Chinese Language and Nationalism


After the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty in 1911, many of the new leaders of China  planned to create a totally different kind of Chinese State.The collapse of the dynastic system, they thought, had at last given them the opportunity to build a free and independent nation. What was left of the old China had to be done away with the reconstruction begun on a new foundation. Those people shared a dedication to Chinese nationalism. One of the first orders of the day  was to give China a national language.

Letter from a Chinese intellectual Qian Xuantong to Chen Duxiu, the leader of the attack on Confucianism

Dear Mr. Chen:

In an earlier essay of yours, you strongly advocate the abolition of Confucianism. Concerning this proposal of yours, I think that is now the only way to save China. But, upon reading it, I have though of one thing more: If you abolish Confucianism, then you must first abolish the Chinese language; if you want to get rid of the average person’s childish, uncivilized, obstinate way of thinking, then it is all the more essential that you first abolish the Chinese language.

       To keep China from perishing and to make the Chinese people into a civilized, twentieth-century people, argued Qian, the Chinese language had to be replaced by Esperanto. (Ramsey, 3)

                 Language and the Rise of Nationalism in China

Qian Xuantong

   Chen Duxiu

The significance of the nation-state, and  political nationalism, to the issues of language loss and language rights raises an important question. Why has so little actually been written on the interrelationship between nationalism and language, since it is clear that this interrelationship is crucial to a fuller understanding of the processes at work here? The reason for this absence can be explained largely by the hermetic nature of academic boundaries. Sociolinguists and social and political theorists have seldom engaged directly with each other’s arguments in the complex and contested domains of language and nationalism, or in the related areas of ethnicity and identity politics. This lack of engagement, or dialogue, is compounded by the often radically different perspectives on the language identity link adopted in these different academic fields of enquiry.

The principal problem here is that advocates of linguistic human rights tend to assume the identity of linguistic minority groups as given, the collective aims of linguistic minority groups as uniform, and the notion of collective rights as unproblematic.

If advocates of linguistic human rights are ever to carry the day, they must address more adequately the complexities- and, at times, contradictions -that surround debates on individual and collective identities, and their associated rights’ claims. As a first step, the question of the link between language and identity needs to be critically examined, not just assumed. Second, the contingent nature of linguistic identity-as one of many (sometimes) competing identities available to the minority language speaker - needs to be acknowledged and accommodated. And third, the legitimacy of any group-based claim to rights needs to be defended in relation to a political system of nation-states and a political ideology of liberalism that are both predicated on the notion of individual citizenship rights (May 7).

Nation-state, Political Nationalism, and Language loss and rights