The new language policy in Tibet and its consequences


carte aire linguistique

Map © Asiathèque

The first Tibetan texts date back to the Empire (7th-9th century) and the Tibetans, since they wrote down their language using an original alphabet inspired by Indian scripts, have remained faithful to their script. The Tibetan language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman branch of the Sino-Tibetan macrofamily, but is very different from the Chinese language in its grammar, vocabulary and script. The gap between Chinese and Tibetan is as great as the distance separating French from Persian or Hindi, three languages that belong to the same macrofamily, that of Indo-European. For more than a thousand years, the Tibetan written language has been the tool for the transmission of knowledge and as such has often been described as the Latin of High Asia.

alphabet tibétain

Tibetan alphabet © Asiathèque

This transmission was largely carried out in the monasteries throughout the Tibetan-speaking regions, which extend over an immense territory equivalent to about a quarter of contemporary China and even to thes southern flank of the Himalayas. Monasteries, such as Drepung in Central Tibet, Labrang in Amdo or Dzogchen in Kham, functioned as a kind of university where, in addition to reading, writing and religious practices, other subjects were taught (grammar, logic, medicine, astrology, poetry, etc.).

3. Bibliothèque du monastère de Pelkor Chödé, Gyantsé (Tibet central), 1989.

Library of Pelkor Chödé Monastery, Gyantsé (Central Tibet), 1989. ©Katia Buffetrille

In the early 20th century, when the entire territory under the Dalai Lama government (Central and Western Tibet) was an independent state, the first 'modern' schools were established. The idea that before the Chinese annexation of 1950, education in Tibet was solely religious is contradicted by recent research which shows that there was a network of public schools, not only in Lhasa but throughout the country. In addition, there was home education in wealthy or aristocratic families, which often benefited the children of servants, as well as education in monasteries. The attempt of the 13th Dalai Lama (1875-1933) to establish 'English' schools was, however, short-lived due to opposition from the monastic body. Many aristocratic families sent their children to English schools run by missionaries in the north-east of India, in Kalimpong and Darjeeling.

As for the eastern regions of Tibet (Kham and Amdo), which knew various political organisations, from the end of the Qing (1912) and under the Republic of China (1912-1949), they had 'modern' schools offering a curriculum in Chinese with the aim of inculcating a sense of 'official nationalism' among the 'minority'.

Kandzé school_1985

Tibetan school of Kanzé (Kham), 1985©Katia Buffetrille

As soon as Tibet was annexed by the People's Republic of China, many changes took place. The ethnic and educational policy applied by Communist China was largely modelled on the Soviet model. China officially recognised in its constitution the existence of 55 “minority ethnic groups” in addition to the Han majority, few of which are known internationally. Among these ethnic groups, only four have had their script written on Chinese banknotes: Mongols, Tibetans, Uighurs and Zhuang.

Ethnic and educational policy has always favoured the Chinese language since the founding of the People's Republic of China (1949), but the place given to 'minority languages' has varied. In the 1950s, many schools were founded in central Tibet, both in the cities and in rural areas. In Lhasa, the first state school was established in 1952. The teaching was in Tibetan, but the content was heavily influenced by Chinese communist propaganda. On the other hand, there were also schools offering courses in Chinese. In the eastern regions, small schools were established in various localities and, between 1956 and 1958, bilingual primary schools were established.

In addition, from the early 1960s onwards, many Tibetan children were sent to boarding schools in the Chinese provinces, forced to stay away from their homeland throughout their education. This policy has continued to the present day, and has recently been extended to areas of Tibet that had not been affected previously.

At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, schools were closed and reopened only after 1970, but without teaching in Tibetan.

With the death of Mao (1976) and the rise to power of Deng, specific educational programmes for 'minorities' were developed throughout the Tibetan plateau. The University of Tibet was opened in 1984 in Lhasa. By 1985, all primary schools in Lhasa were teaching in Tibetan, and in 1986, according to the official legislation, six years of primary and three years of secondary education became both compulsory and free. However, despite this law and the increase in schools, the number of illiterates among Tibetans remained high: in 2004, 41% of urban adult Tibetans were still illiterate.

5. Pierre gravée avec Om mani padme hum, le mantra à Avalokiteshvara, bodhisattva protecteur du Tibet, 2003 ©Katia Buffetrille

Stone engraved with Om mani padme hum, the mantra to Avalokiteshvara, bodhisattva protector of Tibet, 2003 ©Katia Buffetrille

Under the leadership of the 10th Panchen Lama and the historian Dungkar Lobsang Thrinle, among others, experimental schools and curricula were developed entirely in Tibetan in all subjects - including mathematics and physics/chemistry - covering the entire curriculum up to the first levels of university. Tibetan pupils and students performed much better in school examinations in their mother tongue and even in Chinese !

However, the regular protests in Lhasa in the late 1980s brought back the idea that education in Tibetan was not 'patriotic'. Then, in the spring of 2008, protests swept across the Tibetan plateau. A series of campaigns were waged against the Tibetan language, reducing its teaching, first drastically in the Tibet Autonomous Region and then, short after, in the Tibetan-speaking areas of the east and northeast, including other Chinese provinces.

With the arrival of Xi in power (2012), the situation only got worse. Many peaceful demonstrations took place to demand the preservation of the language in schools and some of the 160 Tibetans who self-immolated between 2009 and 2022 even mentioned it into their “will”.

From 2016 onwards, many Tibetans peacefully defending the right to learn their language have been imprisoned, such as Tashi Wangchuk. Arrested in 2016, he was sentenced in 2018 to 5 years jail on the official charge of “inciting separatism”. Released in 2021, he is still under surveillance by the authorities, who consider any challenge to education policy to be subversive.

The new policy imposed by Xi Jinping is now embodied in the “great renewal of the Chinese nation”, his great Chinese national project. It no longer leaves any room for the 55 “nationalities”, which must now merge into the great Chinese nation, i.e. into the Han nationality. This new policy no longer tolerates the expression of “minority” languages. Tibetan schools, like those of other ethnic groups, are closing down one after the other, and private initiatives to teach Tibetan in the evenings or in monasteries during the holidays are henceforth forbidden. Secondary schools must teach only in Chinese, and this also applies to most primary schools and even kindergartens in rural areas. Parents are now obliged to learn Mandarin themselves in order to teach their children (training sessions have been held in the Tibet Autonomous Region and Qinghai). Sacred texts must be translated into Chinese (Tibetan prisoners are reportedly forced to do this), and monks must pray and study in Chinese. The use of Tibetan is also increasingly restricted on online platforms.

If for decades the Chinese Communist Party had left some doubt about its attitude towards “ethnic minorities”, things are now clear. In China, we are truly witnessing an ethnocidal policy that targets all cultures and languages other than Chinese. While there is no doubt that such a policy has already had very negative effects on China's cultural diversity, it is likely that it will not have the desired results, namely the disappearance of the identities associated with these various cultures. This is likely to be the case for cultures and languages that have gained international recognition, such as those of Tibetans, Uyghurs, Mongols, and Koreans. As for Tibetan culture and language, it is likely that they will benefit from an extraordinary resilience linked to their millennia-old history and to Tibetan Buddhism, not to mention an active and determined diaspora (approximately 120 000 people among including 10 000 in France) among whom they will continue to develop before, hopefully, shining again in Tibet once this ethnocidal policy is abandoned.

**We would like to thank Françoise Robin for her careful rereading of this article.

About the authors :

Katia Buffetrille is an ethnologist and Tibetologist. She is a specialist in “popular” rituals and, among other things, in pilgrimages around sacred mountains and the changes they are undergoing in the PRC. Her interests also include current Buddhist phenomena (immolations, vegetarianism) and Sino-Tibetan relations. She has visited Tibet annually for 3 months from 1985 to 2019 and has published numerous articles and books among them L’âge d’or du Tibet : XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles. Belles Lettres, 2019.

Nicolas Tournadre is a linguist, member of the Academic Institute of France (IUF) and professor emeritus at Aix-Marseille. For the past thirty years, he has been conducting linguistic field research in Tibet (in China) but also in the Himalayas and the Karakoram in India, Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan. He is the author of numerous articles and several books devoted to Tibetan languages and classical Tibetan.

Main references :

carte aire linguistique
July 2022
ethnologue et linguiste