High Peaks Pure Earth has translated a blogpost by Woeser written in February 2015 for the Tibetan service of Radio Free Asia and published on her blog on March 26, 2015.
The blogpost is a commentary on Tibetan language, in particular the politicisation of issues related to Tibetan language, and was written on the occasion of “International Mother Language Day” that falls annually on February 21.
For previous commentaries by Woeser on this topic, see “When Tibetan Students Fight for the Tibetan Language” and “If Tibetans Took To The Streets For The Tibetan Language”.
These photos were taken on October 19, 2010; over one thousand Tibetan students protested in Malho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai Province, requesting linguistic equality and freedom. It was said that the protests were triggered by a document issued by Rebkong County, stipulating that “all schools must teach in Chinese and all Tibetan materials must be translated into Chinese within a period of five years.” Students jointly shouted: “We do not agree with this decision!”
“‘Stability’ and Tibetan on International Mother Language Day”
February 21 is “International Mother Language Day”. Chinese language Wikipedia provides the following introduction: International Mother Language Day (also referred to as World Mother Language Day) is held every year on February 21 and was first initiated by UNESCO in 1999. Since 2000, the “World Mother Language Day” is held on a yearly basis and its aim is to promote awareness of linguistic diversity and the importance to preserve languages, saving them from becoming extinct.
Every year, the international mother language day comes with a theme; in 2012, it was “Mother tongue instruction and inclusive education”. In 2013, it was “Books for mother tongue education”. In 2014, it was “Local languages for Global Citizenship: Spotlight on Science”. And the theme of 2015 is “Inclusive Education through and with Language – Language Matters”. It becomes very obvious that the themes always emphasise education. Without education, languages are more likely to disappear.
I came across a short essay that several young Tibetans had shared on WeChat both in Tibetan and Chinese. It was titled “Written on International Mother Language Day: Stability and the Mother Tongue” and had been composed by the young Tibetan intellectual, Sonam Namgyal, from Rebkong, Amdo. He begins by introducing an article published in official Chinese media titled “International Mother Language Day: Promoting Awareness of Linguistic Protection” which states that “the protection of ethnic minority languages has a positive effect on the development and transmission of human civilisation and on ethnic unity, societal stability etc.” He continues to directly comment:
“Reflecting on the practice of Tibetan language protection at the grassroots level, especially in Malho, Qinghai Province and other Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures, almost all locally initiated activities to protect the Tibetan language are subsequently labelled as ‘using language protection as a pretext to foster Tibetan independence.’ Whether such activities are really a pretext or whether they actually grow out of a genuine concern for local culture and language are not taken into consideration by local governments. As of today, almost any locally initiated language protection movement is regarded as illegal and members of respective organisations are detained, penalised and interrogated; in fact, ‘mother tongue’ has already become a ‘sensitive term’ in several areas. Streets are full of public notices of the ‘16 types of illegal behaviour that relate to Tibetan independence’, one of which is the ‘protection of mother tongue, linguistic equality’ etc. What is evidently not included in this notice is the legal basis upon which these 16 types of behaviour are labelled as illegal.”
As someone from within the system, Sonam Namgyal genuinely appeals to the Chinese government, emphasising that “there is no doubt that the maintenance of stability is about people’s sentiments. The struggle against ‘Tibetan independence’ or ‘separatism’ is ultimately a struggle to win over people’s sentiments. Language is an inherent part of ethnic identity, by valuing and respecting linguistic rights, the government would inevitably also take a firm and potent measure against ‘separatist forces’… social stability is about giving people peace of mind, and it is necessary to use any opportunity to do so; by showing concern for people’s sentiments, societal stability can be achieved. Accordingly, depoliticising the issue of ‘mother tongue’ and creating a legal and constitutional basis for the protection of ethnic languages will not only provide local people with means to protect their own language, it also creates conditions allowing ethnic languages to develop in an orderly fashion; this is not only the responsibility of a modern nation-state, it is also an effective way to guarantee the stability of people’s sentiments.”
But for a totalitarian dictatorship, the only way to truly “maintain social stability” is evidently by completely eliminating ethnic minorities’ “mother tongues”.
Written in February 2015
This post is also available in: English