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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Modernization poses new challenges for Tibetans

March 19, 2009

By Ben Blanchard
Reuters
March 16, 2009

TONGREN, China,  Reuters -- Steeped in centuries-old, devoutly
Buddhist traditions, Tibetans today face harsh choices as they fight
to hold on to their unique identity without getting left behind in
China's headlong rush toward modernity.

The decisions range from painful ones about whether children should
focus on their native Tibetan or the national language Mandarin at
school, to rather more mundane ones such as what clothes to wear,
music to listen to and books to read.

At stake is the creation of a modern Tibetan culture that is more
than just an imitation of their Han Chinese neighbors, or reaction to
China's religious and political pressure.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the flight into exile of Tibetan
spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, after a failed uprising against
Chinese rule. With the likelihood of his returning getting ever
smaller, some Tibetans are trying to be practical.

"You have to learn Chinese as without it you can't achieve anything
and you'll have no future," said Tendun, 23, a monk in a heavily
Tibetan corner of the remote far western province of Qinghai, who
spoke very passable, if heavily accented, Mandarin.

"You can't even go to the shops these days if you only speak
Tibetan," added the young initiate, who says he taught himself in a
monastery perched above a valley dotted with villages and bright
white stupas, prayer flags fluttering in the light breeze.

Tibetan is the main language of instruction in schools in his
hometown of Tongren, where most signs are bilingual in Chinese and
the Sanskrit-based Tibetan script. Many Tibetans there speak only
limited Mandarin or none at all.

Job and education prospects are limited for those without the
national language. Tibetans that don't speak Mandarin are condemned
to marginalization in a country where affirmative action is largely unheard of.

"When it comes to exams, the Tibetans and Chinese take them together,
but the Tibetans always fail as their Chinese is not as good. So the
Chinese get all the best jobs around here," said a Tibetan teacher
from southern Qinghai, who asked not to be named, fearing punishment
for speaking to a foreign reporter.

"Families face a difficult choice about whether to educate their
children in Tibetan or get them speaking better Chinese. But our
language is our mother. How can you abandon your mother?"

Han Chinese very rarely learn Tibetan.

ROASTED BARLEY OR FRIED RICE?

The challenges are broader than language.

"People send their children to boarding school, where they learn to
like rice and stir-fried food," said Luorong Zhandui, an ethnic
Tibetan from Sichuan province and a professor at the government-run
China Tibetology Research Center.

"They come home, and they don't want tsampa, which makes parents
worry they are losing their identity," he added, referring to a
traditional Tibetan flour made of roasted barely.

While many Tibetans do still prefer to wear their padded gowns with
long sleeves, the young are often as fashionably dressed in jeans and
trainers as Chinese counterparts in larger, more cosmopolitan cities
on the country's eastern seaboard.

"You can't go to work in those clothes. They're fine for festivals,
but not if you want to get ahead in your life," said Rodun, a Tongren
tour guide.

"Look at him. You can tell he comes from the mountains," he added
dismissively of an old man wearing a long, dirt-encrusted gown with a
small dagger dangling from his belt as he made an offering of milk
and barley at a temple.

Down the road in a Tongren village, a group of young Tibetans,
dressed in jeans and western-style jackets, laughed when asked why
they were not in traditional clothing.

"We don't wear that," one said in Mandarin, before turning back to
his friends to chat in their Amdo dialect of Tibetan.

BEYOND CHINESE

If traditional food and clothing are losing out, other aspects of
Tibetan culture such as literature and music are enjoying a
renaissance, flourishing despite, or perhaps because of, a government
clampdown after violent riots in Lhasa last March.

Surprisingly this seems to have been driven by the new generation of
elite who have picked up fluent Mandarin studying in the region's
sinicized cities, or at boarding schools in the Chinese heartland.

"Tibetans are becoming much more assertive and confident than they
have been in the past," said Tsering Shakya, a Tibet expert and
research chair at the University of British Columbia.

"There is a growing number of young Tibetans who speak fluent
Chinese, are well-educated and don't see themselves as a backward
minority and they want the same treatment as the rest of China."

Tibetan literature is flourishing, along with a Tibetan language
blogging community. Tibetan women are asking feminist questions about
traditional society and there are Tibetan rock-bands in Lhasa.

For some activists it is directly linked to the rising pressure from
China to conform to the version of Tibetan identity laid down by
Beijing after the Lhasa riots sparked a wave of protest across ethnic
Tibetan areas that lasted months.

"We have witnessed a strengthening of Tibetan cultural identity over
the last year ... real pride in their Tibetan identity infuses these
blogs and writings," said Kate Saunders, of the International
Campaign for Tibet.

But for some Tibetans there are also lessons to be learned from China
about building a modern society, whether it is inside the borders of
the People's Republic of China or not.

Not all are happy with China's rule, but few want to return to the
Tibet of their grandparents either.

A trip to booming southern China only reaffirmed monk Tendun's belief
that today's Tibetans cannot rely any more merely on their religious
faith and pride in their past.

"I'd never seen such tall buildings. I had no idea of anything beyond
the village before," he said. "I had no idea what the rest of China
looked like, and how fast it was developing."

(Additional reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison and Lucy Hornby;
Editing by Megan Goldin)

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