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A language on the brink of eradication

In China, to speak and write in Uyghur is acutely dangerous. In 2017 in China Uyghur was forbidden as a language of tuition in secondary schools and Uyghur textbooks have been replaced by Chinese textbooks. In order to eradicate the Uyghur language the Chinese regime is imprisoning more and more Uyghur authors, poets, professors and linguists. As a result it is almost impossible to get hold of books and magazines in Uyghur. The author Zulhayat Otkur here writes about the consequences of this political strategy.

Credits Text: Zulhayat Otkur Translation from Uyghur: Mirshad Ghalip May 26 2020

In 1982, it was mandated that all minorities must learn Mandarin Chinese. Students were required to start studying Mandarin Chinese from the third grade until the completion of high school, where they had to learn 2500 characters and 3500 words along with Mandarin Chinese grammatical rules. The Han Chinese teachers who were teaching minority students were also required to have minority language comprehension. From 1985 to 1987, the new law was approved, and Mandarin Chinese teaching was initiated in the schools of rural counties and agricultural areas.

In 2002, all textbooks besides those teaching Chaghatay language were changed to Mandarin Chinese at Xinjiang University, thus implementing university bilingual education.

In 2004, the Chinese government implemented bilingual education in elementary and middle schools, declaring this was due to the demands of the socialist market economy. Following this, a decision was made to tremendously increase Mandarin Chinese proficiency for teachers so they could adapt to the bilingual education system. It was further stated that if the teachers failed to adapt, they would be replaced by Mandarin Chinese proficient or Minkaohan (minority ethnic groups who have received Han Chinese education) teachers.

Starting in 2006, the government implemented bilingual kindergarten education in seven agricultural areas. The families and parents of the students in the program would receive subsidies from the government for being in this education system. An increased effort was put into implementing bilingual education in kindergarten and elementary schools. By 2011, it was mandated that 50% of the cities, 30% of the rural areas, 20% of the agricultural areas, and 10% of the mountain areas were to have bilingual education fully implemented. The Chinese language started to be more dominantly used than the Uyghur language at a rapid pace starting in 2017, when the increasingly limited usage of the Uyghur language in the education system and in social environments could be more widely observed.

There are two languages on signs in social spaces and public bureaus in Urumqi and other cities. The Uyghur language is written on top and in very small letters. Uyghurs started to joke about this fact by saying, “The Uyghur language is the eyebrow of the Mandarin Chinese.”

Mandarin Chinese not only became a mandatory language for Uyghurs in the workplace but also became a language that the Uyghur people used in daily life and personal communication.

Starting on September 1, 2017, the Uyghur language was discontinued as a language of instruction in all elementary and middle schools. The textbooks that were in the Uyghur language were replaced by Mandarin Chinese textbooks. Following this, books, magazines, and other publications in the Uyghur language dramatically diminished. Meanwhile, content about Uyghur culture and history also dramatically changed and became Chinese propaganda. The sensitive publications that used to go through a rigorous review process to be published had completely disappeared, and communist-style red literature had been created to replace them.

Even though China signed the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Heritage, and other treaties regarding the preservation of minority culture and literature, the Chinese government has been protecting and enabling the Chinese cultural imperialism and oppression against the Uyghurs only. It has also been used as a tool to intimidate Uyghurs and other minorities. The Twelve Muqam and Meshrep etc. are seen as a part of Chinese culture and heritage. Their blatant destruction is also because they are treated as a part of Chinese culture.

Xi Jinping’s current policies are the continuation of Mao’s speech on the principles of differentiating “the seed and the shell” in Yan’an. In reality, it is the invasion of Chinese culture and cultural assimilation. Scholar June Teufel wrote, “Cultural development carried on by the party and government on behalf of minorities seems to be acceptable, whereas cultural development carried out by minorities on their behalf seems unacceptable.” This notion quite accurately describes our current situation. It is unspeakable to preserve our culture, let alone develop it when the government is not in our hands.

Here, I will be using a few prominent changes in recent years within the publishing industry in our homeland to analyze the threats that are brought about by the brutal policies of the Chinese government. Because it is extremely difficult to know the content of the publications from our homeland, I will only be speaking about the content that I was able to collect, which are a few magazines.

According to Mambet Turdi’s article in Mandarin Chinese Minorities’ Publication Status, which had incomplete statistics, there were more than 100 Uyghur novels and more than 43 story collections published from 1949 to 2001. After 1979, there were more than 2000 Uyghur academic articles and 27 pieces on academic theory and reviews published.

From 2001 to 2016 alone, there were many works of classical and foreign literature published, and the number of private publishing houses also significantly increased.

In their 12th issues of the year 2000, Tarim magazine published statistics about what had been included in the magazine that past year, indicating that there were 126 authors who published 475 poems and among them, there were 10 women authors. There were also 50 stories, 17 short stories, 31 prose pieces, and 21 literary reviews published. From the establishment of this magazine, there were 18,000 poems published. In that article, it was stated that the army of Uyghur authors needed to increase their quality. They were deviating from the frameworks of Extem Ömer’s literary critique style, and Memtimin Hoshur style of comical descriptions in his story. They also wrote that the nontraditional genre of writing was also increasing in readership.

Let us compare issue 5 of Tarim magazine from 2010 with issue 9 from 2018 below:

There were 11 categories in 2010 compared to the seven from 2018. If we were to look at those topics, the section “Discussion and Review,” which is solely for classical works or the discussion of social issues, the magazine included literary works of the Spirit of Rural Area Reform from the reports of 19th Congressional Meeting and rural area literary creation. In the “Golden Window” section, poetry from the Tang dynasty was published. They have removed sections of “Folk Oral Literature” and “Foreign Literature.” The titles of the published poems were “We Are United Relatives with A Bond” and “The Communist Party Is My Sun.” We can see these are communist red propaganda poetry. We can also see that the Uyghur readers’ right to study and enjoy Uyghur oral and foreign literature has been greatly limited.

Let us take the newspaper Xinjiang Daily as an example. There were numerous slogans to “maintain stability” and “strike hard” from 1990 to 2000 covering the newspaper. Today, however, all content is Communist Party propaganda, “the Chinese experience,” and anti-separatism, etc., which is attempting to reshape the ideology of the Uyghur people unlike ever before.

If we were to look at the headlines on February 1, 2019, there were at least four pieces with the title that include Xi Jinping’s name. The “literature” section of the newspaper is full of propaganda pieces that do not have any literary aesthetic merit, nor do they provide literary enjoyment. For example, “Love for the Communist Party,” “We Cannot Separate, Ever,” and “The Sound of the Times” are some examples of this.

The journal Social Science Development is the most popular and reputable among academic journals in the field of social science. Their second issue of 2018 did not have any changes in the number of pages. However, there are only four sections left and only six articles published. There were translated pieces such as “The Core Thought of Building the Party from the Head of Party Secretary Xi Jinping” and “Xi Jinping’s Thoughts on Building Socialism with Chinese Characteristics and Establishing Economics of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.” Eight different sections regarding history, religion, culture, linguistics, literature, and archeology have completely disappeared.

Besides the examples above, we know that Uyghur textbooks are removed from the education system. That is why we can imagine that other publications such as novels and literary collections are in a state of destruction.

The Uyghur authors, poets, university professors, and linguists are disappearing because the Chinese government is aiming for the complete extermination of the Uyghur language. Some of them are in so-called “vocational training centers,” which are concentration camps, some of them have disappeared altogether without a trace, and some are serving prison sentences despite being innocent.

The author Nurmuhammat Toxti was in a concentration camp from November 2018 to March 2019, later dying in custody in May 2019.

After Radio Free Asia reported that the talented author and literary critic Mr. Yalqun Rozi was sentenced to 15 years in prison in March 2019, many hearts, which were already wounded, experienced even greater sorrow. Yalqun Rozi is an author and literary critic who fought for the national awakening of the Uyghurs and the spread of knowledge. He also had prominent accomplishments among the Uyghurs as a responsible publicist, a diligent researcher, and a convincing speaker.

Abdukérim Rahman, Rahile Dawut, Azat Sultan, Gheyret Osman, and Arslan Abdullah, etc. were arrested in January and February 2018, all of whom are Uyghur linguistics and literature professors from Xinjiang University.

On one hand, Uyghurs in the diaspora are worrying about the future of their loved ones in our homeland; on the other hand, they are pondering how to preserve and maintain the Uyghur language. They are working hard to preserve their identity by opening Uyghur Mother Tongue Schools and organizing cultural events for the youth.


Works Cited:

UHRP, Extracting Cultural Resources: The Exploitation and Criminalization oاf Uyghur Cultural Heritage


“Cultural development carried on by the party and government on behalf of minorities seems to be acceptable, whereas cultural development carried out by minorities on their own behalf seems u

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