Uyghurs face an education dilemma

BEIJING - Language, culture and identity have always been thorny issues in northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Recent developments in the educational system once again bring into the spotlight the delicate balance between China's mainstream influence and the cultural and individual identities of Uyghur minorities living in this region.

Two school systems

The population in Xinjiang is composed of 40% Han Chinese and roughly 60% ethnic minorities, of which in turn 45% are Uyghur. As a result of this multicultural and multilingual environment, the education system in the region has had to accommodate different language needs.

The regional autonomy system was established in the 1950s and granted a certain amount of control over local education to the autonomous regions. For half a century, two separate school systems have co-existed in Xinjiang.

In Chinese-language schools, education was provided in Chinese by ethnic Han teachers and the ethnic minority language was taught as a subject. Minority schools, on the other hand, offered Uyghur as the main language of instruction and Chinese language as a subject. While an autonomous region retains the right to establish its own curricula, most educational materials used in minority schools are direct translations of Chinese-language materials used across China.

Choosing an education has never been an easy task for Uyghur families. On the one hand, minority schools, besides being less costly, provide children with a better understanding of the Uyghur language, history and culture. They are the alternative for parents who wish to preserve their cultural and religious identity and provide their children with better chances of a successful integration into the Uyghur society.

Besides, recent research suggests that Uyghur educated in Chinese-language schools do not attain the same degree of fluency in their native tongue as Uyghurs educated in minority schools.

On the other hand, students educated in Chinese-language schools generally come out equipped with a better command of the Chinese language, and presumably, also better chances of integration in mainstream culture and better prospects of employment and career development. But this might not always be the reality.

Ilham Tohti, Uyghur professor of economics at Beijing's Central University for Nationalities, argues that Uyghur graduates from Chinese-language universities do not necessarily have a better foothold in the job market, especially in government posts, as their failure to fully understand or identify with either of those cultures might be regarded as a handicap by potential employers.
Students from minority schools who qualify for entrance to university must spend an additional year learning Chinese to adequately cope with university-level study. This is regarded as an additional financial burden and also taken into consideration by Uyghur families when making a decision about school enrollment.

In general, parents find it difficult to weigh the cultural benefit of attending a minority school against the presumed economic benefit of attending a Chinese-language school.

Bilingual education

The new bilingual education policy was introduced in Xinjiang in 2002 and required Chinese to be used as the language of instruction with a minority language to be taught as a subject.

Implementation of the policy has been slow in many areas, due to the inability to teach Chinese effectively. As a result of a shortage of minority teachers with good Chinese-language skills, Uyghur continues to be the main language of instruction in many schools. Currently, only 25% of the total number of students in Xinjiang receive bilingual education, China Daily reported.

One of the purposes of bilingual education was to improve Chinese-language fluency among ethnic minority students and make them more competitive in the job market. The tendency for parents to send their children to bilingual education schools is also on the rise. For other members of the Uyghur community, this policy is still regarded as a threat to the preservation of both the Uyghur language and its culture.

There are reasons to be skeptical. Field research conducted by the international organization, Save the Children, suggests the number of hours of mother-tongue instruction is decreasing and what has been identified as bilingual education by the Chinese authorities is nothing but education in Chinese taught by ethnic minority teachers. According to the organization, since 2007, in the Xinjiang city of Yining, students are required to learn Chinese from grade one and learn basic skills in their mother tongue only from grade four.

This situation raises questions about the future and about whether Chinese will eventually become the only language of instruction for minority children.

As more Chinese is used in schools and the number of hours devoted to mother-tongue instruction is reduced, Uyghur language teachers are taking early retirement or being moved to other positions in the school. In many instances, they have been replaced by Han Chinese teachers with better Chinese-language skills but no appropriate teaching qualifications. According to Education Bureau authorities, this has lowered the average quality of education in Xinjiang.

Caught between two cultures

If bilingual education curtails the number of hours of mother-tongue instruction, graduates from bilingual schools might in the future face similar issues as those voiced by many Uyghur graduates from Chinese-language schools.

Akbar Emin, 28, from Altay, in northern Xinjiang, has received Chinese-language education. He admits being trapped between two cultures, and at the same time alienated from both. "Having attended a Chinese-language school, you never get a real understanding of your own culture. It is difficult to integrate and feel comfortable in social gatherings with people from your own culture. On the other hand, no matter how good your Chinese is, and how successful your assimilation into Chinese culture, in the eyes of other Han Chinese, you will always remain a Uyghur, and therefore will always become the object of intentional or unintentional prejudice and discrimination."

A large number of Uyghur graduates acknowledge the existence of a communication gap between graduates from minority and Chinese-language schools. "Graduates from minority schools look down on graduates from Chinese-language schools because they have a poor understanding of their own language, culture and history, whereas many Chinese-language graduates sometimes regard minority school graduates as too narrow-minded," says Akbar.

Xinjiang is part of China's territory and helping minority students become more fluent in Chinese will benefit them from the perspective of social integration and job opportunities. Significant improvements have been achieved in the field of education. Since 1952, student enrollment in the region has increased five-fold, according to government statistics. However, despite official bilingualism, current education trends seem to favor a de facto monolingual and mono-cultural model that threatens to put the language, culture and identity of Uyghur communities at risk.

Paloma Robles is a freelance journalist living in Beijing.

China | Education | 2009-10-07 |