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Language, Identity & Revolution in Tibet

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The task of getting news out of Tibet these day has taken on the frustrating ambiance of cold-war research methodology. We haven't exactly gone back to the days of Sovietologists and China watchers poring over precious photographs of Mayday line-ups for scraps of usable information, but we're heading there.

Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, doesn't have a single representative of the international media posted there, not even a stringer. There is no one from the United Nations (or its many related agencies), The Red Cross, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders. You name it, not one representative from any of those variety of agencies usually jostling for a story or territory in every other conflict or disaster zone in the world. Even beleaguered Gaza has half-a-dozen such NGOs stationed there. Tibet is a dead zone as far as such access is concerned.

Information technology has eased the situation somewhat, but because of poverty, remoteness and the iron-grip of the world's most sophisticated and extensive system of information control and censorship, Tibetans can only send news to the outside world by using such (not easily available) technology in clandestine and rough-and-ready ways, one familiar end-product being the blurry cellphone video.

I watched a video of the Tibetan student demonstrations posted by RFA on their website and on YouTube. The first video of the demonstration in Rebkong on October 19th was blurry and clearly shot with a cellphone, but you could make out the thousand or so protesting children in dark-blue and white track suit uniforms. There were also other children in gray tracksuits and many in street clothes. They all looked very young. I didn't expect it but they started the protest march with a ki-sha, a traditional battle cry, a very nomad thing -- "kee-he-he-hee!" Then they began to chant their slogan, again and again: "mirig danyam, kayrig rangwang" (equality of nationalities, freedom of language).

The second video from Chabcha was of better quality. Probably a camcorder with a decent optical zoom was used. The demonstration (on 20th October) appeared to be taking place along a street across a broad river or culvert. The photographer is on a parallel road, this side of the culvert. The video begins with a tight shot of the front of the demonstration -- a mass of young men advancing forward. Then it zooms back slowly and you see a long line of people massed together tightly all along the road -- stretching back for at least half a mile. One report in the New York Times mentioned only a hundred students at Chabcha, but the reporter probably hadn't seen this video where one gets the impression of more than a thousand students demonstrating. The students at the Chabcha protest also appear somewhat older than those at Rebkong. They were probably high school students. But what gave me goose bumps was the way all of the demonstrators jogged forward in massed formation like soldiers going on the attack. The demonstrators chanted their slogan over and over "mirig danyam, kayrig rangwang". But it didn't come over so much as a chanting or cheering than an angry and aggressive shout or bark. This was not your usual student protest.

Mention of blurry cell phone videos in the context of Tibetan protests first appeared in a report in 2008 by Anne Applebaum, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and scholar (Gulag, A History). She was one of the few Western intellectuals who observed an underlying revolutionary feature in the 2008 uprising in Tibet. Others journalists and pundits, especially China experts, chose to play down the nationalist and revolutionary aspects of the protests, and interpreted Tibetan discontent as merely stemming from economic disparity between the Chinese and Tibetans, something that Beijing would probably correct down the road, if Tibetans just cooperated.

Applebaum wrote "Watching a blurry cell phone video of tear gas rolling over the streets of Lhasa yesterday, I couldn't help but wonder when -- maybe not in this decade, this generation or even this century -- Tibet and its monks will have their revenge." For Applebaum the 2008 events in Tibet represented one manifestation of a wider reaction of "captive nations", Uighurs, Mongols, Tibetans, rising up against the tyrannical rule of an old imperial and foreign power that has long oppressed smaller countries and societies surrounding it. Applebaum concluded that if Chinese leaders "...aren't worried, they should be. After all, the past two centuries were filled with tales of strong, stable empires brought down by their subjects, undermined by their client states, overwhelmed by the national aspirations of small, subordinate countries. Why should the 21st century be any different?"

Why indeed? But can a high-school student demonstration, no matter how large or widespread, be regarded, even in a peripheral way, as a manifestation of a greater national revolution? We should remember that both Rebkong and Chabcha had the biggest outbreaks of Tibetan nationalist protests in 2008. The population there also suffered greatly in the subsequent crackdown by Chinese security forces, with many hundreds even thousands being imprisoned, beaten and tortured. Some of the demonstrators were shot outright during the protests while a few others were killed in prison. In exile we received unsettling photographs of such victims from Amdo Ngaba through cellphones.

Furthermore, language is a tremendously volatile, even explosive issue in Tibet -- for a simple reason. The Chinese authorities had, during the period of the Cultural Revolution, made an extraordinary attempt not only to replace the written Tibetan language with Chinese, but also forcefully discourage the use of the spoken language among the populace throughout the Tibetan plateau. This was over and above the destruction of many thousands of Tibetan temples, monastic centers of learning, libraries, countless works of arts and worship, and the burning of many metric tonnes of rare and incalculably precious traditional literature -- when these were not, quite deliberately, used as toilet paper by Chinese soldiers and officials.

Pema Bhum, a scholar from Rebkong, in his Tibetan Memoirs of the Cultural Revolution, provides a personal and detailed account of the destructive campaign against Tibetan language and literature. Pema describes how Tibetan cultural and literary classics, also books on Tibetan grammar (even those earlier printed officially by the PRC) were withdrawn and banned as "superstitious" and "old thought". Because Tibetan was considered a "feudal" language, older Tibetan cadres who barely spoke Chinese, were compelled to address meetings (even in remote nomadic communities) in halting and atrocious Chinese. Pema Bhum was required to act as a "translator" on few such bizarre occasions. Pema Bhum concludes,

"The Cultural Revolution lasted ten years, ten years during which Tibetan language instruction came to a hiatus in many Tibetan areas. A generation of Tibetan youth was barred from their due chance to study Tibetan language. As their 'native' tongue began to change from Tibetan to Chinese, the Cultural Revolution came to an end."

Many Tibetans-in-exile mistakenly credit the Chinese "liberalization" for the revival of Tibetan in the post Cultural Revolution era. In point of fact the language renaissance in Tibet was near entirely the work of dedicated Tibetan scholars as Dhungkar Lobsang Trinlay, Mugi Samten, Tseten Shabdrung, Horkhang Sonam Pembar, and religious leaders like the Panchen Lama, and even some upright Tibetan officials. These people took advantage of the relaxation of hard-line regulations in education, publishing and business that Deng Xiaoping's "liberalization" policy had to allow in order to modernize China's economy and attract foreign investment.

Yet even with the so-called "liberalization," there were areas of language education over which Tibetan educationalist had to perform a very tricky tightrope walk. Any favorable reference to the Dalai Lama had, of course, to be strictly avoided, but even references to Buddhism could be problematic, depending on the political climate. In fact, under Chinese aegis a Tibetan language education without Buddhist overtones was systematically created. For instance the celebrated long poem "Songs of Lhasa Memories" (Lhasa dran-lu) by the poet and scholar Shelkar Lingpa (senior secretary to the 13th Dalai Lama) appears as lesson seventeen in a school literature and language textbook. But the poem has been selectively edited. Of the 46 stanzas of the original poem only 12 which have no religious references, appear in the lesson. To give the reader a flavor of the poem I have reproduced one verse that I translated with the help of my friend Sonam "Country" Dhargyal la:

Amidst the many shops and stalls in the busy market square
The thousand delightful movements of soft supple bodies
All gathered there, the beauties, none missing,
Showing off their sweet smiling faces
... I remember Lhasa.

Janet Upton, an anthropologist who has written on education and literature in Tibet remarks that even in this truncated form the poem "invokes longings for a Lhasa that most students have seen only in their minds eye: the Lhasa of traditional Tibet." Shelkar Lingpa wrote the poem in 1910 when the 13th Dalai Lama was in exile in Darjeeling in British India because of a previous Chinese invasion. This and other "secular" poems like "A Song of Grassland Memories" by Dhondup Gyal also taught in schools, have according to Upton "created a powerful nostalgic longing for Tibetan spaces, real and remembered."

In stripping Tibetan language of references to religion and the Dalai Lamas, the Chinese authorities were probably subscribing to the theory, that some Western scholars also seem to accept, that Tibetan identity, hence Tibetan nationalism, is fundamentally rooted in religion, in Tibetan Buddhism. It is possible that the state support for the study and promotion of the great Tibetan epic, King Gesar of Ling, was one attempt to foster a non-religious secular language and culture in Tibet.

There might perhaps also be an incidental, even subliminal, reason for this undertaking. Since the Chinese literati discovered Homer at the beginning of the twentieth century, they have keenly felt the lack of a national epic poem, their own traditional fiction of knight-errant (wuxia) stories being considered too episodic and prosaic. Attempts to create epic poetry or shishi (literally "historical poetry") were not very successful. So the promotion of the Gesar as China's "national cultural treasure" was probably intended not only to strengthen secular culture in Tibet but perhaps even contribute to a cultural bonding between Chinese and Tibetans. In the story King Gesar has an older half-brother Gyatsa, who is said to have a Chinese mother.

The problem with this reading is that the Gesar epic though related, only indirectly, to the history of Tibet's imperial past does, nonetheless, because of its intense martial content and stories of military conquests, stir deep nationalistic passions among Tibetans. As the English scholar and diplomat Charles Bell has put it "The violence and bloodthirstiness of the epic hark back to a time before Buddhism had made its impact on Tibet, and when the Tibetans took joy in hunting, raiding and making war, especially on their neighbor China."

During the Cultural Revolution one of the major anti-Chinese uprisings in Central Tibet was led by a nun from Nyemo district who claimed to represent Gesar's divine guide the goddess Gungmen Gyalmo. In this spirit she named eight of her lieutenants as warrior heroes of Gesar and then actually waged war against Chinese and Tibetan Communist cadres in Nyemo and other districts and eventually even took on the PLA. She was defeated, captured and taken to Lhasa and executed along with a number of her followers. References to Gesar and his warriors also appear in accounts of uprisings in Tibet during this period, especially in nomadic areas where the epic is very popular.

In the past Tibetan Buddhist sects as the Kagyutpa and the Ningmapa attempted to co-opt this essentially secular and fairly violent epic by infusing it with religious overtones and interpretations, or as the scholar Samten Karmay puts it, by the "Buddhasization of the hero and his deed". But the dominant Gelugpa sect, which had political control of Tibet in the past, banned monks from reading the epic and strongly discouraged ordinary Tibetans from even listening to it. It was probably not just the violence in the stories that the clergy found objectionable, but the fact that the epic harkened back to an age of Tibetan military glory and imperial power, and suggested a political alternative to Gelugpa theocratic authority.

Tibetan language education inside Tibet is of course fundamentally based on the classical Tibetan literature of the Buddhist period which is Sanskrit inspired and formal. But modern writing, especially in Amdo, appears to be influenced, even inspired by the uncluttered and intensely Tibetan poetry and prose of the imperial period based on the ancient song-verses of the lu, gur and chid forms, and especially the Gesar epic.

The Gesar epic even seems to have played a small role in the struggle of a Tibetan speaking Muslim people in Pakistan. The Baltistan region, centered around Skardu, is home to some 300,000 people whose mother tongue is Balti, a language of the Tibetan-Ladakhi family. "We are the only people in this region to have had our own script since the 6th century AD," says Syed Abbas Kazmi of the Baltistan Cultural Foundation (BCF), "but due to the "narrow-mindedness of the mullah class our people were told to stop using Tibetan". The result is that over the years, the linguistic and literary development of Balti has suffered. Urdu, the Persian/Arabic script of Pakistan was not suitable to writing of the Balti-Tibetan language according to Kazmi "...and hence our language became like a stray animal, our prose and poetry withered." Kazmi, who is a scholar, has written a monograph on the Balti version of the old Tibetan Epic of King Gesar. He and his organization has, in spite of the harassment of officialdom and the mullahs, printed and distributed elementary Tibetan language textbooks and helped shopkeepers in Skardu put up signboards in Tibetan.

I saw a video on YouTube of the Balti village of Turtuk, which became part of India in the 1971 Indo-Pak war. The people of the village speak Tibetan, perhaps with some Urdu and English words thrown in now and then, but unmistakably Tibetan. Yet these people are Muslim. There is a scene of a village council. The elders, one with a hennaed beard, one wearing an Afghan Pakol hat, one a turban, another a sheepskin Jinnah cap, make the gathering seem like a jirga in Afghanistan. But the they are all speaking Tibetan and they are talking about inviting the Dalai Lama to their remote village. It becomes clear from the discussions that the need of these people to establish, or rather fortify their linguistic and ethnic origins, overrides concerns of welcoming and honoring a religious leader not of their own faith. After the Dalai Lama's successful visit fifteen children are sent to the Tibetan Children's Village school near Leh to be educated in Tibetan. The children have a matron from Turtuk to look after them, and besides being educated in Tibetan language and other school subjects they also learn the Koran and perform their daily namaaz.

What one gets from the video is a sense of the power that language has in establishing identity, which in this case happily appears to invalidate very real differences between two antithetical religions. I don't know for how long the people of Baltistan will manage to keep their Tibetan ethnic and linguistic identity. It is possible that they might not be able to in the face of Islamic clerical and governmental pressure and coercion. Yet the fact that they have somehow managed to hang on to this heritage for over a thousand years is impressive and very moving. Clearly Tibetan is not one of those disappearing languages that experts say are becoming extinct at twice the rate of endangered mammals and four times the rate of endangered birds. Tibetan has, of course, the advantage of an old and practical (far more functional and efficient than Chinese) written script and a vast indigenous literature. It also has a calligraphic tradition that in terms of artistry and dynamism stand level with Arabic and Chinese.

Language is undoubtedly one the fundamental basis of Tibetan identity. Religion is important, of course, but has probably been overemphasized in the official Tibetan world because of the theocratic nature of the Tibetan government and its policy directions, which the Dalai Lama has clearly stated is the renunciation of political sovereignty in order to preserve the "Buddhist" culture of Tibet.

It is more than possible that the Communist Chinese authorities have now come around to seeing the Tibetan language as a dangerous challenge to their overall control of Tibet, in much the same way as they previously regarded the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism. Following the "success" of the Beijing Olympics and the world economic collapse there has also been a noticeable hardening in the overall leadership style of the Communist Party. Hence the pushing aside of Cantonese language program on Guangzhou TV this July in favor of Mandarin programming, which provoked a demonstration in that city and a small support rally in Hong Kong.

We can be fairly certain that Beijing is not just viewing the student demonstrations as merely an educational or linguistic problem. Following the two demonstrations in Amdo, Tibetan students at Beijing National Minorities University also organized a protest. Students from six schools and a teacher-training college in Malho (in Amdo) are also reported to have organized protests. Protests have also been reported from schools in the Golok region and in Gansu province. Significantly, Uighur students in East Turkestan appear to have been galvanized by the Tibetan language protests and school officials and security personnel in Xinjiang are reportedly making an enormous effort to prevent any such outbreak of protests there An Uighur teacher in Xinjiang speaking to RFA, agreed that Uighur support for the Tibetan protests was high in the region. "Every Uighur teacher and student is supporting Tibet right now, because we have the same problems here," the teacher said. "Enforcing the use of Mandarin Chinese in Uighur schools has had a detrimental effect on the entire education system in Xinjiang."

Beijing will probably not immediately crack down in their usual draconian manner. The Tibetan students were uniformly careful to only voice slogans about "freedom of language" and not even hint at freedoms in other contexts especially Tibetan political freedom. So the authorities will have to find a more appropriate way to deal with this new problem. They might, as Chairman Mao once advised, take "one step back" for the moment, to take "two steps forward" in the future. But they will eventually and most certainly devise a way to get rid of the Tibetan language and identity problem throughout the Tibetan plateau.

Right now twenty of the demonstrators in Chabcha have reportedly been arrested. But all the students at schools in Rebkong have been ordered to attend political re-education classes daily. Besides the inculcation of Party propaganda, the re-education classes also serve to instill fear in the mind of all those required to undergo it. There is little subtlety in the process, though it is effective, after a fashion, and for a while. But this institutionalized browbeating also causes tremendous resentment and anger. A few generations of experience have taught people to suppress and conceal their immediate feelings. But the only psychological outlet or political redress available to Tibetans is in further uprisings down the road, and possibly and eventually, revolution. This is the inescapable spiral of life in occupied Tibet.