Friday, February 27, 2009

Mother Language Day

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mother Language is not about the language mothers use or teach their children. Actually, it took me a moment or two to realize that we are talking about one's "mother tongue" or "native/national language", and the martyrs you refer to were not a group of women trying to teach their children to speak, but gave up in frustration and threw themselves on burning pyres in the face of their recalcitrant children's inability to learn their "mother's language".

The fact of martyrs is a telling issue. We are talking about identity and difference. What makes a Bangladeshi a Bangladeshi and not a Pakistani or Indian? We in the west often refer to this nebulous and all encompassing thing called "culture". But we rarely encounter or even understand the full impact of what that might mean or entail.

I gave a talk to an MBA group yesterday on China's international trade logistics, with particular reference to their expanding China Rail into the interior of the country. On the one hand, this expansion is part of the 11th Five Year Plan objective to move the economy from the heated coastal cities to the interior in order to give rural Chinese the same opportunities as their urban counterparts. This is a laudable objective, and one fraught with much positive impact.

However, as with all things, there is always a dark cloud with or without the silver lining. Expansion - Chinese style -- often entails a form of cultural imperialism of massive proportions. It is a form of unification of the country through cultural colonization. Let me give some examples.

Tibet is the obvious example that many of us are familiar with. Since the 1960s the Tibetans have claimed that they face cultural genocide in the face of what they call the Chinese occupation. The Chinese for their part point to the improvements in the standards of living of Tibetans in terms of education, business development, farming and so on. There is probably truth on both sides, but a looming issue is "the mother language".

Most of the Chinese who advance into any region in China at the behest of and as planned by the Beijing regime, are "Han Chinese". This is a reference back to the Han Dynasty which was when China became China under the rulership of one major tribe or "nation" or what we call "ethnic group". Whatever happened since then, whether it was conquest by Mongols or Manchus or whoever, the Han Chinese culture remained dominant in terms of language, governance, and so on. So even with 600 or 700 languages, China is China because of the dominance of the Han. "Classical Chinese" literature includes Confuscius, Lao tze, Mencius, and so on -- all Han Chinese in origin.

We encounter the strain when we hear of these different "dialects", which are not dialects but totally different languages. Cantonese, for instance, isn't just a 9 tone language, where Mandarin is 4 tones. Cantonese is the language [and culture] of the exile classes who were banned from the imperial courts/provinces for whatever reason [losing the war is usually a big one] and exiled to the Canton area [where Hong Kong is]. To speak Cantonese is to speak an atrophied derelict language of the convict and the exile. A totally cultural issue.

The people living in Fujian Province, a coastal region near the Taiwan disputed islands, speak Mihn, a 7 tone language that most other Chinese cannot make heads or tails out of. Mihn is the language of the traders, who for centuries fanned out throughout Asia and the world on business trips. Their language is the basis for Vietnamese [viet mihn], among others of similar "Chinese roots".

So we have the trader culture, which interestingly enough includes a significantly large population of Chinese Moslems living in the Fujian city of Xiamen. Why all these "native Moslems"? Xiamen was the beginning and end of the old Silk Road, and Arab traders who ended up there intermarried and created a Moslem Chinese culture. Note: these are not Arab types living in China for generations, but Chinese who are Moslems.

Tension around culture and "mother tongue" will continue to rise in places throughout China as expansion continues. As I indicated in my MBA class yesterday, the way to gauge the impact of such "economic expansion" is to watch the news about the rise of terrorist activities in China.

Last summer, several Chinese national police in the city of Kunming near the border with Vietnam were stabbed to death by a local "dissident" [who went "biserk"] while out jogging. Well, Kunming, in the heart of Mihn culture, is a city targeted with expansion. The Han Chinese have arrived; schools are teaching Han culture and state sanctioned Mandarin, and the locals are disgruntled.

We recently read about terrorist activities in the Western Provinces. Even a plane flying from Urumqi on the border with Siberia and Uzbekistan to Beijing had to force land because of a bomb threat. A Canadian from that area has been jailed as a terrorist leading a jihad against Beijing. Yes, this is the Moslem Weeger region of China, long left alone until the city of Urumqi iteself has been targeted with expansion and economic development. Here come the Han.

For the Chinese, it's not enough simply to set up economic opportunities -- factories, rail teminals and so on. They also take over the schools and the land and so on. This is not just about building an economy with the locals; it's about exercising control over the culture and the people.

Cultural imperialism has its rough side, as I note. But it also and mostly has a subtle side: the quiet conquest in terms of language, the use of television and radio, entertainment as a way to impose Mandarin with a Beijing accent, and so on. It's the children who are most affected. It's not necessary for the Chinese communists to try to eradicate religion [Islam in Urmqi or Tantric Buddhism in Tibet] in the name of the Marxist-Maoist revolution. All they have to do is set up TV stations and within several generations things will be radically different.

So I see you celebrate the martyrs for the mother language. And I note that this is a celebration for children, who seem to dominate [possibly because they are so photogenic, and possibly because any celebration of culture must be a celebration of and for the next generation].

I am not just stunned by the beauty and the colours and the vibrancy, all of which are so vivid. I am also curious about the cultural heritage of these people. Unless I am strongly mistaken, I don't see many costumes, especially on the women, that I would associate with Islam. I see much that would remind me of India and Hinduism. Am I correct in my interpretation?

Even without knowing the details, I can surmise much from these pictures about the bloody history between Moslem and Hindu, Pakistan and India, with nations like Bangladesh caught in the middle.