Join our Mailing List

"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Opinion: Freedom of Tongue

November 9, 2010

Bhuchung D. Sonam
November 8, 2010

‘I am my language, I am an ode, two odes, ten. This is my language.
I am my language.’ -- Mahmoud Darwish

On 12 October 2010, the Provincial Communist
Party and Amdo (Ch. Qinghai) Provincial
Government held a meeting on education during
which a new policy to replace Tibetan by Chinese
as the medium of instruction was launched. At 8
am on the 19th, thousands of Tibetan students in
Rebkong took to the streets to demand ‘Freedom of Language.’

The peaceful protests by Tibetan students have
spread all over Tibet and Beijing, where four
hundred students from the Minorities University
participated in a solidarity march. Last week
about 6,000 students in Amdo protested against
the new language policy. Even the students and
teachers in East Turkestan (Ch. Xinjiang) have
also shown a strong support for the Tibetans.

The danger and the intention behind this
seemingly apolitical policy by the Chinese
authorities are summed up in a letter submitted
to the Amdo Provincial Government on 15 October
signed by at least 133 teachers from various
schools in the region. It states that "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." An appeal signed by 27 Tibetan
writers living in exile also clearly expresses
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 of extreme
suspicion and fear. Tibetan people's way of life
and their outlook towards the world is
inextricably linked with Buddhism, which in turn
is firmly linked with Tibetan language. This
shared culture binds Tibetans into a unified
entity giving them a sense of national identity.

However, this unifying power is a threat to
Beijing's rule and survival in Tibet.
Consequently, for over half a century the Chinese
rulers have hammered down on Tibetan religion,
language and identity. The atheist Communist
Party of China has even gone on to involve itself
in controlling and manipulating the selection of
reincarnations of Tibetan lamas, who are
spiritual teachers and leaders of Tibetan Buddhism.

In 1951, after the so-called 17-Point Agreement
was signed, 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. While inside Tibet the occupying
Chinese authorities introduced propagandist
education in schools as the late Prof. Dawa Norbu
remembered how math was taught using such
examples -- ‘I have five eggs. I offer three to
the People’s Liberation Army. How many have I left?’

Catriona Bass writes in her book Education in
Tibet: Policy and Practice since 1950 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 the traditional Tibetan culture, the prime
target being the Tibetan language."

A little gain in the early 1980s was soon
overshadowed by hard-line policies under Chen
Kuiyuan, the then firebrand party boss in Tibet
who said that Beijing "must improve political and
ideological work in schools." Reintroduction of
mass political indoctrination as a tool of social
control through ideological education persists to
this day in schools and monasteries. This reveals
the State’s underlying goal of fostering
political loyalty and to instil the ideology of
the ‘Unity of the Motherland’ and ‘Opposition to
Splittism’ among Tibetan children.

In January 1996, Chen stated at an internal
meeting that Tibet nationalism was rooted in
Tibetan religion, and that Tibetan religion was
rooted in Tibetan culture and language. Since
1997 Beijing has been forcefully practicing
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 to pass an entrance exam in 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 and consistently marginalizing 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 in the same year. As a result, though
the current population of Manchu under China is
nearly 10 million, fewer than 100 people can
speak Manchu. Many scholars believe that oral
Manchu will disappear in five to 10 years.

The recent education policy that the Chinese
authorities announced in Amdo clearly follows
Beijing’s eradication of Manchu language and the
compulsory introduction of Chinese as a medium of
instruction in schools in ‘TAR’. If left
unchecked China will succeed in wiping out Tibetan language and identity.

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."

Forcing Tibetan students to study in Mandarin
Chinese will accelerate this assimilation
process. This is in essence the same radical
policy to completely wipe out Tibetan language
during the Cultural Revolution. This is an attack
on the root of Tibetan culture and identity. This
is a cultural crackdown. This policy also states
that Tibetan language is backward and Tibetan
culture un-advanced. The Tenth Panchen Lama said,
‘Until and unless I am able to clear this
impression of backwardness in the Tibet people, I
will not close my eyes even in death.’

The survival of Tibet as a nation and the
Tibetans as a culturally distinct people depends
on its language. China’s policies to destroy
Tibetan language are clear attacks on the root of
Tibetan identity. Drawing inspiration from
thousands of brave Tibetan students inside Tibet
who are asserting their right to study in their
own language, and Tibetan writers and
intellectuals lingering in Chinese jails for
speaking their minds, we must take actions before
the Tibetan language meets the same fate as that of the Manchu.

The writer can be reached at
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank