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:

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。”
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There are currently 16 Comments for A national strategic language for China.

Comments on A national strategic language for China

This is entirely concocting a concept of "Chinese language". This whole article is about how a communist researcher uses a marketing mindset to fabricate a seemingly new jargon, presuming national identity can be created by merely changing the accepted name of its language.

Doesn't 华语 fit this role quite well, without the political divisiveness that "中国语" undoubtedly invites?

I don't think 华语 is unique enough of an identifier for the author's aim of national unity (unless China were to claim sovereignty over Singapore and the Chinese diaspora).

Well, he's already proposing to rename those people's language "China's language," so perhaps...

This is a classic case of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, or of putting the cart before the horse.

Languages and "dialects" (as the author lazily refers to everything other than standard Mandarin spoken in China) are created by the people who choose to speak them, and cannot be prescribed by a king or by a body of elites to magically bring diverse peoples together.

To PROscribe a "dialect" is always a waste of energy and resources. The examples are numerous, but one could start with Spain's various languages, dialects and the "Spanish language" as exhibit A.

"Dialects" are proscribed at the risk of legitimizing them to the point of turning mere dialects into languages, and giving their speakers (sometimes unmerited) national identity.

Call Mandarin whatever you want to, but it still remains one of many languages in China's rich linguistic tapestry.

"I don't think 华语 is unique enough of an identifier for the author's aim of national unity (unless China were to claim sovereignty over Singapore and the Chinese diaspora)."

Kind of the intention of the boys in ZhongNanHai, no?

Gringo is right. I also had to laugh that Mandarin is a language, but everything else is only a dialect. Seems they still have a tough time in China to make movies in 上海话 or 广东话, I guess they are also scared about those 说广东话 campaigns recently in GZ.

"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."

This is true in a marxist/highly centralsied state, but capitalist democracies such as the UK, Canada, Spain, New Zealand, and Germany to name a few show that isn't really the case in the rest of the world.

Indeed, a "national language" to wipe out any remaining pockets of ethnic identity or diversity. Are we supposed to take nationalist tracts like Global Times seriously?

Sounds like Zhang is just dressing up the subversion of dialects and other languages. Most of his "essay" is just Party rhetoric, such as: "once a People’s Republic of China recognized by all ethnic groups was founded..."
Even the premise it's based on, the first line, would send shudders down the backs of millions of Chinese citizens.

The translation of fangyan to "dialect" is misleading anyway. Linguists use the term in English in a much more democratic way to refer to any variation of a language 一個語言的任何變體 was I think how they put it in a translation of an English book on sociolinguistics, (I think it was Peter Trudgill's Dialectology?). By this definition if Cantonese and Mandarin/Putonghua are all "Chinese" then we need to call Mandarin a dialect as well. Fangyan in Chinese refers to anything other than the state-sponsored, state-enforced variety. Chinese linguists at least limit their definition of fangyan to varieties closely related to the state standard like Cantonese and Wu. The person who wrote this article is trying to revive the old usage of fangyan in pre-modern China, when it referred to any regional speech, whether it was related to Chinese or not. I hope the person who wrote this article doesn;t have much influence beyond being a party hack journalist. Feds is right, it would send shivers down the back of millions, and some of those would be party members as well.

Mandarin is already China's national language. The author is merely proposing framing it differently. Rather than refer to Mandarin as 汉语 he would like to call it 中国语. He thinks that this would make the national language policy seem less ethnocentric. Although many ethnic minorities in China, like some Tibetans and Uyghurs I've met, do not identify themselves as Chinese, I've also met other ethnic minority people who would like Han people to recognize them as equally Chinese. These people realize that whether they like or not, China is the only nation they have, and they want to be accepted as "real" Chinese and not always stereotyped as "others" by Han Chinese. These ethnic minority people might welcome a paradigm shift in which Chinese national identity is less tied up with Han identity.

The comments are off-base. If you're criticizing mandarin as a nationalist tool, you are about 60 years too late.

The point is that "hanyu" is an inaccurate term then and now. (The current form of mandarin was in no way spoken in the Han dynasty, for one thing)

They actually only call it 漢語 Hanyu officially when they teach it to foreigners. When they are getting non-Sinitic peoples or speakers of other varieties of Sinitic to learn it they already call it 普通話 Putonghua. The comments are not really off-base at all, as the author of the article seems to be proposing a return to the KMT style policy of 國語, all he does is tart it up by adding a 中 to the front of it, and a bit of "strategic" management-speak.

@ Anonymous | February 11, 2011 9:35 PM

In the Western democratic countries such as those you listed, the minorities (e.g. the Native Americans, the Aborigens from the Oceania) only "sub" exist since from them were stripped their self-determination.

Not sure if the other anonymous' post is really about officially-recognized minorities vs. other groups with some shared identity, i.e. (to pick up the Spanish example) whether it is only about Basques or also about Catalans/Asturians etc.

But anyway: Danes in Germany certainly don't "sub"-exist. I'd even argue they have considerably more rights than Koreans (e.g.) have in China. For example they have their own political party with substantial privileges in regional elections.

I would also argue that most speakers of German, French, Italian or Rhaetoroman in Switzerland do not feel like they were stripped of their self-determination. In fact, the acceptance of several official languages does not seem to impede the Swiss sense of unity much.

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