Will education reform wipe out Mongolian language and culture?
By Gegentuul Baioud August 30, 2020
As the danger of life-threatening Covid-19 has subsided, Mongols in Inner Mongolia, a region of northern China, have faced a new threat: losing their bilingual schools. In the words of a community member: “in Spring we were afraid that we would die from Covid-19, now Autumn comes and we are afraid that we may become extinct”.
Two forms of bilingual education
To understand these fears, one needs to understand bilingual education in Inner Mongolia.
In brief, there are two different modes of bilingual education in Inner Mongolia. The established mode of bilingual education over the last 73 years has been: school subjects taught in Mongolian; plus a Chinese language and literacy course from Grade 2; plus an English language and literacy course from Grade 3. What worries Mongols is the new mode of bilingual education, which involves the gradual replacement of Mongolian-medium teaching with Chinese-medium teaching across all school subjects. In the new mode, this Chinese-medium education will be complemented by a Mongolian language and literature course. This is dubbed a second type of bilingual education but it is, in essence, monolingual, Chinese-medium education.
According to a document released on August 26, 2020, from this September the Chinese language and literacy textbook used in Inner Mongolia’s bilingual schools is going to be replaced with the national Chinese language textbook. It’s also going to be introduced a year earlier, from Grade 1. This national textbook is also used in Chinese-medium schools and is much more demanding than the one currently used in Mongolian schools. This means that children whose mother tongue is Mongolian have to learn the same content as their Chinese-mother-tongue peers, and will be evaluated in direct comparison to them.
Another subtle change is in the course name: the Chinese language and literature textbook (in Chinese: 汉语文) assumes a new name, Language and Literature (in Chinese: “语文”) while the new Mongolian language and literature textbook is “Mongolian Language and Literature” (in Mongolian “mongol hel bichig”), whereas it was previously simply called Language and Literature (in Mongolian “hel bichig”) in Mongolian schools. That is, the marked version is now the Mongolian course, no longer the Chinese course.
Some Mongols have compared this name swapping to “the step-father taking the place of the father.”
The new model jeopardizes Mongolian educational achievement
This reform poses several problems.
The famous Mongolian poem “I am a Mongol” is written on a blackboard (Source: WeChat post reminiscing and mourning the impending loss of the mother tongue)
First, are Mongolian-mother-tongue children able to learn the new, and much more difficult, Chinese language and literature syllabus at this new pace, while they simultaneously learn to read and write their own language, Mongolian, from Grade 1? How will the reform increase students’ study load?
Second, what kind of national university entrance exam will be designed for those Mongolian students?
Here let me explain briefly how students from Mongolian high schools currently participate in the national university entrance exams. Broadly speaking, the national exams across subjects are written and administered in Chinese, but the exams are also translated into Mongolian for Mongolian test-takers. For instance, maths, history, politics or chemistry are examined across the nation using the same tests, except that they are translated into Mongolian for students coming from Inner Mongolia’s bilingual high schools. There is also provision in the rules for these tests to be translated into five other official minority languages, e.g. Korean, depending on demand.
Every year around 12,000 students from Mongolian bilingual schools sit translated national university entrance tests in Inner Mongolia.
There is a compulsory language component of the university entrance exam across the nation, and what differs most for Inner Mongolia’s Mongolian exam takers is this component. Their ‘foreign language’, i.e. Chinese language and literature, comprises 70% of the score, and their English language test result counts for 30%.
So what kind of Chinese language test is now going to be used for minority Mongolian students’ university entrance exam? The announcements and documents so far do not answer this important question. Surely, Mongolian students cannot compete with Chinese-mother-tongue students and the imposition of the same Chinese language test will further disadvantage Mongolian students.
Language shift in education will push Mongolian to the brink
The Mongolian language is already fragile and has entered the early stages of endangerment. In today’s Inner Mongolia, less than 40% of Mongol parents choose Mongolian bilingual schools for their children; the rest enroll their children in mainstream Chinese schools. In such circumstances, this reform pushes already emaciated Mongolian language and culture further towards the abyss of extinction within the Chinese borders.
“Save the Mother Tongue!” Protest sign against the reform on a delivery bike
Language shift in education is known around the world, and elsewhere in China, to be a major push in a wider shift away from using a minority language at home or transmitting it to younger generations at all.
The nourishment of bilingual education
Personally, I have been nourished by the well-established bilingual education system in Inner Mongolia. When I was in Grade 4, my parents sent me to a boarding school which was around three hours’ drive from my home, over a muddy, pebble-paved country road. Even though I was intimidated by the new environment when I first arrived – most people on the street and in other public spaces spoke Chinese – this bilingual school, with its Mongolian-speaking teachers, classmates and dorm mates acted as a safe haven.
This bilingual school was the mediator for the ten-year old me to transition to new urban settings and to be socialized as both an ethnic Mongol and Chinese citizen. The importance of local, co-ethnic teachers and educational environments for the well-being of minority or Indigenous children has been proven in many studies around the world.
By contrast, the poignancy and tragedy of how a mainstream educational system can fail children from non-mainstream language backgrounds, from the start, is nowhere more heart-wrenchingly illustrated than in the documentary “In My Blood It Runs” about Indigenous children at school in Australia’s Northern Territory. If the original bilingual education system is smoldered and buried underground we will see the birth of numerous minority children who follow in the footsteps of 10-year old Arrernte boy, Dujuan – the main character in the above documentary – and totter precariously on the edge of two worlds.
Established Mongolian bilingual education has proved itself
The 73-year-journey traversed by the established bilingual education system, where all classes are taught in the medium of Mongolian, and alongside that Chinese and English are taught as single subjects, has proved that this is a mature system and suitable to the situation of bilingual Mongols in Inner Mongolia.
Numerous scientists, writers, artists, translators, teachers, other essential workers and “model citizens” have grown and blossomed thanks to the environment of bilingual education. Moreover, this year, several Mongolian bilingual high school graduates gained admission to top universities such as Beijing University and Tongji University, and they outperformed their Chinese-medium-education peers in Inner Mongolia.
In addition, the current bilingual mode of education in Inner Mongolia has facilitated inter-ethnic relations and the unity of the multi-ethnic people on the northern frontier of China. But once the established mode of bilingual education in Inner Mongolia is destroyed, the change will be irreversible. This is already clear from a historical analogy: Buryat Mongols (a Mongolian minority within the Soviet Union) failed in their attempt to revive their schools and language in the 1980s, even with the backing of Soviet policy-makers who had realized their mistakes in eradicating bilingual education the 1960s (Chakars 2014).
A dark future for China’s minorities based on the Western model
If history and political education/morality subjects are taught through the medium of Chinese from 2021 onward in Mongolian schools, the rest of the curriculum will soon shift too. Then in a few years’ time Mongolian teachers, textbook translators, publishers, writers and a host of others who are involved in industries related to Mongolian language, culture, and education will lose their livelihoods. I anticipate that this will be followed by the shrinkage and eventual disappearance of Mongolian media such as TV and digital media, which are currently thriving.
If all the courses shift to Chinese-medium instruction, the university entrance exam will soon follow suite and policy makers will simply adopt nation-wide Chinese tests for all Mongolian students in a few years. If this happens, Mongolian students cannot compete against millions of Chinese high school graduates in the world’s most competitive university entrance test, which will certainly further marginalize and systemically exclude young Mongols from higher education and the job market. It will exclude them in a way similar to the exclusion of minorities in the West, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia. As such, the internal colonization of ethnic Mongols will reach its epitome and Mongolian language and culture will be wiped out in China.
Mongolian teachers’ protest sign against the education reform in central Inner Mongolia, 28 August, 2020
Concomitantly the production of large numbers of unemployed, poor, institutionally discriminated and marginalized minorities including Mongols in coming decades will plague China with many unforeseen sociopolitical and economic problems. This dire consequence has obviously been brushed aside by the group of eminent Chinese scholars Ma Rong, Hu Angang and Hu Lianhe, who boldly proposed a Second Generation of Ethnic Policies (第二代民族政策) to solve ethnic “problems” by aggressively assimilating minorities (Leibold 2012). They envisioned the “melting pot” (大熔炉) formula of the West, in particular USA, as the ultimate “solution” to the ethnic “problems” of China, even though China’s native minorities are drastically different from diasporic immigrants in America (for further details, see Elliott 2015).
China’s ethnic policies have certainly taken a drastic turn in recent years, and this has sent shock waves through the “less-famous” ethnic minorities such as the Mongols, Koreans, and those in less visible areas such as Gansu, Jilin, Liaoning, and Qinghai. What are the consequences of bringing such tribulations onto the very groups that China has held up as “model minorities”, including the Mongols? Who gains most from this rash move? Indeed, up until now, many Mongolian speakers have identified as Chinese people, and there is no need to suppress a non-existent ethnic separatism by abolishing bilingual schooling. What is the point of destroying the Mongolian language and culture that is already staggering toward the brink of extinction and to whose speakers barely anyone pays any attention?
Opposing the new medium of instruction
At present, despite their tenuous position, Mongols are fighting against the reform. In particular, they were devastated by the secret implementation of the second category of “bilingual” education mode, which violates the national Constitution, Ethnic Minority Law and Education Law as well as the Mongolian Language Act and its Regulations.
It is this surreptitious and illegal way of implementing reform that spurred Mongols in Inner Mongolia, but also outside China in Japan and Europe, to protest against it within the framework of law. In fact, from June this year the “rumor” of cancelling the first category of bilingual education surfaced and has been simmering in Inner Mongolia, yet many Mongols didn’t take it seriously as there were no official documents. It was only a week before the commencement of the new semester on Sept 1, that documents were released by the Inner Mongolia Education Bureau. Now, Mongolian parents have been actively campaigning against the reform and are refusing to send their children back to school. However, teachers and public servants are silenced and threatened with the possibility of losing their jobs if they were to speak out. For other Mongols the phantasmagoric memory of the Cultural Revolution is revisiting them and has locked their tongue. Yet others take their mourning and frustration to social media spaces despite the constant disappearance of what they post.
The goal of the on-going protests in Inner Mongolia is not to reject the content of the new national curriculum, rather it is to abort the attempt to teach it all through the medium of Chinese. Mongols hope to translate the new textbooks into Mongolian and teach them in the medium of their own language, as they have been doing for the last 73 years. Thus, our aim is to maintain the original bilingual model of education, which ensures the maintenance of the Mongolian language and facilitates the multi-ethnic Chinese nation’s progress and stability in the long-term.
Chakars, Melissa. 2014. The socialist Way of Life in Siberia: Transformation in Buryatia. Budapest: Central European University Press.
Elliott, Mark. 2015. The Case of the Missing Indigene: Debate Over a “Second-Generation” Ethnic Policy. The China Journal (73): 186-213,308.
Leibold, James. 2012. Toward A Second Generation of Ethnic Policies? China Brief 12 (13)