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The real Tibet is not a museum

Publication Date : 20-06-2012

 

Too in thrall to an imaginary Tibet to be reasonable is the impression I got of some Westerners after I attended meetings between three Chinese scholars in Tibet studies and some US and Canadian politicians and journalists.

For example, some of them accused the Chinese government of "migrating" Han people from the interior of the country to the Tibet autonomous region, which they said threatens the integrity of Tibetan culture. Some pointed their fingers at the teaching of Putonghua (Mandarin), the official language of China, as a way of sidelining the local Tibetan language. And some even claimed the improved transport links from the interior areas to Tibet were constructed just so the resources in Tibet could be exploited.

These people think Tibet should be isolated from the rest of China in order to keep its culture intact, its resources untouched and its language pure from any influence of other languages.

To achieve that, the Chinese government would have to ban any residents in other parts of China from entering Tibet and the other way around. I bet that these Westerners would jump up and accuse the Chinese government of violating basic human rights if it did impose such a ban.

When daily necessities were rationed during the hard times before 1978, the free flow of people was unimaginable since one would be unable to live without coupons issued by a local government to buy food and other necessities. Now anyone can go anywhere as long as they have the means to support themselves. This is true for Tibetans and their counterparts in other parts of the country. So the free flow of people within China or between China and other parts of the world represents progress.

I don't believe that segregation is the way to protect the integrity of a culture. History shows that a culture can only develop in a healthy manner when it interacts with other cultures. Maybe some physical cultural heritage and traditional customs need to be preserved to prevent them from disappearing. But it has never been the right thing to do to keep a culture from contact with other cultures just to protect its original form and content.

As far as the language is concerned, Putonghua has incorporated a lot of words and expressions from other languages over the centuries. It is a natural process for languages to influence one another, particularly amid today's fast globalisation. And when an increasing number of Tibetans have realised that they can make more money working in other provinces, it is only natural for them to learn Putonghua, which will make it easier to live and work in the interior areas. The bilingual education in Tibet is the choice that the majority of Tibetans have made because it is in their own interests. Similarly people of other ethnic groups in the country are also keen to learn Putonghua.

Yao xiangfu xian xiulu was a popular Chinese expression in the 1990s. It means transportation must be made convenient if a locality wants to improve its economy. The same is true with Tibet. Good transport links between the Tibet autonomous region and the other parts of the country are a basic guarantee for better and faster economic growth and the improvement of Tibetans' living standards.

There has always been a conflict between economic growth and environmental protection and the preservation of traditional culture. Efforts are definitely necessary when it comes to environmental protection and the preservation of traditional culture in Tibet. Yet, there is no reason, and it is against human rights, to leave Tibetans in poverty forever just to protect the ecology in the region and keep Tibetan culture frozen in time.

So if Westerners want to show genuine concern for Tibet, what they need to do is to look at everything in Tibet, including its culture and language, with a much broader perspective and be fully aware that Tibetans are entitled to share the fruits of modernity. This is a right Tibetans should never be deprived of in any circumstances.

Even if Tibetan culture and language could be kept intact by isolating the Tibet autonomous region from the outside world, the culture and language preserved in such a manner would stagnate and finally lose the vitality needed to survive.

To believe that Tibetan culture and language cannot be preserved unless Tibetans and the regions they live in are isolated from any other culture and language is as naive as believing that the culture and language of the indigenous peoples in the United States are not museum exhibits and are flourishing in the reserves.

 

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