Asia Life

Tibetan Schools: Preserving the Socio-Linguistic Ties That Bind

Tibetans today thrive in the modern world, but struggle to remain connected to their cultural roots.

On March 27, 2006, the Dalai Lama addressed a throng of followers in Dharamsala about a topic very near to his heart: the part that education plays in bolstering Tibet’s endangered cultural identity.

“What is most important is that everyone should act with diligence, without any loss of determination,” he said. “When I say that we should make efforts without loss of courage, the essence of it is that we must bring emphasis particularly on education.”

Acknowledging that his compatriots have no shortage of courage, he added, “In the area of modern knowledge, Tibetans have lagged extremely behind. Not only was the imperative for it not felt from the very beginning, there has also been no deliberately established system for pursuing it.”

Indeed, the 13th Dalai Lama made attempts to increase the general level of knowledge among Tibetans following trips to China in 1907 and 1908, and India from 1915 to 1920. He even sent some Tibetan students to England to study what has become the world’s lingua franca and to master other forms of modern knowledge. But these initial attempts eventually tapered off.

Since then, Chinese presence has gradually eroded the influence of Tibet’s authentic culture and mother tongue amid a fierce push to absorb the Tibetan heartland into the People’s Republic of China. While China first claimed that it would take a relaxed stance towards Tibet, over time the Dalai Lama said it reneged on past promises. Although the situation is better for Tibetan refugees in India and elsewhere in South Asia, as discussed yesterday, the Tibetan heartland has waged an uphill battle.

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This trend was undeniable at the Third Tibet Work Forum in 1994, at which officials likened the Tibetan independence movement to a snake and declared their intent to “cut off the serpent’s head”. In practice, this meant increased restrictions on the spread of Buddhism and a political campaign to degrade the religious and political standing of the Dalai Lama.

The policy meeting also “resulted in a dramatic increase in political repression; it led to tighter internal security, longer sentences for political offenses, increased control over monasteries and nunneries, intensified political education in schools, and more detentions,” Kate Saunders of the International Campaign for Tibet told The Diplomat.

The situation deteriorated further with the amendment of the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law in 2001, which pushed for Tibet’s further assimilation into the Chinese mainstream, both politically and culturally. While education in Tibet was already debilitated by earlier decrees from Beijing, new laws struck at the core tool of any process of learning: language itself.

The amendments were a double-edged sword. On one hand they actually increased state support for minority education. On the other, they cut state support for preserving and using minority languages, including Tibetan, in the classroom.

“As a result of the amendments, Tibetans must compete academically with Chinese who enroll in ethnic minority institutes, and compete with them for jobs after graduation,” Saunders explained. “Language that authorized preferential treatment for Tibetans and other minority nationalities to compete for employment against the Chinese was also removed in the amended Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law.”

It goes beyond Chinese students moving to Tibet, where a growing number are studying in minority ethnic institutes. There is a simultaneous push to enroll Tibetan students in courses taught solely in Mandarin.

“The Chinese authorities are setting in place what they also characterize as a bilingual policy but which appears to mean in practice an education imperative which is designed to transition minority students from education in their mother tongue to education in Chinese,” Saunders added. “A new outline of a policy in Qinghai province (bordering Tibet to the northeast) specified the support of construction of ‘kindergartens for pre-school bilingual education in nationality areas, actively promote ethnic and Han joint campuses, and combined ethnic and Han kindergarten classes.’”

As Saunders points out, this is extremely counterproductive for young learners. Research shows that children need to gain confidence and mastery of their own mother tongue during the first three or four years of primary education, after which a gradual yearly introduction to a second language can take place.

“Until now, teaching at kindergarten-level has been largely through the Tibetan language, although this is increasingly being undermined,” she added. “This reflects the authorities’ emphasis on enforcing the importance of the Chinese language for Tibetans, which strikes at the core of Tibetan fears over the survival of their identity and culture.”

These measures have sparked protests by thousands of students in Qinghai in recent years, suggesting that Tibetan culture may have a fighting chance. While this cultural battle is ongoing for Tibetans, signs of proactive engagement in the classroom and on the street give hope.

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“Even despite the repression, it would still, even today, be incorrect to assert that the Tibetan religious culture is only being preserved in exile. This is not so,” Saunders said. “Tibetans in Tibet are on the frontline of a bold struggle to protect their religion and national identity.”

A number of concrete examples of peaceful protest through cultural action: abstract paintings featuring Tibetan motifs, rap and hiphop lyrics allude to the exiled Dalai Lama and young Karmapa, virtual communities aimed at preserving the Tibetan language have sprung up, while Buddhist wisdom is dispensed by microbloggers. These are all steps in the right direction, but work remains.

“Just as Beijing seeks to enforce a police state across Tibet, Tibetans are daring to challenge the official state narrative,” Saunders said. “In doing so, they present a more complex challenge to the Chinese Communist Party leadership than before.”

Yet, as the cultural struggle plays out, there is always room for a new approach. Even the Dalai Lama acknowledges the need for balance, perhaps hinting at the best way forward.

“The reality of the situation in Tibet today is such that one has no choice but to rely on Chinese language if one is to become modern educated,” he said, before proposing an interesting thought.

He continued: “Suppose there are a hundred Tibetan students. Seventy or eighty such students could study Tibetan language as their main subject and achieve excellence in projecting one's national identity and in preserving our cultural heritage. Twenty or thirty such students could study Chinese language as their main subject and make efforts to achieve professional qualifications in modern specialized subjects. I feel this to be important, do you understand?”