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Tibetans in China losing their language and culture

Tibetans in China losing their language and culture

Tibetan filmmaker Khashem Gyal's recent documentary “Valley of the Heroes” explores major cultural shifts taking place in a Tibetan area of China.

by Jas Kirt

UCLA International Institute, February 2, 2015 – Today, more than 30 percent of Tibetans living in Hualong County are unable to speak their own native language. The area is home to a remote community of Tibetans known as Amdo, who live in China’s Qinghai Province.

Filmmaker Khashem Gyal shed light on the loss of Tibetan language and culture in the region at a recent screening of his film “Valley of the Heroes” at UCLA on January 23. The event was hosted by UCLA’s Program on Central Asia, Center for Chinese Studies, Asia Institute and anthropology and geography departments. After the screening, Gyal joined the audience for a question-and-answer session.

The film

“Valley of the Heroes” follows the lives of Tibetan villagers in China’s Hualong County. The film illustrates the tremendous changes that have taken place in the small community through personal interviews and short glimpses into the daily routines of residents. The first scene begins with a village elder explaining that most people in the area no longer speak Tibetan. This fact becomes increasingly apparent as the film progresses.

Notably, the film focuses on how the loss of language ability has led to the loss of cultural and social ties within Tibetan villages in the county. It also explores the lack of economic opportunity for families unable to speak Chinese.

Dual-language education

China initially implemented a policy of dual-lanugage education in Tibetan areas of the country, in which both Tibetan and Chinese were utilized in schools, but the policy has been cut back in recent years. Today, there is greater emphasis on increasing students’ competence in Chinese as the state continues to modernize and incorporate its remote populations over time.

Ideally, an individual would be competent in both languages, but this is not always possible due to time and learning constraints. Primary and secondary education is now primarily provided in Chinese, making it difficult for younger students to use their native language.

Lack of economic opportunity

Many villagers in the remote community have little access to opportunities that would enable them to accumulate wealth and resources. In one scene of the film, adult men gamble and drink alcohol during the daytime instead of going to work. In another, a couple speaks of the poverty they have experienced as they steal cement from an empty construction site.

Filmmaker Khashem Gyal. (Photo: Jas Kirt/ UCLA.) In these villages, Tibetans’ devastating lack of economic opportunity is inextricably related to language. Tibetans who do not speak Chinese have no access to well-paying jobs, and those who do speak Chinese are disadvantaged due to their inferior educational institutions.

Consequently, it is rational for young Tibetans in Hualong to forego learning their native language in order to learn Chinese. Individuals can neither pursue higher education or public administration jobs, nor communicate with health care advisors without knowing Mandarin Chinese.

In one scene of the movie, students at a dual-language school explain that a young schoolgirl was beaten by her mother for wanting to learn Tibetan because the mother believed her Chinese was not “strong enough.”

Loss of culture

The film links the loss of the Tibetan language to the loss of Tibetan Buddhism, a treasure of Tibetan culture. One woman explains in the film that she had previously remembered Tibetan by reciting religious chants, but once the chants were banned, she inevitably lost the language.

The inability to speak Tibetan has also rendered families unable to effectively communicate among generations, as increasing numbers of young people cannot interact with their elders. Village elders often preserve the history and knowledge of the Tibetan community, and their inability to disseminate information to younger generations is detrimental to its preservation.

The educational and economic systems put in place by the Chinese have lead to “less opportunities to use and promote Tibetan culture,” said Gyal, At the same time, knowledge of Tibetan does not reap any political or economic benefits for an individual. As the number of Tibetan speakers dwindles and older generations pass away, Tibetan culture in the Hualong County is in greater and greater jeopardy.

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Published: Monday, February 2, 2015