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How do language rights affect minority languages in China?: an ethnographic investigation of the Zhuang minority language under conditions of rapid social change
thesisposted on 2022-03-28, 02:50 authored by Alexandra Grey
This thesis examines the political economy of Zhuang, the language of China’s largest official minority group: how do China’s minority language freedom – a form of constitutional language right – and the policies associated with it affect Zhuang use under conditions of social, economic and political change? The thesis asks what language ideologies are produced and reproduced in official rights discourses and policies and how social actors receive, resist or reproduce these. The research takes an ethnographic approach and draws on interviews with over sixty participants, texts collected from public linguistic landscapes, fieldwork observations and a corpus of Chinese laws, policies and official policy commentaries. The thesis combines three complementary theoretical lenses for analysis, namely legal, linguistic landscape and perspectives lenses. The analysis commences with a critical examination of the procedures of Zhuang language governance, finding that the language policy framework neither empowers Zhuang speakers nor the institutions tasked with governing Zhuang because authority for language governance is fractured and responsiveness to changing conditions is limited. Furthermore, the Zhuang language governance framework entrenches the normative position of a ‘developmentalist’ ideology under which Zhuang is constructed as of low value. Next, the analysis follows Zhuang language policy along its trajectory into practice. The thesis examines how language policy is implemented at different levels of government, and how Zhuang language governance is understood and experienced by social actors, concentrating on two key mechanisms of language policy: first, the regulation of language displayed in public space; and second, the regulation of language in education. With regard to public space, the thesis examines a municipal legislative intervention under which Zhuang has been added to public signage. It finds not only that Zhuang language is rarely displayed outside areas under Zhuang autonomous regional government but even within these areas Zhuang is almost exclusively displayed on government signage. The thesis then extends the linguistic landscape study into situated subjectivities, analysing the various ‘readings’ of Zhuang landscape texts by viewers, including many who simply do not ‘see’ the displays of Zhuang, and others who negatively evaluate the signage as tokenistic. Finally, the thesis examines education policy under which Zhuang is introduced as a study subject at a limited number of universities after its near-total exclusion from primary and particularly secondary schooling. It finds that students who – against social norms and values – choose to study Zhuang at university nevertheless largely adopt the language ideologies of the pre-tertiary schooling system, namely the belief that Zhuang is not an educated person’s language and not useful for socio-economic mobility. Overall, the study finds that Zhuang language rights and policies, despite being powerful official discourses, do not challenge the ascendant marketised and mobility-focused language ideologies which ascribe low value to Zhuang. Moreover, although language rights and policies create an ethno-linguistically divided and hierarchic social order seemingly against the interests of Zhuang speakers, Zhuang speakers may nevertheless value the Zhuang identity discursively created and invested with authority by this framework.