unreadable.

Internet opponents to the reintroduction of traditional characters were far more vociferous that official spokespeople like Zhang Xinsheng. They called the fixation on the Chinese writing system to be of little relevant to the pressing problems facing the country today. Others remarked that the traditionalists represented a historical reversal and retrogression. 'While we're at it,' remarked one blogger testily, 'why not go back to wearing scholars' gowns?'

Of course, much has happened with the Confucius Institutes since Churchman wrote the above article.  After the publication of Marshall Sahlins' passionately argued and well documented Confucius Institutes: Academic Malware in 2014, many of the Confucius Institutes were closed down (though some were reopened under different guises).  China spent enormous amounts of money on the Confucius Institutes, yet their ultimate impact has not been very significant because, from the very beginning, they always operated under the cloud of their close association with the PRC state propaganda apparatus.


Selected readings


  1. AntC said,

    October 6, 2022 @ 4:15 am

    MC: The logic of the foundation of Confucius Institutes is that encouraging non-Chinese to understand more about China and Chinese will lead them to develop more positive attitudes towards China itself.

    VHM: China spent enormous amounts of money on the Confucius Institutes, yet their ultimate impact has not been very significant

    Those of us living in countries with a Free Press and education systems actually aiming "to understand more about China" have indeed "develop[ed] … attitudes towards China". The CCP's propaganda isn't even effective within China; how did they expect the Confucius Institutes 'sent to lie abroad' would have much impact.

    They could learn a bit of subtlety from the British Council or the Goethe Institutes — I still have a positive memory of a Stockhausen performance in South Ken.

  2. JB said,

    October 6, 2022 @ 7:01 pm

    Re: the "grand corpus" being "challenging if not unreadable", I've heard many times, including on this very blog, about how Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese is substantially different than modern Chinese languages, and special training even for native speakers is required. (See, for example, https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=39905)

    Anyway, where I'm going with this is I don't know if I'm necessarily convinced that it's the simplified characters keeping that history shut away. (There is, of course, a few decades where the language is modern while the characters are traditional, but I doubt that's what they're referring to).

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