April 7, 2007
   Posted in News Flash
Published By Tashi

China’s impact on Tibetan cultural and linguistic identity

How has the educational policies of the Chinese Communist government affected the linguistic identity and culture of the Tibetan minority?

By Tenzin Sherpa Lama

The history of Tibet’s past is heavily contested among the Tibetans and the Chinese. The Tibetans believe that, prior to the Chinese takeover in 1951, Tibet had been an independent nation for numerous centuries. However, the Chinese argue that Tibet has been an integral part of China since 1792, when the Qing Emperor sent Chinese troops to drive back the invading Nepalese. In addition to the Chinese government’s efforts to rewrite history, Xizang (Tibet), which literally means “Western Storehouse”, strives to maintain its culture and linguistic identity, in the face of Beijing’s many educational policies and its minority-status. The Chinese government has forced the acculturation of Tibetans into mainstream Han culture and downplayed the importance of Tibetan language through the implementation of several educational measures and reforms (some indirect), which have affected Tibetan linguistic identity and culture. I will try to answer three questions: What educational measures has Beijing passed to help preserve or strip Tibetans of their distinct culture? How have these policies affected Tibetans and what have been their consequences? Why does the Chinese Communist government downplay the importance of Tibetan language and other minority languages?

Language and religion are important parts of culture; without them, a culture would not survive. For centuries, monasteries and nunneries in Tibet were the principal centers of learning and education. Tibetan tradition required “all families with more than two sons (to) send one of them to a monastery to become a monk” (Johnson et al, 2002 as cited in Lin, 1997). Monastic education comprised largely of Lamaism-Buddhist philosophy taught in Tibetan. Some “private” schools were opened by monks or retired government officials, housed in large monasteries, to teach “basic literacy in Tibetan and the values and teachings of the religion” (Johnson et al, 2002 as cited in Sangay, 1998). When the Chinese People’s Liberation Army invaded Tibet in 1951, the Communist government opened up numerous schools across Tibet to “spread the Communist ideology and power base” and “assimilate the Tibetans into the Han Chinese culture” (Johnson et al, 2002 as cited in Sangay, 1998). During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), instruction in Tibetan and minority nationality education were abolished for its close association with Tibetan nationalism and its use of honorific phrases that reinforced class distinction reminiscent of feudal-theocratic days. The Communists viewed the class differentiation as a threat to their Communist ideology and national unity. In fact, the “ills of the feudal system were part of the rationale why China needed to ‘liberate’ Tibet” (Johnson et al, 2002). However, during the post-Mao era, the Chinese government passed several laws to preserve the native languages of minorities. In 1984, the passage of the “Act of Regional Autonomy for Minority Nationalities” guaranteed the fifty-five ethnic minorities in China the right to use and preserve their native languages (Johnson et al, 2002 as cited in Sangay, 1998).

Although “Chinese law provides these rights to minorities, the reality is often somewhat different”: the curriculum is the same for all schools in China because of the required examinations in Chinese, educational programs are under funded, minorities have relatively little freedom in creating a separate curriculum for their schools and qualified minority language teachers are scarce (Johnson et al, 2002). The Chinese government only allowed primary schools in Tibet to be instructed in Tibetan, often by teachers with little education. For instance, some elementary school teachers were often educated no further than 5th grade. Also, the irrelevancy of the curriculum to the lives of Tibetan students contributes to the 66.6 % enrollment rate of primary-school-age children (Johnson et al, 2002 as cited in Sangay, 1998). The Chinese educational system was based on “Confucianism, a philosophy of life and not a religion”; in contrast, in Tibet “religion was the main form of organized education outside the family” (Johnson et al, 2002 as cited in Postiglione, 1999). Tibetan parents claim that there should be more religious information, to motivate the children to learn and that instruction in language and religion is far more important than mathematics or science (Johnson, 1999; Postiglione, 1999). For instance, when students find no content or reference to their culture in history or school materials, they lose self-esteem and interest in schooling. Only 10.6 % of primary students advance to secondary school in Tibet; most of these minority students “drop out because they fail to qualify in the Chinese language examinations” (Johnson et al, 2002 as cited in Sangay, 1998 as cited in Li, 1986). As it is, Mandarin Chinese is used for all official and judicial purposes. This discrepancy between constitutional minority rights to preserve and use their languages, and the under-serviced educational system has resulted in a 44.43% illiteracy rate in Tibet and contributes greatly to underdevelopment and poverty in Tibet.

John Ogbu offers a theory for the low attendance rates: He notes that there is a distinction between “voluntary minorities”–those who emigrate out of choice–and involuntary minorities who are indigenous to a region. Although, the “voluntary minorities” are more “disposed to accept the new society and its educational system, the indigenous minorities develop an oppositional identity, maintained in the face of pressure to assimilate on unequal terms” because they view the educational system as a mechanism to strip them of their culture and linguistic identity (Postiglione, 2004 as cited in Ogbu). Also, the upsurge in Han Chinese demographic transition to Tibet (making Tibetans a minority in their own lands) has increased the number of Chinese students in schools and made the job market more competitive for Tibetans.

In 1996, the Chinese government abandoned Tibetan language instruction and introduced a universal Chinese medium education from the first grade, de-emphasizing Tibetan language and culture. Although financial considerations were blamed for this policy decision, some believe that politics may have been the key influence. Chinese officials claim that the “Han Chinese language is ‘international’ and therefore, should be the main education language and medium of instruction” (Johnson et al, 2002 as cited in Postiglione, 1999). They believe that the use of “Mandarin typifies the Chinese nation as a whole and serves the role of presenting a united face to the world” (Johnson et al, 2002 as cited in Postiglione, 1999). Chinese official often attribute the high illiteracy rate and poverty in Tibet to Tibetan’s “low cultural level”. Historically, the “concept of culture in China is linked to literacy in Chinese”; when someone inquires of your education level “Nide wenhua shi shenme“, it literally translates “what is you cultural level?” (Postiglione, 2004). To be “cultured” is to possess wen or literateness; therefore, the Chinese believe that the only way to “civilize” and “acculturate backward (luohou) and ignorant” minority nationalities is for them to be literate in Mandarin (Johnson et al, 2002). This ideology of inequality is legitimized by the self perceived Han economic and cultural superiority and their ‘genorosity’ to help and the conviction that it is to the benfit of the culturally inferior peoples and has often resulted in a paternalistic and hierarchical approach to ethnic relations (Wang et al, 2003).

National unity and national identity are of the utmost importance to the Communist state and is necessary for its survival (Johnson et al, 2002). The government creates different educational policies depending upon its political objectives in the region. For example, in Tibet, the government has de-emphasized and discouraged Tibetan language for its close associations to Tibetan nationalism and to contain ethnic resistance against the government. The government has discontinued monastic education for the public and imposed a quota on how many monks or nuns a monastery can have. However, in Hong Kong, the government promotes and encourages the local Cantonese dialect to dilute Hong Kong’s legacy of British colonialism and to “erase the prevalence of the English language” (Johnson et al, 2002). Beijing fears national disunity and disintegration, if minority languages are to flourish. However, India stands united in diversity of more than 800 languages and 2, 000 dialects and no “official” language (Constitution).

In 1984, under the “Act of Regional Autonomy for Minority Nationalities”, the “Inland Schools Policy” (neidi banxue) was established. Under this policy, top ranking Tibetan students from primary schools in Tibet are sent to inland schools scattered in every province of China except Tibet, Xingjian, Inner Mongolia, Nigxia, Guangxi and Hainan. The Chinese government hopes that “Tibetans would be turned into reliable cadres and desirable talents through schooling in “Neidi” (inland and coastal regions) in metropolises of Han majority” (Johnson et al, 2002). Through this policy, the Chinese government attempts to forcibly assimilate young Tibetans during highly formative periods of their lives into the dominant Han Chinese culture. In these schools, Tibetan students generally spend 6-7 years, isolated from Tibetan culture and language, forbidden to interact with Tibetan communities, if there are any, in the metropolises of their schools and not allowed to return home even for holidays. When these students return home following their 6-7 years of education in inland China, they return, “substantially assimilated into Chinese culture” and find it difficult to reintegrate into Tibetan culture. It diminishes the constitutional right of minorities to preserve their ethnic culture, since these students become excluded from both Tibetan and Chinese societies.

Today, Tibet faces the great likelihood of the extinction of its distinct linguistic identity, which survives only in exile, with no generational replacement. Every year, more than 2,500 Tibetans flee into Nepal and neighboring countries. Sangay argues that they flee because they lack the freedom to maintain their culture and identity. If it were for economic reasons, surely, they would go to Shanghai. It is because they do not enjoy autonomy in education or culture, that they risk the treacherous Himalayan passes and the likelihood of getting shot by the Chinese to cross into Nepal (The Independent, 2006 & Sangay, 2003).

The Chinese government believes that educating Tibetans will lead them to thrust Tibet out of poverty and underdevelopment. However, the Chinese government has employed several measures to make the scare job market even more competitive for Tibetans. Under the Western Development Program, Beijing has sent over 200, 000 newly graduated Chinese students to Tibet to assist in the development of the “backward” Western regions. However, owing to the many benefits, like having more than one child, these Chinese students remain behind in Tibet. This has led to great competition for jobs. For instance, on 30th September 2006, 1700 students competed for 100 jobs with the Tibetan Administration. Of the 100, only 2 positions went to Tibetans and the rest 98 to ethnic Han Chinese (RFA, 2006). This instigated a rare demonstration at the Qinghai Nationalities Institute (Xining), where over 100 Tibetans students marched to demand better job opportunities for Tibetan graduates.

The Chinese government passes laws and policies, which grant Tibetans and other minorities the right to preserve and maintain their culture and distinct language. However, this constitutional right is diminished, with programs and other policies (like universal Chinese) that contradict or challenge the preservation of minority cultures. The Chinese government offers these rights to minorities because Beijing wishes to present to the world the autonomy and freedom of culture and religion, it grants to ethnic minorities (at least on paper), in the face of heavy criticism from international human rights organizations, like UNESCO. Presently, Tibetans have grieved the losses of their lands, history, resources, and now their cultural and linguistic expressions are severely curtailed. What will be next?

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