On New Year’s Eve, when many people around the world were excited about firework shows, a group of Mongols in remote Inner Mongolia had “fireworks” of a different kind: they were busy burning dictionaries. The dictionaries that ignited their rage were the Mongolian Chinese Dictionary (Mongol Hyatad Toli; 1999, Inner Mongolia University Publishing House) and the Dictionary of Correct Mongolian Spelling (Mongol Jüb Bichilgiin Toli; 1998, People’s Publishing House of Inner Mongolia). The scenes of destruction (in addition to burning the dictionaries, copies were also destroyed by soaking them in water) were photographed and videoed and widely shared on social media.
What attracted the book burners’ ire on social media was the inclusion of Chinese loanwords in the Mongolian-Chinese dictionary. Controversial examples such as the following were discussed on social media: jintüü (Chinese pinyin: zhen tou; English: “pillow”), damen (Chinese pinyin: da men; English: “gate”), leu (Chinese pinyin: lou; English: “building”), yeye (Chinese pinyin: ye ye; English: “grandfather”) or yintai (Chinese pinyin: yin de; English: “addicted”). Examples such as these – transliterated Chinese loan words – were viciously attacked in WeChat groups. Equivalent Mongolian expressions exist for these words: there is der for “pillow”, üüd for “gate”, asar for “building”, ebeg for “grandfather” and shunaltai for “addicted”.
By way of background, it is important to know that Khorchin Mongols, who live in the eastern part of Inner Mongolia and who are “notorious” for code mixing, use the offending Chinese expressions often in their everyday Mongolian interactions. Nevertheless, seeing these local vernacular expressions printed in the dictionary as “Mongol” words is unacceptable for many Mongols, including Khorchins.
The outrage against the inclusion of Chinese loan words in the dictionary had been simmering even before the actual book burnings took place. For instance, a WeChat page entitled Please Speak Pure Mother Tongue (in Chinese pinyin: qing jiang chun mu yu; please note that WeChat pages can only be registered with a Chinese name) complained already on December 21 that Mongolians did not even have “a good-quality dictionary”. This WeChat group posts a transcript of a Mongolian-Chinese mixed conversation every day. This “incorrect” version is then followed by a “pure” corrected version of that same conversation underneath. In a third version, the transliterated Chinese words are highlighted and they are followed by “correct” Mongolian and Chinese characters, like a vocabulary list.
Mongolian and Chinese have a long history of language contact and so Mongolian-Chinese code-switching is nothing new. Why then does it attract so much anger and sensitivity at this point in time? Why the ever-increasing emphasis on language purity, as expressed in the public destruction of “poisonous” dictionaries, social media campaigns for “pure” Mongolian or a recent rally in Hohhot for Mongols to sign their names in Mongolian (instead of Chinese) on bank forms? Why do we see this outburst of anger now when the offending dictionaries were, in fact, published in the late 1990s and have been in circulation ever since?
In my view, it is the contemporary context of language shift and assimilation in Inner Mongolia that drives Mongols to feel increasingly protective about their language and to promote “pure” Mongolian.
The young generation in Inner Mongolia, a society that is rapidly urbanizing and where Mongols now constitute a minority in their own land, is switching to Chinese at an unparalleled rate. According to the title of a WeChat post: “the Mongolian language is facing an unprecedented crisis”. The post goes on to cite Hexigtogtah Č., a scholar at the Central University of Nationalities in Beijing, who shows that the number of textbooks published in the Mongolian language for primary school students dropped from 68,000 in 1992 to 21,000 in 2012.
Another indicator of language shift in the younger generation comes from the fact that the average Mongolian language test score in the university entrance exam is lower than it was in the early 2000s. During my fieldwork in Inner Mongolia in early 2016, one of my informants, a junior high school teacher said: “Nowadays it is very hard to find a satisfying essay from students; some high school graduates can’t write a proper essay Mongolian.”
This decline of the mother tongue is largely caused by urbanization, as studies carried out by master students in the Department of Ethnology and Sociology in Inner Mongolia University have shown. They have found that the socialization processes of Mongol migrant children in Hohhot differ significantly from traditional ways (Sachirengui, 2013). They also illuminate the problems caused by the closure of primary schools in pastoral areas after “The Decision on Basic Educational Reform and Development” issued in 2001 (Uyanga, 2014) and the effects of the changes in pastoralism as a result of the development and “opening-up” of Ujumchin right banner (Bai, 2007). These studies all illustrate from different angles how urbanization and industrialization has sped up the process of Sinification and caused the dissolution of the Mongolian community vital to Mongolian cultural and linguistic transmission.
In sum, social transformation provides both the context and one explanation for the language purification efforts described above. While it is the key factor in rapid language shift and the related blow-back in the form of language purification movements, other factors also play a role, including cross-border influence from Outer Mongolia and social media use for ideological dissemination.
Bai, F. (2007). Neeltiin yabch deh übür mongoliin maljih oroni soyol-in hobiralt [Cultural Change in a Pastoral Region in the Process of Development]. (Masters thesis), University of Inner Mongolia, Hohhot.
Sachirengui (2013). Mongol nüüdel hüühediin niigemchileltiin tuhai sudalal [A Study on the Socialization Process of Mongol Migrant Children in Hohhot] Masters thesis, University of Inner Mongolia, Hohhot.
Uyanga. (2014). Hüdee-gin surguulii nigetkhen tüblürülsenii daraa üüsen asuudaliin tuhai sudalal [A Study on the Regulation of Primary Schools in a Pastoral Region]. (Masters thesis), University of Inner Mongolia, Hohhot.