TONGREN, China (Reuters) - Steeped in centuries-old, devoutly Buddhist traditions, Tibetans today face harsh choices as they fight to hold on to their unique identity without getting left behind in China’s headlong rush toward modernity.
The decisions range from painful ones about whether children should focus on their native Tibetan or the national language Mandarin at school, to rather more mundane ones such as what clothes to wear, music to listen to and books to read.
At stake is the creation of a modern Tibetan culture that is more than just an imitation of their Han Chinese neighbors, or reaction to China’s religious and political pressure.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the flight into exile of Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, after a failed uprising against Chinese rule. With the likelihood of his returning getting ever smaller, some Tibetans are trying to be practical.
“You have to learn Chinese as without it you can’t achieve anything and you’ll have no future,” said Tendun, 23, a monk in a heavily Tibetan corner of the remote far western province of Qinghai, who spoke very passable, if heavily accented, Mandarin.
“You can’t even go to the shops these days if you only speak Tibetan,” added the young initiate, who says he taught himself in a monastery perched above a valley dotted with villages and bright white stupas, prayer flags fluttering in the light breeze.
Tibetan is the main language of instruction in schools in his hometown of Tongren, where most signs are bilingual in Chinese and the Sanskrit-based Tibetan script. Many Tibetans there speak only limited Mandarin or none at all.
Job and education prospects are limited for those without the national language. Tibetans that don’t speak Mandarin are condemned to marginalization in a country where affirmative action is largely unheard of.
“When it comes to exams, the Tibetans and Chinese take them together, but the Tibetans always fail as their Chinese is not as good. So the Chinese get all the best jobs around here,” said a Tibetan teacher from southern Qinghai, who asked not to be named, fearing punishment for speaking to a foreign reporter.
“Families face a difficult choice about whether to educate their children in Tibetan or get them speaking better Chinese. But our language is our mother. How can you abandon your mother?”
Han Chinese very rarely learn Tibetan.
The challenges are broader than language.
“People send their children to boarding school, where they learn to like rice and stir-fried food,” said Luorong Zhandui, an ethnic Tibetan from Sichuan province and a professor at the government-run China Tibetology Research Center.
“They come home, and they don’t want tsampa, which makes parents worry they are losing their identity,” he added, referring to a traditional Tibetan flour made of roasted barely.
While many Tibetans do still prefer to wear their padded gowns with long sleeves, the young are often as fashionably dressed in jeans and trainers as Chinese counterparts in larger, more cosmopolitan cities on the country’s eastern seaboard.
“You can’t go to work in those clothes. They’re fine for festivals, but not if you want to get ahead in your life,” said Rodun, a Tongren tour guide.
“Look at him. You can tell he comes from the mountains,” he added dismissively of an old man wearing a long, dirt-encrusted gown with a small dagger dangling from his belt as he made an offering of milk and barley at a temple.
Down the road in a Tongren village, a group of young Tibetans, dressed in jeans and western-style jackets, laughed when asked why they were not in traditional clothing.
“We don’t wear that,” one said in Mandarin, before turning back to his friends to chat in their Amdo dialect of Tibetan.
If traditional food and clothing are losing out, other aspects of Tibetan culture such as literature and music are enjoying a renaissance, flourishing despite, or perhaps because of, a government clampdown after violent riots in Lhasa last March.
Surprisingly this seems to have been driven by the new generation of elite who have picked up fluent Mandarin studying in the region’s sinicized cities, or at boarding schools in the Chinese heartland.
“Tibetans are becoming much more assertive and confident than they have been in the past,” said Tsering Shakya, a Tibet expert and research chair at the University of British Columbia.
“There is a growing number of young Tibetans who speak fluent Chinese, are well-educated and don’t see themselves as a backward minority and they want the same treatment as the rest of China.”
Tibetan literature is flourishing, along with a Tibetan language blogging community. Tibetan women are asking feminist questions about traditional society and there are Tibetan rock-bands in Lhasa.
For some activists it is directly linked to the rising pressure from China to conform to the version of Tibetan identity laid down by Beijing after the Lhasa riots sparked a wave of protest across ethnic Tibetan areas that lasted months.
“We have witnessed a strengthening of Tibetan cultural identity over the last year ... real pride in their Tibetan identity infuses these blogs and writings,” said Kate Saunders, of the International Campaign for Tibet.
But for some Tibetans there are also lessons to be learned from China about building a modern society, whether it is inside the borders of the People’s Republic of China or not.
Not all are happy with China’s rule, but few want to return to the Tibet of their grandparents either.
A trip to booming southern China only reaffirmed monk Tendun’s belief that today’s Tibetans cannot rely any more merely on their religious faith and pride in their past.
“I’d never seen such tall buildings. I had no idea of anything beyond the village before,” he said. “I had no idea what the rest of China looked like, and how fast it was developing.”
Additional reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison and Lucy Hornby; Editing by Megan Goldin