Perspectives on the Yi of Southwest China

By Stevan Harrell | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 12
Language Policy for the Yi
David Bradley

MINORITY LANGUAGE POLICIES IN CHINA

Since 1950, official language and other policies concerning the group called Yi have been consistent with other practices of the Chinese state toward nearby minorities who did not pose a threat to Chinese rule and were for the most part willing to accept the Chinese civilizing project, as discussed in Harrell's 1995 edited volume. The overall political and economic goal for most of the time up to 1950 was to consolidate and expand central control. Of course this was less true in times of instability and during the early parts of rule by dynasties whose rulers were not ethnic Chinese, such as the Yuan (Mongol) and Qing (Manchu). When direct contact between Chinese and Yi existed, such as during the former and latter Han dynasties and again during the Tang dynasty, the two groups were at first accommodated into the system of indirect rule through local tributaries, which meant that the elite began to use the Chinese language. With large-scale Chinese migration into the plains and valleys of the Yi area over the last millennium, this contact became more pervasive. Thus the Chinese language began to influence Yi languages more and more, even to the extent that the Yi developed a cluster of writing systems based on the same principle as Chinese and using some Chinese characters (though mainly different ones).

The Chinese classification of minorities was rather procrustean, especially for smaller and more remote groups in the southwest like the Yi. Different groups tended to be lumped together under one term, and the terms used to refer to these groups changed fairly frequently. For example, the name Qiang (with a couple of variants) at various stages referred to a range of different groups in what is now Gansu and northern Sichuan. In general the policy concerning the languages of small groups or groups within the core political orbit of China was to assimilate them, initially by using Chinese as a lingua franca and medium of literacy, and ultimately by replacing the mi

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