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Review of  The Language Situation in China

Reviewer: Dongmei Cheng
Book Title: The Language Situation in China
Book Author: Li Yuming Li Wei
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Mandarin
Language Family(ies): Sino-Tibetan
Issue Number: 31.384

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This volume displays the different facets of China’s language situation during the period of 2012-2013. As a country with a rich cultural diversity, China’s language policy is of great importance to not only its own people but also to others in the world who are interested to learn about the Chinese language and culture. In the Forward of this volume, Li Yuming emphasized that language equality is essential for the scientific protection of ethnic languages. On one hand, the national lingua franca, Putonghua, is being promoted as the common language of communication among people who speak different regional dialects in China. Putonghua also carries the function of a national language and is universally adopted in public sectors in China, such as education, science and technology, publication, administration, etc. On the other hand, Putonghua cannot possibly be used in all social occasions, when minority languages are being used instead. It is critical for the Chinese government to keep a balance between promoting Putonghua and protecting minority languages. In today’s digital society, the government should take full advantage of the Internet to document, preserve, and exhibit the language varieties in China through virtual language museums. Language protection not only benefits the society but also contributes to economic development and academic advancement.

Part One of this book addresses topics related to the official language works done by the Chinese government during 2012-2013. Official documents from the Ministry of Education, State Language Commission, and General Office of the State Council are presented, along with other relevant documents on official language planning. Chapter 1 presents the outline of the national mid-and long-term reform and development plan on spoken and written languages, issued by the Ministry of Education. This outline has four guiding principles: the first principle is to promote and standardize the use of Putonghua and to protect ethnic minority languages. One goal under this principle is to have Putonghua widely used throughout the country by 2020 and to train bilingual teachers in ethnic minority areas to be qualified to teach Putonghua. The other goal is to develop language resource databases for minority languages.

The second principle is to strengthen language infrastructure and management. The government needs to develop a long-term plan to standardize the official language and to publicize the nation’s language resources through digital tools. The third principle is to enhance the nation’s language capacities and the citizen’s language proficiency, especially the Putonghua proficiency of young children, teachers and relevant professional communities. The fourth principle is to enhance the quality of education for the development of spoken and written languages. Putonghua training is deemed necessary for all citizens of the country, and the government also plans to form standards on bilingual education in ethnic group communities as well as standards on sign language and Braille. Overseas Chinese are also encouraged to come to China to learn the Chinese language and to boost understanding of their own cultural heritage.

Chapter 2 is the 12th five-year research plan of the State Language Commission. The State Language Commission (i.e., SLC) plays multiple roles in the language planning of China, such as conducting research on the education of Putonghua, minority languages, and languages of hearing-impaired and blind people. The SLC also works to advance the Internet-based Chinese semantic analysis system.

Chapter 3 is the Confucius Institutes development plan (2012-2020), developed by the General Office of the State Council. The Confucius Institutes have been established to introduce Chinese language and culture to the world and to absorb the excellent cultural elements from other countries. The plan indicates that although the Institutes successfully promoted the Chinese language to the global community and strengthened the cultural connections between China and other countries, the quality of Chinese teaching offered by the Institutes is not satisfactory, due to the lack of professional teachers and appropriate teaching materials. It is crucial for the Institutes to accommodates the needs of students from different cultures and to design lesson materials and activities that can easily integrate to the target cultures.

Chapter 4 introduces the first comprehensive outline of China’s language planning, including the present and future language tasks, such as the Chinese language proficiency test, computer-aided Putonghua proficiency test, standardized Chinese writing education, and the standardization of the Chinese translation of foreign languages.

Chapter 5 includes a series of guidelines on the language and information management in China, such as the guidelines for the translation of foreign languages in public service areas, the standardization of Putonghua pronunciation, and the international exchange and cooperation in language projects. Chapter 6 discusses several issues concerning the promotion and popularization of the national standard language. At the center of the discussion is the language equality between Putonghua and ethnic minority languages. A sign of success of Chinese language planning is the current diglossic environment in China, where Putonghua is the dominant language for public and official communication across the country, and minority languages and dialects are used to fulfill different social functions in different geographical areas. The authors also cautioned against placing too much emphasis on foreign language education at the expense of lack or inappropriate use of the national language.

Chapter 7 presents arguments on raising the language awareness of the Chinese society. Lack of basic language awareness is considered as a fundamental problem of the whole society, which leads to multiple problems, including the loss of minority languages, financial cost, and even the loss of lives in rescues of earthquakes and disasters.

Part Two of the book introduces several special research projects on the languages in China, including surveys on the use of Putonghua as the official language, ethnic minority languages, Braille, as well as the language uses of specific groups such as foreigners and military personnel.

Chapter 8 discusses the international dissemination of the Chinese language, which is done via the different types of Confucius Institutes, such as those for traditional Chinese medicine, tourism, and music. Chinese experiential activities and contests have also been held in different Confucius Institutes across the world. Chinese examinations, such as Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) have gained popularity among Chinese language learners all over the world. Trained Chinese teachers have been sent overseas to teach the Chinese language, and training has also been done for overseas Chinese teachers. There has been a steady increase of foreign students who are studying Chinese in China, and Summer Camps of different themes have been organized for overseas Chinese youths to learn the different aspects of their own cultural heritage.

Chapter 9 describes the United Nations Chinese Language Day, which is set on the day of the Grain Rain according to the Chinese 24 solar terms. The Chinese Language Day has attracted more participants over the years and has incorporated not only the Han Chinese culture but also cultures of different ethnic minority groups. Chapter 10 discusses China’s foreign language capacity. China has rich natural foreign language resources due to its geographical location. Being connected to 14 countries, China has over 30 languages being spoken in bordering regions. The large numbers of overseas Chinese and foreigners residing in China are also considered as China’s natural foreign language resources. The artificial foreign language resources in China, however, are rather scarce. There are only a small number of Chinese students who are studying less common foreign languages, and foreign language personnel who have knowledge of different industries and foreign cultures are also hard to find. This shortage of artificial foreign language resources severely impacted China’s international and diplomatic relationships. The quality of China’s foreign language resources is poor, given the fact that foreign language education in China is often associated with linguistics and literature but not with cultural awareness and disciplinary knowledge. The Chinese government needs long-term planning for the development and use of the nation’s foreign language resources.

Chapter 11 is a report on the economic value of language in Nanjing’s service industry. Gathering perceptions of the service providers and consumers, this report reveals that consumers are willing to pay higher prices for better language services in the service industry. This result showed the economic value of language and indicated the necessity of language-related training for service industry employees.

Chapter 12 describes the major types of society-oriented Chinese language tests, including tests of Chinese as a first language (e.g., the national Chinese proficiency test), tests of Chinese as a second language (e.g., Chinese proficiency examination), and minority language tests (e.g., Mongolian standard pronunciation test).

Chapter 13 addresses the issue of protecting the intellectual property rights of digital Chinese fonts. A Chinese font set takes a whole design team and years to design; however, seldom are people willing to pay for the use of the font, which creates difficulty for the font designers to keep their jobs. The absence of a legislative measure on copyright protections further hinders the growth of the font design industry in China. To solve this problem, the authors urged the government to consider implementing a copyright protection law on digital Chinese fonts.

Chapter 14 discusses the decline and protection of the mother tongues of the northern ethnic groups. Many languages spoken by these groups are not taught in schools but are passed down by the elders in the communities, who typically hold pessimistic attitudes towards the future of their home languages because more and more young people are reluctant to learn them. The best way to protect minority languages is to promote the use of them among their people. National laws and regulations should also be established to preserve and maintain these languages.

Chapter 15 categorizes the cross-border ethnic minority languages in China. The 33 minority languages are sorted into five categories: 1) languages are used by only a small number of people in China (less than 150,000 speakers) but are the major languages used in neighboring countries, such as Mongolian, Kazakh, and Korean; 2) languages are used by a large number of people (more than 150,000 speakers) in both China and its neighboring countries, such as the Zhuang language, Uyghur, and the Miao language; 3) languages are used by a large number of people in China but only a small number of people in bordering countries, such as Tibetan, Yi, and Bouyei; 4) languages are used by a small number of people in China but have a large number of speakers in neighboring countries, such as Jingpho, Tatar and Palaung; and 5) languages are not used by many speakers in both China and other countries, such as Blang, Achang, and Evenki.

Chapter 16 reports a survey on the use of Braille in China. Results showed that Braille is used more often for teachers to address to students who receive lower grades, as well as to teach core subjects such as mathematics and languages. Results also showed a lack of preparation for teachers of Braille, which severely impacted the quality of education for blind students.

Chapter 17 addresses the problematic language situation of foreign residents in Guangzhou, the majority of whom come from Africa and have limited language proficiency in Mandarin. This causes severe difficulty for them to communicate effectively in China. A new law or regulation is needed to place a language requirement on immigrants or applicants for residence in China.

Chapter 18 discusses the language use of the Chinese military, which shows an apparent hierarchy from the addressing terms used by officers and soldiers. Sex-related metaphorical usages are used in nonstandard appellations, such as using “eggs’ to refer to newly-joined male soldiers and “slices” to refer to their female counterparts. There is also a trend for military personnel to use vulgar language to demonstrate power although swearing; and cursing is now being regulated in official settings. Language use in the military goes through semantic changes over the years and changes according to contexts. New codes are constantly created by soldiers and are adopted by the general public as well.

Part Three of the book includes a collection of research studies on focused language issues in China.

Chapter 19 presents both sides of the debate on dialect protection. Controversial issues on the use of dialects are discussed, including bus stop announcements in local dialects, teaching dialects in schools, and using dialects in the workplace.

Chapter 20 presents another debate, which is on the inclusion of lettered expressions in Chinese dictionaries. While some people worried that such inclusion would harm the purity of the Chinese language, others considered it as a normal and necessary language use phenomenon.

Chapter 21 describes the language used in microblogs, a popular online writing form used by the Chinese public. A key characteristic of the language in microblogs is imitation. For example, the Taobao style is a microblogging style imitating the language style used in the buyer-seller communication on, the largest online shopping site in China.

Chapter 22, titled “Place-renaming fever”, discusses three cases of place renaming in China. The first case is the proposal of changing the city name Xiangfan to Xiangyang to highlight the historical and cultural heritage of this city. Opponents rejected this name change because of the high financial cost associated with this name change. The second case is regarding the renaming of the fourth teaching building of Tsinghua University to Jeanswest building to honor the donation made by Jeanswest. Opponents thought that it is inappropriate to name an academic building at a top university with a commercial brand name. The third case is a proposal on changing the abbreviation of the Province Hubei from “E” to “Chu”. Opponents rejected this name change because the new abbreviation may cause disputes with other provinces, who also represent the Chu culture. Also, as in the first case, such name change would result in unnecessary financial cost.

Chapter 23 describes the language policy of Hong Kong, where most of the population are biliterate. Cantonese is considered as the high variety in Hong Kong’s diglossic society, as it is now used in different official contexts, such as in lower-level courts and in the Legislative Council meetings. Putonghua is also experiencing a great increase in speakers in Hong Kong since 2011. Putonghua proficiency is greatly emphasized in the educational sector, as well as the tourism industry.

Chapter 24 reports the use of Putonghua in Macau. Surveys distributed to students and general public in Macau showed that Putonghua is the second most used language at home right after Cantonese. Most students have learned Putonghua in schools and are motivated to learn it; however, the fluency of Putonghua among Macau residents still needs to be improved.

Chapter 25 discusses the language situation in Taiwan. The government authorities proposed the establishment of the Taiwan Academies to compete with the Confucius Institutes in Mainland China. However, language and cultural experts in Taiwan disagreed and believed that the Taiwan Academies can cooperate with the Confucius Institutes as a joint effort to promote the Chinese culture.

Chapter 26 is an analysis of the language use in Taiwan. The 8th population census data showed that the two major languages in Taiwan are Guoyu (i.e., Taiwanese Mandarin) and Minnan. Guoyu is a language adapted from Putonghua, but it is heavily influenced by Japanese and Minnan. While the younger generations typically have higher proficiencies in Guoyu, the older generations are more likely to be proficient speakers of dialects, such as Minnan, Hakka, or the aboriginal languages.

Chapters 27 and 28 present the frequently occurring popular words and phrases which have appeared in Chinese news and media (2011-2012), such as ‘Diaoyu islands’,’beautiful China’, and ‘London Olympics’. Popular expressions such as ~style (e.g., Yuanfang style and Zhenhuan style as appeared in popular TV dramas) are analyzed. These examples of popular language use reflect the trendy topics in the different aspects of the Chinese society and are thus good ways to understand Chinese language and culture.


Introducing the current language situation in China, this edited volume is comprehensive and covers a wide variety of topics, which helps global readers understand and appreciate the rich cultural and language diversity of China.

The English translations of the official documents included in Part One of the book are valuable to scholars who are interested in the China’s language policies. These documents are also good references for language policy makers in other countries. The research reports included in the last two parts also contain useful information for the use of different languages and dialects in China. The discussion on Putonghua (Standard Chinese), other dialects (e.g., Cantonese and Minnan), as well as other languages (e.g., Braille and ethnic minority languages) used in different parts of China is particularly informative for those who want to obtain an overview of the different languages used by Chinese people. The analyses of language use in specific areas, such as in microblogging and in the military add more unique perspectives to the volume.

However, unfortunately no discussion on the influence of gender and age on language use has been included. Sun and Cheng (2018) discussed a list of new Chinese concepts that have become popular on the Internet in the past decade. Concepts such as “Shopping Spree” and “Moonlight”, for example, reflect the new lifestyle adopted by the younger Chinese generation, who embrace the idea of spending rather than saving money, in contrast to the traditional values. It would be interesting to see more works on the gender or age differences in language use in China, which would help to enrich the current research findings.

This volume contains three parts and 28 chapters, all of which were translated from the Chinese edition. Despite the wide coverage of different topics, there is not an introduction on each part regarding the theme of the included chapters; rather, readers are left alone to draw connections among the chapters by themselves. Without editors’ introductions, the distinctions among the different parts are unclear. For example, it is difficult to tell the differences between Part Two (Special Research) and Part Three (Language Focuses), as many chapters in Part Two can belong to Part Three, and vice versa. In some cases, the subheading of the part does not accurately reflect the nature of the work reported in each chapter. For instance, Chapter 9 (The United Nations Chinese Language Day) describes the activity agendas of the Chinese language day in 2011 and 2012. Such descriptions are by no means related to special research, unlike what the subheading of Part Two suggests. Also, some chapters are missing either empirical data support or adequate analyses. Chapter 17 (Language situation of foreign residents in Xiaobei Road, Guangzhou) has the intention to report the findings of observations and interviews of the language use situation of 30 foreign residents in Guangzhou. However, besides the numerical data cited in the literature review, which was from previous studies, the entire report did not include any original data to support the analyses. Chapter 27 (Popular words and phrases) only contains a brief introduction, as well as a list of words and phrases and their usage graphs. Without discussions on how these words and phrases are used in communicative settings, the content of this chapter carries little value. Moreover, as a translated work, this volume failed to provide necessary explanations for culturally loaded concepts, which may create difficulty in understanding for an English-speaking audience who are unfamiliar with contemporary Chinese culture. For example, one popular expression, Zhenhuan Style, originated from the dialogue scripts of a popular Chinese TV drama, the Empresses in the Palace. The cultural information went missing because only the English translation of the expression was provided. For readers to understand what Zhenhuan Style is, providing the cultural context and an example script is mandatory.

Despite the above shortcomings, researchers who are interested in special topics in sociolinguistics, especially topics on language planning, would likely to find this volume interesting. This would also be a useful reference book for those who are interested in Chinese language and culture in general.


Sun, J. & Cheng, D. (2018). China’s Generation Gap. Routledge.
Dr. Dongmei Cheng is Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics at Texas A&M University-Commerce. She has presented regularly in TESOL, Applied Linguistics, and second language writing conferences and published her research in a number of peer-reviewed journals, such as Language Awareness, Journal of Pragmatics, Pragmatics, and TESOL International Journal. Her recent work also includes a monograph on China’s Generation Gap (published in 2018 by Routledge), an interdisciplinary study she co-authored with a sociologist, Dr. Jiaming Sun.

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