Fortress Village - The Ethnic Minorities of Southwest China  

Ma Xue-Liang
Philology and the National Framework

Why is it the case that only mankind is able to progress continuously, and create culture? It is because mankind has history, and the other animal species do not. Because the other species do not have history, they cannot pass on their experiences, which could have served as a foundation, and therefore it is hard for them to progress…Why is it the case that only humans can create history, and the other animals cannot? It is because humans have a diverse and complex inventory of languages, and tools to record the languages. With these unique languages, humans produce history, and this is why humans are the most advanced species among all animals. Therefore, we can say that history and philology are the two scientific subjects that are most intimately linked to our lives. 1

In the “Introductory Remarks to the Publication of the Bulletin of the IHP, Academia Sinica” published in 1928, Tsai Yuan-Pei pointed out that the greatest difference between humans and other animals is that only humans have history and language. At the time, history and language were simply two parallel concepts in Tsai’s article, but after the Institute of History and Philology was established, philology began to be considered a form of historical material. In his article “The Purpose of Research at the Institute of History and Philology,” Fu Ssu-Nien mentioned that research on philology and history reached its peak in China quite early compared to the situation in Europe. Fu Ssu-Nien believed that the reason why Western philology became stronger than Chinese philology in modern times was because of the difference in research methods, which depended largely on the expansion of research materials.

An important starting point for the development of Chinese philology was the notion that philology should be treated as a type of historical material. From the previous paragraph, we know that Fu considered traditional Chinese philology to be advanced. Here, the term “traditional” indicates that it “follows the wishes of Gu Yan-Wu and Yan Ruo-Qu.” Fu said that “Gu proposed that languages evolve according to time and spatial changes, while Yan wrote a great example on the studying of documents.” Since the Qianlong and Jiaqing periods (1735-1795, 1795-1820), traditional of philology research was approved by scholars, and like the philology that is being studied at the Institute of History and Philology, it was based on evidence. With history as a structuring tool, philological research at the time involved two main points, one of which being the reconstruction of the history of languages. This included Chinese and non-Chinese languages. The history of Chinese languages focused mainly on phonetics, and in order for the material to not be limited to books on phonetics or other related documents, linguist Zhao Yuan-Ren began an investigation on various Chinese languages and dialects. This study was rarely discussed in the context of academic theories, for the researchers were mainly interested in how modern dialects are related to the ancient Chinese languages.

In the field of non-Chinese philology research, Li Fang-Gui is known as “the father of non-Chinese philology” and the pioneer of research on ethnic minority languages in China. In order to answer some questions he had about the Chinese language, Li started out researching the languages spoken by people living on China’s borders, especially those in the southwest, such as the of the Tibeto-Burman languages, the Tai-Kadai languages, and the Miao-Yao languages. During the process of investigation, Li also trained a batch of students, including Zhang Kun and Ma Xue-Liang.

Ma Xue-Liang worked at the Institute of History and Philology for almost a decade. He first studied philology under Li Fang-Gui, and joined the Institute as an assistant researcher after he graduated. In 1940, Ma went with Li on a trip to Lunan, Yunnan, to record Yi languages. The Yi people is an ethnic minority from southwest China with various branches. As a result, its languages vary, generally being divided into six main dialects. These dialects contain unique logograms, and are rich in cultural value. At the time, there was very little research data on the Yi people other than a few studies done by foreign researchers. In the Liutong bielu compiled and published by the IHP in 1945, Ma Xue-Liang demonstrated his discovery that Yi language contains lax and tense vowels, and stressed the importance of this characteristic in Yi and Mien languages. After the Institute was relocated to Lizhuang, Nanxi in Sichuan Province due to warfare, Ma Xue-Liang organized the research work he had done on the Yi language and wrote his Master’s thesis based on that. In 1941, he completed “Saniluo Grammar” under the instruction of Li Fang-Gui. This was the first publication on the grammar of ethnic languages that was completely based on theories and methods of modern linguistics.

One thing that we can see from the works of Li Fang-Gui and Ma Xue-Liang is that both believed in scientifically reconstructing the system that categorizes Chinese languages, and also emphasized the similarities between the Sino-Tibetan languages and the languages of ethnic minorities. The issue regarding the properties of the Sino-Tibetan languages is a controversial one, and has attracted much attention from scholars. Research on the properties of the Sino-Tibetan languages is primarily focused on three main topics—the forming of the Sino-Tibetan languages; the classification of Tai-Kadai languages and Miao-Yao languages; and the classification of Tibeto-Burman languages. First of all, Tai-Kadai languages and Miao-Yao languages do not belong to the Sino-Tibetan family, and secondly, Tibeto-Burman languages are distinct from the Chinese languages, especially in terms of grammar. Ma Xue-Liang’s later views on the Sino-Tibetan languages in general allow us to think about “plural but integrated,” and the fact that the framework created by comparing history causes researchers to hold certain assumptions before even starting their research. These assumptions are closely tied to the construction of national boundaries, and are subject to reconsideration and doubt. Ma remarked:

The Sino-Tibetan languages are pluralistic; different languages share the same origin and similar developments… Within the family of the Sino-Tibetan languages, the Miao-Yao languages are the closest to the Tai-Kadai languages, then Chinese, and least close to Tibeto-Burman languages. From this we can conclude that the Chinese language is the bridge between the Miao-Yao/Tai-Kadai languages and the Tibeto-Burman languages.2
The purpose of studying ancient texts related to ethnic minorities is to enrich the development of Chinese culture and form a proletarian culture. We need to acknowledge the contributions that ethnic minorities have made to the development of Chinese culture and stress their importance in order to increase their self-confidence and pride. Promoting more patriotism within each ethnic group will help strengthen the revival of Chinese culture, strengthen ethnic relationships, unify the country, and achieve the Four Modernizations.3

2000 〈中國語言學的傳統與創新〉,《學術史與方法學的省思》台北:中央研究院歷史語言研究所。
2000 〈七十年來中國語言學研究的回顧〉,《學術史與方法學的省思》台北:中央研究院歷史語言研究所。
1998 〈歷史的足音〉,《新學術之路》台北:中央研究院歷史語言研究所。
2000 《馬學良學述》杭州:浙江人民出版社。
1999 《民族語言研究文集》北京:中央民族大學出版社。
1997 《中國民族學史》(上)昆明:雲南教育出版社。
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