At 8 am on 19 October, thousands of Tibetan students in Rebkong, northeastern Tibet, took to the streets to demand ‘freedom of language.’ They were protesting the decision taken during a meeting on 12 October by the Provincial Communist Party and Amdo (Qinghai) provincial government to replace Tibetan with Mandarin Chinese as the medium of instruction at educational institutions.
Peaceful protests by Tibetan students have, meanwhile, spread all over Tibet and Beijing, where 400 students from the Minorities University participated in a solidarity march. On 21 October, more than 3000 students in Golok, eastern Tibet, also protested against the new language policy. Tibetan students in exile and their supporters are also lobbying initiatives around the world, particularly in Belgium, Holland, Poland, Germany, Switzerland and in many places in the US and India. Students and teachers in East Turkestan (Xinjiang) have shown strong support for the Tibetan students. These moves, however, have not been taken well by the powers-that-be. At around 10:30 on the morning of 22 October, Chinese authorities detained more than 20 students in Chabcha in Amdo, northeastern Tibet.
The intent behind this seemingly apolitical policy of the Chinese authorities is summed up in a letter that was signed by at least 133 teachers from various schools in the region, and submitted on 15 October to the Amdo (Qinghai) provincial government. ‘If both the spoken and written language of a people die, then it is as if the entire population of that people has died and the people have been decimated,’ the teachers maintained. An appeal signed by 27 Tibetan writers living in exile also clearly express this concern: ‘As Tibetan writers, we consider language as the core identity of the Tibetan people. The survival of our identity depends on our language and to destroy a language is to destroy people and their identity.’
Since the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the Communist Party’s outlook towards Tibetan language and religion has been one of suspicion and fear. The Tibetan people’s traditional way of life and outlook towards the world is inextricably linked with Buddhism, which in turn is firmly linked with Tibetan language. (The entire corpus of Buddhist cannons and thousands of commentaries by Buddhist scholars down the centuries are available only in Tibetan language.) This shared culture binds Tibetans into a unified entity giving them a sense of national identity. This unifying power, however, is seen as a threat to Beijing’s rule and its survival in Tibet. Consequently, for over half a century, the Chinese rulers have hammered down on Tibetan religion, language and identity. The Communist Party of China has even involved itself in controlling and manipulating the selection of reincarnations of Tibetan lamas – the spiritual teachers and leaders of Tibetan Buddhism.
In 1951, after the so-called 17-Point Agreement on ‘the peaceful liberation of Tibet’ was forced onto Tibet, 600 Tibetan children were sent to the Central Institute of Nationalities in Beijing to be educated as cadres and teachers. This was one of the first steps taken to win over the trust of the Tibetans. In Tibet, meanwhile, the occupying Chinese authorities introduced propagandist education in schools. The late Professor Dawa Norbu remembered how mathematics was taught using examples such as, ‘I have five eggs. I offer three to the People’s Liberation Army. How many have I left?’ In her book, Education in Tibet: Policy and Practice since 1950, Catriona Bass states that during the Cultural Revolution, ‘all concessions to culturally specific education for China’s nationalities were abolished; the political nature of education during this period meant that it consisted almost entirely of launching attacks on traditional Tibetan culture, the prime target being the Tibetan language.’
While authorities relented a little in the early 1980s, whatever little was gained at the time was soon overshadowed by hardline policies under Chen Kuiyuan, the then-firebrand party boss in Tibet, who said that Beijing ‘must improve political and ideological work in schools’. As such, mass political indoctrination as a tool of social control through ideological education, which was initiated at that time, persists to this day in schools and monasteries. This lays bare the state’s underlying goal of fostering political loyalty, alongside its attempts at instilling an ideology of the ‘unity of the motherland’ and ‘opposition to splittism’ among Tibetan children.
In January 1996, Chen stated at an internal meeting that Tibetan nationalism was rooted in Tibetan religion, and that Tibetan religion was in turn rooted in Tibetan culture and language. Since 1997, Beijing has been forcefully using Chinese as a medium of instruction for Tibetan children in the ‘Tibetan Autonomous Region’ (TAR). Even Tibetan students seeking admission into the University of Tibet in Lhasa are required pass an entrance exam in Mandarin Chinese. Thus, Beijing’s fundamental education policy in Tibet has been to win over the loyalty of generations of Tibetans through mandatory education in Chinese while consistently marginalising the Tibetan language. This has a clear historical precedent in Manchuria, which was occupied by China after the Qing dynasty collapsed in 1911. The Chinese authorities banned teaching of Manchu as a language during the same year. As a result, though the current population of Manchu under China is nearly 10 million, fewer than a hundred people can speak the Manchu language. Many scholars believe that oral Manchu will disappear within the next decade.
The recent education policy that the Chinese authorities announced in Amdo (Qinghai) clearly follows Beijing’s eradication of Manchu language and the compulsory introduction of Chinese as a medium of instruction in schools in the Tibet Autonomous Region. If left unchecked, China will succeed in wiping out Tibetan language – and, thereafter, what is today thought of as Tibetan identity will not be far behind. The late Tibetan professor, Dungkar Lobsang Trinley, remarked that ‘all hope in our future, all other developments, cultural identity, and protection of our heritage depends on this [Tibetan language]. Without educated people in all fields, able to express themselves in their own language, Tibetans are in danger of being assimilated.’
It is not overstatement to warn that the survival of Tibet as a nation and the Tibetans as a culturally distinct people depends in large part on its language. China’s policies to destroy Tibetan language are clear attacks on the root of Tibetan identity. Drawing inspiration from thousands of Tibetan students inside Tibet who are asserting their right to study in their own language, and Tibetan writers and intellectuals languishing in Chinese jails for speaking their minds, action must be taken before the language of Tibet meets the same fate as Manchu.
~ Poet/writer, Bhuchung D. Sonam lives and works in Dharamsala.