Learning the history, identity, and education of Tibetans-in-exile through Tibetan Terms
By CEID Blogger, on 4 October 2023
By Esme Anderson
‘Free Tibet’ has been a prevalent refrain internationally for decades. But what does it mean? What has been done to help preserve Tibet since that first image of a burning monk? Given that the movement is centred among exiles in Dharamshala in northern India, it gives rise to questions about who ‘true’ Tibetans are, how education constructs the ideal Tibetan, and how education can exclude those who don’t fit that description.
As I myself am a language educator, this blog attempts to answer these questions through the teaching of key Tibetan words.
Meaning: Roughly translates to “self-power” or independence
Images of burning monks have long become associated with the international image of Tibet. But is the battlecry of “Rangzen” as well known? “Rangzen” translates as ‘self-power’ or ‘independence’ – a call for self-determination that has emerged under China’s rule.
Prior to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) taking power in 1949, Tibet was an independent state. It was feudal and traditionally Buddhist, with the Dalai Lama as the state leader. But tensions with the CCP were evident as early as 1935, when Mao Zedong, the CCP leader, and his followers set off on their ‘Long March’ to rally support in rural regions. They ate the sacred and intricate butter buddhas that sat in Tibetan temples, angering and upsetting Tibetans. When the CCP took control of Tibet in 1949, the Dalai Lama was under threat given Mao’s beliefs that religion “poisons” countries and slows development. A recreation of this conversation, informed by the Dalai Lama, can be found here.
Following a crackdown on religious freedoms, protests erupted in 1959 and CCP troops were sent in. The Dalai Lama managed to flee to Dharamshala, which translates as “sacred dwelling place”. From here, the exile government has sought to preserve and keep sacred cultural heritage alive as less and less of the traditional Tibet remains.
A pivotal way in which this is done is through education. Unlike in other places that house asylum seekers or refugees, the Dalai Lama and Indian Governor of Dharamshala came to an agreement for a specialized educational policy for Tibetans. Children learn modern subjects alongside Buddhist teachings such as Yungdrung and Buddhadharma and principles such as freedom, altruism, and upholding heritage. Uniquely and importantly, they learn Standardized Tibetan (spoken in Lhasa, the Capital) in addition to Hindi and English. By stark contrast, back in Tibet itself, the final school teaching Tibetan changed its medium of instruction to Chinese in 2020.
Although the likelihood of achieving “rangzen” back in Tibet is becoming smaller and smaller, its cries are still echoed in Dharamshala as Tibetans-in-exile fight for their culture to preserve and survive.
Meaning: Buddhist; Buddhist “insider”
Nangpa on its own simply means ‘Buddhist’ and is also the name of a sacred Buddhist pilgrimage site. When discussing ‘Tibetans-in-exile’, calling someone a ‘Nangpa’ means that the speaker believes that they are truly ‘Tibetan’. Interestingly, this does not connote someone’s religious values, practices, or activities. Being Nangpa means someone who is free of Chinese influence and who speaks Central or Standard Tibetan.
Meaning: Neither goat nor sheep
Pronunciation unavailable (colloquial term)
This Tibetan term is a metaphor for someone being a ‘hybrid’ and therefore not a real ‘nangpa’ and is used for newer arrivals from Tibet who have been exposed to Chinese language, modernity and influence. Such arrivals may be met with scepticism and suspicion, as shown in Yeh’s (2007) study, which followed Tenzin, who was raised in Tibet before migrating to America. His occasional refusal to be in group photos, combined with his time under perceived Chinese influence, led him to be viewed as a possible spy and dubbed a “ramalug”. An older Tibetan-in-exile felt that Tenzin could benefit from spending more time in ‘real’ Tibet. This perspective creates contradictions and complications for recent Tibetan migrants who have increasingly fled due to structural inequalities that place them at the bottom of society in Tibet.
The discriminatory treatment of recent arrivals into Dharamshala is reflected in educational policies. The Basic Educational Policy for Tibetans was last updated in 2006, and in 2017 Tibetan researcher Nawang Phuntsog reported that textbooks had not been updated for over a decade. If Tibet itself had free and open communication, this might be less of an issue because there would be other sources for updating recent history and events in Tibet. However, it is increasingly difficult to leave Tibet, with one blogger noting “Getting a passport is harder for a Tibetan than getting into heaven”. Parents send their children to the Tibetan Children’s Village in Dharamshala without knowing when they will next see them. Strict censorship also means that there aren’t the real-time digital communication chains that can be found in other diasporas and migrant communities. The educational policy calls for empowering students to “uphold their ancestral cultural heritage”. But lived experiences and understandings of modern Tibet, or Tibet under Chinese rule, have been excluded from the curriculum, and therefore its students may be too.
A Hindi term which translates into ‘raw’, ‘Kacha’ is used by ‘Nangpa’ to refer to Tibetan migrants from outside of Central Tibet. There are up to 52 dialects that still exist in Tibet. But these languages are not being preserved or saved overseas and are becoming gradually extinct in Tibet.
Since the education policy calls for teaching ‘mother tongue’ Tibetan, i.e. Lhasa Tibetan, there is little acknowledgement of other regional dialects. The Basic Educational Policy was intended to overhaul the curriculum away from monastic education and resolve previous inequities in monastic education in Tibet. However, it excludes other dialects and therefore their speakers from being recognised as true Tibetans.
“Ma ‘ongs pa” མ་འོངས་པ
Future is an imperative idea for Buddhists and Tibetans-in-exile. The idea of dwelling on the past, no matter how painful, is not often promoted. Living in Dharamshala, preserving Tibetan language and heritage through education are all future-facing ideas in the hopes of ‘rangzen’, or at the very least, cultural survival.
But there are other opportunities for movements towards an educationally just ‘ma ‘ongs pa’ as this short language lesson has hopefully demonstrated. Here are some suggestions as to how this could be done:
- Although adding other languages could overload students, an appreciation for different dialects should at least be acknowledged. There could be pathways by which new Tibetans-in-exile learn or teach in their native dialects in addition to learning Standard Tibetan, which would help preserve at risk histories, languages, and heritages.
- Undoubtedly, promoting Chinese in Dharamshala schools could recreate harmful power structures and is antithetical to a government in exile constructed against the CCP. However, updating the curriculum to include recent events from Tibet could help legitimize recent migrants’ experience, trauma, and conceptions of home.
- Ria Kapoor’s podcast on ‘Creating Refugee Archives’ could also prove a valuable learning and teaching tool for the government in exile and for schools.
Through such measures, the voices of recent migrants could be amplified to make them feel heard, respected, and valued. Importantly tolerance, a key value to the Dalai Lama, can be promoted through education.