eChinaJOBs APP Download

Fading Voices: China’s Endangered Languages

Oct 23, 2014 By Mark Oliver , Comments (3)     Add your comment Newsletter

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • WeChat
  • Email
  • More sharing

At the height of the Qing dynasty, Manchu was the language of emperors. It was the language that filled the nation’s courts, and the only one spoken by the nation’s leader. Today though, the language that ruled the country during the powerful Qing Dynasty until 1911 is spoken by a mere 70 people on the planet.

The decline of Manchu is far from an isolated case. As the world becomes more interconnected, languages everywhere are dying out at an unprecedented rate. In China alone, 144 languages linger on the brink of extinction, most with no more than a few dozen speakers left.

Preserving endangered languages can be a polarizing issue. In a country where the dialects are so diverse that two mostly widely spoken ones are mutually unintelligible, it can be tempting to write the death of another language off with a good riddance.

These languages, though, encode in them a culture and all of the relics of their history. Ma Yongquan, an artist working to preserve the endangered Zhuang language, told Xinhua that the folk songs of his people simply “could not be expressed in any other written language.” The grammar, phrasing, and wit of a distinct language is inexpressible in any other, and influences even the very thoughts of a people into their own unique style, all of which die with it.

China’s endangered languages
Photo: Arian Zwegers

Politics and the decline of minority languages

The decline of minority languages in China has gone hand-in-hand with the changes in the government. When the People’s Republic of China was formed, minority cultures were given some freedom, and the nation was peppered with autonomous areas governed by minority groups. Even this brief recognition, though, was just a scheduled first step in the planned transition into socialism. From the start, Mao’s intention was for nations and states across the world to fade and be united into one.

With the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, minority languages and unique cultures were increasingly discouraged. State propaganda boasted and promoted an enthusiasm among minority groups to discard their own languages for Putonghua: the standardized version of Mandarin Chinese. The constitution was continually revised, from “encouraging” minority languages to “allowing” them, and then to requiring that Putonghua be promoted nationally.

The unique and diverse cultures of China went through an accelerated process of homogenization, and cultures and languages died out. As of 1979, the government stopped recognizing small minority groups. Instead, minority cultures became lumped into one of the 55 pre-defined groups the government acknowledged out of the over 400 groups that applied for minority status.

For a long time, there was no effort to preserve these languages and cultures, while every effort was made to erode them. The nation has, however, significantly changed this approach, especially since observing and learning from the fall of the Soviet Union. The government now offers reparations and benefits to minorities, and encourages people to stand up to be recognizing as members of distinct culture within the nation.

A new drive to preserve the languages and cultures

Though many languages have already died out, the PRC today is working with UNESCO to preserve its endangered languages. Their main effort works with members of minority cultures to keep them alive. They partner with endangered language speakers to translate and publish a number of major Chinese works, such as Mao’s Red Book, and to record traditional stories and songs so that a usable record of the language will always be available.

It’s a program that the government takes an intense pride in, but there are some critics who feel it isn’t enough. The program requires applying languages to present a standardized version with a phonetic pinyin, meaning that any dialect variations are deliberately left unpreserved.

It’s a start nonetheless. Perhaps, though, the real question isn’t whether the government is doing enough but whether these languages can realistically be saved at all. In a world that becomes more interconnected every day, it becomes more and more necessary to be able to make yourself understood through a widely-spoken language, and increasingly difficult to keep the little splashes of distinct cultures alive. UNESCO measures the decay of a language by the number of speakers using it at home, and scribbling down an old folk song in a fading tongue hardly keeps the language in regular use.

The real struggle to preserve a language can’t be fought by a government or by armchair advocates overseas – it has to be fought by the people who speak it. For a language to truly survive, it’s not enough to just preserve old culture – it has to continue to create and proliferate new culture.

Unfortunately, some linguistic researchers have left the field discouraged on this note, and the Ethnologue of the world’s language lists many of China’s endangered languages as holding “indifference” amongst its remaining speakers.

Some, however, are still working to survive, and their preservation comes through adapting to the technology that threatens them. Tibet, in particular, is working hard to include support for its language in as many aspects of information technology and the internet as possible.

The future of the minority languages of China remains uncertain. As it always does, the nation can be trusted to preserve a strong record of his ever-continuing history and heritage – but whether these distinct languages and cultures will continue to thrive remains to be seen.

Will China’s endangered languages ever again be spoken from a mother to her child? Or is Manchu’s fate the best we can hope for – for the languages to be preserved as a relic of history, stored in a dusty corner of a library, untouched and unused?

For the latest China related news and stories sent right to your phone follow our WeChat account:



The use of any news and articles published on without written permission from constitutes copyright infringement, and legal action can be taken.

Keywords: China’s endangered languages decline of minority languages

You might also be interested in

  • Skip the Chinese Gym! Workout Routines You Can Do at Home

    It's hard staying in shape, especially when the beck and call of China's various distractions get in the way—"Dinner at my favorite Sichuan place? Why, sure I'd love to join you after work instead of going to the gym!" But with the heavy food-and drink-fueled lifestyle that many ...

  • Don’t Be an Outsider in China: Six Tips to Help You Fit In

    You came all the way to China but most of your friends are English speaking expats. The Chinese friends you have managed to make are either your students or people who wish they were your students. You eat at the same place every day, usually a Western cafe, and when you go out at ......

  • Jobs for Non-Native English Speakers in China

    It is well known that native English speakers have an advantage when it comes to finding work in China – if nothing else, there’s always English teaching. However, what if you don’t come from one of the major English speaking nations, what if English is your second or even third language? What ...

  • E-Bike Buyer’s Guide: Tips on Shopping for Electric Bikes in China

    Although the popularity of e-bikes may have stemmed from the associated financial and environmental benefits, by joining the masses and buying one, you’ll also gain the freedom to explore the city at your leisure.

  • A Foreigner’s Guide to Buying Vehicles in China

    So, you’ve decided to take the plunge and buy a vehicle in China, but where to start? What do you buy and how do you buy it? Are you even allowed to as a foreigner? Let’s take a look and find out …

  • Property Boom! A Guide to Buying Homes in China

    Some locals and foreigners have become filthy rich in Chinese real estate, as it always seems to keep going up. So, if you’re thinking about purchasing property here, or are settling down and need a roof over your head, there are definitely some things to keep in mind about playing the property ...

3 Comments ( Add your comment )


Its very unfortunate how many languages around the world are extinguishing with advancement in socio-economic status of a society. These days people fly to more developed cities and learn the more common or global languages, ofcourse for their own benefit, in order to suit the requirements of employers, leaving their own languages behind. We for sure cannot blame anyone. I think the goverment can pen down a policy or a scheme to save those languages under a brink of extinction. I myself am from Dai(Tai/Thai) minority in India. Its hurtful to see how gradually young people from my society are unable to verse in my language.I can see my language fading away infront of my eyes, but I am completely helpless.

Oct 23, 2014 16:34

And other languages, like English, have been bastardized

Apr 08, 2015 01:21

To Mark Oliver, the author of this blog. Be a responsible writter. stop writting lies about Our President of the Philippines. We know him much better than you. tell me what do you know about him? you just wrote an article about him based on what you have read and heard from the Bias Media in the Philippines which are paid by the drug Lords. If you are not a Filipino Shut Up!

Oct 10, 2016 00:12

Add your comment

All comments are subject to moderation by staff. Because we wish to encourage healthy and productive dialogue we ask that all comments remain polite, free of profanity or name calling, and relevant to the original post and subsequent discussion. Comments will not be deleted because of the viewpoints they express, only if the mode of expression itself is inappropriate. Please use the Classifieds to advertise your business and unrelated posts made merely to advertise a company or service will be deleted.

Please login to add a comment. Click here to login immediately.

Do you know more about this topic?

Share your experience with other readers and earn points and rewards.

How can I earn points? Post Blog

Share your blog with others and earn 5 points.

Most Read in eChinacities

This week This month

Living in China

Featured Comments

Hot Jobs Hot Classifieds