Mind Your Tibetan Language
Bhuchung K. Tsering
During the ongoing Tibetan parliament session when the work report of the Department of Education was being discussed there were some discussion on an issue that comes up frequently in the Tibetan society; the need to preserve and promote the purity of the Tibetan language. In the parliament, specific incidents involving parent-child interaction as well as specific words were highlighted in this discussion to stress the importance.
While I am all out for Tibetans, both students and non-students, to be fluent in the Tibetan language, I wonder whether we are missing the wood for the trees when we assume that usage of non-Tibetan words along with Tibetan may be the main impediment. I fear by doing so, we may not be tackling the real problem in promoting the better usage of Tibetan among the younger generation.
In general, if we look at the history of development of major world languages we can see that they have all benefitted from welcoming foreign words that have eventually become an integral part. We are all familiar with the English language, which has taken much from other languages, mainly European but also Hindi, too. A common example would be “jungle” for “forest”. What we know of as the English language today has imported much from German, French, Hindi, Latin, etc. Similarly, from the little that I know of, incorporating words from the Persian languages has also enriched some Asian languages.
Therefore, I do not see it as a negative solely because Tibetans use additional foreign words. In fact, if we are objecting to a word merely because it is non-Tibetan, then we may become guilty of an isolationist position. Also, if we have to strictly go by this rule then I wonder how the usage of the mantras in Sanskrit that is prevalent in the Tibetan Buddhist prayers can be explained. Should we not be striving to recite them purely in Tibetan?
I am of the opinion that for certain technical terms that do not have a Tibetan equivalent as yet, we might want to see if we can incorporate the foreign terms that are already there. A case in point would be “email” which has more or less become an international word. And, didn’t Thakjug clearly say, “If the symbols are correct, but if it is difficult to pronounce, then use the one that is easier to pronounce.”
However, I would object to usage of certain Chinese terms that have political implications e.g. using Zhongguo for China rather than Gyanak.
The real problem, as I see it, in the challenge to children embracing the Tibetan language fully could be because to them it is a buyer’s market. On a daily basis they have a plethora of choice, whether print, radio, TV or film, in other languages that might appeal to them rather than in Tibetan. The little that is out there in Tibetan, methinks, still is not up to the mark in becoming attractive and child friendly. There are hardly any cartoon or films for children in the Tibetan languages; the few magazines that are out there highlighted as being for children uses terms that are not age appropriate, thus defeating the very purpose for which they are being published.
Therefore, when children are provided with these many choices how can they resist being influenced by other languages, whether, English, Nepali, German, Chinese, French or whatever.
These are my thoughts on a Saturday evening.
One aspect of developed societies that I admire is that they try to look at ways to enhance the life of people even at the simplest level. This is done both through use of available resources (which might be a challenge to developing or poorer countries) or through sheer ingenuity with minimum need of resources (which could be copied by any society).
Today, I was returning home from work on the subway and as I was waiting for my wife to pick me up at the usual spot in the “Kiss & Ride” area outside our metro stop, I began to ponder over such matters. “Kiss & Ride” area is literally where people come to drop off or pick up their family members or guests while greeting them with a kiss. In this area, lanes are supposed to be clear of parked cars so that there is a constant movement enabling more people to avail themselves of this opportunity. It enables people not to have to go to a parking spot.
The “Kiss & Ride” area seems to be common in the United States as well as some other countries. In Europe I have noticed another creation that has enabled individuals not to be lost while going to visit a friend or a stranger in a new town. Many of the train stations there have a designated “meeting point” (Treffpunkt in German) with a clearly marked sign that enables the individuals to decide as their point of meeting. All the authorities did was designate a spot at the station as the place and placed a sign nearby and that enables people to never having to ask “Where were you all these time?” afterwards.
Bhuchung K. Tsering
On March 30, 2014 we saw the passing away of Bapa Phuntsok Wangyal, a formidable figure in Tibetan history. This blog is about the reaction by the Tibetan community about him.
In December 2009, following the passing away of Ngapo Ngawang Jigme, I wrote,
“If we were to choose the three most prominent Tibetan personalities in Tibet in the post-1959 period, Kasur Ngapo would be one of them. The other two would be the previous Panchen Lama and Bapa Phuntsok Wangyal. All three of them came in the same time in history but under different circumstances. Within the Tibetan society, at different times in history there have been different opinions about the three personalities.
“The Panchen Lama has, however, made it abundantly clear at all times that he has been striving for the benefit of the Tibetan people. In particular, his position, as spelled out in writing, includes his 70,000 character petition to the Chinese government on the plight of the Tibetan people and his public talks given in the 1980s. Bapa Phuntsok Wangyal has also made his position clear through the book, “A Tibetan Revolutionary” as well as through his petitions to the Chinese government in recent times.”
For the past several days, I have been reading the reaction of the Tibetan people outside of Tibet, written in Tibetan as well as English. While the majority of them were positive about Phunwang’s legacy, there were some who were vociferously negative, including calling him a traitor.
How do we judge an individual whose background itself was part of the complex history of Tibet? Even the simple fact that Phunwang, although being a Tibetan, could only enter the territory governed by the then Tibetan Government in the 1950s after seeking its prior permission is part of this complexity.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has talked about his personal interaction with Phunwang, both while in Tibet and even after coming to India (via telephone conversations, which might be news to some) and has drawn a conclusion of his legacy; offering admiration at Phunwang’s dedication to the Tibetan people.
Irrespective of how one might interpret Phunwang’s initial involvement in the Tibetan-Chinese relationship, it is certainly true that from among the Tibetans in Tibet, after the former Panchen Lama, it was Phunwang who raised the strongest voice (until his death) for the Tibetan people with the Chinese leaders.
What do Tibetans in Tibet think about Phunwang?
It seems there have been lots of posting on Weibo by young Tibetans about Phunwang, many calling him a “witness to history.” There were also reports of mourning for him in Tibet.
I looked at some of the web portals from Tibet that is accessible to those of us outside. A posting in Tibetan on one website said,
“In short, Bawa Phuntsok Wangyal’s entire life was endowed with a thousand rays, making sincere and courageous efforts at all levels for the development and enrichment of his fatherland, the Land of Snow Mountains, transforming it into a modern Land of Snows while overcoming different challenges. It is a lesson that the latter generation needs to learn and understand.”
Another website, posted a poem that Phunwang had written, which said the following, among others:
“I lost freedom for the sake of freedom
Although devoid of freedom, (I) have freedom”
There was a posting on the website, www.tibetcul.com that had Phunwang’s biography and also had comments from readers, both positive as well as criticism, which were more general than specific.
A posting in the New Youth website said:
“There is no way history will forget you. Each of the footprints that you have left on the snow is a stone pillar left in the minds of the Tibetans.“
Tibetan writer Woeser’s shared her views on Phunwang to Radio Free Asia’s Tibetan service in which she called him a “Lapchen ki Mina” (a personality with great stature) and said all his life he had worked for the interest of his people, sacrificing his personal interest.
She said the youth in Tibet had great respect for Phunwang, calling herself as being among those who were greatly inspired by his life.
Therefore, it may be that those of us living in freedom need to pause before passing judgment on Phunwang la based on our cursory understanding and try to see why our brethren in Tibet admire him.
On this day, February 27, in 2009, Tapey, a Tibetan monk, committed self-immolation in Tibet and since then 127 Tibetans have self-immolated in different parts of Tibet and China, with the common message of yearning for the return of their revered leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and for freedom, including religious freedom, in Tibet.
Today, the United States released its annual report on the state of human rights for 2013 all over the world; on Tibet they found that the Chinese Government “engaged in the severe repression of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural, and linguistic heritage by, among other means, strictly curtailing the civil rights of China’s ethnic Tibetan population, including the freedoms of speech, religion, association, and movement.”
The above convey the gravity of the current situation of the Tibetan people in Tibet. The Dalai Lama has been leaving no stone unturned in his endeavor not only to look after the present and the future spiritual and social welfare of the Tibetan people, but also to make Buddhism relevant to the 21st century.
During the visit of His Holiness to Washington, D.C. and California in February 2014 (as I write this he is on his way to Minnesota to continue his effort), while there was widespread positive response from the American public, there were also some people in California who organized protests under the banner of “International Shugden Community”. Read More…
The latest meeting between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and President Barack Obama on February 21, 2014 has led to some developments, including in the Chinese Government asking the question, “What is this “middle way” the Dalai Lama preaches?” (via a Xinhua report on February 22).If the Chinese authorities feign to know this even after the past many years of dialogue with his representatives, I believe the answer can be got by looking at some outcomes of the Obama-Dalai Lama meeting.
First, the meeting was followed by the most categorical statement to date by the White House about President Obama supporting the Middle Way approach of the Dalai Lama. In diplomacy where each and every word in such statements are weighed, the President not only “commended” the Middle Way approach (as has been done in 2010 and 2011), but also “expressed support” for it. The Chinese Government has sensed this and hence their Xinhua piece as well as the consternation shown by the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman.
Secondly, and equally important is that the White House explained its understanding of the Middle Way. Spokesman Jay Carney told the media on February 21, “The United States supports the Dalai Lama’s “middle way” approach of neither assimilation, nor independence for Tibetans in China.”
This is very much in tune with the thinking of the Dalai Lama who has always maintained that his Middle Way was avoiding the two extremes: between the present critical situation of the Tibetan people where their very identity’s survival is at stake and the other extreme of regaining Tibet’s independence.
Thirdly, it is also significant that the White House Spokesman says “The United States supports the Dalai Lama’s “middle way” approach…” To me, this indicates that the support is not just the personal belief of the President, but also of the United States Government as a whole.
Therefore, the White House statement not only explains the fundamental concept of the Middle Way, but in the process it is a strong refutation of the Chinese Government’s attempt to discredit the Middle Way.
The Dalai Lama came forth with his Middle Way approach in earnest; as a sincere attempt to provide a solution that is mutually beneficial to the Tibetan and to the Chinese, and which takes into consideration China’s stability concerns. He started formulating this approach internally way back in the 1970s and so when the then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping sent a message to him in 1978-79 that other than the issue of the independence of Tibet, everything else can be discussed and resolved, the Dalai Lama was able to respond positively.
Since then the Dalai Lama has stopped talking about Tibetan independence and has been calling for a solution that will enable the Tibetan people to live in dignity by preserving and promoting their distinct identity and heritage.
Diplomatically, the Dalai Lama came out with a series of initiatives, beginning with the Five Point Peace Plan in 1987 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. to the Strasbourg Proposal at the European Parliament in 1988, etc. Instead of responding to these initiatives positively, the Chinese Government has continued to sweep the Tibetan problem under the carpet and to control the Tibetan people by force.
Above all, the Memorandum for genuine autonomy for the Tibetan people, which the Dalai Lama’s envoys presented to the Chinese Government in 2008 clearly spells out the Tibetan position. It outlines 11 areas in which the concerns of the Tibetan people needed to be addressed, all within the framework of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China.
However, China ignores this aspect because it does not fit their political agenda and seek recourse to propaganda.
Those who know the Tibetan issue, know that Xinhua and the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman repeats their well known narrative; since the Chinese authorities lack the political courage to address the genuine concerns of the Tibetan people, they find fault with each and every initiative of the Dalai Lama under his Middle Way approach.
The Chinese Government says, “the “middle way” approach demands independence by its very nature.” But the White House statement reflects the international community’s acknowledgement that the Dalai Lama’s approach is one that is not of independence, but of securing dignity and respect for the Tibetan people while addressing stability concerns of China.
Therefore, if there is one clear political message from the Obama-Dalai Lama meeting, it is this: the United States is against the assimilation of the Tibetan people and that the Middle Way is the solution to the Tibetan problem.
About a Tibetan at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C
Bhuchung K. Tsering
Those who are familiar with the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., particularly its Asian Division, would be aware of its documents on Tibet, whose Tibetan-language collection is said to be one of the largest in the West. The collection ranges from Tibetan Buddhist scriptures to a Tibetan Almanac of 1762. It is interesting that this almanac is for the Water Horse Year in the thirteenth Rabjung cycle and is part of the Rockhill Tibetan Collection. William Rockhill was an American diplomat who had a good collection of Tibetan materials during his time in China in the early 20th century.
As the Library of Congress itself explains, “The Tibetan collection of the Library of Congress began in 1901 with a presentation of 57 xylographs and eight manuscripts acquired by William Woodville Rockhill, U.S. Minister to China, during his travels in Mongolia and Tibet from 1888 to 1892. Between 1901 and 1928 approximately 920 original xylographs and manuscripts were acquired for the Library primarily by Rockhill, Berthold Laufer, and Joseph Rock. Currently, the collection is one of the largest in the West, consisting of approximately 9,000 volumes, made up of hundreds of individual titles.”
However, there is a Tibetan in the Library of Congress about whom you may not have heard. Even I, who have been visiting the Library of Congress of and on for the past several years knew of the Tibetan just recently. He is in the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building, one of the buildings near the Capitol.
This Tibetan is one of the 33 “ethnological heads” that are serving as keystone ornaments on the first story and is located on the West front , facing the Capitol.
I will let the Library of Congress expand on this.
“One of the Jefferson Building’s most striking exterior features are the thirty-three ethnological heads that surround it, serving as keystone ornaments of the first story windows. Otis T. Mason, curator of the Department of Ethnology in the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, was the special advisor for this project. In Herbert Small’s 1897 Handbook of the New Library of Congress, this undertaking is described as “the first instance of a comprehensive attempt to make ethnological science contribute to the architectural decoration of an important public building.”
“The heads themselves, created by William Boyd and Henry Jackson Ellicott, were based on information provided by Professor Mason. The list of the races represented, as described by Small, and the location of the keystones follow.
Starting at the north end of the front entrance pavilion, the first head is that of a Russian Slav, located beneath the portico bust of Demosthenes. Continuing across the west front, the heads are: Blonde European; Brunette European; Modern Greek; Persian (Iranian);
On the south side: Circassian; Hindu; Hungarian (Magyar); Semite, or Jew; Arab (Bedouin); Turk
On the east side: Modern Egyptian (Hamite); Abyssinian; Malay; Polynesian; Australian; Negrito (Indian Archipeligo); Sudan Negro; Akka (Dwarf African Negro); Fuegian; Botocudo (South America); Pueblo Indian (Zunis of New Mexico);
On the north side: Esquimaux; Plains Indians (Sioux, Cheyenne, Comanche); Samoyede (Finn); Korean; Japanese; Ainu (northern Japan);
On the west front: Burman; Tibetan; Chinese”
Whether or not this “Tibetan” resembles a Tibetan, I am still wondering why a Tibetan was chosen to be part of the Library of Congress’s “ethonological science” collection. Also, I wonder what the background story is and who was the Tibetan model.
My thoughts after reading Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s “A Home in Tibet”
Bhuchung K. Tsering
In the post 1959-Tibetan society, belonging and identity play a critical role in shaping the psyche of the Tibetan people. For Tibetans of the pre-1959 generation, the sense of belonging is more dominant; they have memory of their lives in Tibet before the Chinese and are clear about where they belong. For example, for Tibetans who had escaped out of Tibet in and after 1959, a critical reason for wanting to regain their homeland is because they “belong” there and would like to return, mentioned in Tibetan simply as, “Bod la lok.”
For the post-1959 generation of Tibetans, the sense of identity plays an equal if not greater role. Those who have been born and brought up in Tibet are overwhelmed by the direct and indirect attempts to provide them with a “Chinese identity.”
Those of this generation in exile are constantly posed with the question of self-identity; what is our identity? Who am I? Do we belong to something? This sense is all pervasive among the younger generation of Tibetans; it does not matter whether they are stateless, refugees, or individuals who have acquired citizenship of other countries. All acquired identities were subordinate to the dominant perception that “I am a Tibetan.”
These Tibetans nevertheless are undergoing the same experience of exploration of their own roots, both literally and psychologically. They have found different ways of expressing their feelings; in the immediate post 1959 period direct political activism was the dominant approach. The young Tibetans are also taught to identify themselves with Tibet in all aspects of their upbringing. Among the first song and dance routine that a majority of Tibetans in exile learnt was one popularly referred to as “Sildan Gangri’ that begins like this: “Surrounded by cool snow mountains; is the pure land of Tibet.”
Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s “A Home in Tibet” is, to me, an encapsulation of these two types of mindsets among Tibetans. Through her mother’s story she expands on the quest for belonging while her own story is that of searching for her identity.
In the prologue, Tsering Wangmo writes about her mother, “All of her exile life she waited to return home. She spoke of exile as something that would be expunged over time. When this is over, we can go home.”
But as she details, her mother passed away in a tragic road accident and was not able to fulfill her aspiration of returning to her homeland.
Therefore, Tsering Wangmo’s journey to what is essentially her mother’s homeland in Tibet (because she herself was born in exile) is both a search for her own roots as well as fulfilling the unfulfilled desire of her mother. Read More…