Conversion through Preservation: Missionary Linguistic Work in Contemporary Yunnan

Author: Gideon Elazar (Ben Gurion University of the Negev and Bar Ilan University)
Speaker: Gideon Elazar
Topic: Linguistic Anthropology
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2019 General Session


During the Maoist era in China, the use of minority languages was actively oppressed throughout Southwest China. While the policy of suppression has been dropped in the reform era, the increasingly integrated economy and the need to function in a competitive market has consolidated the position of a single lingua franca in the form of Mandarin Chinese, resulting in the gradual disappearance of many minority languages. Language preservation has therefore become a major feature of cultural preservation in the face of rapid Hanization. Thus, while state authorities often encourage the public display of ethnic scripts, the place allotted to minority languages in the education system is still negligible as the authorities main goal is the promotion and strengthening of Chinese. At the same time, language preservation has been intertwined with missionary efforts among minority people since pre revolutionary times, culminating in the invention of a number of writing systems for the Miao, Lisu and other ethnic groups. Following this tradition, contemporary Christian missionaries and linguists are active in language preservation in many locations across Southwest China.

This paper is an attempt to examine the meaning of Christian involvement in language preservation and its implications for ethnic revival and agency. I argue that Christian activists today offer minorities a vehicle of double significance. On the one hand, language preservation can be seen as an affirmation of minority culture, its inherent value and significance. Such affirmation is of particular importance in the reform era China, where the hegemony of Han culture is a permanent feature of life. At the same time, through the act of translation, missionaries are able to provide a sense of transcendence, moving from the local to the global and connecting peripheral ethnic communities to an international community.

Keywords: China; Christianity; Missionaries; Ethnicity; Linguistic Policy