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Han Writing Seen on Ethnic Wall

By James L. TysonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 7, 1991



KUNMING, CHINA

SINCE he learned to write Chinese in school, Yan Biao has had money in his pocket, but he also fears that his fortune may one day symbolize the betrayal of his ethnic heritage. Mr. Yan, a member of China's Bai people, has prospered as the director of a metal shop. He was one of scores of youths at a Bai village to graduate from a Han high school about 40 years ago. Han people are the nation's predominant group.

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The longstanding concern of Yan that he would forsake Bai traditions underscores the difficulty of China's minorities in reconciling their ethnic bonds with the need to get by in a country dominated by Hans.

Beijing has intensified the cultural quandary of many minorities by adopting a literacy campaign that promotes reading and writing in Chinese.

Many members of China's 55 minority groups refuse to risk effacing their ethnic identity by learning Chinese, official press reports say. Consequently, a large number of China's 91 million minority peoples have been left behind as Hans increasingly grasp the opportunities that come with literacy, the reports say.

``To succeed in China, a Bai or any other minority has to know how to speak and write Chinese,'' Yan says. ``But if you go back home and start speaking Chinese, people will think you've pulled yourself up by your roots, that you've betrayed your own people. When I go back to my village, I only speak Bai.''

The state literacy program is luring some minority people away from their mother tongue by making proficiency in Chinese the sole yardstick for successful scholarship. Peasants are deemed literate when they master 1,500 Chinese characters; city dwellers must command 2,000 characters to be considered literate.

By the official count the program has been a triumph, reducing the number of illiterate citizens to 180 million - from 22.8 percent of the population in 1982 to 15.8 percent today.

Government officials acknowledge that the focus of the literacy program on Chinese is one sign that the Han language is the only lingual ticket to power and prosperity. The campaign bolsters claims by some minorities that Beijing, while glorifying superficial ethnic traditions like costume and dance, is bent on absorbing minorities into Han culture.

A strategy of assimilation would ostensibly help China dilute the persistent unrest of minorities along its borders. Beijing stations a large force of armed police in Tibet to suppress religious independence activists.

In the last 18 months, Beijing has also reinforced its security apparatus in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia to ensure that the regions' natives aren't aroused by the surge in nationalism among ethnic groups across the frontier.

In the southern border province of Yunnan, China's richest melting pot with 24 ethnic groups, the emphasis of Chinese over minority languages is particularly conspicuous. For instance, the 549,000 people of the Guandu District span the two dozen ethnic groups in the province, including Han. Yet just one out of 3,070 secondary school instructors in the district teaches a minority language, and he works part-time, says Zhen Wenguang, a Guandu official.

Despite constant official prodding to speak Chinese, Yan is confident Bais will hold fast to their language and culture. ``We Bais have a very strong belief in our traditions,'' he says.