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:


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.


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:


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:


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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The Manchu future in Tibet

On Tuesday, February 4, 2014, in Culture & History, by John N

“The Manchu conquered China, but have at last been swallowed up by Chinese cultural imperialism.”
-Wang Lixiong, in Two Imperialisms in Tibet

placard from Ganden

A placard from Ganden Jinchagling in Beijing, written in Tibetan, Manchu, and Chinese as well as Mongolian.

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.

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.

Some words on Tibetan language

On Friday, June 22, 2012, in China, General Commentary, Recent, by Leslie Butterfield

At a recent meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the Chinese representatives have been adamantly refuting claims that their government does not respect human rights. Let’s take for example the Chinese delegate’s reply (available at 47:59) to an NGO statement delivered by ICT staff, Ngawang Choephel speaking on behalf of the Asian Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Network on the diminishment of Tibetan language instruction, which said that China’s education system:

“…imposes an alien political ideology upon the Tibetans who wish to ensure that quality education actually preserves their right to receive instructions in their own rich language (ICT Report: Protests by students against downgrading of Tibetan language spread to Beijing) while grasping the opportunities to master other languages. We, therefore, urge the Special Rapporteur to support our call for the withdrawal of all the restrictions being applied on the promotion and preservation of Tibetan language as the medium of instruction in Tibetan areas of the People’s Republic of China.”

The Chinese reply was:

“The Chinese Constitution, the National Autonomous Regional Law and Education Law and the National Generic Language Law have strict and clear provisions on the education in languages. The Chinese Constitution stipulates clearly that we will promote the national language, at the same time, it is stipulated all ethnic nationalities have their own freedom in pursuing their own languages.”

Ok. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say that, but I’m willing to listen to her explanation. What exactly does this “freedom” look like for Tibetans?

The Chinese delegate explained:

“The Tibetan students will learn Tibetan as their main course, the other courses in principle will be taught in Tibetan language. In Tibet, the bilingual education with Tibetan language as the main language were promoted in all the schools in the region. The textbooks in Tibetan languages in all the subjects were published. Some regions have special school of Tibetan languages based on their local conditions. The Tibetan language was used very widely in the region.”

Though, her explanation is put in stark contrast by reports of the reality on the ground. A Tibetan blogger who goes by the penname Mila Tsitsi posted in his blog that:

“Recently a friend said that the new governor of Temchan County, Yang Yongzhou, called the Tibetan director of the Education Bureau and said, ‘From now on, don’t recruit Tibetan teachers in the Tibetan schools. Gradually in the education system, Chinese is becoming the main language and Tibetan will be less important.’”

This seems to run counter to what the Chinese delegate stated.

The Chinese delegate further noted that:

“In 1987 the Tibet Autonomous Region promulgated laws on promoting and using Tibetan language. It stipulates clearly that in Tibet, the Tibetan and Han languages are given equal importance. The Tibetan language will take a dominant role in that region.”

But again, Mila Tsitsi’s experience seems to contradict the Chinese representative. Mila wrote:

“A few days ago, I went to visit a relative who is a prisoner at the Chadam Labor and Reform Camp in Gormo (Golmud). After going through the procedures, the prisoner was brought to the other side of the window. We picked up the phones on each side and started a conversation. But at that moment, a guard said, ‘You are not allowed to talk in other languages, only Mandarin. [T]here are about seven to eight years to go before my relative’s prison term ends. His mother, grandparents and two great grandparents, who are in their 90s, don’t know any Chinese at all. They will not able to speak a single word to him for seven or eight years.”

With access to Tibet denied by Chinese authorities for foreign journalists, diplomats, or international observers, it is difficult to take the Chinese delegate at her word-especially in light of blogposts from inside Tibet like Mila Tsitsi’s. Until we can independently assess the situation, I find it difficult to refute Mila, whose personal account sheds (new) light on what the Chinese government means when it insists that Tibetans have “freedom in pursuing their own language.”

Tsitsi eloquently places this lack of freedom in perspective, noting: “Taking away a person’s language is not the same as taking the bread out of someone’s pocket, and it’s not the same as taking a person’s bag off their shoulders. It is like having your tongue pulled out of your mouth.”

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The Unstoppable New Generation of Tibet

On Monday, June 21, 2010, in Culture & History, General Commentary, by Tencho Gyatso

The new generation of Tibet  -  strong, resilient, accomplished, confident, modern, ….. a generation who finds ways to express themselves even while they are being silenced.

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