Minglang Zhou on Linguistic Diversity in China

Minglang Zhou earned his Ph. D. in linguistics from Michigan State University in 1993. His teaching and research interest include the sociology of language, language and ethnicity, bilingual education, and Chinese as a second language. He authored “Multilingualism in China: The politics of writing reform for minority languages 1949–2002” (Mouton de Gruyter, 2003) and "Language Ideology and Order in Rising China" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), and edited or co-edited six volumes on language policy, bilingual education, and language contact in China. He also published two dozens of research articles and book chapters on these topics. He reviews manuscripts on these topics for more than ten international scholarly journals and serves on the editorial/advisory committees for several of these journals. He won a 2009 American Philosophical Society fellowship for his book project “Models of nation-state building and language education for ethnic minorities in China, 1949-2009.”
Jonathan Becker CMC '24 interviewed Dr. Minglang Zhou on February 16, 2022.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Minglang Zhou.


For readers who have not studied Sinitic languages before, would you mind providing a little background on the linguistic landscape of China? Many foreigners might have an image of one "Chinese language" which all 1.4 billion people speak–how far is this from the actual situation? What are the origins of such linguistic diversity?

More than 130 languages are spoken in China, and they belong to five main families. Within that, the specifics depend on which group you talk to. Generally, linguists and most people believe that there are 8-12 major dialects/topolects within the Sino-Tibetan language family. But actually, if you look more into the details of any one of them, then it depends heavily on how you define what counts as a dialect/topolect. Within the Wu family (to which Shanghainese belongs) there could be anywhere from a few hundred to a thousand dialects. Basically, every city and every county you go to, you'll find something different. Another thing to consider is the legacy of the Chinese empire, which spanned a few thousand years. With territory spanning from the far north all the way down to Hainan in the south, running from the Pacific Ocean all the way the Himalayas in the west. Naturally, this results in a lot of diversity. Another reason is the migration that came with trade. The Silk Road ran all the way to today’s Iran and Iraq, or even Europe, and that brought a lot of linguistic diversity to China. For example, Chinese started to incorporate many words borrowed from Persian.

From a sociolinguistic and political perspective, why does the distinction between topolect (方言), accent (口音), and language (语言) matter? The difference between Cantonese and Mandarin is quite different than between Sichuanese and Mandarin, for example, but they are classified as the same.

First, let me start by distinguishing between what is topolect or dialect and what is a language. Linguistically speaking, it's simple. If the two are mutually intelligible, and you say we speak the same language, then you can say we speak the same language, maybe just different dialects or topolects. But if they're not mutually intelligible, we speak different languages. Linguistically, that's the ideal, but politically and from a sociolinguistic perspective it's much more complicated. Politically, it doesn't matter whether they are mutually intelligible or not. Cantonese, Mandarin, Shanghainese, and many of the other "topolects" are not mutually intelligible. This is because for two thousand years at least, China has built a collective identity: we speak Chinese, and we practice Confucianism. As such, the mutual intelligibility doesn't matter. It's totally a political distinction. But that decision comes from history, culture, religion, etc. 

What role do you feel a Lingua Franca (通用语) has in nation-building? Does it play more of a pragmatic role (e.g., making it so someone from Heilongjiang can talk to someone from Hainan) or more of a symbolic role (i.e., the Chinese people are unified because they speak one dialect/topolect/language) or both?

Lingua Francas can play both a pragmatic and symbolic role but having both is not necessary. There's no necessary connection between the two. For example, English is the lingua franca globally, and Swahili is the lingua franca spoken in many African countries. In those situations, they do not necessarily have any symbolic role in nation state building. In the early days of Mandarin, it was also more pragmatic. In the 1950s, Mandarin was defined as a common language of the Han Chinese only. Minorities were encouraged to learn it on a voluntary basis only. However, that changed with the fall of the Soviet Union. After that, China saw that the Soviet model did not necessarily work and instead looked to the model seen in the United States. This change was marked by the passage of the common language law in 2000, which became effective in 2001. According to this law, the lingua franca, Mandarin, now plays a more symbolic role. Of course, it still plays the pragmatic role, but it now said that learning Mandarin was the duty of every Chinese citizen. This is what you see in areas like Inner Mongolia nowadays where there is tension over forced Mandarin education.

In the last four decades China has seen a lot of migration and a huge expansion of education. What are the effects of migration and education on the spread of Mandarin and the use of local dialects? We have heard stories about people in Guangzhou and Shanghai trying to preserve their dialects. Are these dialects in danger because of recent socioeconomic developments?  

Previously in China, although Mandarin education was promoted, the household registration system pinned people down in their birth places from birth to death. It was almost impossible to move anywhere else unless you went to college or joined the Chinese military. This meant that students did not have a social motivation to learn and speak Mandarin if it was not spoken in their community, making it largely useless. However, the Reform and Opening changed that landscape. It drastically increased the amount of movement, which impacted non-Mandarin speaking areas. For example, new cities, such as Shenzhen, which was previously Cantonese-dominant, now has a population made up of over 90% immigrants from other parts of China. Some people have tried to start topolect education programs, but that was challenged because according to the 2000 common language law, it is illegal to have topolect education in schools. This has led to a lot of topolects becoming endangered.

What do you think about the popularity of the film “B for Busy” (爱情神话) which focuses on a Shanghainese cast speaking primarily in Shanghainese? Could this reflect different attitudes towards minority languages from the younger generation?

I believe the popularity of the movie was brought about primarily by the theme, and only secondarily by the use of Shanghainese because this theme of love and marriage touches the nerve of individuals families and even the state in China. You know, many young people love each other, but they cannot afford marriage. So, I think that's the main reason why that movie is popular. Of course, the use of Shanghainese also makes it more interesting. Normally, according to the common language law, it is illegal to have a movie in a local topolect, you must use Mandarin. As such, this movie must have gotten special permission. Shanghai is the only cosmopolitan city in China. Since the Mao days, Shanghai was the role model for many Chinese cities, so I think that also contributes to the movie’s popularity. 

What do you think about the future of minority languages within China? Do you think that there’s a way to promote minority languages without undermining Mandarin education?

When talking about the law, it's a tough construct in China. Since 2018, Xi Jinping has begun to stress the strengthening of awareness of the Chinese nation and the linking of Mandarin to the idea of building a Chinese nation. That has led to policies which put Mandarin first and minority languages second. Early last year, the Legal Affairs Committee of the National People's Congress found all laws in autonomous regions supporting the use of minority languages in schools to be unconstitutional. This is very, very important and significant, because this is the first ever constitutionality ruling in China. In short, I'm not very optimistic about minority languages in the future. If the government truly wanted to support bilingualism/multilingualism, it could prioritize good minority language education alongside Mandarin education. People could easily become bilingual, speaking a minority language along with Mandarin. However, the leadership does not want this. They prefer monolingualism, so they are working towards that.


Jonathan Becker CMC '24Student Journalist

Ermell, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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