Tuesday, 22 May 2018

What's a Language and What's a Dialect? A Chinese Example and a Whole Lot More.

In the Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, there exists a population of Chinese Muslim descent who have lived there for up to 150 years.  They are called the Dungans, and they speak a language called… well, Dungan.

Yet should Dungan be considered a seperate language, or just a dialect of Chinese?  You see, a speaker of Mandarin from Beijing can understand Dungan, but would never be able to understand Cantonese or Shanghainese.  

Yet, Cantonese is considered a mere dialect of Chinese, whereas Dungan is considered a separate language.  So, why is that?  And to ask the obvious question, how did this community of Chinese descent end up in Central Asia in the first place?

Some History
It’s the year 1862, and Imperial China, ruled by the Qing Dynasty, is facing apocalyptic levels of violence.  The Taiping rebellion (1850-1864) , a civil war possibly deadlier than even World War Two, is not yet over, when an entirely separate civil war breaks out in the north western provinces of the country. 

This new rebellion (1862-1877) has been given many names, such as the Dungan Revolt, the Tonzhi Hui revolt and the Hui (Muslim) Minorities War and is widely believed to have been, in itself, the 7th deadliest war man has fought in the post-medieval era. 

While historians have differed on what to call it, what they do mostly agree on is that this war started off as a pricing dispute between two merchants but became a separatist war by Chinese Muslims based in the Shaanxi, Gansu and Ningxia provinces of North-Western China. 

Here in China, Muslims mainly belong to two main ethnic groups.  The most well known are the Turkic Uyghurs, who are the people of Xinjiang, (previously known as Chinese Turkestan) and are, if you like, China’s equivalent of Catalonia or the Basque Country, since they have their own language, their own historically defined territory, and their own separatist movement.

However, the other group, whom this blog article is about, are the Hui people, who are primarily descended from both Han Chinese converts to Islam, and from Silk Road Traders who arrived in China from the Muslim World.

Being largely of Han Chinese descent, the Hui people, unlike China’s other minorities, traditionally spoke Mandarin rather than any non-Sinitic language, and like the Han themselves, can be found across China rather than having their own historic Homeland.  However, due to North West China being closest to the Silk Road and the influence of Islam generally, it is there, in the provinces of Ningxia and Gansu, that the Hui are most prominent.

And it was there, in the 1860s and 70s, that the local Hui staged their rebellion and appear to have attempted to establish a separate Chinese Muslim state in the region.

Unfortunately for the rebels, they were defeated by the central government, and the reprisals were harsh – rebel leaders were executed, and their corpses were burnt, and their associates and relatives were castrated.

And that's not to mention the fact that population of Gansu and Shaanxi provinces fell by some 20 million, due to both death from the conflict itself, the subsequent famine, and due to Hui refugees fleeing the area.  

 But it’s those refugees that I want to talk about, since they were the people who upped sticks and moved across the border into then Russian controlled Central Asia, with a further group of Hui moving over in the 1880s. 

These groups thus created their own communities in what are now the ‘-Stan’ countries of Central Asia, and continued to speak their native dialects of Mandarin down the generation, but adopting the Cyrillic script and a number of loan words from Russian, Arabic, and the languages of Central Asia.  

And that is how the Dungan people and their seperate language were born, and overall, the Dungan people today number around 110,000. 

So why is Dungan considered a separate language?
Well, the separate writing system, is in my opinion, the killer factor - after all, Serbian and Croatian are almost the same language, but with the separate alphabets being what decides them apart.  

The fact that Dungan uses Cyrillic and not Chinese Characters means that whereas a Cantonese and a Mandarin speaker can communicate by writing but not by speaking, with a Dungan speaker and a Mandarin speaker, it is precisely the other way round - it seems that the inability able to communicate through writing is more important than the inability to communicate using the spoken word when deciding what is and what isn't a separate language.

But then of course there is the importance of ethnic identity.  Certainly the Dungans are registered as a separate ethnic group from modern day Chinese nationals living in the Central Asian countries however among themselves, the Dungans apparently consider themselves at one with the Hui in China, after a century and a half of separation.

Either way, Dugan is an interesting example of what’s a language and what’s a dialect.

The Dungans Today
Although the Dungans have developed their own identity outside of China, they still consider themselves people Hui people at heart and in no way have lost contact with their brothers back in China.

Under the Soviet Union, the Dungan people were much more successful at maintaining their heritage than other ethnic groups than other ethnic groups in Central Asia, with 94% of Dungans speaking Dungan as their first language in 1989.   However, this has changed since the fall of the Soviet Union, and Census figures show that by 2001 that figure was around 40%. 

The Hui People in China Today
As for the Dungans’ cousins back home, the Hui people in China today are doing rather well.  As an ethnic minority, the Hui were exempt from the one child policy, and their population is now more than 10 million.

Although, as discussed, Hui people can be from anywhere in China, Ningxia, where some 20% of Hui people live, was declared an autonomous region for the Hui people in 1958.  There, the Hui form 38% of the resident population, with Han Chinese making up 62%. 

Famous Hui communities outside of Ningxia include that of Xian, with its 15th Century Great Mosque, while in Nanjing I am very happy that I happen to live right next to a Hui restaurant, and within close walking distance of another.

Map showing the location of theNingxia Hui Autonomous Region
The Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region today, located in red. 
Ningxia  and neighboring Gansu (bordering it to the south west)
were centers of the Great Hui Revolt of the 1860s and 70s. 

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