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Freedom of Tongue

Tuesday 9 November 2010, by Bhuchung D Sonam

’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.

3 Forum messages

  • Freedom of Tongue 14 November 2010 at 23:39 , by T.N.S.

    4. ON THE SUBJECT OF LANGUAGES: The Role of English in Poetry by Tibetans
    By Tsoltim Ngima Shakabpa

    Languages become universal because of the power of the people who speak those languages. English is one such language as exhibited by the British in the 17th to the early 20th centuries when historically their power and language spread far and wide across the globe. Languages remain alive because of the spirit of the people who speak those languages. The Tibetan language is one such language as exhibited by the Tibetans in their unique culture and quest to maintain their great heritage. To bring the ideas of a people struggling to keep their language alive into a universal language is in itself a difficult task; but to put it in poetry is an even more formidable task. Yet Tibetans are doing exactly that.

    Tibetans are generally philosophically inclined by the very nature of their upbringing. Buddhism and the philosophy of Buddhism have deeply affected the Tibetan mentality, and by its very power the hearts of the Tibetan people. Bearing this in mind, it is easy to see why generally Tibetans are natural poets. Additionally, the pristine natural environment could have only aesthetically enhanced the philosophical Tibetan mind.

    In the past, Tibetans used to write poetry in Tibetan with religious themes only. These poems were deep in thought and classic in their genius. They were the pulse of a nation steeped in religion and struggling to find the meaning of life. These poems were much more difficult to translate precisely into English unless one had an impeccable knowledge of the complex mechanisms of the Tibetan religion. Today, the pulse and emphasis are different. Tibetans are suffering immeasurably under the illegal occupation of Tibet by China. They are being persecuted, imprisoned, tortured and murdered. Their voices stifled; their places of worship demolished; and their true leader, the Dalai Lama, demonized. They are struggling for freedom from 60 gruelling years of brutal and tyrannical Chinese rule; and writing poems in Tibetan alone is not enough. They need to reach a world-wide audience in their fight for liberation and for that they have to use a universal language.

    In the 1940s and 1950s, only a few Tibetans were fortunate enough to receive an education in English. Today, with thousands of Tibetans forced to live outside Tibet, many are fortunately learning English, some even good enough to write poetry in sterling English—and they are using their poetic gifts to reach out, in a universal language, to the world at large about their struggle for freedom. But there also are Tibetan poets who write, in English, about spirituality, family, illness, nature, love and life, in addition to the plight of their country, that adds abundant dimension to poetry by Tibetans. These Tibetan poets are presently few and far between, but their pioneering labour and leadership will inspire more Tibetans to expand their poetic capabilities.

    Poetic ability is an inborn gift, and the language of poetry is best employed in the language one is most accustomed to. If Tibetan poets think in Tibetan and translate their poetry into English, there may arise problems in precise translation. But if Tibetan poets think in English, those problems may be surmounted though it may possibly cloud their Tibetan heart. The ideal situation is the ability to think both in English and in Tibetan. That way, the evolution of the two languages inter-mingling with one another in a translucent manner with the heart brings about the best attributes of the poetry in mind.

    Yet, frankly speaking, there are times when English has no role in poetry by Tibetans as when a Tibetan writer tries to emulate a western thought. In such instances, the Tibetan mind distorts the western thought and jeopardizes the English verse. They become inundated and perplexed with a false perception of the truth, rather than the truth itself. The expression of thought must first come from the heart and then the language can be used as a tool to express what the heart feels. Rather than emulate a foreign thought, it is better for a Tibetan poet to express his thoughts and feelings in a foreign language, even if it be in Mandarin. At least the Chinese will know what is in the Tibetan writer’s mind and heart, such as his diatribe on tyranny and icy disdain of Chinese rule.

    Since poetry comes from the heart, the manner in which the words are expressed are often not easily comprehensible. Thus, the reader too must read into the heart of the poet in order to understand the language of the poet. The Tibetan poet, therefore, has the added task of expressing in precise English what his Tibetan heart feels. This is a difficult task, if not an impossible one - so long as the Tibetan poet has an excellent comprehension of the English language and an empathic realization of what his heart feels.

    To summarize, the English language has an enormous universal role to play in poetry authored by Tibetans, but that role must be entwined with the untainted heart of the Tibetan poet as well as the precision and excellence of the language. Poetry by Tibetans in an universal language has an even more crucial role to play now that the Chinese are forcefully suppressing the Tibetan language.

    Brave is the Tibetan poet
    Who ventures to pen in English
    But write he must from his heart
    For readers his poetry to cherish


    * Tsoltim N. Shakabpa was the Chairman & President of an international investment bank in Texas, U.S.A. and is the author of eight inspiring books of poems, the last one of which is BEING TIBETAN published by Publish America. He is popularly known as "T.N.", which he says stands for his initials as well as "Tibetan National".

    Reply to this message

    • Freedom of Tongue 14 January 2011 at 15:18 , by Namgyal Wangdu

      Hey Bhuchung la and Shakapa TN,

      Very well said by both, appreciate a lot for the concern of our beloved nation, people and language. Please do continue to write, it relly does matter.

      Thank you and best wishes,

      Namgyal Wangdu
      Ex Paljor.
      Los Angeles, CA

      Reply to this message

  • Freedom of Tongue 15 January 2011 at 14:28 , by Namgyal Wangdu

    Hey Bhuchung la,

    Great job man!! Please keep up the good work.

    D - 39

    Reply to this message

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