Online communication among Northwest China ethnic minorities: language choices, visual elements and aspirational identities

Author: Giulia Cabras (Czech Academy of Sciences, Oriental Institute)
Speaker: Giulia Cabras
Topic: Language, Community, Ethnicity
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2022 General Session


Northwest China is an area of extraordinarily cultural and linguistic diversity, inhabited by Chinese, Turkic, Tibetan, and Mongolic ethnic groups. The major religions in the area are Islam and Buddhism. Ethnic minorities in Northwest China are living important social changes, because of urban migration, new and different economic opportunities (and imperatives), and new language policies in education.

Technology-mediated communication embodies public discourse and popular trends and constitutes a way to build sociality (Venkatraman, 2017). In particular, for young generations, the Internet is a space for identity formation (Buckingham 2008). Research on the Chinese Internet has shown that ethnic minorities use social networks as a way to express ethnic culture, and show their particular interests and concerns (Light 2015, Dak Lhagyal 2019).

This paper employs material gathered from WeChat, a small-group oriented app used for one-to-one text, voice, and video chat, very popular in China no matter the social or economic background, the rural or urban origin of the users. The users have a personal page, which is similar to a Facebook wall accessible to the user’s contacts, where it is possible to post comments, pictures, video, and articles. Posts can be shared and reach many users.

The analysis focuses on the content, linguistic and visual choices of written posts, images, and videos related to different topics, religious pictures, and online wedding invitations (popular in China), posted by five users belonging to the Uyghur, (Amdo) Tibetan, and Hui (Chinese-speaking Muslims) minorities, aged between 18 and 35 years old. The study follows an ethnographic approach, including also empirical information from the users and the social and political context where they live.

The research shows that the users employ different languages, and visual elements portraying their ethnicity and culture, to express their sense of belonging and aspirational identities, and cross boundaries that exist in their offline social life


Buckingham, David (2008). Youth, Identity, and Digital Media (John D. and Catherine t. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Dak Lhagyal. (2019). ‘Linguistic Authority’ in state-society interaction: Cultural politics of Tibetan education in China. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education.
Light, Nathan (2015). Uyghurs on Chinese Social Networking Sites: The Creation and Destruction of Ethnic Youth Culture. Central Asian Affairs (2).
Venkatraman, S. (2017). Social Media in South India. Chicago: UCL press.

Keywords: Northwest China; ethnic minorities; Internet-mediated communication; visual culture; language practices