The Tibetan language – which is the key to our communication, our culture, our religion and our national identity – has been steadily undermined under Chinese rule over the past six decades. We are now at a critical point in the struggle for survival of one of the most ancient and sophisticated languages in the world, that has given rise to a remarkable literary and religious culture.
China has clear strategic objectives in Tibet. The Beijing leadership is implementing ambitious plans to exploit Tibet’s mineral and natural resources, and at the same time to integrate Tibet into the PRC. These policies and their implementation threaten the survival of Tibet’s language, cultural and religion, which are important not only to Tibetans, but also to the world.
Even though Beijing may not have the intention of enforcing the extinction of the Tibetan language, it is creating the environment for its obliteration. The Chinese authorities are focusing on the dominance of the Chinese language to the detriment of Tibetan, and is also marginalizing the Tibetan language by withdrawing it from the curriculum.
In general, what is happening to the language runs counter to measures outlines in China’s own laws, specifically the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has pointed out that measures in Chinese law to protect language and culture are simply not implemented in Tibet today.
Learning the Tibetan language now creates serious obstacles for Tibetans in terms of their further education, jobs and income.
Research shows that children do better when their own language is the teaching medium. In Tibet, while at primary school level in many areas Tibetans are still taught in Tibetan, at middle school level they transfer to Chinese teaching medium. This puts them at a huge disadvantage to their Chinese counterparts.
It is not that Tibetans do not want to learn Chinese. They do. My Chinese is just as good as my Tibetan and both languages are important to me. It is that they need and want to learn through their mother tongue, and to keep their religious and cultural heritage alive through their own language.
The Chinese government spends millions of yuan in education through the Chinese language media. A nine-year compulsory education program, in the areas where this is implemented, provides three years of free vocational education programs. But the entire curriculum is in Chinese. And students who learn through the Tibetan language medium at middle school have to pay higher fees than those at Chinese middle schools, even while the schools are administered by the same education department. After all, if students know Chinese they are a more receptive audience to the Chinese authorities’ propaganda and to quicker integration in a Chinese-dominant society.
A new generation of Tibetans is growing up under this system of education, from nursery to senior middle school. The latter is one of the key places where a Tibetan student’s future is decided.
There is a Chinese saying, which is, “It is easy to change the landscape, but very hard to reform nature”. This accords with their principle that “Ideological change is a process of internalization”. One could say that the policies on language in Tibet are literally designing the future, creating the internal environment, for a new Tibetan generation.
The 10th Panchen Lama, who died in 1989, was a leader of great stature who is revered by Tibetans of my generation for the work he did in seeking to protect our language, our religious and cultural identity. In the early 1980s, during the period of relative liberalization after the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, the 10th Panchen Lama sought to keep the Tibetan language alive. He travelled across the entire Tibetan plateau, observing the circumstances of Tibetan language and cultural identity, talking to people, and listening to stories about their daily life under Chinese Communist rule.
He spent 14 years in prison or under house arrest after he documented the repression of religion, mass arrests, punishment and executions of Tibetans that followed the 1959 Uprising in Tibet against Chinese rule in his 1962 ’70,000-character petition’ to Mao Zedong.
The Panchen Lama’s legacy in Tibet is still evident in Tibetan areas of Qinghai and Sichuan. He built bridges between key schools and monasteries and played a key role in the founding of institutes of great importance to Tibetan culture, such as Lhasa University, North-West Minorities University, North-South Minority University, the Larung Gar religious institute, and many more colleges and religious institutions.
The Panchen Lama knew how critical the Tibetan language is to our country’s monastic system. Monastic education is ultimately based on Tibetan language as well as Buddhist practice.
Today, with a Chinese-installed Panchen Lama and the great lamas in exile, including all the leaders of the main Buddhist schools, the challenges are great.
For instance, the Chinese authorities say that they want to have a ‘bilingual’ education policy. For us, that means importance is given to both Tibetan and Chinese. But what the Chinese mean by this is that Chinese should be the dominant language.
A new plan launched in Qinghai to prioritise Chinese over Tibetan language from November, 2010, led to widespread protests by Tibetan schoolchildren and students across five Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures in Qinghai Province (the Tibetan area of Amdo) including Huangnan (Tibetan: Malho), Golok, Haibei (Tibetan: Tsoshar) and Gannan (Tibetan: Ganlho). With remarkable courage and resourcefulness, Tibetan students are showing their passion for the protection of Tibetan language in new, peaceful ways.
Tibetans across the plateau are aware of the importance of this historic struggle to protect their language. In nomadic and other rural areas, ‘pure language’ groups have been set up by local educated people to ensure that even those with little education can learn and speak Tibetan. Tibetan intellectuals are sacrificing their careers to spend their time expanding work on the Tibetan language together with modern information technology.
Non-governmental groups have been set up to spread knowledge about culture, Tibet’s environment, its history. Wealthy Tibetans are supporting Tibetan intellectuals in their work creating small private schools where the Tibetan language is taught.
For instance, in two well-known language school founded by a monk, both Tibetan boys and girls learn about their language and culture. I know about these schools and can see the insightful, moderate approach behind them, which has given so many Tibetans an important education. The teachers are highly educated monks from across Tibet. Thousands of Tibetan children from nomadic areas, from cities, have attended the schools since their foundation.
Both of these private schools, and others that operate quietly in different areas, aim to sharpen a new generation’s knowledge and understanding about their linguistic and cultural identity as well as expanding that awareness to learning about history, literature, poetry and other subjects. Importantly, these schools also teach Chinese as a major subject.
Even while there is no confrontation, the authorities’ response to such initiatives since 2008 has been harsh. Many senior Tibetans who have sought to educate others in the Tibetan language, or those active in civil society, have been imprisoned for many years, often in attempts to ‘cut down the tall trees’ by removing those figures of influence from the community and to break their spirit. A number of Tibetan students – often the brightest and the best – who participated in peaceful, moderate demonstrations to protect their language have been imprisoned for several years. Private schools have been closed too – notably the one at Kirti monastery, in 2003, where the wave of self-immolations began in 2009.
Ultimately, the Chinese response is counter-productive. Tibetans have shown great resilience and determination to protect their language and their national identity. I have the impression that they are not going to give up. The imposition of sheer military force and policies that undermine a culture with deep moral roots will not succeed in bringing genuine stability in Tibet.