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Do Chinese Indonesians Speak Chinese?

According to the 2010 census, there are over 2.8 million Chinese Indonesians in Indonesia. These numbers are spread throughout 34 provinces of Indonesia, although most reside in the country's biggest cities such as Jakarta, Surabaya, Bandung, and Medan.

Do Chinese Indonesians Speak Chinese?

Published by The LingoNomad

Many people outside of Indonesia seem to have the misconception that Chinese people in Indonesia do not speak any Chinese languages. While this may be true for a number of Chinese Indonesians born in Java (where Jakarta, Surabaya, and Bandung are located), this is typically not true for Chinese Indonesians born in Sumatra (where Medan is located), Kalimantan, Batam and its surrounding islands. Perhaps this misconception came about because the majority of Chinese Indonesians who are overseas tend to be from cities in Java (Jakarta, Surabaya, or Bandung).

Chinese Is Not Just About Mandarin

Another misconception people often have in general is that the Chinese language and Mandarin refers to the same thing. Chinese is a language family; it groups Chinese languages such as Mandarin, Hokkien, Teochew, Hakka, Cantonese, Hainanese, Wu, and many more under a single category.

Chinese people in Medan and its surrounding cities typically speak Hokkien and its use is dominant as a lingua franca amongst Chinese Medanese. The Hokkien variant spoken in Medan is a subdialect of Zhangzhou Hokkien, similar to the one spoken in Penang, Malaysia.

Chinese people in Riau (a province in eastern Sumatra), Batam and its surrounding islands typically speak Hokkien and/or Teochew. The Hokkien variant spoken in these regions is a subdialect of Quanzhou Hokkien, similar to the one spoken in Southern Malaysia and Singapore.

Speakers of other Chinese languages such as Hakka and Cantonese are spread out amongst Chinese Indonesians in the country, though their numbers are smaller in comparison to speakers of Hokkien and Teochew. 

However, it is true that there are many Chinese Indonesians who do not speak Mandarin, or do not speak it well. The main reason for this is "The Chinese Ban".

"The Chinese Ban"

Presidential Instruction 14 of 1967 banned Chinese literature, tradition, and culture in Indonesia, which lasted for about 35 years throughout Indonesia from 1967 to the early 2000s. During this time period, the ban prohibited any teaching, learning, and the distribution of materials in Chinese.

This was also the period where many Chinese Indonesians were "strongly encouraged" to change their Chinese-sounding names into more Indonesian ones, although in the 1990s many begin to opt for Western-sounding names instead.

It appears that the ban was more strongly enforced across Java (or arguably, the ban was perceived to be in effect more strongly across Java), because it is where the capital city Jakarta is located. As a result, nowadays, Chinese Indonesians born in Java tend to have Indonesian as their first language, whereas Chinese Indonesians born outside Java, especially those born in Sumatra, Kalimantan, Batam tend to have a Chinese language (such as Hokkien, Teochew, Hakka, or Cantonese) as their first language.

The Growth of Mandarin

After "The Chinese Ban" was lifted in the early 2000, the growth of China began to be felt in Indonesia and many Chinese Indonesians started learning Mandarin to reconnect with their roots.

Nowadays, Mandarin continues to be the dominant Chinese language that is offered to be formally taught and learned in schools. There are growing numbers of public and private universities across Indonesia that offer Mandarin as a major. The number of institutions offering Mandarin language classes has also grown substantially.

The fact still does not change that Chinese Indonesians born in Java tend not to have a Chinese language as their first language, whereas those born outside of Java tend to. Regardless, since the lift of the ban, many Chinese Indonesians are beginning to be able to embrace both their Chinese heritage more freely, with varying, personal degrees of struggle to maintain it alongside their Indonesian identity.

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