LANGUAGE DIVERSITY & STANDARDISATION IN CHINA

Early in December 2021 the official Xinhua news agency in China reported Ministry of Educationintentions on the standardisation of Chinese language learning throughout the huge country. The number of Chinese people who speak Putonghua, or Mandarin Chinese, will be increased to 85 percent of China’s population by 2025.

The Ministry of Education circular stressed the fundamental role that schools play in the teaching of the standardized Chinese language and characters.

It also called for wider access to standardized Chinese education in ethnic minority areas, and urged the protection of the spoken and written languages of ethnic minorities as well as the improvement of their quality of education.

The study of and guidance over new words and expressions, acronyms and foreign language words will be strengthened, while the use of language on new media will be standardized.

How many languages are there in China?

This is a tricky one to answer. One site I visited states: “Officially, there are 302 living languages in China. Depending on your definition of “language” and “dialect,” this number can vary somewhat. The number of speakers of many of China’s minority languages and dialects has decreased in recent years, and some of them are now considered endangered.”

Officially, there are ten different varieties of Chinese, although some sources only list eight because the last two are only spoken by less than 1% of the population. These variants are written using Chinese characters and do not have their own written form.

 Another source has this to say:

 “As experts warned that the majority of the 130 languages spoken in China are now on the verge of extinction, both government and social groups have begun protection efforts, Beijing News reported.

Seven languages are being used by less than 100 people, while another 15 languages have just 100 to 1,000 speakers in China, according to a survey conducted by Sun Hongkai, a language expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The survey also showed that some minority languages have become extinct, such as Manchu and Khakas, while some like Hezhen have only a few elderly speakers.

The Hezhen ethnic minority in northeast China, with a population of 5,354 according to a 2010 census, faces severe challenges in passing down their language.”

According to babble.com “In a population of roughly 1.4 billion, China has 302 individual living languages. To put that in perspective globally, an astonishing 20% of the world’s population speaks some form of a Chinese language natively.” [i.e an teanga duchas]

Language endangerment is not confined to China. We know that in Cornwall SW England the last native speaker of Cornish died many years ago (there are archival tape recordings) and a Cornish language society has been teaching the language to persons interested in the culture. Many years ago the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language estimated that there were more than 6,000 languages across the world. Another source recently put the number at more than 7,000: “According to Ethnologue… there are 7,139 spoken languages in the world today. 1,514 of those have fewer than 1,000 living speakers. A little over half of the world’s languages are estimated to have writing systems.” 

Here is a list of the most spoken languages in China: [source: worldatlas.com]

RankLanguages in China
1Standard Chinese (Mandarin)
2Yue (Cantonese)
3Wu (Shanghainese)
4Minbei (Fuzhou)
5Minnan (Hokkien-Taiwanese)
6Xiang
7Gan
8Hakka
9Zhuang
10Mongolian
11Uighur
12Krygyz
13Tibetan

In politically sensitive areas where Han influx and settlement is obvious, speakers of local languages feel that their languages are under cultural and demographic pressure. Manchurian, Uighur and Tibetan are often mentioned.In the autonomous province of Inner Mongolia, for example, there has been considerable pressure through the educational system to get children and young people speaking and writing Putonghua. Are there echoes of the ‘tally stick procedure’ that happened in Irish primary schools during colonial times?

Garreth Byrne, former English teacher in China.

An Active New Year?

If you have time to spare this New Year’s Day due to restrictions on visiting and unattractive weather outside, you can do what the ancient Chinese did when facing up to a long, cold winter.   

They figured that the winter cold began with the solstice (22 December) and lasted for 81 days. It can be very cold in north China so they put up a ’81 petal picture’ and coloured a petal a day till the period ended. 

The petals are always plum blossoms and in Dalgan there is a painting brought from China that gives you an idea of what it looks like (see below).  

If you count the petals, there may be more than 81 of them so don’t take this example too literally. However, it does give an idea of what the ‘81 petal picture’ looked like.

If they add up to 99 they could refer to the ‘99 cold elimination diagram’, another Chinese way of calculating the approach of Spring (and passing the time).

So there are two challenge: colour a petal a day or count up the number of petals to see if there are 99!

Wishing you a Great 2022 and hoping you will have something better to do in it,  Hugh.

Update

An Up-date

Sending new teachers to China, or even keeping teachers there, has been difficult because of Covid. The universities still want our teachers but the government is doing all it can to keep the virus out and so travel in and out is restricted. If the Olympics go off well there might be some possibility of getting teachers in for the Fall Semester 2022. But many commentators think even this is too soon.

At the moment we have 13 Aitece Teachers teaching either on line or in person. Seven are teaching face to face in China and six are teaching on line from their homes overseas.

As Christmas approaches, we send them our best wishes and encourage all those with an interest in teaching in China to keep the hope alive and watch this site!
Wishing you all a Happy Christmas, wherever you are. Hugh.

China-Ireland Studies

Even though they say interest in Christianity has nosedived in Ireland, over 260 people between 20 and 80 received diplomas or certificate in religious studies at St Patricks University, Maynooth, last Saturday.

I attended because one of our house community was getting her Higher Diploma in Theology, she is going on to do an MA in Pastoral Theology.  She is Chinese and perhaps 20% of the graduates were from outside Ireland. About 10% of those graduating were clerical students or Sisters, the rest were lay people.  

As the MC remarked, the chapel in St Patricks is probably the most spectacular graduation location in Ireland. It also struck me that our Chinese graduate got her award is the very chapel where the first Columbans were ordained and from which they set out as missionaries to China a hundred years ago, in 1920!

Stan Cusack RIP

We have just heard that Sand Cusack who taught in Chongqing 03/04 and in Fuzhou 05/08 died last week in Australia aged 88.

Stan was a Christian Brother with many years experience as a teacher and with great interest in his students and in China.

He will be greatly missed by all who knew him in China and the many whose lives he touched in Australia.

CHINA CENSUS SHOWS BIRTH RATE SLOW-DOWN

by Garreth Byrne

Communist China has held seven Census exercises since the early 1950s. In mid-May this year the cn.news online website published some of the statistical findings. There are implications for the ratio of children to other age cohorts in a population of about 1.45 billion people.

The population growth rate has slowed down. The average annual growth rate in the past ten years was 0.53%, a decrease of 0.04 percentage points from the previous decade. In some provinces, the proportion of children under the age of 14 is as low as about 10%.

The journalist for cn.news remarks:

“Behind this is the decline of many young people’s willingness to marry and even have children in recent years.”

The report goes on to state that economic development and urbanisation ‘inevitably’ slow down the birth rate. It compares this with what has happened in capitalist countries of Europe, North America and other continents.

 Regarding the slowdown in population growth, Ning Jizhe, director of the National Bureau of Statistics, clearly stated, “This is the objective result of the development of industrialization and urbanization to a certain stage, and it is also a problem faced by countries around the world, especially developed countries.”

In 2015, after much internal discussion away from media attention, China changed its One Child policy to a Two Child policy in urban areas. This radically altered parental attitudes, but now demographical analysts see a need to encourage fertility in marriage so that schools, technical institutes and universities are not adversely affected in the near future.

The reporter goes on: “The high cost of raising children is an important reason why families do not want to have more children. Therefore, to improve the quality of the population, the state still needs to share the family’s cost of raising children and break the barriers of the existing system. There have been many discussions about measures to encourage childcare such as extending marriage and parental leave and providing public provision for childcare.”

Many other points are made and it highlights a conundrum. A sharp decline in parental fertility and the birth rate in developed urbanised societies will have consequences for marital stability, child rearing, educational and social development.

Link: https://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_12621021

* Garreth Byrne spent ten years working in different cities of China with Aitece. In the years 2004-5 he worked for a private TEFL company in Suzhou, a scenic canal city one hour by train west of Shanghai. He took taxis on different days to primary and secondary schools to give special oral English lessons. Here are a few photos he took of children he encountered.

The first shows a choral singing practice in a school playground. Another shows children in a class where he taught. The third shows Garreth, in winter clothing, with teenaged children in a middle school.

WRITTEN CHINESE – COMPLEX AND ELEGANT

By Garreth Byrne

There is a long story about the evolution of Chinese character writing that begins during the Shang Dynasty about 1500 BC, when divination inscriptions were carved on tortoise shells and ox bones. The story speeds up about 100 BC when paper scrolls made from paper derived from crushed bamboo enabled learned men (a privileged minority in Chinese society) to write articles on traditional medicine, folk wisdom, religious rites and the duties of rulers.

For centuries after the invention of block printing literacy and learning was confined to the mandarin elites and the dynastic rulers they served.

Ancient Chinese characters began as pictographs when words for sun, moon and mountain were drawn like simple pictures. Over time the pictures were replaced by simplified ideophones i.e. a combination of image and sound.

The communists led by Mao Tse Tung (now written Mao Zedong) came to power in October 1949 after a terrible civil war. In the early 1950s the government set up a commission of linguists to simplify written Chinese. The aim was to promote mass literacy in town and country. Prototype dictionaries were printed for use in schools, factories and farming communes. Due to chaos caused by the Cultural Revolution, it wasn’t until 1978 that the first edition of a single volume Standard Mandarin hanyu dictionary was printed. Between 1983 and 2016 subsequent revised editions, with supplements, were published. The first edition in 1978 had 56,000 characters and the seventh edition in 2017 had 70,000 listings. The next edition could have up to 80,000 entries. The mind boggles.

No single individual can memorise 70,000 characters. A university graduate might learn to read 8,000 characters, while a farmer or worker might be able to read a daily newspaper if able to recognise more than 3,000 characters.

When children start school at the age of seven they first learn the pinyin alphabet first introduced in the late 1950s. School books contain colourful pictures and the pinyin word printed above or below. Teachers make pupils pronounce the correct four tones of standard Chinese (six tones in Cantonese or Guangdong hua in southern China). After three years pupils are introduced to characters. These appear on a book page together with the pinyin version. Pupils have special books in which they practise writing simple characters over and over. It is drudgery but must be done.

It is not easy to learn written Chinese. There are strict rules for inscribing the various strokes that make up a character. Foreign students from Africa, Asia, Europe and North America generally do a crash course in spoken Chinese using the pinyin system at the beginning of their third level courses. Chinese students are assigned the task of organising social and fun-based activities for the foreigners during the rest of their first year of studies. Mercifully most foreign students do their reading and writing assignments and final exams in English.

READING ON THE RISE IN CHINA

By Garreth ByrneThe

28th Beijing International Book Fair BIBF opened on September 14 at the China International Exhibition Center in Beijing’s Shunyi District. Hosting more than 2,200 exhibitors from 105 countries and regions and displaying some 300,000 books, it is the first major international book fair being held online and offline amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

EAGER READERS

People are increasingly getting into the reading habit in China. Per capita reading volume for paper books was 4.70 and 3.29 for digital books in 2020, with both figures higher than those in 2019, according to a national survey released in April by the Chinese Academy of Press and Publication.

The Covid-19 lockdown early in 2020 had a big impact in book reading trends. An independent e-commerce company called JD.com monitored the book industry and concluded that a significant proportion of people devoted more time to reading in 2020, as restrictions from COVID-19 caused people to spend more time at home. According to its findings, more than 46 percent read more paper books, 59.6 percent read more digital books and 58.8 percent listened to more audiobooks. If you are housebound, you can watch television, or you can read books.

Sinan Mansions are a remodeled houses complex dating from the French concession of the 1920s in the Huangpu district of Shanghai. Sinan Mansions are considered part of city’s cultural heritage, an outdoor museum with gardens, elegant European style old architecture, pedestrian lines and trees. In September 2020, after months of shutdown, shops, restaurants and museums reopened to the public. Huge queues formed to visit a large bookstore.

In a communist ruled society obviously many published books are about the history of the Party, the struggles against foreign rule, the anti-Japanese war and the exploits of political and military heroes. The party line with no revisionist independent angles is naturally salient in such publications.

The above mentioned JD.com survey noted that Selected Works of Mao Zedong are increasingly popular among readers born after 1985. Red Star Over China, a hagigographical account of Mao and the Long March (1932-1934) authored by American journalist Edgar Snow in the 1930s, made it to the top-10 best-selling paper books list in 2020.  This influential book was translated into Chinese long ago and has never gone out of print. It continues to boost state sponsored patriotism among the upcoming generations who never had to endure the barbaric distortions of the Cultural Revolution.

In Foreign Language bookstores found in the provincial capital cities citizens who read English or French can find the works of classical novels by French, English and American authors such as Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Jack London, Hart Crane, Edgar Allen Poe, Scott Fitzgerald, Steinbeck and Hemingway. Chinese translations are also abundant. Students majoring in English are directed to read the blockbuster Gone with the Wind. I have spotted a Chinese translation of Joyce’s Ulysses and wondered if the stream-of-consciousness complexity is more difficult to comprehend than in the original Hiberno-English.

One bestselling non-fiction book in English and in translation is Dale Carnegie’s How to make Friends and influence People. You may also find The Bible in Chinese at outdoor bookstalls during university Freshers’ Weeks in September.

Children’s book publishing is hugely large and lucrative in mainland China. Coloured illustrations are artistically attractive. Parents and grandparents buy a lot as presents for birthdays and for the Spring Festival. Many books recount ancient Chinese folk tales. As children get older they may encounter Party ideology and patriotism in other books.

Update from China

CHINA CENSUS SHOWS BIRTH RATE SLOW-DOWN

Communist China has held seven Census exercises since the early 1950s. In mid-May this year the cn.news online website published some of the statistical findings. There are implications for the ratio of children to other age cohorts in a population of about 1.45 billion people.

The population growth rate has slowed down. The average annual growth rate in the past ten years was 0.53%, a decrease of 0.04 percentage points from the previous decade. In some provinces, the proportion of children under the age of 14 is as low as about 10%.

The journalist for cn.news remarks:

“Behind this is the decline of many young people’s willingness to marry and even have children in recent years.”

The report goes on to state that economic development and urbanisation ‘inevitably’ slow down the birth rate. It compares this with what has happened in capitalist countries of Europe, North America and other continents.

 Regarding the slowdown in population growth, Ning Jizhe, director of the National Bureau of Statistics, clearly stated, “This is the objective result of the development of industrialization and urbanization to a certain stage, and it is also a problem faced by countries around the world, especially developed countries.”

In 2015, after much internal discussion away from media attention, China changed its One Child policy to a Two Child policy in urban areas. This radically altered parental attitudes, but now demographical analysts see a need to encourage fertility in marriage so that schools, technical institutes and universities are not adversely affected in the near future.

The reporter goes on: “The high cost of raising children is an important reason why families do not want to have more children. Therefore, to improve the quality of the population, the state still needs to share the family’s cost of raising children and break the barriers of the existing system. There have been many discussions about measures to encourage childcare such as extending marriage and parental leave and providing public provision for childcare.”

Many other points are made and it highlights a conundrum. A sharp decline in parental fertility and the birth rate in developed urbanised societies will have consequences for marital stability, child rearing, educational and social development.

Link: https://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_12621021

* Garreth Byrne spent ten years working in different cities of China with Aitece. In the years 2004-5 he worked for a private TEFL company in Suzhou, a scenic canal city one hour by train west of Shanghai. He took taxis on different days to primary and secondary schools to give special oral English lessons. Here are a few photos he took of children he encountered.

The first shows a choral singing practice in a school playground. Another shows children in a class where he taught. The third shows Garreth, in winter clothing, with teenaged children in a middle school.

Last week, sticking to the ‘stay in your own county’ rule, I visited a corner of Kildare that is a great example of ‘Ireland’s Ancient East’.

I was searching for high crosses with the images of two men who lived in Egypt 1600 years ago and never visited Ireland.  Why then were they depicted on Irish High Crosses dating from the 8th century?

The two are Paul of Thebes and Anthony the Hermit. I found them in Moone and Castledermot though they can also be found in places like Monasterboise.  The two are known as the pioneers of the ‘Desert Fathers’  and obviously had a major influence on the early Irish Church.  On one panel they are sharing bread brought to them by a bird and in another two menacing devils are trying to terrorise Anthony.

Why were they so well known in Ireland that they were put on the equivalent of primetime TV? At that time they represented a vision of Christianity that enthused and changed contemporary Irish society. This led to Ireland having a reputation for enlightenment and learning that lasted for the next five hundred years.

My covid project is to find out how they became so well known in Ireland and what attraction they had for the Irish. It gave me a reason to locate the crosses and also to visit a quiet part of the country with an extraordinary collection of historic remains. I made another interesting discovery there that I will share later. In the meantime if you spot any unusual high crosses out there, let me know. If a Chinese person appeared on one of them, now that would be intriguing.