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Teaching Tibetan in Tibet: Bilingual Education is Survival

The “Tibet Question” has become one of the focal points of disagreements between China and the international community, and the survival of Tibetan culture and language is one of the key topics of the debate. While both the Chinese authorities and exiled Tibetans have linked their political agendas to the question of protecting “cultural rights” in Tibet, these are also contentious issues within China.

The role of so-called “bilingual” teaching in schools for Tibetan children is one of the issues that are being debated by educators and bureaucrats in the People’s Republic of China. Current government policies give top priority to speeding up economic development in western China, including the Tibetan areas. Improving the quality of education is seen as one of several possible strategies toward reaching this goal. Within this context, officials in charge of education accept that Tibetan medium teaching may be necessary to help Tibetan students achieve better results. But education departments have limited resources, and the teaching of Tibetan as a second language represents an additional expenditure they may be unwilling or unable to cover.

Critics, including mainly Tibetan educators, administrators, and other cadres, agree that there is an urgent need to improve the quality of education in Tibetan areas. In addition, many argue that Tibetan language needs to be taught in schools as a means to preserve Tibetan culture. In their view, the Chinese education system currently contributes to the assimilation of Tibetans into the Chinese mainstream. Among the Tibetan critics who hold this view, Tenzin*, from Kham (eastern Tibet), insists that “more than anywhere else in society, the school is where a Tibetan child learns to become Chinese.”

On the other hand, even critics admit that it is vital to raise the education level of Tibetans and other minorities for them to be able to participate in the economic development of their regions. Both Tibetan and Han Chinese educators have argued that the added workload of learning two languages is a significant obstacle, making it difficult for Tibetan children in bilingual schools to compete for admission to higher education. Political concerns have guided the development of bilingual education in Tibetan areas of China, and numerous challenges confront Tibetan school children, their parents, and teachers.

Government Policies

Soon after the founding of Communist China in 1949, a number of public schools were set up in Tibetan areas, as well as in other areas inhabited by “minority nationalities.” Education was important to the new regime, to consolidate their control of the border areas and “civilize” the people living in China’s “frontier” regions. In the mid-1950s, newly established education departments in Tibetan areas issued their first guidelines on “bilingual education.” The use of Tibetan as the primary language of schools for Tibetans was the only feasible strategy at the time, since few people in these areas could understand Chinese.

In 1958 the process of developing bilingual education was interrupted by the Democratic Reforms campaign, which was followed by a series of radical political campaigns, including the devastating Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Bilingual teaching was discontinued for about 20 years, and as a consequence, an entire generation of Tibetans failed to learn to read and write their Native language. When the development of bilingual education for “minority nationalities” was back on the agenda in the late 1970s, one of the difficulties was finding teachers who were able to teach Tibetan.

By the early 1980s, officials in the local government education departments were discussing how to develop educational programs suited to the “special characteristics of the nationalities.” Minority language education became the main focus of these discussions, and the initial trend was to support the use of minority languages in schools, to educate children in their Native language. Tibetan educators from the five provinces and regions that encompass “Tibetan” areas (Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan) started cooperating to compile a series of textbooks to be used in all bilingual schools for Tibetan children.

During this period, a number of trial projects were carried out to test the benefits of Tibetan medium teaching in schools for Tibetans. (Bass) These projects generally received glowing reports, and new policies were subsequently drawn up to increase Tibetan medium teaching. In 1987 the People’s Congress of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) passed a resolution stipulating that by 1993, all junior middle schools were to teach in Tibetan, and by 1997, most subjects in senior middle schools were also to be taught in Tibetan.

In the 1990s the situation changed again, however, and bilingual education met with increasing disapproval. As a result of this backlash, the policies that were introduced in 1987 could not be implemented. Moreover, in 1997 a deputy secretary of the TAR Communist Party announced the reversal of the 1987 resolution. At the same time new policies were introduced, this time to increase the teaching of Chinese to Tibetan children starting at the first grade of primary school. (Bass) Considering the substantial evidence from educators in support of Tibetan medium teaching, what were the grounds for these policy reversals?

The Political Dimension

Decisions concerning Tibetan language instruction in schools are not just a question of what benefits students. In China, education is directed toward disseminating the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party. The standard curriculum in Chinese schools thus emphasizes lessons in patriotism and nationalistic sentiments, and patriotic education in one form or another constitutes a significant part of the curriculum along with politics, morals, and other subjects. Accordingly, the primary and middle-school curriculum includes lessons such as Marxist-Leninist ideology, the thoughts of Mao, respect for the revolutionary heroes, and love of the Chinese Communist Party.

The aim of “nationality education” is still described by education officials in Tibetan areas as “keeping up socialism.” One of the primary goals of education in Tibetan and other minority areas is to strengthen the “unity of the nationalities” and make minority children patriotic members of the Chinese “Motherland.” (Hansen) While actively promoting patriotism, textbooks also disseminate the notion that minorities are inferior and backward compared to the Han Chinese. Moreover, non-Han students frequently learn that their language, history, religion, and customs are considered useless or insignificant in the Chinese school system. (Hansen) Dorje, a teacher in a “nationalities middle school,” explains why Tibetan students at his school learn so little about their own language and culture:

“Tibetan is not taught at our school, although many of the Tibetan students are very interested in learning to read and write Tibetan, and would also like to learn about their culture and traditions. The guidelines of the provincial education authorities even say that we should publish our own textbooks on local history and culture, but in fact this has not been done. This is because both the students themselves and their teachers emphasize the kind of knowledge that students need for passing the standard national and provincial exams.”

Contrary to the rest of the curriculum, the Tibetan textbooks teach Tibetan students to value their own traditions. In addition, the trans-provincial scope of the Tibetan curriculum, with its emphasis on the unity of “plateau culture,” provides an important way to breach the provincial political boundaries that currently separate the Tibetan population into different administrative units. (Upton) In other words, the curriculum creates a space for the construction of a Tibetan identity that encompasses all Tibetan areas, and plays an important role in the reconstruction of Tibetan culture. For these reasons, some government officials and cadres regard Tibetan language education as a potential source of “local nationalism” and a threat to stability. These officials want to limit Tibetan medium teaching to a minimum, and disapprove of teaching Tibetan as a second language.

Market Forces

In addition to a more constrained political climate in recent years, economic reforms have also weakened the role of Tibetan language education in several ways. New policies introduced in 1985 gave local governments the final responsibility for funding their own primary and secondary education. The poorer counties, many of them located in minority areas, are unable to provide adequate funds for education. Although the Chinese government has adopted a nationwide policy of compulsory nine-year education, in some Tibetan areas local education authorities are struggling to make even a basic three-year education available to all children. Under these conditions, the provision of bilingual education inevitably becomes a second priority.

Market reforms not only influence the decisions made by local government officials, who have the choice between allocating funds for standard Chinese language education and bilingual education, but also the choices made by parents and students. Until 1998, middle school graduates were granted a stable job in a work unit through the so-called “job assignment” system. After this system was cancelled, the job market became increasingly competitive. Consequently, market forces became much more important for people’s choice of education. In this situation, many Tibetans feel that the advantages of learning Tibetan are few, while a good knowledge of Chinese is increasingly necessary for finding a job.

During the past decade, the expenses of schooling have increasingly been levied on parents, who have experienced a dramatic increase in the cost of educating their children. In rural areas, many parents now find it difficult to afford the expenses of schooling, which include the cost of textbooks and miscellaneous fees in primary schools, as well as tuition fees and boarding expenses in middle schools and colleges. Dolma, a college graduate from a family of farmers, describes the difficulties she and her parents experienced:

“During my three years of college, my family had to pay more than 6,500 RMB [about US$790] a year, in tuition, textbooks, boarding, and other expenses. This was a big expense, since my whole family only earns about 7,800 RMB [about US$950] a year. After my first year of college the job assignment system was brought to an end. Now I’m unemployed. I don’t have any relatives working for the government, so I don’t know how I’ll manage to find a job. It’s very difficult these days.”

In herding areas and remote villages, boarding may be necessary even in primary school. In these areas, many families cannot afford to even send their children to school. In some cases the official enrollment figures are as low as 28 percent, even for the primary school level. High dropout rates are also a problem. According to a source working in the Qinghai Province government, during the late 1990s approximately 30 percent to 50 percent of the pupils in Qinghai’s bilingual schools failed to complete a six-year education.

Tibetan medium schools are mainly located in rural areas where there are no Chinese-speaking inhabitants. While some of these areas lack schools altogether, others have scarce resources and teachers themselves are more or less uneducated. Schools in herding areas often have only one teacher, who may not be qualified, and usually offer only three to four years of basic education. In such schools the pupils at all levels are taught together in one class. Facilities are poor, often lacking desks, benches, and sometimes even a schoolhouse. Tibetan medium teaching under such conditions is not necessarily an explicit educational strategy, but may rather be a consequence of the incompetence of the local teachers in Chinese, lack of resources, and a general lack of attention to education. Although Chinese is one of the main subjects in the primary school curriculum, in some schools the children may not be able to learn Chinese at all. These children are seriously disadvantaged, and in most cases they will be unable to continue their education above the elementary level. Tenzin, a young man in his twenties, started his education in a small village school where Tibetan was the only subject taught on a regular basis:

“When I wasn’t herding or doing chores, I went to the village school, where we learned the Tibetan alphabet. Sometimes we also learned some Chinese, by singing patriotic songs such as “The East is Red.” One of the teachers knew a little Chinese, but we never learned to read or write.”

The pupils in this school were between seven and 16 years old, and were divided into two classes—a junior class and a senior class. Most of these pupils never received any further schooling, but Tenzin’s parents could afford to give him a better education:

“I was 13 years old when I moved in with relatives in the city, to go to school there. When I arrived I couldn’t speak a word of Chinese, but I had to attend a primary school where all the subjects were taught in Chinese. The first two years I had a very difficult time understanding what the teachers were saying, and I failed the exams in Chinese.”

Whereas the quality and cost of education may be the main causes of low attendance rates, a contributing factor is that the standard curriculum in Chinese schools is largely irrelevant for life in the Tibetan countryside. In rural areas few jobs require schooling. Because the boarding system separates children from their families for long periods, it becomes difficult for parents to pass on important knowledge and teach their children the skills necessary to continue a life of farming and herding. As a result, many parents in rural areas prefer to keep their children at home. Most parents, however, want to give their children the opportunity to go to school. When adequate schooling is unavailable where they live, some parents make the difficult decision to send their children to schools for Tibetan refugees set up in India by the Tibetan government-in-exile. Every year an average of 3,000 Tibetans trek for weeks across the borders to Nepal and India, risking their lives on the high passes of the Himalayas. According to the International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet, nearly one-third of these people are children. These figures indicate just how serious the lack of adequate and affordable schooling has become in Tibetan areas of China.

Challenges of Bilingual Schools

A core problem for Tibetan educators concerns the balance between Tibetan and Chinese in bilingual schools, and the question of which language to use as the medium of teaching. Many educators argue that Tibetan students who are taught in their Native language achieve better results than those who are taught in Chinese. On the other hand, some emphasize the problems these students face when continuing their studies in Chinese, and in exams where they compete with native Chinese-speakers. In many Tibetan areas, primary schools may be taught in Tibetan whereas middle schools are all Chinese medium. This shift in the medium of instruction creates difficulties for Tibetan students which native Chinese-speaking students do not experience. Since most higher education is currently offered in Chinese only, Tibetan students who wish to attend a college or university must sooner or later learn Chinese.

Chinese government education authorities have recognized that language is one of the main challenges for minority education. The national entrance exam for universities has thus been made available in several minority languages, including Tibetan. A number of vocational schools, colleges, and universities also offer one- or two-year preparatory courses for minority students. Preferential policies have been introduced to give minority students easier access to higher education through a system of quotas and differences in the scores required to be admitted. What the government policies fail to address is the problems experienced by minority children in primary and middle school, when they are introduced to new subjects in an unfamiliar language.

Tibetan students in bilingual schools face other challenges as well. They are required to study two very different languages, using two completely different scripts. For many students, the written Tibetan they learn in school is quite different from their Native spoken dialect. The rest of the curriculum has the same content as in ordinary schools, and the students follow the same schedule; because exams are standardized the curriculum must also be standardized. But without adding hours to the school day, the bilingual schools add a second language to the curriculum, putting an additional workload on Tibetan students and making it even more difficult for them to compete. Most Tibetan children have no opportunity to choose their medium of instruction in school, but in some areas a system of two parallel streams has been introduced—a Chinese medium and a Tibetan medium. This system enables many students to continue their education in Tibetan medium from the primary level all the way to university level. Despite the obvious advantages of being able to learn their own language, a significant problem for students who choose the Tibetan stream is the limited options available for them after graduating from middle school. In Yunnan Province, for instance, graduates from the Tibetan Middle School in Diqing are seriously disadvantaged. Dorje, who teaches middle school in Diqing, describes their situation:

“Their choices are very few. If they want to go to college or university, these students have to study in the Tibet Autonomous Region. Every year the Tibet University admits a certain number of students from the Tibetan Middle School, but the number varies. Some years it may be 10 or 20 students, and some years none at all.”

In the Chinese stream of the “nationalities institute” or “nationalities university,” students can study a range of subjects, including management, computer science, and law, whereas the Tibetan stream generally teaches only language and math. In addition, a wide range of college and university courses are taught only in Chinese, including subjects such as forestry, engineering, agriculture, and veterinary studies. Another problem is that the choice of Tibetan as a second language excludes Tibetan stream students from taking English classes when they are available. English is increasingly important for university studies and in the tourism sector. University entrance exams also demand a basic knowledge of English, and while many Chinese medium middle schools now include English on the curriculum, Tibetan medium students must often choose between Tibetan and English classes.

The Solutions

As many educators have recognized, Tibetan students are better off being taught in their Native language, at least during their first years of schooling. In order to prevent some of the problems these students now face when continuing their education, it is important to extend Tibetan medium teaching to higher levels of education, as well as to expand the use of Tibetan to a greater variety of subjects and fields of study. In addition to Tibetan and Chinese, English should also be included in a Tibetan medium education. However, this approach is only feasible if adequate funds are made available to educate teachers for bilingual schools and to improve educational facilities in general. In addition, bilingual schooling would have to be made as affordable—preferably more affordable—as any other option.

Lack of funding is the major obstacle for the development of bilingual schooling in Tibet. But in recent years international non-governmental organizations have made significant contributions to Tibetan language teaching in several Tibetan areas, particularly outside the TAR. These organizations have provided financial aid specifically for bilingual schools, and have established scholarships to sponsor students from poor families.

Åshild Kolås has a research degree in social anthropology from the University of Oslo (1994). She has conducted fieldwork in Tibetan areas of China and in Tibetan settlements in India, and has written on contemporary Tibet, focusing on identity politics. From 1997 until 2001 she worked as research coordinator and researcher for the PRIO project on Tibetan Culture in China. Since 2001 she has conducted research on ethnic tourism in a Tibetan area in Yunnan Province. The present study includes all Tibetan autonomous prefectures outside the Tibet Autonomous Region, and was conducted by Kolås and Monika P. Thowsen. The results of the study will be published in a book, co-authored by the two researchers and titled On the Margins of Tibet: Cultural Survival on the Sino-Tibetan Frontier, to be published by the University of Washington Press. The present article is based on one of the chapters in this book. The author wishes to thank Thowsen for her invaluable contribution.

References & further reading

Bass, C. (1998). Education in Tibet. Policy and Practice Since 1950. London: Tibet Information Network & Zed Books.

Dwyer, A. (1998). The Texture of Tongues: Language and Power in China. In Nationalism and Ethnoregional Identities in China. Safran, W., Ed. Boulder, Colorado: University of Colorado Press.

Hansen, M.H. (1999). Lessons in Being Chinese. Minority Education and Ethnic Identity in Southwest China. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Harrell, S., Ed. (1995). Cultural encounters on China’s Ethnic Frontiers. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Upton, J. (1996). Home on the Grasslands? Tradition, Modernity, and the Negotiation of Identity by Tibetan Intellectuals in the PRC. In Negotiating Ethnicities in China and Taiwan. Brown, M. J., Ed., Berkeley, California: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California. Pp 98-124.

Upton, J. (1999). Schooling Shar-Khog: Time, Space and the Place of Pedagogy in the Making of the Tibetan Modern. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Washington.

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