CHE8: Minority language education in China

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Aug 5 18:18:09 UTC 2004

>>From the Chronicle of Higher Education,
>>From the issue dated July 26, 2002

China Struggles With How Best to Educate Minority Students
Should emphasis be on preserving ethnic cultures or advancement into the


Muga, China
The four-wheel-drive vehicle stubbornly fights the slippery clay in the
three-hour mountain ascent, and finally enters a cement schoolyard. Teng
Xing, a professor from Beijing, steps out of the car and hands out candy
to the reticent girls in their traditional black dresses. With the
children, local officials, and green mountains in the background, Mr. Teng
officially proclaims the opening of the first day of classes at the Ford
Foundation's Lahu girls' school.

>>From hilltop villages near Muga in China's southern Yunnan province, Mr.
Teng has selected 45 6-year-old girls for his experiment to educate
children who are Lahu, a minority group in China. "We need to preserve our
Lahu cultural heritage," Mr. Teng says, who is himself a member of the
dominant ethnic group in China, the Han. "But we also need to learn
Chinese, and to modernize." Mr. Teng, a professor of minority education at
Central University for Nationalities, in Beijing, and once a Fulbright
scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, is China's most
prominent expert on minority education -- and its most controversial one.
He has made a career out of criticizing China's current approach to
minority education, and he has many sympathizers within the government.
But so far those sympathizers haven't been able to change the government
policy that decrees that minority students should be taught first in their
native tongue, then taught the language of the Han Chinese. Most minority
students only attend school for six grades, and the study of Chinese only
starts in grade seven for the few students who continue on.

Studying Chinese so late limits the language skills of the minority
students, and often steers them into those colleges set aside specifically
for minority students, Mr. Teng argues. He advocates merging what he
perceives to be outdated and anachronistic minority colleges into top
universities, giving minority students a shot at succeeding alongside the
nation's best students in urban China. A liberal-enough proposition, he
thought, but when his plan was submitted to the government in 1999, a
political hurricane engulfed him. While he views his policy as giving
minority students power, many of them view it as pushing them toward

Minority groups are a sensitive topic for China's government. They account
for less than 10 percent of the population yet the territory they live in
makes up more than half of China's land mass, mainly in the strategic
border areas. China spends millions to preserve minority languages: He
Jin, the Beijing-based program officer for culture and education for the
Ford Foundation, which finances Mr. Teng's experiment, says that there are
22 minority groups in China that have a population less than 100,000 and
are given some form of bilingual education.

Three of China's official 55 minority groups -- the Uighurs in
northwestern Xinjiang province, the Tibetans, and the Muslims in northwest
Qinghai province -- are viewed by the government as having separatist
sentiments. Even in regions where little blatant conflict exists between
Han Chinese and minority groups, the Han often dominate the local economy,
leaving the locals resentful. This friction spills over onto university
campuses, the most recent manifestation being an ethnic riot involving
Chinese and Uighur students in June 2001 at Changan University, in Xi'an.
Hundreds of Han Chinese students reportedly tore up pieces of sidewalk and
hurled them into the dormitory of Muslim Uighur students.

Still, the Chinese government believes its minority policies are
enlightened, especially in education. Besides infusing education
subsidies, such as money to print textbooks, into minority areas,
including Tibet, the government also grants them a degree of
self-governance, giving them control over their local education systems.
In the 1950s, the Communist Party established minority colleges to
indoctrinate minority cadres, and today there are six national minority
colleges and seven local ethnic institutes, offering an opportunity for
students who can't get into colleges elsewhere. Affirmative-action
programs help the best minority students land spots in the nation's top

Wei Pengfei, a retired Ministry of Education official once responsible for
minority education, proudly rattles off statistics: High-school minority
students have increased 21-fold since 1951, and university students have
multiplied by a factor of 107. About 107,000 minority students now study
at the higher-education level each year in China, he says, out of the
total of 6 million students studying in Chinese universities. Annually, he
says, the government supports 10,000 minority students with remedial
classes in universities.

But since economic liberalization in the late 1970s, the wealth and
education gap between ethnic Chinese and minority groups has been rapidly
increasing. The Chinese-dominated coastal regions have boomed while
destitution and deserts dominate the central and western provinces, where
minority people tend to live.

With shrinking government subsidies, minority colleges have survived in a
free market by enrolling more and more Han Chinese students: Han students
account for half or more of the enrollments in most minority colleges now.
China's minority colleges are at a crossroads, and where they will go is
as uncertain as trying to predict the future of historically black
colleges in the United States.


Muga is a mountain town on the China-Myanmar border, home for centuries to
the Lahu, a minority group that also lives in the mountains of Southeast
Asia. This town is considered an "autonomous Lahu region" by the Chinese
government, so the mayor must be Lahu and the front gates of every
government building and pages of every government document have both
Chinese characters and Lahu characters, a Latin alphabet created by
Christian missionaries in the 1940s. Children learn this Latinized Lahu
for the first six years of school, which is the usual amount of education
here. The region has no roads, and the economy is minuscule -- the
province's sugar-cane-processing plant and coal mine belong to the
regional government and are run by Han Chinese.

In the evening after the ceremony celebrating the new school, Mr. Teng,
the professor from Beijing, sits down with Muga's mayor, cooking chicken
legs, kidneys, livers, and hearts on an open fire outside a restaurant run
by a migrant Chinese. Under the clear night sky and full moon they toast
each other with the local rice wine.

The slow fire highlights Mr. Teng's muscular legs and forearms, legacies
from his childhood. As a teenager during China's Cultural Revolution, he
learned karate to battle the children out to get him for being the
grandson of a Shanghai capitalist, and that feistiness carries over into
his policy debates today.

"If ethnic minorities emphasize cultural independence too much then
they'll become marginalized," says Mr. Teng. He goes into a long analysis
of diversity and interdependence in the 21st century, and then concludes,
"The international economy makes China's minority colleges irrelevant."

The mayor of Muga agrees with Mr. Teng. "Muga is a town with over 17,000
Lahu, and most are peasants living in the mountains with an average annual
income of 421 yuan [$51]," says Mayor Dong Shihui, a middle-aged man who
is half-Chinese and half-Lahu.

"Most have never left their villages and are badly undereducated. We need
to teach our children Chinese to develop economically."

Under the socialist system, graduates from minority colleges would be
assigned government positions in their home village, Mr. Teng explains,
but now local bureaucracies are overstaffed, and new graduates from
minority colleges are unable to compete in the marketplace with mainstream
university graduates and their superior Chinese skills.

At the minority colleges, students get a substandard education, Mr. Teng
asserts. "The six national minority colleges get 6 million yuan [$726,000]
a year, just barely enough to pay teachers," says Mr. Wei.

To meet their budgets, minority colleges are enrolling ethnic Chinese
students at an astonishing rate, and focusing on departments, such as
English and computer science, that attract those students. Today, in most
of China's national and provincial minority colleges, Chinese students
make up the majority. Meanwhile minority students are opting out: "In
1951, 86 percent of minorities went to minority colleges," says Mr. Wei.
"But because of better primary education for minorities, today 84 percent
of minority students go elsewhere."

At a time of rapid change in other Chinese universities, "we're unsure of
how to proceed," admits Wu Chuanyi, head of public relations at Southwest
College for Nationalities, in Chengdu, in Sichuan province, and the only
official at a minority college willing to comment for this story: Many
others declined, apparently fearful of offending the government that
supports them.

Mr. Teng says the merging of ethnic colleges with top universities would
be good for all students, and he would also like to see an expansion of
affirmative-action programs to get more minority students into good
mainstream universities. "It'd also be good for Chinese students," he
says, "because they need to interact with minorities to let go of their
prejudice that all minorities are barbarians. "Mr. Teng says that he
developed his plan after two decades of studying minority education in
China's poorest areas. He began making his pitch in public lectures. Mr.
Teng says that government officials became interested and asked him to
submit a formal proposal, and in early 1999 he wrote a letter to top
political advisers of China's president, Jiang Zemin.


Pan Zhengyuan is a professor of Yi studies at Southwest College for
Nationalities. He is a quiet thin man in his early 40s, with the large
round eyes and dark skin typical of the Yi minority, who live in the
mountains of southern China. Sitting on a couch in a tea room, one of
thousands in Chengdu, a city known for its rustic, mellow lifestyle, Mr.
Pan leans forward, holding a cigarette and sipping a glass of green tea.

"Minority colleges are depositories of minority cultures, and without the
research and preservation efforts of these colleges these cultures would
disappear," he says. "My college is the only institution in China that
offers a comprehensive Yi-studies program."

Ma Linying, Mr. Pan's wife, is an anthropologist with thinning, curly hair
who works at the Sichuan Nationalities Research Institute, a
government-supported center in Chengdu. "Mainstream universities are for
the best minority students only," she says. "For that small percentage of
the minority population that has been assimilated and lives in cities.
Minority colleges give the average minority student a chance at

Mr. Pan grew up in poor rural Sichuan, walking an hour every day to a
classroom where Han Chinese students greatly outnumbered the Yi. "The
Chinese looked down on us, teased and bullied us," he recalls. "Most of
the Yi students quit after the first few days, but I liked studying so I
stayed on." His mother was mentally ill so Mr. Pan was an especially easy
target, and while he could not speak Chinese he devoted himself to
reading. He eventually enrolled at Southwest College for Nationalities,
majoring in Yi studies, and became an avid reader of world literature. "My
favorite American book is Roots," he says, referring to Alex Haley's work
that traced his ancestry back to Africa. "I admire the hard work and
struggle of the characters."

Ms. Ma is from another world. She went to a school with Chinese students
in a mountain city, and her parents were successful Yi intellectuals. She
grew up absorbing the prejudices of her classmates, believing that
minority people were foolish barbarians, and pretending to be Chinese. But
her father, a newspaper editor, made it a rule that she had to speak Yi at
home, or else go without dinner. Her father also made her enroll in Yi
studies at Southwest College for Nationalities, where she met her future
husband. "If I didn't enter this college, I wouldn't have discovered my
own culture," she says.

Neither Mr. Pan nor Ms. Ma thinks much of Mr. Teng's plan. Word of his
1999 letter to the government traveled fast, and the minority professors
held a conference to criticize his arguments. The Chinese government
responded to the letter by issuing a report, which was officially
confidential, defending the minority colleges.

"The government has enough problems to worry about, and it'll give
minority leaders what they want as long as they don't cause problems," Mr.
Teng says.

By the end of 1999, after the report came out, the president of Central
University for Nationalities had removed Mr. Teng from his
responsibilities as editor of the magazine devoted to minority education
that he had founded. In response, Mr. Teng resigned from the magazine, as
well as head of the university's minority-education institute.

But he, and some other social scientists in China, say they are continuing
to press for policy changes. As China continues to try to modernize its
less prosperous regions, it is going to be forced to come up with a better
solution for educating minority students, the sociologists say.


The morning after dinner with the Muga mayor, Mr. Teng, his two graduate
students, and their Lahu translators hike up a steep rocky mountain path.
Along the way a barefoot Lahu man passes them from behind, takes a quick
glance at the strangers, and then quickly disappears past a bend. Two
hours later they pass a stream, and follow a young dark-skinned Lahu boy
carrying a large pot of water on his tiny back and walking into a village
of rice terraces, hay huts, and stray dogs. Situated at the edge of the
Golden Triangle, Fumeng is a village of mostly illiterate Lahu peasants
with a sprinkling of opium addicts.

A meandering trail littered with chickens and cow manure leads to a wooden
hut sitting idly at the mountain's peak. Inside, the teacher Li Jiamo is
watching his young, tiny, malnourished students sitting on their broken
desks and jotting down numbers he has written on the blackboard. Half of
the desks are empty. Li Jiake, a young boy, wanders in after his parents
found him sleeping below a tree.

"My main responsibility as a teacher is going to homes every morning to
hunt down these kids," says Mr. Li, a young man with curly hair and
wearing slippers. "No one's left this mountain, so they don't see the
point of learning Chinese," says Mr. Teng.

It is noon, and Mr. Li is setting on the desks a bowl of rice and a bowl
of squash, a Fumeng banquet. "Students need to be isolated so that they
can learn and not be affected by their fatalistic surroundings," says Mr.

His desire to isolate minority students in a boarding school would be a
180-degree turn from current government policy, and he and others believe
that a "minority elite" -- he few minorities who prosper as a result of
the country's policies -- oppose him. He believes minority professors are
against him because they are afraid they will lose out in an overhaul of
minority colleges.

But Mr. Pan has a different take on Mr. Teng's motives: "Teng Xing
believes that minority colleges incubate ethnic pride, and produce
radicals. He's really thinking from the perspective of how to control


On a cool Friday night in April at Southwest College for Nationalities, a
handsome man with soft, short curly hair, sits smiling with his friends
outside the administration building that overlooks this idyllic garden
campus. Shen Chonghua is a Yi student studying economics, and every Friday
night he and his friends organize a traditional Yi dance to celebrate
their culture. As his friends are busy testing the loudspeakers, Mr. Shen
says that he plans to go back to his village after he graduates.

"I'd like to go to graduate school, but minorities can't afford that sort
of tuition," he says.

He stands up, jumps down from the stairs where he was sitting, and joins
the small circle of dancers focused on the smooth exact twisting of their
bodies and slow deliberate kicks and hops.

A Tibetan dance is being held across the campus outside the university's
restaurant. Enchanting Tibetan music is flowing, and a young pretty
Manchurian girl, Ma Lina, dressed in a polka-dot dress, is facing the
small group of dancers, and trying to mimic the way they fling their arms
high and twist their feet.

She is a first-year student from Liaoning province in cold, desolate
northeast China, and she has traveled a long way to learn about other
minority groups. She explains that the Manchurians like herself have long
assimilated, and that her language has disappeared, "but we need to learn
Chinese and English."

"Students here may have different levels of spoken Chinese, but we're all
Chinese," she says.

Sitting on the restaurant stairs watching the dancers is Xue Zhen, a young
fair-skinned girl who is a mixture of different bloods and experiences.
She is Tibetan, Uighur, and Han, and while she lives in Tibet she went to
a Muslim high school in Shanghai. "I'm here because I didn't do well on
the national examination," she explains. Her score on that exam, given in
the final year of high school, also determined what program she could get
into at the university that she attends.

"I don't like my major," she says. "I'd much rather study law, because I
want to get into politics and help Tibet." She says that she feels that
she has become more Tibetan since coming to the college. She says that the
Tibetans are the third largest group at the college, behind the Yi and the
Han Chinese, and Tibetan is a strong department.

Administrators at the college discriminate in favor of the Chinese, she
says, by, for instance, bringing lecturers to campus that interest Han
Chinese, and not asking minority students which lecturers they would like
to hear. "But even if I were somewhere else I'd still think like this,"
she adds.

Back at the Yi dance the sky has darkened, and the dancers are illuminated
by two streetlights.

As the centuries-old rhythms blare from the stereo, the circle of youths
in jeans swaying and holding hands gradually grows larger, welcoming the
unknown crowd staring cautiously in the background.

Copyright  2002 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

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