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A national strategic language for China


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:

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