Since 2003, I have been working on and off on Baima 白马, an endangered Tibeto-Burman language spoken in the South-West of China.
Baima is a non-written endangered Tibeto-Burman language, spoken in three counties in Sichuan Province (Jiuzhaigou 九寨沟, Songpan 松潘, Pingwu 平武) and one county in Gansu Province (Wenxian 文县) in the People's Republic of China (PRC). The Baima people reside in the mountainous areas bordering these counties, and they live in the immediate proximity of Qiang, Chinese, and Tibetan ethnic groups.
The status of the Baima language is a matter of controversy. Is it a separate language or a dialect of Tibetan? Officially classified as Tibetans in the 1950s, the Baima people advanced claims as an independent ethnic group in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1978 and 1979, a group of PRC researchers conducted two surveys in the Baima areas and published two collections of papers, in which the Baima were claimed to be descendants of the ancient Di 氐 tribe, which set up influential kingdoms in the 3rd through the 6th centuries in the areas currently inhabited by the Baima.
Despite the conclusion that the Baima people constitute a distinct ethnic group rather than a branch of Tibetans, they were never officially reclassified. Reclassification of ethnic groups listed as Tibetans remains a sensitive issue in the PRC, and is considered by many Tibetans as an attack on Tibetan identity by the Chinese government. Overshadowed by such political contention, the Baima language remains poorly documented to date.
Baima is considered a distinct language by its speakers and is not mutually intelligible with various Tibetan dialects spoken in its neighborhood. The spheres of activity in which Baima is used are limited to religious and ceremonial contexts, as well as to interpersonal communication in Baima villages. The language of communication with neighboring communities throughout all Baima-inhabited areas is Mandarin Chinese.
The following scholars have conducted Baima research:
Sun Hongkai participated in the surveys of the Baima areas in 1978 and 1979. He wrote a sketch of Baima phonology and grammar, and collected over 3,000 common vocabulary items. Based on these, Sun argues that Baima should be considered an independent language of the Tibetan branch of the Tibeto-Burman language family.
Working in collaboration with Sun Hongkai, Nishida Tatsuo studied records of the Baima language, made by Chinese officials during the Qianlong reign (1736-1796) of the Qing dynasty. Nishida also argues that Baima is an independent Tibeto-Burman language.
Based on language data collected by Sun Hongkai, Zhang Jichuan wrote several articles on Baima in the 1990s, outlining regular correspondences between the phonological systems of Baima and Classical Tibetan. He suggests that Baima is related to the Khams Tibetan group.
After one month of fieldwork on Baima in Pingwu County in 1995, Huang Bufan and Zhang Minghui published an article in which they also propose a set of sound correspondences between Classical Tibetan and Baima. They support Zhang Jichuan's hypothesis that Baima is a Khams Tibetan dialect.
In the course of my work on Baima, I co-authored with Sun Hongkai 孙宏开 and Liu Guangkun 刘光坤 the book Baima yu yanjiu 白马语研究 [A Study of the Baima Language], which was published in 2007. In that same year the London-based Endangered Languages Documentation Programme awarded my project proposal "Documentation of Four Varieties of Baima" with a grant. Since then, I published several academic articles on Baima (which can be downloaded from the Publications page), and I am currently finalizing a grammar of Baima in English, accompanied by a collection of texts and a wordlist.