BEIJING, Aug. 3 -- Zhang Qiang has made
countless friends over the 20-some years working in different ethnic minority
areas and promoting bilingual education.
them, a Uygur, told Zhang that he would never have had the opportunity to
explore the world outside his small village if he had not learned Mandarin.
"This is why we promote learning Mandarin among
ethnic minority people," Zhang, now deputy director of the ethnic education
department at the Ministry of Education, told China Daily.
"We encourage them to master their own ethnic
languages first to preserve and develop their own cultures," said Zhang, who
worked for the education department of the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region
several years ago.
But Mandarin-learning programs are also introduced in
many schools to "help enhance education quality, boost the local economy and
improve communication among the Chinese of different ethnic groups and with the
outside world," Zhang said.
China has 55 ethnic minorities, accounting for 8.4
percent of the population of 1.3 billion. More than 50 languages are used, but
some have written characters and others exist only in oral form.
By the end of 2008, nearly 20 million ethnic minority
students were enrolled in schools in China, 22 times more than in 1951.
About 6 million students are taking bilingual courses
at more than 10,000 schools in China, and 21 ethnic languages are taught.
During the national college entrance exams, test
papers were translated into ethnic languages.
Universities in some ethnic autonomous regions have
also established special majors taught in minority languages.
Zhang, who is of Hui ethnicity, has been promoting
bilingual education - an ethnic language and Mandarin - for nearly 20 years.
"We have never tried to weaken any ethnic language,"
he said. "Every ethnic group has the right to use and develop its language,
according to the Constitution."
Han people, especially officials, are also encouraged
to learn the minority languages to improve mutual understanding, he added.
"I have seen many Han officials speak ethnic
languages very fluently and I could speak some Uygur language when I was in
Xinjiang," he said.
China's Constitution stipulates that Mandarin is the
universal language of China. Still, all ethnic groups have the freedom to use
and develop their own languages. Ethnic minority autonomous regions should
follow the local laws and regulations to use one or multiple languages.
Most of the ethnic groups live in underdeveloped
western regions and border areas such as Yunnan and Guizhou provinces, the
Xinjiang Uygur, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia autonomous regions.
"With more communication among the ethnic groups
through Mandarin, the gap between the wealthy eastern region and the
impoverished western region will be bridged and social stability can be
maintained in the country," he said. The government has poured tremendous
resources into fostering the preservation of local minority cultures.
"All local ethnic autonomous governments compile
their own school materials in ethnic languages and Mandarin," he said.
Those textbooks have distinct ethnic features,
including information about the minority groups' histories, culture, art and
music. Even the books used in the Mandarin classes carry content closely related
to the daily lives and cultures of minority groups, he said.
"All ethnic groups are also free to choose whether to
take Mandarin courses or not," Zhang said.
More than 3,500 types of educational materials in
various ethnic languages and more than 100 million copies are printed every
year, he said.
Due to the limited use - compared with the
overwhelming amount of materials in Mandarin - of the ethnic language materials,
local publishing houses have lost money through the years. A central government
special fund provides a subsidy, however.
One area of concern is a lack of qualified bilingual
teachers. Most of the well-educated ethnic youths have left the
minority-populated areas because of harsh working conditions and poor salaries,
The ministry is working to resolve the problem, Zhang
"The ministry is using digital technology to develop
a long-distance education system in both ethnic languages and Mandarin to make
up for the shortage of teachers," he said.
The modern education system in ethnic minority areas
has been established and developed only after the founding of the People's
Republic of China in 1949. The system includes preschool education, basic
education, vocational education, higher education and continuing education.
By the end of 2008, the free nine-year compulsory
education project had covered more than 96 percent of all ethnic counties. The
program will cover all areas by 2010, according to the ministry.