Victor Mair’s Log posts are always enjoyable, and The languages on Chinese banknotes is particularly meaty. A reader sent in a photograph of a one jiao banknote and asked him to explain the languages printed on it, those being Han (Chinese), Mongolian, Tibetan, Uyghur, and Zhuang; of the last, he says “after Han, China’s largest minority, but one that few people outside of China have ever heard of (it is closely related to Thai).” There is detailed discussion of each language and how well it is represented by the text on the banknote; for Zhuang, the answer is not at all well: “This is what one scholar of the region has referred to as ‘the whole fake / improved ethnic language phenomenon. Whatever is written there may have only a limited relationship to the way Zhuang is spoken in real life. It’s the same with Yi.’”
There is a great deal of interesting material in the comments, including this one by Mair:
There is something that has been in the back of my mind since I began to write this post, but it has only now come to the surface. Namely, the whole idea of five main ethnic groups as constituting the most important parts of the Chinese empire goes back to the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty. Moreover, there is a distinctly linguistic representation of this manifestation of a multiethnic empire, viz., the polyglot dictionaries sponsored by the Manchu rulers. Of these polyglot dictionaries, the largest and I believe the best known was the pentaglot behemoth known (in Manchu) as the Han-i araha sunja hacin-i hergen kamciha Manju gisun-i buleku bithe. It also has titles in the four other languages that it contains (i.e., Tibetan, Mongol, Turki, and Chinese), but I don’t have time to type all of them out this morning before rushing off to a dissertation defense. You can find them, and other detailed information about this huge pentaglot, in item #126 of Bibliographies of Mongolian, Manchu-Tungus, and Tibetan Dictionaries, compiled by Larry V. Clark, John R. Krueger, Manfred Taube, Hartmut Walravens, and edited by Hartmut Walravens (Harrassowitz Verlag, 2006), pp. 198-199. It is available online in Google Books… Now, isn’t that interesting?! These are the same exact groups as are found on the PRC banknote discussed in this post, with one exception: the Zhuang have replaced the Manchus.
Sometimes I wish I’d followed my old friend Susan into Sinology—there’s so much to learn and think about you’d never get bored even if you had several lifetimes.