A national strategic language for China

Posted by Joel Martinsen on Thursday, February 10, 2011 at 11:12 PM


China’s national language is known by a variety of names. Called “Mandarin” or “modern standard Chinese” in English, it is officially known as Putonghua (普通话, “common speech”) on the mainland and guoyu (国语, “national language”) in Taiwan. Chinese in general is called hanyu (汉语, “Han language”), which in casual speech often refers to mainstream Mandarin.

The identification of this term with the Han, China’s majority ethnic group, is detrimental to national unity, argues Zhang Wenmu in an essay published in the Global Times last October. The author, a professor at the Centre for Strategic Studies, Beijing University of Aeronautics & Astronautics, studies national security strategy and writes frequently for the Global Times on national security issues. He proposed that China abandon hanyu in favor of a broader term that will better represent its status as the country’s “national strategic language.”

The essay, translated below, is one preliminary result of a grant program at the Shanghai International Studies University to study foreign language development strategy.

Fashioning China’s National Strategic Language

By Zhang Wenmu / GT

An important mark of a modern state, once its peoples have agreed to join together to establish a state, is that from a legal standpoint, clan authority is subordinate to state authority, ethnic self-determination is subordinate to state sovereignty, and ethnic dialects have given way to a national language. A national language is the language in common use by the citizens; dialects are languages in common use by different ethnic groups or regions within the country. Elevating the language of the public from a dialect to a national language is an important sign of the existence of state sovereignty.

The destiny of the state determines the destiny of its people, and the destiny of the people is the destiny of their language. Many languages have been buried in history, and if our focus in language studies is only on details like phonemes and syllables, if we do not pay attention to the life of the language and related political factors, then our research has lost all genuine meaning. If we wish for the world to know and understand China, as we promote the national language, we must step up the formation of China’s strategic language and its use on a world stage.

Here, I would recommend that the concept of a “Chinese language” (中国语, Zhōngguó yǔ) be used in place of “Han language” (汉语, Hànyǔ), and with this as a starting point, shape a national strategic language that occupies a higher position than other ethnic and regional dialects. My reasons are as follows:

First, the use of “Chinese language” is advantageous to national identity. For China’s social governance amid periods of national transition, it has a particularly large and crucial political significance. During the Republican period, the national government once promoted a “national language” (国语, Guóyǔ); after the founding of New China, the central government promoted “common speech” (普通话, Pǔtōnghuà). These were all effective practices that shaped a national strategic language and elevated the national identity of all citizens. “Chinese language” is of course the strategic language that contemporary China must devote major efforts to shape.

Second, the traditional Chinese concept of “Han language” gives prominence to ethnic identity but lacks a national identity. Before the founding of the People’s Republic of China, ethnic languages of particular regions did not possess an inevitable political connection; however, once a People’s Republic of China recognized by all ethnic groups was founded, different communities needed to have a unified national language, a “single script.”* Today, the term “Han language” is on equal footing with “Tibetan language,” “Uyghur language,” and other ethnic and regional languages too numerous to mention. This is at odds with the principles of national identity unanimously agreed upon when the country was founded by a multi-ethnic coalition. Under these principles, non-uniform national self-determination and ethnic identity gave way to unified state sovereignty and national identity. A “Chinese language” based on the “Han language” family can be fashioned to occupy a higher position domestically than the “dialects” of ethnic groups, and to express a uniform national strategic language recognized by all the people of China internationally.

Third, an excellent context already exists within the international community for the shaping of China’s national strategic language. For quite some time now, English has generally used the term “Chinese” to express the notion of the “Chinese language” for which ordinary Chinese use the term “Han language.” Chinese is defined in English as “the standard language of China, based on the speech of Beijing.” And for the terms “Han language” and “standard speech,” which are nearer to dialects in meaning, English uses “Mandarin” which is defined in English as “the major dialect spoken by a majority of the Chinese people.” Hence we too ought to use “Chinese language” in place of the “Han language” concept in mainstream TV, newspapers, and magazines for both domestic and foreign consumption.

It must be pointed out that fashioning a national strategic language elevated above the dialects does not imply that dialects must be wiped out. Corresponding language policies should include the preservation and enrichment of the diversity of dialects, and the protection and elevation of the primacy of the Chinese language.

When a country is founded, the creation of a principal language helps prevent domestic ethnic diversity from dissipating the unity of the country, an important experience that developed western countries have gained through their highly successful domestic governance. Just as the emphasis in “The United States of America” (美利坚合众国) is on “united” (合众), not “states” (众国), the emphasis in China’s concept of “ethnic regional autonomy” (民族区域自治) lies not in “ethnic” (民族) but in “regional” (区域). Modern state theory demonstrates that once sovereign states have been established, ethnic diversity exists only on the level of culture, not politics, with ethnic differences then falling under the scope of regional differences in geographical economics. In the scope of politics, civic principles replace ethnic principles, and diverse ethnic identities are transformed into an undifferentiated civic identity. By the same token, fashioning a strategic language for China—an undifferentiated “Chinese language”—does not imply eliminating diverse domestic ethnic characteristics, but means enhancing national unity upon a foundation of guaranteeing and further enriching ethnic diversity.

Zhang’s proposal was picked apart by Wang Dechun (王德春), a linguist and rhetorician at the Shanghai International Studies University, in the November 15 issue of the university’s newspaper. Wang took issue with Zhang’s brush-off of the linguistics discipline and his reference to a “Han language family,” and cited examples from the Soviet Union and the English speaking world to illustrate how a national language need not be artificially distinguished from ethnic languages.

Wang also questioned the importance of the national strategic language (国家战略语言) concept. Indeed, there do not seem to be many references to such a thing available online. Do other countries have national strategic languages which they deploy to promote national unity within the country and soft power on an international stage?


  • Terms that appear in English in the original text have been rendered in italics in this translation.
  • 书同文shū tong wén: The Records of the Grand Historian lists this, along with unifying axle widths, as one of Qin Shi Huang’s achievements, but it turns up in the earlier Doctrine of the Mean ascribed to Confucius (who adds a line about unified standards of conduct): “今天下车同轨,书同文,行同伦。”
Links and Sources

via http://www.danwei.org/language/chinas_national_strategic_lang.php

2 Responses to “A national strategic language for China”

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