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Law and the Use of Language and Script: An Interview With Xu Jialu
As is well known in China, Xu Jialu is an expert in studying language and script. While embarking on a political career, he is also engaged in the teaching of Chinese language and is a supervisor of PhD candidates. As for his academic and professional background, Xu takes a leading role in creating China’s first law on use of language and script.

From initiating to drafting and implementing the law, Xu, professor of the Department of Chinese Literature of Beijing Normal University and chairman of the State Language and Script Work Committee, thinks it a major issue that has direct bearing on national civilization, unity, prosperity and progress.

“It’s a pleasant job!” he said.

Language is a kind of integration of individuality and sociality, Xu said. From the angle of communication and promotion of national unity and the national economy, social development needs both unity and standardized languages. A country cannot be called a strong country without normal traffic, huge productive forces and stable defense capability. But, a country that does not develop its own civilization even with these capabilities can only be called a rich country, not a strong country.

Looking back on the path of making and promulgating the law over the past year, Xu said it so far had developed comparatively well. The central government and relevant departments have publicized relevant measures that mainly give expression to the following aspects:

First, strengthening the popularization of putonghua (standard Chinese pronunciation). The work of popularization should start from kindergartens and move up through primary schools, junior secondary schools and teachers’ colleges.

Second, the popularization of putonghua should be spearheaded by the leading role of civil servants, who must pass a putonghua examination when being employed.

Third, the popularization of putonghua should start from service and mass media trades. For example, only those broadcasting anchorpersons passing the putonghua examination can take up the job.

Xu Jialu is optimistic about the implementation of the Language and Script Law and the popularization of putonghua. He pointed out that because of economic development, 7.8-million migrant workers distributed all across the country have become a major force in popularizing putonghua. For example, the level of popularization in Guangdong Province and cities of Changshu, Wujiang and Wenzhou, where dialects are popular, has clearly improved. Even in Wenzhou, whose dialect is considered the most difficult to understand, some 100,000 people now speak putonghua. Besides, a scene of “putonghua in markets” has appeared in Shanghai where people used to be unwilling to speak it.

Some people think the Language and Script Law is a “soft law.” Then, are there any “harder” measures that can be used for its implementation?

Xu said that, since language is a kind of habit, penalties cannot be used. But, the central government and relevant departments still have some measures to standardize the use of languages. The State Press and Publication Administration stipulates that a publication with the number of wrongly written or mispronounced characters exceeding one per 10,000 characters cannot be entered for appraisal and selection for the country’s top three book prizes. Another example, only computer software with words database and products with languages passing the examination and verification of authoritative institutions under the State Language and Script Work Committee can be sold publicly. Another hard rule is that students of teachers’ colleges cannot get diplomas without passing the putonghua examination at that year, and they can only get their diplomas in the following year after passing the examination. Besides, local language and script work committees make hard rules for the checking of commercial billboards. Take the city of Xiamen, capital of southeast China’s Fujian Province, for example. “There were original complex forms of the simplified Chinese characters everywhere when I went there a few years ago. This year, when I was on a business trip from Fuzhou to Xiamen, I was surprised to see that 99 percent of billboards were written in standardized Chinese characters,” said Xu.

Finally, Xu said he is engaged in supporting relevant departments to organize several putonghua contests in southern China’s dialect-popular areas, including Guangdong, southern Fujian and Hakka dialect areas. He said that the contests would greatly promote the popularization of putonghua in the region.

(By Yan Xixia, china.org.cn staff reporter, translated by Li Jingrong, March 11, 2002)

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