At times the concept of cultural genocide can come across as slightly sprawling and abstract. Two years ago ICT released a report entitled “60 Years of Chinese Misrule: Arguing Cultural Genocide in Tibet” which sought to examine the impact of Chinese Communist Party rule on Tibetan culture. Available online here, it weighs in at over a hundred pages and covers a lot of ground.
“The Manchu conquered China, but have at last been swallowed up by Chinese cultural imperialism.”
-Wang Lixiong, in Two Imperialisms in Tibet
At other times, though, particular facets of the cultural genocide argument can be crystal-clear. Recent news stories about the status of Manchu language and culture in China provide us with a lot of context for Tibetan concerns about the future of their people. Out of a population of more than 10 million ethnic Manchus in China today fewer than 100 can speak their own language fluently, according to a report by a quasi-official news program called China View. “This,” my colleague Todd Stein wrote, “is the future Tibetans fear.” If Manchu can disappear from Manchuria, how easily could Tibetan disappear from Tibet?
Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the term ‘genocide’ after World War II, wrote that in addition to the immediate destruction of a nation of people, it also included actions which lead to “the destruction of the essential foundations of the life of national groups.” Prominently included in this destruction is the erasure of the language and culture of the nation, and the imposition of the “national pattern of the oppressor” in its place. In Manchuria today this process seems to be more or less complete, with a 2007 New York Times article noting that there are only 18 people left who speak Manchu at a native level, all of whom are octogenarian residents of one single village.
As Manchu is replaced by Chinese, villagers there have made a connection with their culture and identity. One local told the Times that “it would be a great blow for us if we lose our language.” Another spoke of being “overwhelmed” by Chinese language and culture. At a nearby school 94% of the students are ethnically Manchurian, but not one can speak their language on a native level.
Tibetan fears about their language and culture disappearing are particularly urgent in this light. This outcome isn’t merely theoretical possibility, but rather a real process which has already played out in another corner of the People’s Republic of China. An excellent new documentary by Tibetan filmmaker Khashem Gyal called The Valley of the Heroes (which can be watched in full here) explores how this is happening in one particularly vulnerable area of northern Tibet. In Tsoshar, at the very northern edge of the Tibetan plateau, only a small minority of Tibetans can speak any Tibetan after generations of Chinese and Hui immigration. Chinese has become the lingua franca. “Mother-tongue education policies aren’t enforced in ethnic areas. Instead, Chinese is used all over- in schools, in government offices, in commerce,” one Tibetan man told them. A monk says that “the situation for Tibetan culture is getting worse very rapidly. For example, culture is disappearing as quickly as an arrow is shot from a bow.”
“Language is the most important thing for the survival of a culture,” says another Tibetan. Locals seem to be acutely aware of the challenges they face, and this is the silver lining in The Valley of the Heroes. Young people are organizing themselves to teach Tibetan language classes to local children free of charge, going village by village and setting up in whatever space they can find. Kids recite the Tibetan alphabet and work on their reading skills on blackboards brought from home by volunteers. Organizers told Khashem that 100 student teachers have joined, forming a network that covers a total of 45 villages.
If the fate of the Manchu is one possible outcome, people in many areas of Tibet are trying to bring about a different one. Residents of one village in Tsoshar pooled together their money and built a classroom for their children to study Tibetan. “We built it because we think that teaching Tibetan is vital to their future,” one of them explained. If Tibetans can keep organizing and finding ways to assert their linguistic and cultural rights along these lines, they may be able to chart a different course than that taken by the Manchu.