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Review of  The Language Situation in China

Reviewer: Yuqi Gao
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: 31.2335

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“The Language Situation in China”, a book edited by Li Yuming and Li Wei, provides a unique look at the developmental trends of Chinese linguistic life and culture. It is a perfect addition to the other volumes of the series “Language Policies and Practices in China,” which seeks to bring together original studies on language, culture and society from China and the Chinese diaspora across the world. Right from the preface, the editors offer us a brief overview of the diglossic nature of the society and the evolving language policies in China. These developments reflect a shift in China’s linguistic life from being a monoglossic to a diglossic society. The authors acknowledge that while Mandarin Chinese (Putonghua) is the dominant language, there are also other regional Han dialects across the country. After the introduction, a meta-analysis of twenty-seven theses focusing on the Chinese linguistic life and culture is conducted and key findings are presented in five sections including: “Special focuses”, “Special fields”, “Hot topics”, “Words and passages” and “Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan”. The last part contains the “Appendices” which include: “Chronology of major events in linguistic life 2013”, “Notice of the State Council on the Publication of the Table of General Standard Chinese Characters” as well as the “Notice of 12 departments, including the Ministry of Education, on the implementation of the Table of General Standard Chinese Characters”. One of the editors, Li Yuming, is a leading scholar who has been closely involved in Chinese language research and planning over many decades. On the other hand, the English editor Li Wei, is the Chair of Applied Linguistics at the University College London (UCL) and the Director of UCL Centre for Applied Linguistics. This newly translated collection of papers is a summary of the work undertaken jointly by the Chinese government and academics in establishing language policies, promoting the standardization of Mandarin Chinese (Putonghua), protecting the dialects in different regions of China, and achieving the mutual or multilateral linguistic and cultural communication with the rest of countries/regions across the world. “The Language Situation in China” goes well beyond the topic of Mandarin Chinese (Putonghua), and it could well form a basic understanding of the dialects (i.e. the protection of dialects, such as Shanghai dialect), the ethnic languages (i.e. minority languages), sign language, Chinese language education as well as China’s neighboring languages. Arguably, the book is an excellent resource to scholars, educators, students and linguistic enthusiasts--especially those interested in Chinese language and culture, China’s language policies and foreign languages in China.

The book begins by reflecting on the language situation in China up to 2013 and then demonstrates the regularization of the spoken and written Chinese language in “Part I: Special focuses”. Here, it depicts the preparation process of the “Table of General Standard Chinese Characters”, a significant step for implementing the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Standard Spoken and Written Chinese Language. These norms are designed to meet the needs of the broad application of Chinese characters in all areas of society. The infiltration of Chinese characters across the society is considered to be of great significance for promoting the development of China's economic, social, cultural, and educational undertakings. Through the comparative analysis of more than 1 billion words used by the print media, broadcast media and online media in 2013, it was found that 99.992% of all the characters used in these media are included in the “Table of General Standard Chinese Characters”, indicating that the classification and quantification of this Table conformed to the objective law of using Chinese characters. The readers are to obtain an understanding of the preparation process of this national standard of Chinese language through three major approaches: recurring deliberations on grading and quantitative determinations for each grade, appropriately handling the treatment of simplified and traditional characters, and re-cataloguing the variant character table. Against such a macro backdrop, the papers in the different sections are innovative and exploratory to some extent.


In 2013, China witnessed its first steps of legal institutionalization, standardization, regularization and informatization of language; and the publication of the “Table of General Standard Chinese Characters” was a landmark achievement. The standardization of Chinese languages and characters and the multi-directional inheritance of Chinese language and culture was vigorously promoted as legal provisions; therefore, the scholars shifted their research interests to those “hot topics” that reflected the status quo of the language in society.

The construction of the book meshes well with its organization and lends itself successfully to the study of different topics covered in the Chinese language. Each part of the book consists of several papers under specific topics and provides a detailed account of various aspects of the Chinese linguistic life through observations, surveys and other pieces of evidence. Some of the papers are qualitative descriptions, while the others are full of quantitative analysis. Based on the background of the “Table of General Standard Chinese Characters”, a panorama of the language situation in China is gradually but logically presented: dialects, minority languages, sign language, China’s neighboring languages, the foreign languages in China, language services and some popular phrases, Internet slang and emoticons... even the language situation (mainly Traditional Chinese) in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan are presented to the readers in the Western community. The orderliness of the book conforms to the academic requirement. However, while each section creates a neat package, certain areas seem forced to conform to the structure of the original Chinese version. For instance, “Part II: Special fields” includes topics that focus on China’s neighboring languages. This is followed by the topic of “dialects” and the “protection of dialects” as well as topics relevant to “minority language” and “sign language”. Surprisingly, the topics of “language and education” and “language services,” as well as a topic focusing completely on the overseas Chinese language and its dissemination also appear in the same section. These topics could be covered in a better way by creating another section or by including them into either earlier or later parts of the book. In this case, the authors provide good material and content but the quality of the book is hampered by poor organization. Unfortunately, the intriguing papers may confuse the Western readers because the organization and coherence of the topics covered in every section are unclear, resulting in the distortion of the flow of the whole book. In addition, the title of each section is not aligned with the “Contents” of a book that is originally written in English. However, the existing structure in its original language of publication is in line with Chinese linguistic habits. The inevitability of translation loss and the consideration of retaining the original flavour of this book may have contributed to this phenomenon.

Overall, a detailed story of the situation of language development in China is shown in a readable and inspiring style. Each paper makes use of tables and figures to indicate the statistics of every linguistic phenomenon in 2013. These firsthand data and accounts provide deeper insight into relevant linguistic phenomena. For example, “The state of language services in the healthcare industry” paper offers the readers a full account of a study, from the survey design to the empirical analysis, as well as the reflections and recommendations. It vividly presents and describes the role of language and accompanying language services in the context of the increasingly intensified doctor-patient disputes in China, with the suggestions of “strengthening awareness of language services among medical personnel”, “creating a good healthcare environment as part of hospital administration” and “increasing understanding and tolerance between doctors and patients” in the final section.

“The Language Situation in China” is a collection of significant events in Chinese linguistic life accented by the scholars who studied it and is correlated with cultural communication worldwide. The book’s abundant use of vivid figures and statistics helps to make the linguistic phenomena concerning the Chinese language, characters and culture comparable with that of other languages. It is made clear that the linguistic phenomena of the Chinese language are something more than significant events on a timeline. The authors present a broad and in-depth analysis of various aspects of Chinese linguistics at home and abroad, furnishing a panoramic sketch of major events in linguistic life in 2013. The highlight of this book is the reflective view of Chinese linguistic developments in society despite its interactive nature as a means of interpersonal and cross-cultural communication. These papers contain unique insights into the thinking behind much of the contemporary Chinese linguistic phenomena. Its publication does build up the possibility of cooperation between Chinese and Western scholars in the study of language standardization, language and culture, languages of Chinese diaspora in the world, Chinese as a Second Language (CSL), and Chinese as a global language. However, it should be noted that this book is only a glimpse of the Chinese linguistic life in the year of 2013, an updated 2019 version in Chinese is now available.
Yuqi GAO is a master student specialized in linguistics at the University of Bremen, Germany. Her current research interests are World Englishes, corpus linguistics, language testing, translation and intercultural communication. She is a former linguist (editor/translator/English teacher) respectively in ASIAL(TEN)N Pte., Ltd and Beijing New Oriental Vision Overseas Consulting Co., Ltd in Singapore and P. R. China. She is also a CATTI Translation Test Examiner as well as a certified member of TAC and IATIS.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781501517440
Pages: 392
Prices: U.S. $ 149.99