Tibetan Language protected by law but neglected in practice

May 15, 2014 By Tenzin Pema*

China has instituted another regulation to safeguard the heritage and development of the Tibetan language. The new regulation is in its draft form. It is being discussed by the authorities of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). We learn that this draft regulation will become law in September. But the question is, why is a new regulation on the Tibetan language necessary when the TAR has already passed regulations which fully protect the Tibetan language.

The reason is that despite all the provisions stipulated in the constitution, laws, and regulations of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), these favorable provisions are not implemented. Laws to protect and promote the Tibetan language exist, but the problem is the authorities’ dismal failure to implement these laws. The authorities’ failure to implement these laws make the Tibetans anxious about their identity and culture.

This overwhelming concern about their identity and culture leads Tibetans to voice their anxiety through verbal requests, written petitions, peaceful protests and songs. But their voices are often suppressed before reaching higher authorities. Therefore, in order to protect the integrity and harmony of the country, the best and wisest solution for the authorities is to treat all the nationalities equally, not only on paper but also in practice. The study, use and development of the Chinese language is protected by law and promoted in practice. The same approach ought to be adopted for all the minority languages. For minority languages to be protected and promoted, it is essential for the authorities to ensure the proper implementation of the provisions cited in the following laws.

Article 4 of the PRC constitution (1982) says that all the nationalities in the PRC are equal. The Article stipulates, “The people of all nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages, and to preserve or reform their own ways and customs”.

Likewise, Articles 10,21,37,47 of the Law of the PRC on Regional National Autonomy (1984 & 2001) are all in favour of the development and promotion of minority languages. For instance, Article 10 says, “The organs of self-government of national autonomous areas shall guarantee the freedom of the nationalities in these areas to use and develop their own spoken and written languages…”

Article 12 of the Education Law of the PRC (1995) says, “The Chinese language, both oral and written, shall be the basic oral and written language for education in schools and other educational institutions. Schools or other educational institutions which mainly consist of students from minority nationalities may use in education the language of the respective nationality or the native language commonly adopted in that region…”

It is obvious that these national and regional laws on language are liberal, broad-minded and conform to international standard. But because of negligence, either intentionally or unintentionally, these laws on the protection, preservation and promotion of the Tibetan language are not implemented by the concerned officials.

Article 8 of the Law of the PRC on the Standard Spoken and Written Chinese Language (2001) regarding minority languages states, “All the nationalities shall have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages. The spoken and written languages of the ethnic peoples shall be used in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Constitution, the Law on Regional National Autonomy and other laws.”

At the same time, this 2001 law subtly encourages the use and development of Chinese language at the expense of use and development of minority languages. For example, Article 7 of the law concurrently discourages the development of the minority languages as it states that, “The State rewards the organizations and individuals that have made outstanding contribution in the field of the standard spoken and written Chinese language.”

This 2001 law was responsible for Chinese law-makers in 2006 to annul Article 6 of the 1986 Compulsory Education law which provided the freedom to study and use minority languages in schools. The question is, why was this particular article annulled after 20 years? The article which was annulled said that, “Schools shall promote the use of Putonghua (Chinese), which is in common use throughout the nation. Schools in which the majority of students are of minority nationalities may use the spoken and written languages of those nationalities in instruction.”

Such new language laws and their effective practice by officials are forcing Tibetans to use Chinese language for their survival and livelihood, regardless of the fact that the use and development of the Tibetan language is enshrined in the laws as their fundamental right.

Hence, it can be said that to study and use Chinese language is a necessity for the livelihood of Tibetans, though the study, use and development of Tibetan language is their fundamental right. As Tashi Rabden, a student of Tibetan department at the Qinghai Univeristy for Nationalities, Xining was quoted in Adrian Zenz’s Tibetanness under threat, “Chinese language is like our mouth and tongue. If you don’t have them you cannot speak and cannot eat, and might go hungry…If you don’t study English, you cannot know (see) the world…If you don’t know Tibetan culture it’s like you have no head. If you have no head, you have no mouth, tongue, eyes, so you cannot eat, speak, see the world ̶ you have nothing.” Therefore, there is no doubt that the Tibetan people will study and use Chinese language, as it directly relates to their livelihood. The Tibetan people’s concerns about their language and identity are sidelined by their daily need to survive in a society dominated by the Chinese language.

Despite their daily need to earn their livelihood by using the Chinese language, there are still Tibetans who protest restrictions on teaching and learning Tibetan. No less than seven Tibetans have self-immolated to protest official restrictions on Tibetan language. One of them was Tsering Kyi, 20 years old, who became heartbroken when her school changed its medium of instruction from Tibetan to Chinese.

For China to minimize these Tibetan language protests which have the potential of growing bigger, the rational solution for authorities in Tibet is to lift the restrictions on the study, use and development of Tibetan language.


Tenzin Pema is a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.

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