The Death and Rebirth of the Chinese language among Chinese-Indonesians

Students | Source: Wikimedia
Students | Source: Wikimedia

One thing I've noticed over the years is that many of my Chinese-Indonesian peers struggle with speaking Chinese. I hardly have any ability to speak it myself, siblings included. Yet how come my grandparents were able to speak it fine? The answer is not as simple as natural assimilation, but rather something much more concerning. 

From 1967 to the early 2000s, the Indonesian government banned Chinese culture, literature, and education in an attempt to suppress the ethnic Chinese minority and promote national unity. This ban was part of a series of anti-Chinese policies that followed the 1965-66 anti-communist purge, which killed hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom were ethnic Chinese like me. My own mother recounted to me how when she was an infant my grandmother hid with her inside a bunker to avoid the riots and purges.

The ban prohibited us from using Chinese characters, symbols, and languages in public places, media, schools, and businesses. It also restricted us from celebrating Chinese festivals, such as Lunar New Year and Lantern Festival. 

During this period, many Chinese-Indonesians, including me and many of my friend's relatives, changed their Chinese names to Indonesian or Western ones, and stopped using or learning their ancestral languages. For example, my maiden name (Tjendra) has its roots in the original Chinese word "Chen". Many more of these examples exist as well. The popular surname "Gunawan" can be traced from either Wei, Wen, Wu, or Xu. We also have Prasetyo from Zhang, Santoso from Chen, Handoko from Han, Taslim from Lin, and many more.

Over several generations many of us eventually lost our ability to speak our ancestral language. However, we still kept our strong cultural ties and traditions. Many of our families kept speaking Chinese in private.

The ban on Chinese culture and language in Indonesia was eventually lifted in 1998, after the fall of the authoritarian regime of Soeharto, who had ruled the country for 32 years. Soeharto was forced to resign amid widespread protests and riots, which also targeted Chinese Indonesians and their properties.

The lifting of the ban opened up opportunities for the youth to learn Chinese and reconnect with our ancestral language. Schools in Indonesia now offer Chinese courses. However, not many schools do, and the ones that have them are often ineffective in properly teaching Chinese.

But still, there is hope. After many years of social reforms in Indonesia, the Chinese language is finally making a comeback.


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