Why the World Should Care About Language in Inner Mongolia

Yet another example of Chinese government repression and attempts at cultural genocide:

On August 26 China passed a law to sideline teaching in the Mongolian language in the region of Inner Mongolia (also referred to as Southern Mongolia). This measure, which sparked immediate protests, will create irreparable losses not just for ethnic Mongolians, but also for many cultures around the world.

What is at stake here is not just the spoken language, but an 800-year-old script with a multicultural lineage that emanated from the golden era of the Silk Route.

Mongolian, as a language, is still widely spoken in independent Mongolia, but the “Mongolian script” was largely lost after the Russians introduced Cyrillic in the 1940s, when Stalin sought to control the country as a buffer against China. This makes the Inner Mongolians, who are currently under Chinese rule, the last custodians of the script. For academics, historians, linguists, and cultural aficionados, the Mongolian script holds the key to historical links between cultures that were forged during the Silk Route era and earlier. Understanding this connection might help people realize that this is not Mongolia’s fight alone.

For decades, China’s ongoing efforts to assimilate its minorities had it cracking down harshly on the religions, and languages of Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Mongolians. These are all largely nomadic cultures that were propagators of multicultural exchanges at the height of the Silk Route era.

Like the Tibetans and the Uyghurs, who have been struggling against Chinese hegemony, Mongolians have been protesting since August, but punitive measures taken by the Chinese government leave Mongolians with little choice but to concede.

“This is the final blow to our culture,” said Enghebatu Togochog, director of the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center.  “The world should know that it is not simply a language issue. This strikes at the very heart and existence of our national identity. If we lose our language we lose everything. We’ve already lost political autonomy, our nomadic way of life, and our environment. This is cultural genocide.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, in the independent state of the Mongolian People’s Republic (MPR), a democratic revolution in 1990 pushed for a switch from Russian Cyrillic to the old Mongolian script. That idea, however, received little interest and gained no traction. Parents saw it as a hindrance to their children’s future prospects at the time. But the recent protests in the Inner Mongolian region have made Mongolians in the MPR realize what they failed to in 1990. The significance and threat to their cultural, intellectual, and literary heritage is now being viewed through a new lens.

“Public opinion in MPR has changed drastically since China’s crackdown on Inner Mongolia,” said Otgonsuren Jargaliin, an outer Mongolian teacher, linguist, and environmental activist. “Mongolians now see the urgent need to preserve and protect this ancient script and not take it for granted. They now appreciate that 80 years of Cyrillic is not on par with 800 years of a writing that is our lineage and ancestry.”

She pointed out that as recently as last week MPR National Television was now carrying subtitles not only in Cyrillic, but also in the old Mongolian script, which was a new development.

The Mongolian Script

The story of the Mongolian script starts with Genghis Khan. In 1204 he appointed the Uyghur scholar Tatatunga to develop a unifying script after he established his empire. The new Mongolian script was adapted from an old Uyghur script.

The Uyghurs today are Turkic-speaking Muslims, descended from the Uyghur Khaganate, a nomadic kingdom in Mongolia, which was predominantly Manichaean and then later Buddhist. It lasted from 744 to 840 CE. It was while they were Manicheans that the Uyghurs adopted their script from the Sogdians. By the 16 century, however, the Uyghurs had transitioned to the Arabic script and were no longer using their own.

The Sogdians, meanwhile, were the remnant traders of the ancient Achaemenid Persian Empire, who capitalized on economic opportunities along the Silk Route from the fourth to ninth centuries. Like many Silk Route traders, they exported not just material goods but fashion, culture, religion, arts, and language. Their script had its roots in Aramaic.

The Uyghurs replaced the Sogdians as custodians of the script from the eighth to the beginning of the 13th century, when Genghis Khan introduced it to his new empire, the largest contiguous one the world had ever seen. As the lingua franca of the Mongolian Empire, the script was used widely connecting east with west, the Pacific to the Mediterranean.

The history of the script, therefore, offers a well documented evolution of a writing that originated from the ancient Mesopotamian civilization, and traveled across time and cultures through the Silk Route. The script’s history tells us how people from vast geographical backgrounds were connected, often not out of choice, but nevertheless linked through trade and travel. It shows us how our ancestries and heritages are all interlinked and interconnected.

The indigenous nomadic tribes from different cultures, along with traders from different regions and countries, brought a broader understanding of a socio-cultural world through their free movement along the Silk Route. Unlike China’s nationalistic ideology, they were not confined to a specific religion, nationality, ethnicity, language, or geographical boundary. This was what promoted cultural connectivity and created an era of great cultural exchange.

Today China is trying to recreate its idea of a Silk Route through its “One Belt, One Road” foreign policy and economic strategy, also known as the Belt and Road Initiative. But what China fails to recognize is that the success of the original Silk Route was due to its recognition and acceptance of the many cultures it spanned and encountered. Cultural legacies were embraced and valued rather than wiped out along the way in the name of uniformity. The Belt and Road Initiative can’t replicate the success of the Silk Route if it persecutes the very people and cultures, like the Mongolians, that made the original routes last for centuries.

The irony is that, in trying to recreate the Silk Road through its nationalistic lens, China may once again end up with something that is just another “Made in China” imitation.

Source: Why the World Should Care About Language in Inner Mongolia

Parents Keep Children Home As China Limits Mongolian Language In The Classroom


Early this month, parents and students across the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia streamed back to school campuses, not to attend classes, but instead to protest.

They gathered by the hundreds outside dozens of schools in rare acts of civil disobedience, protesting a new policy that sharply reduces their hours of Mongolian-language instruction. For several days, schools across Inner Mongolia stood empty as parents pulled their children out of class, the largest demonstrations in Inner Mongolia in more than three decades.

Just as quickly came the crackdown.

In Tongliao, a city of 3 million where protests were among the fiercest, residents told NPR that cars were banned from the roads for four days to stop parents from congregating. Municipal notices seen by NPR required parents to sign official statements promising to send their children to school or face punishment. Security officials in Inner Mongolia have issued arrest warrants for hundreds of parents who attended protests — complete with mug shots grabbed from surveillance cameras.

The city of Xilinhot said Wednesday that parents who sent their children to school would receive preferential access to government aid programs, according to a municipal notice seen by NPR. Those who did not would have their children expelled and their livestock herds, which many ethnic Mongolians still depend on for supplementary income, would be inspected.

“Mongolian parents, the civil servants, party members and teachers of Mongolian descent are under tremendous pressure to send their children to school,” says Enghebatu Togochog, the director of the advocacy group Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center. “Threats of arrest, detention, imprisonment, even confiscation of property are the most common methods of intimidation being used.”

The policy that ethnic Mongolians are protesting mandates that schools previously allowed to teach nearly all subjects in Mongolian now teach two required classes — politics and history — in Mandarin Chinese and begin Chinese-language literature classes one year earlier. School textbooks and teaching materials for those classes must also now be in Mandarin Chinese — China’s national language — with authorities saying Chinese-language books are higher quality than Mongolian-language books.

For China’s some 6 million ethnic Mongolians, this policy feels like a betrayal.

“One very strong sense in Inner Mongolia on the part of Mongols is how much they’ve given up,” explains Christopher Atwood, a professor of Mongolian language and history at the University of Pennsylvania.

Mongolians were the first ethnic group to declare their support for the now-ruling Chinese Communist Party in the 1940s. In doing so, they lost their opportunity for political autonomy but were granted a certain amount of cultural autonomy.

For the last seven decades, China’s ethnic Mongolians have been allowed to attend school and take university classes in the Mongolian language — which has no relation to Mandarin Chinese — officially offered in six provinces and regions.

Mongolian-language education had already been diminishing in scope before the new policy. In recent years, more and more parents were voluntarily choosing to send their children to Mandarin Chinese-only schools, which afford better economic outcomes.

Official statistics from 2017 show that about 30% of ethnic Mongolian students attend a school with some form of Mongolian-language education, down from an estimated 60% in 1990.

Now China is moving toward what it calls “second generation” ethnic policy — an approach that has emerged in the last decade that demands China’s minority ethnic groups become more “Chinese” by reducing or outright eliminating their limited cultural autonomy.

In the past decade, similar policy changes first targeted Tibetan– and Uighur- language education, drastically reducing the numbers of language teachers and resources available for students in those languages. The new language policy “is not a special requirement only asked of ethnic Mongolians, because regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang have already undergone the same transition,” Inner Mongolia’s education bureau wrote on its website.

But experts say stricter regulation of ethnic Mongolians is especially counterproductive.

“Many more Mongols were already studying Chinese,” says Morris Rossabi, an academic who studies Central Asian history at Columbia University and Queens College.

He explains that ethnic Mongolians are an assimilation success story from the eyes of Beijing, with high rates of intermarriage with Han, the majority ethnic group in China, and high levels of Mandarin Chinese fluency. “There was a kind of peace that had prevailed for 25 years. It just seems very odd that the government would create conditions that would arouse dissent,” says Rossabi.

Empty classrooms as the school year begins

Dissent was widespread this September. Ethnic Mongolian television anchors and language advocates posted videos encouraging parents to withdraw their students. On Sept. 1, the first day of the fall semester in Inner Mongolia, many schools stood empty as parents kept their children home.

Within days, China’s police state mobilized to contain the demonstrations.

In Bairin Right Banner, a region next to the Inner Mongolian city of Chifeng, and Sonid Right Banner, to the west, authorities said elementary and middle school students who did not return to class by this week would be expelled. In Kangmian Banner, parents were asked to sign a statement pledging to return their children to school or face punishment, according to a notice seen by NPR.

Two parents in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia’s capital city, told NPR that they had received nonstop calls from teachers and the school’s principal pressuring them to return their children to school.

Waves of ethnic Mongolian civil servants have quit their posts rather than implement the policy. In the town of Wudan, two village Communist Party officials were fired for “creating a negative influence in the village” and “failing to follow orders,” according to a notice posted by the local government and seen by NPR.

Four Communist Party members and a Mongolian-language teacher were expelled from the party and fired from their jobs this week in Bairin Right Banner for failing to carry out the new policy.

As a result, many parents have begun sending their children back to school.

In mid-September, about a dozen parents lined up outside Tongliao’s Shebotu Middle School to pick up their children. One parent quietly explained why he finally sent his daughter to school only this week: “If you do not send your child back, the government threatens to fire those with state jobs or to cut your social benefits.” He asked to remain anonymous because of the threat of punishment.

The intimidation extends to journalists. A black car with no license plates followed NPR in Tongliao. Shortly after speaking to parents outside Shebotu Middle School, a group of 12 plainclothes and uniformed police officers, some claiming to be parents, prevented NPR from interviewing more people in the city.

Source: Parents Keep Children Home As China Limits Mongolian Language In The Classroom