Freedom of Tongue
‘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 (Chin. 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 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. Students in the neighbouring Tibetan province of Kham (Chin. Gansu and Sichuan provinces) also held solidarity protests. As a retaliatory measure, at around 10:30 a.m. on 22 October, the Chinese authorities have detained over 20 students in Chabcha in Amdo, northeastern Tibet.
In exile, Tibetan students and their supporters are taking solidarity actions and lobbying initiatives around the world — Belgium, Holland, Poland, Germany, Switzerland and in many places in the US and India. Students and teachers in East Turkestan (Chin. Xinjiang) have also shown 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 (Chin. Qinghai) 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 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 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 bind 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. Atheist Communist Party of China has even gone 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 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 were soon overshadowed by a 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 instill 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 Tibetan 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 pass an entrance exam in Chinese language. 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, a 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 (Chin. Qinghai Province) 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 the 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 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 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.