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Chinese ethnic languages, cultures color national tapestry

Author  :  Wang Feng     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2014-11-13

  Zhang Gongjin/file

  The Culture of Dai Nationality/file

Zhang Gongjin (1933- ), professor of the Department of Minority Languages and Literatures at Minzu University of China, mainly specializes in the languages, cultures and linguistic theory of China’s ethnic nationalities. He has spent much of his career committed to ancient book collections and studies as well as the theoretical construction of cultural linguistics. His representative works include The Culture of Dai Nationality and The Cultural Study of Dai Nationality.


Starting in 1952, when he began teaching the Dai language, Zhang Gongjin has been engaged in the study of the language and culture of China’s ethnic groups for more than 60 years. His best years and painstaking efforts have been dedicated to the research of the languages and cultures of China’s non-Han nationalities.


Born in a rich region in the south of Changjiang River, Zhang Gongjin went to Shanghai and attended Fudan University. In response to the nation’s demand, Zhang applied to study ethnic languages, forever altering the course of his life. In November 1951, he voluntarily enrolled in Minzu College of China (the predecessor of Minzu University of China). The next year, he graduated ahead of schedule before he had even reached age 19 because of the demand for teachers and served as a tutor of the Dai language. Since then, his life has been dominated by the study of ethnic language and culture.


Much like his contemporaries, Zhang Gongjin considers himself a part of the Chinese minority community and has endeavored to work toward their happiness with all his being. Zhang fondly recalls his life in the 1950s with Dai people, living under the same roof, eating at the same table, working on the farm together while he studied the Dai language in Xishuangbanna. He was unable to restrain his excitement about this memory and said: “As a Han person who is familiar with the local language, intimately getting along with Dai people makes me feel at ease just like a fish in water. That was a wonderful time for me, when I was in high spirits, to develop my talents. In retrospect, if I hadn’t had this experience, my youth would have been so bleak.”


Traditional academic orientation in China has always placed a particular emphasis on empirical studies and attached little importance to extraction and innovation of theories. At the beginning of the 1980s, Zhang began to actively think about and explore the study of Chinese minority language and culture.


On the basis of a decade of studies on minority language and culture as an academic discipline, Zhang Gongjin put forth the hypothesis that “culture is the sum of the adaptive capacity and its adaptive results of each minority for specific environment.” The features of this definition are general, avoiding the limits and disadvantages of Taylor’s definition, which cites examples. It posits that culture is the result of each minority adapting to a specific environment, recognizes the ability and multicultural value of each minority that creates its own culture.


In the 1980s, he wrote The Cultural Value of Language, The Cultural Attributes of Characters , The Cultural Environment and Construction of Minority Language , The Science of Linguistics to the 21st Century and other articles that laid down a theoretical basis for the disciplinary development of cultural language.


The introduction of chaos theory and other nonlinear scientific theories to the study of linguistics is one of Zhang’s most important contributions to the disciplinary development of linguistics. With Zhang’s advocacy, the fusion of chaos theory and the study of linguistic culture has advanced significantly in the past 20 years.


For many people, linguistics seems to be a boring discipline. But from Zhang’s perspective, language is vivid and filled with vigor. It is an important condition that dictates human behavior as well as the basis for the development of human thought and cultural creation. Zhang does not subscribe to the point of view that simply regards language as a communication tool, indicating that “grasping more languages means mastering more communicative competence, having more cultural experience, observing from more angles and thinking in different ways.”


Zhang Gongjin devoted a mass of efforts and energy to the study of ethnic characters and ancient books. He spent tens of years in systematically organizing numbers of Dai classics, which utilize the Brahmi alphabet. Sixty volumes of the Abstract of the List of Chinese Minority Ancient Books edited by Zhang are a trans-century national cultural key project, which systematically show the full picture of Chinese minority ancient books and treasures and exert a significance on the discipline construction of the study of minority ancient books.



Wang Feng is from the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.


The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 658, Oct. 20, 2014

The Chinese link:


Translated by Zhang Mengying





Editor: Yu Hui

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