[lg policy] Taiwan’s laws on language are showing China what it means to be a modern, inclusive country

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Wed May 9 10:10:37 EDT 2018

 Taiwan’s laws on language are showing China what it means to be a modern,
inclusive country [image: Supporters react during a rally after Taiwan's
constitutional court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to legally
marry, the first such ruling in Asia, in Taipei]
All are welcome. (Reuters/Tyrone Siu)
Written by Nikhil Sonnad <https://qz.com/author/nsonnadqz/>
Obsession Language <https://qz.com/on/language/>
1 hour ago

Taiwan was once considered an economic miracle. Now economic progress there
has slowed to a halt
as China, Taiwan’s imposing neighbor, grows bigger by the day.

But in terms of social progress, Taiwan is decades ahead—showing people in
China that a modern, multicultural, and tolerant Chinese society is

Consider the difference between Taiwan and China’s language policies.
Legislators in Taiwan are preparing to redefine what constitutes a
“national language.” If the new definition is enacted, which is likely
<https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/3424192>, Taiwanese—the local
variant of the Minnan language of southern China—will receive equal
treatment with Mandarin. That would be unthinkable in China, where
Mandarin’s status as the sole standard language is absolute.

The Taiwanese language is everywhere in Taiwan. It is spoken at home by
over 80% of the population. Would-be politicians feel the need to campaign
in Taiwanese in order to win elections. Yet it has not been given the
status of a national language. That is in part because the language has
endured long periods of inequity relative to Mandarin, even in Taiwan. When
the Kuomintang party arrived on the island in the 1940s, fleeing its losing
battle with the Chinese communists, it banned the use of Taiwanese in
schools and in the media, declaring that Mandarin should be the language of
the island.

The new rule would change that, expanding on a separate act
passed last year that gave several indigenous languages “national” status.
Areas with large populations that speak Taiwanese will be allowed to use
them in official documents and legal affairs. And the government will have
an obligation to teach Taiwanese and the indigenous languages*//such as?//*
as part of the standard, 12-year curriculum, as well as to develop writing
systems and dictionaries in those languages.

That level of commitment to minority languages would be impressive even for
a Western country. In the United States, for example, it is hard to find
national efforts to support any language other than English. But more than
anything, the new rule reveals the growing cultural distance between Taiwan
and China, and how much Taiwan has developed socially.

China doesn’t like the Minnan that can be heard in shops and food stalls
across Taiwan. It considers Minnan, or Taiwanese, the language of the
Taiwan independence movement. The prospect of possible retaliation from
Beijing has long delayed Taiwan from giving the language a more official

China’s policies on minority languages, meanwhile, are stuck in the 20th
century. Linguistically, China is extremely diverse. It is home to at least
100 distinct languages. Yet the Chinese government’s policy is based on the
Stalinist assertion that a nation must have a single shared language, and
that everyone in the nation must speak it. “A national community is
inconceivable without a common language,” Stalin wrote
in 1913. In 2000, China enacted a law
<http://www.gov.cn/english/laws/2005-09/19/content_64906.htm> to that
effect, establishing *putonghua*—or “common speech,” as Mandarin is called
in China—as the sole national language for the “unification of the
country.” That means that Mandarin should come before all other languages.

The official rules in China don’t ban minority languages. And the same law
that established Mandarin as the national language states that citizens
“shall have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written

But in many cases, the Communist Party perceives minority languages as
being in conflict with higher-priority concerns, such as the nationwide
promotion of Mandarin, national sovereignty, and cultural unification of
the kind that Stalin advocated.

“If you promote the use of those [minority] languages in public domains,
then the government might have a different view,” says Minglang Zhou, a
professor at the University of Maryland who studies minority language
policy in China. “They think that threatens the use of *putonghua*, and
citizens’ identification with the Chinese nation.”

The Tibetan language is a good example of how these priorities shake out in

“If you look at Tibetan, you can see this gradual shift from using Tibetan
for instruction in classrooms to using Chinese,” Zhou adds. This is mostly
the result of the 2000 language law. China might allow minority groups to
develop their own languages, but the national effort is focused on getting
80% of citizens <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-39484655> speaking

The two goals can be mutually exclusive. Mandarin-speaking teachers are
sent to areas where Chinese is not spoken as well, and where they might not
be able to speak the local language. The result is that in Tibet, the local
language is, at best, relegated to a language class, and not used as the
medium of instruction.

In addition to challenging the primacy of Mandarin, the party views the
Tibetan language as a threat to Chinese sovereignty and identification with
the nation of China. It doesn’t want citizens seeing themselves as Tibetans
first. A strong Tibetan language movement might bring that about. China may
claim that minorities have the right to develop their languages, but it also
put on trial
an activist who wanted more Tibetan in schools, accusing him of “inciting

Essentially, China is not concerned with making minority languages more
frequently spoken. It wants them to be preserved as interesting bits of
Chinese history, like artifacts in a museum.

Therein lies the difference with Taiwan. Giving Taiwanese equal status will
allow the language to thrive in everyday life, whether in schools, official
documents, or popular media. It is not meant to be a historical artifact.
If Mandarin is preferred in some setting, it will be because it is a common
language, not because it has been deemed so from on high.

Taiwan has had enough time being governed independently from China to
develop its own identity. The renewed emphasis on the Taiwanese language is
one symptom of that. At the same time, its language policies show how
Taiwan has developed into a pluralistic democracy, even as China moves in
the opposite direction, toward greater unification. Taiwan’s renewed
promotion of indigenous languages tries to reckon with historical
injustices, even as China arrests Tibetan language activists. Last year,
Taiwan legalized <https://qz.com/990669> same-sex marriage as China shut
down <https://qz.com/1020474> a popular lesbian dating app.

In addition to being an act of pluralism, Taiwan’s proposed language law
probably has political motivations. It sends a message to China that Taiwan
does not need, or want, to abide by Beijing’s rules. But it also shows
people in China that top-down unification is not the only way to govern an
ethnically and linguistically diverse country where Mandarin is the *lingua


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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