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  Saving the Nomad Language
Global Times
August 21, 2012
By Yan Shuang


Pupils at the Bayan Mende Primary School have Mongolian language class. Photos: Courtesy of Rong Yan  

Culture and language are intertwined, so what does it mean when students cannot speak their own native language?

This is proving to be an ominous line of inquiry for Mongolian scholar Gao Saiyin Bayaer, who has pointed out that while some rural Inner Mongolian Primary school students remain fluent in their native tongue, many are more comfortable using Putonghua while others, particularly those in urban areas cannot even speak their native language.

Gao, a native Mongolian who worked for 18 years at ethnic schools and local education authorities, relates the declining linguistic competency to an increasingly worrying ethnic identity crisis.

"Nomadic culture and ethnic education in the region is struggling for survival," said Gao, adding that a lack of cultural education combined with a booming albeit chaotic process of urbanization and economic development is fueling the situation.

With the number of Mongolian language schools shrinking, Gao is attempting to preserve the local culture. To this end he is participating in a fundraising campaign alongside other volunteers, in an effort to save the region's last village-level Mongolian-language primary school.

The online campaign to raise funds for the Bayan Mende Primary School, the last village-level school that offers courses in Mongolian, started on August 7.  

Participants see the fundraising campaign as part of the fight for the very survival of the culture. "Fewer rural schools and teachers are teaching Mongolian courses, fewer students are speaking and learning Mongolian, and fewer nomads living on the pastures have made nomadic culture slowly drifting away from the younger generation in the region," he said.

The school for nomads

Bayan Mende, dubbed the "horseback school," was established in 1937 and is located in the northwestern area of Chifeng. It teaches students from three nearby villages, including those living in remote, sandy areas which are difficult to access. It has been classified as a key school, but has been struggling to repair its dilapidated teaching buildings and poor infrastructure, as it only receives limited government support. Compounding the problem is the fact that many students keep transferring to city schools.

The school became the only village school after the State Council launched a national policy to integrate schools in rural areas in 2001. Due to speedy urbanization, a decreasing birth rate in rural areas and massive population migration into cities, the policy aimed to better allocate resources and improve education in rural areas.

"We're worried the region's ethnic culture will die if students have nowhere left to study their own culture and language," said Rong Yan, a researcher with the Beijing-based NGO Green Beagle, the initiator of the fund-raiser.

Green Beagle plans to collect 100,000 yuan ($15,730) by September 1, when their volunteers will visit the school with donations to purchase teaching materials such as Mongolian-language textbooks, Inner Mongolian bows, chess sets and musical instruments.

"Although the government says they encourage ethnic education in ethnic groups, the massive re-distribution of rural schools has seriously affected the life and basic education of local culture," Rong said, explaining that many village schools which offer Mongolian courses have shut down due to the policy.

In an effort to halt the decline in the spread of Mongolian culture, the regional government has introduced policies to encourage ethnic education, including allocating extra funding for Mongolian-language schools and subsidies for teachers and ethnic students.

Spotlight on policy

The nationwide restructuring of schools and education has been the subject of intense public debate over the past decade, as numbers of rural schools have declined. Chen Jiqun, an artist who runs a website focusing on Mongolian culture and environmental preservation, told the Global Times that many village schools have illegally been shut down by corrupt officials who profited from the demolition and amalgamation of campuses.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Education, the number of primary schools in China's rural areas dropped by half, and high schools by 26 percent from 2001 to 2010. In Inner Mongolia, over 70 percent of the schools have been shut down or merged with some 2,600 remaining throughout the entire region. In the region's Xilin Gol League for example, only two township primary schools still remained after the policy was implemented.

Although most village schools have been merged into bigger schools which offer better facilities, students have had to transfer to schools far away from home and the education received in bigger classes isn't always suitable, Gao said.

"In some schools there are more than 80 students in a single class. Some don't teach Mongolian and even if they do, Inner Mongolian kids find it difficult to manage study and are less willing to learn because they're spending more time with Han students," he said.

A way forward

Education experts and rural development foundations convened a meeting in May to discuss the policy and called on the government to make changes. Amid public criticism, the Ministry released a draft plan on July 22 that included policy adjustments.

According to the plan, the closure or amalgamation of schools should be halted if most of the parents involved are opposed. It should also be stopped in cases where the school can't ensure sufficient education or accommodation resources for the large numbers of transferring students. Schools that have been closed without due consideration of these factors will be reopened, according to the plan.

Shi Huangguan, a primary school teacher in Dangsanyao township, Baotou, told the Global Times that his students are mostly Han, and with just 10 Mongolian kids in his school, they are becoming more like the Han people and don't know the Mongolian language.

On August 11, some 70 writers with the Chifeng Writers Association gathered at the Bayan Mende primary school for the unveiling ceremony of a Mongolian Aobao, which is a stone pile used for cultural ceremonies and praying for good fortune. Meanwhile, Green Beagle has currently collected 8,900 yuan in donations and the local education authorities has approved a 20,000 yuan budget for more copies of Mongolian-language textbooks.

A public museum with a nomadic culture heritage collection is needed to raise public awareness of the need to preserve the culture, Chen suggested.



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Close to Eden (Urga): France, Soviet Union, directed by Nikita Mikhilkov

Beyond Great WallsBeyond Great Walls: Environment, Identity, and Development on the Chinese Grasslands of Inner Mongolia

The Mongols at China's EdgeThe Mongols at China's Edge: History and the Politics of National Unity

China's Pastoral RegionChina's Pastoral Region: Sheep and Wool, Minority Nationalities, Rangeland Degradation and Sustainable Development

Changing Inner MongoliaChanging Inner Mongolia: Pastoral Mongolian Society and the Chinese State (Oxford Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology)

Grasslands and Grassland Science in Northern ChinaGrasslands and Grassland Science in Northern China: A Report of the Committee on Scholarly Communication With the People's Republic of China

The Ordos Plateau of ChinaThe Ordos Plateau of China: An Endangered Environment (Unu Studies on Critical Environmental Regions)

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