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"If Tibetans Took To The Streets For The Tibetan Language" By Woeser

August 11, 2010

High Peaks Pure Earth
August 9, 2010

High Peaks Pure Earth has translated a blogpost
by Woeser that was originally written for Radio
Free Asia on July 28, 2010 in Beijing and posted
on her blog on August 5, 2010. The blogpost is a
commentary on the recent mass protests in the
Chinese province of Guangdong against proposals
for the main provincial TV Channel to broadcast
primarily in Mandarin and not in Cantonese.

The decline of the Tibetan language has long been
a much discussed issue in the Tibetan blogosphere
and regular readers will remember previous posts
on this issue as well as the video posted on High
Peaks Pure Earth titled "Let's All Speak in Pure Tibetan".

Woeser reflects on the language policies of the
Chinese government, implications of the protests
for Tibetans and highlights the marginalisation
of ethnic minority languages in China. Woeser
also references Tashi Tsering, a prominent figure
of modern Tibetan history. For those interested
in finding out more about his life, here is a
link to his autobiography on Amazon: The Struggle
for Modern Tibet: The Autobiography of Tashi Tsering

"If Tibetans Took To The Streets For The Tibetan Language"
By Woeser

We "ethnic minorities" took notice of thousands
of Cantonese people recently taking to the
streets fighting for their language, a spectacle
that ended peacefully. Uyghurs have posted
numerous articles about this on the internet; the
blogs on TibetCul were also full of articles
titled “Maybe the Spanish language issue has
inspired the Chinese”, thought-provokingly
stating: when the past Spanish dictator,
Francisco Franco, banned Catalonian people from
using their own language, he created a scar that
would not easily heal. At this year’s football
World Cup, we were able to see Catalonian flags
in the stadiums thereby carrying the language
dispute going on inside Spain to the outside
world. This should be taken as a warning for the
Chinese to avoid creating splittism by
subjugating and suppressing local dialects;
instead they should take this advice and “think
about making Cantonese, Minan, Hakka, Tibetan and
Uyghur dialects official Chinese languages, thus
strengthening different people’s sense of belonging to China."

However, an article in the Beijing Evening News
fiercely declares that "the promotion of Mandarin
is a vital national policy, which does not need
to be further discussed or questioned. Yet, what
can be questioned and debated is whether
Cantonese, as a local dialect, will naturally die
out over time due to increasing urbanisation or
whether its extermination will be accelerated
through human interference." But "Cantonese" is
by no means a minority language; it is a pure Han
Chinese dialect. If even this language is being
mistreated and neglected to the extent that it
can hardly survive, what about the situation for
Tibetan or other ethnic languages in this "big unified country?

I clearly remember in 2002, when I was still part
of the system, I went to Yunnan to attend a
literary conference on ethnic minority poetry.
There I heard a cadre from Beijing outspokenly
saying: “many years ago the Party Committee
Chairman Wan Li already expressed that those
ethnic minorities that never had any written
language also don’t need any written language
today; and those minorities that do have a
written language should just let it die out, our
entire system uses one unified language, which is
Mandarin, the Han language.” The cadre looked
around at the minority poets surrounding him and
said in a sonorous voice: "and I very much agree
with his opinion." Everyone was shaken by the
overbearing manner of this cadre. I was taking
notes and for the first time started paying attention to this issue. ?

I previously interviewed an old Tibetan writer in
Lhasa; he was deeply worried about the current
state of the Tibetan language, but he said: “if
we emphasise the importance of the Tibetan
language, we will be accused of narrow
nationalism and the government’s official line
reads: the higher the level of the Tibetan
language, the stronger the religious
consciousness and as a result the stronger
reactionary behaviour." This old Tibetan writer’s
name is Tashi Tsering; his ideas and thoughts are
in fact very progressive and modern. When he was
young, he returned home from the United States
after completing his studies to serve his
homeland but was put in prison during the
Cultural Revolution. In his later years, he
established and financially supported 72 schools
in the poor and remote rural areas of the Tibetan
U-Tsang region. Moreover, in 2007 he submitted an
official statement to the Tibet Autonomous Region
People’s Congress. With regards to the severe
crisis that the Tibetan language is currently
facing, he expressed that "using Tibetan in
schools and establishing an education system for
the study of the Tibetan language is not only an
essential element in cultivating progressively
thinking and talented people, but it also
embodies the most basic human right of the
Tibetan people, it is the foundation on which
equality among ethnic minorities can be achieved".

An article in a Cantonese publication states that
due to the Central Government’s drive towards
cultural unity over the past few decades, many
places have had to witness much of their original
cultural features slowly disappearing. This is
exactly what the Cantonese are worried about.
Yet, the Cantonese can take to the streets to
fight for their language. What about Tibetans?
What about Uyghurs? Mongolians? The Cantonese can
declare openly, written in black and white: “I am
willing to speak Mandarin but don’t force me to
speak Mandarin!” But we “ethnic minorities” only
get to see slogans hanging at the entrances of
our schools in Lhasa reading: "I am a child of
China, I like to speak Mandarin" or "Mandarin is
the language of our school" and no one dares to say a word.

So, is this not "treating insiders and outsiders
differently" as a Chinese proverb says?  In spite
of the common claim that we live in one big
family embracing 56 ethnic minorities, it still
seems that Han Chinese and “ethnic minorities”
are being treated differently. In fact, we all
hope to live in a place where we can freely
defend our own language in the same way we would
defend our own home. Just as Tsegyam la, who used
to work as a teacher in Tibet, sarcastically
remarked on Twitter: “when thousands of Cantonese
gather to take to the streets, demonstrate and
fight for their own language, the curtain falls
and ‘peace prevails’; if in Tibet, thousands of
demonstrators were to take to the streets and
fight for their language, they would be arrested,
put into prison and be accused as ‘Tibetan
separatists that incite splittism’. An Uyghur
comment on the Internet reads: in China, when
Uyghur people from Xinjiang support their
language or when Tibetans support their language,
their actions are most likely to be labelled as "splittist activities."

Beijing, July 28, 2010.
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