Literacy in Development: China’s ethnic minorities (part 2) | WhyDev Blog
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Literacy in Development: China’s ethnic minorities (part 2)

Literacy in Development: China’s ethnic minorities (part 2)

Outside of China, people are agape at the prospect of learning to write Chinese: “So hard! Too hard.” Back in Australia, I know first generation migrants who speak Chinese at home but have never learnt to write, they gape along with everyone else. But for all the jaw-dropping, these people can read and write another major language: English. What about the people inside China for whom ‘Chinese’ is a foreign language? They are a significant minority, and, on the Chinese scale, a minority still means millions of people. ‘Chinese’ is usually loosely used when we should say ‘Mandarin’, which is just one of more than 50 distinct languages of the different ethnic groups in China. Mandarin is based on the language of Beijing, has official status, and is the language of the dominant ethnicity, the Han. But it’s by no means the first language of the rural poor in China’s vast and less-developed western and southern provinces. For many of these people, writing Mandarin characters is just as daunting as it is for us, as many of these other Chinese languages are not written in characters, or not written at all.

The widespread assumption is that people need to be literate for development to progress, and that getting kids to attend school is the way to deliver literacy to a community. But the more I looked into this issue within China, the more I found literacy, schooling, development and ethnic identity to be uneasily and unsuccessfully linked.

In a cross-post series with the China Beat, I’m discussing the benefit to development work which can come from understanding that literacy is not a set of skills independently learnt regardless of context. In Part 1, I explain what literacy means to linguists and make the point that, unless the linguistic understanding informs literacy campaigns they may have limited success or perpetuate development as a form of dominance. This post brings that argument into the Middle Kingdom.

China is the world’s second largest economy yet sees itself as developing (as fellow whydev writer Pip Brandt noted). This seems fair enough when you’re here: there is a serious and obvious disparity in development between China’s East and West regions. It’s very clear to the Chinese government, so redressing the development imbalance is a government priority.

For the non-Sinophile reader, some necessary background facts:

  • Language and education policies are centrally controlled in China. putonghua (literally, ‘common language’), known in English as Mandarin, has been the national language since the 1950s. It’s also called han yu (‘Han Language’).
  • Han Chinese comprise 92 percent of the population. But, China has 55 other officially recognised ethnic minority groups, who occupy about 50 percent of the Chinese territory, which are the country’s least-developed areas.
  • Education is a development focus as illiteracy rates for most minority-language children are significantly higher than their Han counterparts.
  • Officially, Mandarin is the language of instruction only from Grade 3 in minority regions but discrimination against both minority cultures and their languages exists, in classrooms, in school administration, and beyond. Plus, there’s a strong centripetal force in China: ‘harmonious’ nation-building is an inescapable urge prevailing against ethnic diversity.
A New York Times map of China’s ethnic minorities

Despite international evidence  of a positive correlation between progress in first language literacy and in second language literacy, many minority children in China do not get to develop first-language  literacy. Many academics report that bilingual education in China is falling short in practice, despite legal requirements for bilingual primary schooling in minority areas. Practical constraints including shortages of minority language teaching resources and bilingual teachers are key reasons, though there is often an undertow of unhelpful opinions on the worthlessness of minority languages. This is affecting children’s individual  progression –  most have to pass written exams in Mandarin to enter university, and cannot do so, which limits employment and social mobility – but lack of either minority language or Mandarin literacy is also affecting their community’s human capital and development overall. This also affects the literacy and attitude to schooling of younger generations, as is becoming apparent in the current crop of youngsters: illiteracy is increasing in many areas.

It helps to break down China’s minority-language communities into three categories (following University of Maryland’s Minglang Zhou):

  • Category 1 – those that had functional writing systems broadly used before 1949 and have had regular bilingual education since: I call these the Bi-Literate, Bi-Schooled group;
  • Category 2 – those that had functional writing systems narrowly used before 1949 but have had only occasional bilingual education since: Kind of Bi-Literate, Kind of Bi-Schooled;
  • Category 3 – those that had no fully functional writing systems before 1949 and have been educated almost entirely in Mandarin since: the Mando-Only group.

Case studies from all three categories illustrate how cultural identity factors can work against literacy.

 “Literacy cannot require that the reading of the word be done in the colonizer’s language”

So wrote Paulo Freire, a radical educator from Brazil, the proponent of  a global movement called Emancipatory Literacy.  It appears that Freirian ideas on colonisation through language have not impacted on Chinese literacy policy. Studies of the Bi-Literate, Bi-Schooled group and the Kind of Bi group reveal interplays between literacy and development that suggest literacy is not an autonomous, functional instrument (backing up linguistic theory). For instance, Zhou’s 2000 data shows Tibetans (Bi-Literate, Bi-Schooled) have very high Mandarin illiteracy rates (69.39%:). In contrast, in other Bi-Literate, Bi-Schooled areas, illiteracy rates are below or on par with the Han (at 21.53%). What is different for Tibetans? Bilingual schooling has not been as consistent in Tibet, and the ability of the minority to use its language in official settings or to assert its culture has been comparatively restricted. Many Tibetans now speak English as their second language (but not as many read and write it). This enables them to trade with tourists and promote political causes to a wider audience than Mandarin Chinese would. They also continue to speak and write Tibetan because it is unique and special to them.

The academics Wang and Phillion report that

“few texts [in schools in Chinese minority-language regions] discuss minority experiences or concerns; none addresses struggles with poverty or economic and education inequalities”.

They give an example of a learn-to-read book whose story is about the Tibetan minority being thankful for the support of the Han, who are responsible for them.  Wang and Phillion’s criticism of such learn-to-read materials probably strikes a chord (a pretty clanging one at that) for readers coming from or working with minority communities:

“The dominant ideology, as a result, is reproduced and instilled in minority students. Han knowledge, Han culture, and Mandarin Chinese represent advancement, science, and truth; minority knowledge, culture, and language, on the other hand, are represented as backward, unscientific, and not worth learning”.

I suggest literacy in both Tibetan and English is a conscious act of maintaining non-Han culture, which explaisn this minority language community’s comparatively low Mandarin literacy rates, and the broader school attrition rates in the region, as schooling, with its Mandarin instruction, is associated with the Central Government.

The Kind of Bi category has the highest census-reported Mandarin illiteracy rates. Why, given that schooling is in Mandarin in these communities? Many of these communities have a traditional script and a missionary-introduced alphabet script, using the former in cultural rituals and elite circles, and the latter in religious activities. For instance, in Muslim North-West China, written Arabic is used for religious practices. These scripts are not associated with the school domain. My analysis is that, when bilingual schooling doesn’t happen in practice this causes students to learn in their second language without the advantage of first language-to-second language transfer years, and second language literacy is hindered (along with other basic skills which are the content of those early years’ classes, classes not fully comprehensible to Mandarin learners). In these Kind of Bi-Literate communities, schooling isn’t building upon pre-existing literacy at all. It is analogous to the lower-class students in the developed world, whose formal literacy is often below average: poverty itself doesn’t make children unable to learn to read and write.  Instead, the issue is the lack of correspondence between their home life and school literacy practices.

In contrast to the groups above, the data on most Mando-Only  communities shows a reduction in Mandarin illiteracy, supporting my hypothesis that those for whom literacy in another language or script is not a feature of their cultural identity are more receptive to Mandarin literacy, because literacy does not play as strongly into identity.

As I noted with the Tibetan example, focusing on schooled literacy to deliver development outcomes may run into troubles problem when school itself  is perceived as culture-imposing, and this  is an issue not only in areas of obvious cultural clash like Tibet. Singapore recently reformed the teaching of Mandarin reading and writing skills. In this context, the Singaporean Minister for Chinese Language said,

“We started the wrong way…We had teachers who were teaching in completely-Chinese schools. And they did not want to use any English to teach English-speaking children Chinese and that turned them off completely”.

This is a dramatic testimony to the negative effects on literacy when schooling ignores home languages. In rural China, the home language is not prestigious, unlike English in Singapore. In more stable but under-developed areas of China, discrimination against minority-language groups may be felt in small doses but on many fronts. One can imagine that students taught in government-sanctioned Mandarin being turned off literacy even more quickly than the Singaporeans. Further, poor experiences with Mandarin literacy can cause students to generalise and reject all literacy, even in their community’s language, as literacy is so closely associated with school, and school with unwelcome authority and suppression of identity.  Not learning becomes  passive resistance against the powerful, though it is self-defeating as those without literacy, or education, will struggle to achieve their own power and voice in China.


Through the lens of China, we can see more clearly how literacy can affirm or undermine cultural identity for minorities. Many of China’s least-developed communities understand literacy as a social practice and in terms of identity construction, however, national policy is underpinned by an understanding of literacy as functional and autonomous of context and community. If literacy is being used as a key instrument of development, but social realities are not integrated into education policy, development is less successful and the benefits of development less equally shared. Perhaps more support for minority language in China will help even up the development, as the Government wants, rather than entrench diversity, as the Government fears.


[This is an  edited version of a cross-post. The full piece is on The China Beat]

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Alex Grey

Alexandra Grey was a legal researcher and advocacy trainer at a Chinese not-for-profit in Beijing from 2010-2013, continuing there after a stint with AusAID's Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development program. Back home (Australia), she has lectured in law and policy since 2010 and was a practising commercial solicitor before she moved into the NGO and academic arenas. Alexandra has studied Chinese (Mandarin) and Linguistics at postgraduate levels and is now a PhD Candidate at Macquarie University.

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One thought on “Literacy in Development: China’s ethnic minorities (part 2)

  1. The importance of bilingual and multilingual models is something I have great interest in. So thank you posting Alex. Building upon your conclusions, I feel China’s approach is merely symptomatic of the dominant global discourses on literacy. Essentially, literacy is viewed as reading/writing throughout the international community despite ample evidence to suggest the multiple forms of literacy in various contexts. Perhaps the most frustrating outcome of this is individual perceptions that they are illiterate because they do not fit in with the global definition of ‘literate’.

    Also, as you’re aware, evidence also exists to disprove fears that multilingualism and recognition of it results in segregated, unstable countries.

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