Borderlands

Caught between Two Countries

Northeastern China’s ethnic Korean minority – Eduardo Baptista

“South Koreans treat us like foreigners … worse, they treat us like dogs!” shouted Li Zhangyan, a retired 67-year old chaoxianzu, as ethnic Koreans are called in Chinese. He and  his friends had drunk a few too many bottles of soybean wine, making them welcoming to my reporter’s presence, but also easily riled up.

Li has worked in total for over a decade in different cities around South Korea, taking advantage of the higher salaries compared to his home in Yanbian, China’s ethnic Korean prefecture.

“There isn’t one of us,” he pointed at himself and his two friends, also retired, “who hasn’t bought a couple of houses here in Yanbian. We made all this money but South Koreans still look down on us!”

Borderlands

Talking Trung

Keeping a minority language alive – Eveline Chao

In 2015, linguist Ross Perlin helped bring something utterly novel into the world: the very first book (as far as he knows) that had ever been written or published in a certain language. The language was Trung, spoken by fewer than 7,000 people in a river valley of Yunnan Province, close to the border with Burma and Tibet. The book was a Trung-Chinese-English dictionary, of which a modest number were printed and distributed locally within the 60-mile-wide area of China where Trung speakers live. The dictionary is also available online.

Together with three Trung collaborators, Perlin began compiling the dictionary in 2009. “Working first in Chinese and then haltingly in Trung, I recorded ghost stories and folksongs, studied rituals and conversations, and teased apart fine points of grammar,” Perlin wrote of the experience in Harper’s. His work with Trung stems from a broad interest in endangered languages that began in 2003, after Perlin heard Sun Hongkai, China’s most distinguished linguist, speak at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing about China’s great diversity of languages – and the fact that many are disappearing. Perlin is now the co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance, an advocacy organization that helps New York’s immigrant and refugee communities keep their languages alive.

Borderlands

Modernity with Yi Characteristics

Adapting traditions in 21st century China – Stevan Harrell

The Sani people, an Yi group who live in the hills east of Kunming, have faced the puzzle of modernity longer than most. Many were part of a utopian Catholic experiment started by Père Paul Vial in 1887. Vial wanted them to be modern, educated and Catholic, while still being Sani. He built churches, translated scripture into Sani, published a Sani-French dictionary and purchased land for agricultural improvement projects. He also fought fiercely for Sani autonomy and against what he saw as their oppression by Han Chinese landlords and officials. About a third of the Sani population became Catholic by the time Vial died in 1917, and many remain Catholic to this day.

Borderlands

Can You Get There from Here?

Yi languages and scripts – Stevan Harrell

When I was planning to begin field research among minority groups in Southwest China, I looked for a group that was not much written about in English, but whose language was fairly convenient to study. I chose the Nuosu, a group that is part of the larger ethnic classification of Yi, mostly because I was able to get hold of a textbook and some conversation tapes. When people outside China hear that I can speak the Nuosu language, their first two questions are almost always: “How close is it to Mandarin (or to Chinese)?” and “does it have tones?”

Both Yi and Chinese are families of closely related languages (sometimes referred to as varieties), and both in turn are branches of the larger Sino-Tibetan family, which includes over 400 languages spoken in China, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. To put it another way, Yi and Chinese are as closely related as any two distant Indo-European languages, like English and Bengali, or German and Dari. In other words, not much.