The Tibetan language: an amazing disappearing act

On Thursday, April 17, 2014, in Culture & History, by John N
This morning two things came to my attention which help illustrate the disparity between official Chinese rhetoric and the reality in Tibet. Many Tibetans have expressed a fear that their language is being replaced by Chinese, a fear rooted in the reality that Chinese is the preferred language of governance, education, and commerce in the People's Republic of China. On the other side, members of the Chinese government and the Communist Party have insisted that Tibetan is flourishing, as was voiced most recently by an official from the Tibet Autonomous Region who told Xinhua that "such a rumor as 'the Tibetan language is dying' is totally groundless." Shortly after reading the Xinhua story I ran into a collection of images that were being passed between Tibetans on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging site similar to Twitter. The images showed a number of storefronts near Sangchu county's Labrang monastery, a culturally and religiously significant region in northern Tibet, in which Tibetan was either reduced to a comically small size or entirely absent. These pictures were accompanied by by comments from a number of Tibetan netizens expressing frustration and anger at the denigration of their language. Here's one: tibetan-lang-1 You could be forgiven for not noticing the Tibetan at all here, as it's been rendered in illegibly small characters above the two Chinese characters in the middle. In this case Tibetan appears to be shrinking and disappearing before our very eyes. tibetan-lang-2 On the above storefront the Tibetan lettering is slightly larger, proportionally, but it's still roughly 1/5 the size of the Chinese characters. The next one is particularly surprising: tibetan-lang-3 State Grid is a state-owned enterprise which distributes electricity in China. It's a place where local residents almost certainly have to spend some time over the course of a year, paying electricity bills and arranging services. If the official power provider in a Tibetan autonomous prefecture entirely neglects to label itself in Tibetan, what is the point of even having an autonomous prefecture? Another picture shows a China Mobile storefront with the same problem- Chinese characters are present (and even English, too), but there's no sign of Tibetan: tibetan-lang-4 China Mobile, a major telecommunication company with over 760 million subscribers, is state-owned as well. Is it somewhat revealing that state-owned enterprises are doing even worse than private shopkeepers in upholding the equal use of the Tibetan language in Tibetan autonomous areas? It's worth mentioning that the original Xinhua article was written to promote new “legal protections” which are being enacted to benefit the Tibetan language. In the article they refer to the “Several Provisions of the Tibet Autonomous Region on the Learning, Use and Development of Tibetan Language,” which was originally promulgated in 1987 and which was supposed to have already assured the protection of the Tibetan language. Today, however, we can clearly see that reality is quite different than what the contents of Chinese legislation would have you believe. This week a member of the China Tibetology Research Center, a Chinese organization which tirelessly promotes the Communist Party line on Tibet, defended China's language policies before members of the foreign press, saying that foreign journalists should “conduct more investigations before drawing conclusions.” That's an ironic suggestion given the government-imposed blackout on reporting in Tibet; just two years ago Stephen McDonell of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation was expelled by the authorities while trying to report from the very town where these pictures were taken. Today we're lucky to have access to the informal investigations carried out by Tibetans themselves who live in these areas. What we see from their pictures and what we hear from their statements casts a lot of doubt on the notion that Chinese authorities are truly working to protect and promote the Tibetan language.
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1 Response » to “The Tibetan language: an amazing disappearing act”

  1. Natsok Rangdrol says:

    Before, Tibetans who wanted to learn their language could take extracurricular classes. Nowadays even that is denied them. Prominent advocates of the Tibetan language have disappeared into the black hole of the Chinese prison system. What we are witnessing is a deliberate attempt to break the back of Tibetan culture by degrading its language irreparably.

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