Tibetan language instruction in Greater Tibet

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Edward Wong, "Tibetan Entrepreneur Has Been Illegally Detained, Family Says" (NYT 3/10/16)

A Tibetan entrepreneur who is a vocal but moderate advocate for bilingual education in schools across Chinese-ruled Tibetan regions has been illegally detained by the police for one and a half months, his family said.

The man, Tashi Wangchuk, 30, who lives with his parents in the western town of Yushu, has written about language policy on his microblog. He has highlighted the dearth of meaningful Tibetan language education and expressed concern that many Tibetan children are unable to become fluent in their native language, a widespread worry in the ethnic group.

I post this primarily as a news item, but I also wish to point out a fact about Tibetan people, language, culture, and history that many non-specialists may be unaware of.  Namely, much (if not most) of the news that we hear about Tibetan self-immolations, detentions, disappearances, imprisonments, unrest, and so forth actually take place outside of "Tibet Proper".  Tibet Proper is large — 474,300 mi².  We may compare that with the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region at 642,800 mi², which is 1/6th of the whole of China (3.705 million mi²).

Tibetan is also spoken in a number of other sizable provinces of the Peoples Republic of China:  Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu, Qinghai.  Tashi Wangchuk, the subject of the above article, is actually from Qinghai, and the Dalai Lama himself hails from that province.  See also these posts:

"Tibetan –> Chinese –> Chinglish" (11/11/15)

"Hide the satisfied store in statue of Buddha" (7/18/12)

Some of the largest and most spectacular Tibetan Buddhist monastic establishments are located outside of Tibet Proper, e.g., Labrang, which is in Gansu province and is situated less than a hundred miles from Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu, and less than four hundred miles from Xi'an in the Central Plain, one of the most important cities in the history of China.

Tibetic languages are also spoken in vast areas of South Asia and Central Asia.  During the medieval period, Tibet vied with China for control of the eastern half of Eurasia, occupied Gansu for nearly a century (making Tibetan the politically and culturally dominant language and even using Tibetan script to write northwest Sinitic [Takata Tokio and W. South Coblin both have scholarly works documenting this]), and came close to gaining control of the Central Plain in the East Asian Heartland.

See Christopher Beckwith, The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia: A History of the Struggle for Great Power among Tibetans, Turks, Arabs, and Chinese during the Early Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987).

I won't go into these historical events further in this post, but will simply say that — just in terms of the distribution of Tibetan speakers within the PRC today — if all the areas where the language is current were added to Tibet Proper, the total would probably amount to as much as that of Xinjiang (i.e., 1/6th of China), making the Uyghur regions and the Tibetan regions constitute fully 1/3rd of the whole of the PRC.  Now, if you add in Inner Mongolia, with its 456,800 mi², you can see why the government is extremely nervous about separatist tendencies in all of these non-Sinitic areas that were incorporated into the Manchu empire during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

Moreover, in politicoreligious terms, the ties between Tibet and Mongolia have been exceedingly close for many centuries, as is exemplified by the name of the Dalai Lama, which is a combination of the Mongolian word dalai meaning "ocean" (a translation of the Tibetan name Gyatso) and the Tibetan word bla-ma བླ་མ་ meaning "guru, teacher, mentor".

In terms of language policy, China is confronted with the dilemma of inhibiting the continuity of cultural and religious traditions that run counter the goal of national unity under the Han ethnicity on the one hand and permitting the use of mother tongues, a right that is supposedly guaranteed by Article 121 ("Use of local language") of the PRC constitution, on the other hand.  However, when I went to check that article in the supposedly complete text here, I found:  "deleted".

On the official website of the Chinese government, I found these articles:

Article 4. All nationalities in the People's Republic of China are equal. The state protects the lawful rights and interests of the minority nationalities and upholds and develops the relationship of equality, unity and mutual assistance among all of China's nationalities. Discrimination against and oppression of any nationality are prohibited; any acts that undermine the unity of the nationalities or instigate their secession are prohibited. The state helps the areas inhabited by minority nationalities speed up their economic and cultural development in accordance with the peculiarities and needs of the different minority nationalities. Regional autonomy is practised in areas where people of minority nationalities live in compact communities; in these areas organs of self- government are established for the exercise of the right of autonomy. All the national autonomous areas are inalienable parts of the People's Republic of China. The people of all nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages, and to preserve or reform their own ways and customs.

Article 121. In performing their functions, the organs of self-government of the national autonomous areas, in accordance with the autonomy regulations of the respective areas, employ the spoken and written language or languages in common use in the locality.

Article 133. The Supreme People's Procuratorate is responsible to the National People's Congress and its Standing Committee. Local people's procuratorates at different levels are responsible to the organs of state power at the corresponding levels which created them and to the people's procuratorates at the higher level. Article 134. Citizens of all nationalities have the right to use the spoken and written languages of their own nationalities in court proceedings. The people's courts and people's procuratorates should provide translation for any party to the court proceedings who is not familiar with the spoken or written languages in common use in the locality. In an area where people of a minority nationality live in a compact community or where a number of nationalities live together, hearings should be conducted in the language or languages in common use in the locality; indictments, judgments, notices and other documents should be written, according to actual needs, in the language or languages in common use in the locality.

Small comfort for Tashi Wangchuk, who molders away in jail without having been charged with any crime because he was trying to keep Tibetan language education alive in his native locale.


  1. Gene Anderson said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 2:19 pm

    For the record, this behavior by China is within Raphael Lemkin's original definition of genocide.

  2. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 2:37 pm

    I believe that in some parts of Europe it is not uncommon for minority-language rights to be defined territorially, e.g. if you are a Flemish speaker in Belgium you have a broader range of language-related rights in one part of the country than the other and vice versa if you are a French speaker, and if this bothers you too much your real remedy is to relocate to "your part" of the country even if it happens to not be where you were born. This creates problems if: a) the way the lines are drawn on the map did not capture the actual linguistic facts on the ground at the time the lines were drawn; and/or b) speakers of different languages move around over time, including across the old lines, but the lines are not adjusted to keep up with the changed facts on the ground. I expect the situation in mainland China is in large part a) (i.e. the historic borders of "Tibet proper" were narrower than the actual range of Tibetic speakers at the time they were established because they were established for political/historical/military reasons and were not attempting to align with patterns of language usage or ethnic identity), but there might be some b) as well. The U.S. faced a number of language-policy issues of the b) variety when substantial numbers of Puerto Ricans started moving to the mainland in the mid-20th century, because the original political settlement (whereby people born and raised in Puerto Rico could and would be U.S. citizens without being necessarily expected to become fluent in the dominant national language) had not necessarily contemplated that development.

  3. stephen said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 3:02 pm

    Is Tibetan common in Nepal or India?

    Would this be a good analogy?

    "Chinese language" is to "China" as "European language" is to "Europe".

  4. flow said,

    March 12, 2016 @ 8:25 am

    Is there any reason to worry about when finding that when I go to http://www.usconstitution.net/china.html#Article121, I find a likeness of the Führer staring back at me?

  5. Rodger C said,

    March 12, 2016 @ 12:41 pm

    What I found to worry about was that for some reason I wasn't allowed to leave the site without closing IE.

  6. Neil Dolinger said,

    March 13, 2016 @ 3:23 pm

    I was hoping someone more knowledgeable than I would take a crack at answering Stephen’s questions. Alas, no one has, and I think they are good questions, so I will give it a try. The first question is relatively easy to answer. I am not sure what is meant by “common”. But Tibetic languages appear to be spoken in the northern parts of India, though how many first-language speakers remain in 2016, I don’t know.

    "Chinese language" is to "China" as "European language" is to "Europe".

    While this analogy is tautologically correct – a language spoken within the confines of region X is a language of that region – there are other notions of “Chinese” and “European” that complicate the question greatly. Without getting into the questions of language vs. dialect vs. topolect that Dr. Mair and others have already written about extensively on LL, I think I can state without controversy that in China as in Europe, there are significant numbers of speakers of languages that are completely unrelated to the dominant language groups of the regions (Sinitic and Indo-European respectively).

  7. Eidolon said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 7:32 pm

    "I won't go into these historical events further in this post, but will simply say that — just in terms of the distribution of Tibetan speakers within the PRC today — if all the areas where the language is current were added to Tibet Proper, the total would probably amount to as much as that of Xinjiang (i.e., 1/6th of China), making the Uyghur regions and the Tibetan regions constitute fully 1/3rd of the whole of the PRC."

    Given that Tibetans even within Tibet proper appear to be losing their "mother tongue," how current are we talking about? Do we know how many counties in the PRC where a Tibetic language is still the predominant language? I assume that in places such as Qinghai, Gansu, and Sichuan, Tibetic speakers are the minority rather than the majority based on demographics.

    "For the record, this behavior by China is within Raphael Lemkin's original definition of genocide."

    The Dalai Lama has called what is happening in Tibet "cultural genocide," so it certainly is word that has been applied to Chinese policy. But it does not appear to have led to any tangible change in PRC policy, and at this stage in time it is difficult to see why they would ever change course as long as language independence is seen as an appendage of political independence.

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