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The Xibe Language Struggles to Survive

The applause of family relatives and friends cannot lessen the worry of Tong Bao, a 63-year-old storyteller of Xibe minority ethnic group in northwestern and northeastern China, because only a few Xibe people can understand the Xibe language he speaks.

Tong Bao lives in Jinquan town, Qapqal County of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the only autonomous county for Xibe people in China. He worries that his consummate skill of singing story in Xibe language may be lost.

Constantly enriched as Xibe people migrated from Inner Mongolia 's Holonbuyr Grassland since the middle of 18th century to Xinjiang, the current Xibe language sounds more like a mixture of Chinese, Uygur, Russian and Kazak.

Statistics from the country's fourth census revealed that the Xibe population stood at 172,847 in 1990, mainly residing in Xinjiang and northeastern China.

These years, Xibe people have developed a great interest in learning Chinese and English. An editor with the Qapqal News, the world's only newspaper in Xibe language, said, "Although my job is to spread Xibe language, I only ask my child to learn to speak fluent Chinese and English. Xibe language is not a must."

As the ancient language gradually becomes outdated, Tong Keli, associate researcher with the Xinjiang Academy of Social Science, sees no point to be panic. She said the lose of Xibe language will not necessarily lead to the lose of the Xibe culture.

"In the final analysis, language is a tool, and if an increasing number of people are unwilling to learn it, the language will lose its vitality," said the language researcher.

Traditionally the Xibe people have been open-minded to the fine culture of other nationalities and they have kept enrich the Xibe culture by absorbing the cultural essences of other nationalities.

However, Tong said efforts are needed to save the dying Xibe language because it not only serves as a major medium for the spread of a culture, but it is also a cultural treasure of the human society.

"Any language ever created and used by human beings is a common wealth of humankind and need to be saved," she said.

In a country with 55 ethnic minority groups and a dozen ethnic languages on the verge of extinction, language experts said that salvaging dying languages has become a task of every native speaker.

In Xinjiang, teaching programs in Xibe language has been launched in local primary schools for years.

Guan Yinglan, a Xibe language teacher, said, "Children learn alphabet, basic syntax and simple written forms in our school. If they would like to teach themselves, soon they will use the language freely."

Guan Ziqi, an eight-year-old student able to recite poetry in Xibe, said, "I am from a Xibe family and would like to speak Xibe. "

Nationwide, the Chinese government has helped a dozen minority ethnic groups without their own written languages develop languages since 1949.

Under the Chinese Constitution and related laws, all the ethnic groups enjoy the freedom of using and developing their own languages in both oral and written forms.

News staff from the Qapqal Newspaper Office said that despite the shrinking readership and poor working environment, they will work hard to continue running the 50-year-old newspaper in Xibe language, a symbol of the Xibe culture.

(China Daily February 6, 2002)

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