Chinas Language Policy In Tibetan Education Reform Education Essay

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Language policy in Tibetan areas has undergone a series of changes along with local education reform. The recent one which outlines a plan to use Mandarin as the primary medium of instruction in Qinghai Province, a Tibetan populated area second to Tibetan autonomous district, has aroused controversy among the ethnic members. Demonstration protests the reform "weakening Tibetans' mother tongue" or "eroding their culture", while the local government claims the purpose for "shrinking the economical gap with other majority areas" and for "regional development". Given Tibet's sensitive position in China's politics, language issue is an important aspect that the government attempts to deal with as well as the ethnic groups strongly react to, since language policy, in a national course, can serve the ideological purpose of unifying a country or quietening social unrest as a political means (Holmes, 1999. Spolsky, 2004). Although it is too early to predict the success of the new policy, a problem here to ask is: Facing with regional backwardness, why the Tibetan seems unwaveringly to defend their ethnic identity despite no clue indicated to decrease the status of Tibetan as regional official language or to restrict the daily use of their mother language? Why does a policy offering various economical and educational supports cannot be persuasive initially to the needy ethnic people in a poor region?

Previous study in China's language policy on ethnic minority education mainly focus on the process of policy making and implementation (Feng &Sunuodula, 2009), gap between theory and practice of language rights (Zhou, 2004), or description of the language policy in a historical context (Feng, 2007). These articles either devoted to the chronological changes of language education policy for ethnic minorities or elaborated on the interaction of policy making, implementation and revising. Their descriptive approach attaches importance on the account of comparison between different documents and the derivation of policy practice, while seldom did they look at the linguistic features of the document itself which reflects the policy maker's intention on behalf of the government. This article focuses on the analysis of government material as a discourse by using some concept and theory in Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) in order to look at what and how the government are trying to convey. On the other hand, two social factors associated with regional development which directly link to the interest of ethnic people, namely, tertiary education access and employment situation, are examined in terms of Pierre Bourdieu's "capital" and "market", explaining how the addressees interpret the political discourse in a broader social dimension.

The government's message

Before analysing the collected official materials, some concepts and theory applied will be introduced first. The early pioneers and important linguists of Critical discourse analysis (CDA) such as Norman Fairclough and Teun van Dijk established the theoretical frameworks dealing with relationship between power, ideology and discourses in different field. Fairclough (1989) provided a framework for examining the features of a text, in which he distinguished three values (experiential, relational and expressive) attached to those features, on vocabulary, syntax or textual level. According to Fiarclough, the experiential value is to do with the text producer's knowledge and beliefs; the relational value is associated with social relations; and the expressive value reflects social identities. Similarly, Van Dijk (1997) also looks into the strategies and rhetoric features that the politician adopted in addressing minority and racism issues.

Working within their theoretical framework, the following space will be looking at the linguistic features in a recent official document and a press conference talk on the issue. The document is named Qinghai Medium-and-long Term Programme for Education Reform and Development Planning. The press conference talk by the head of Qinghai Provincial Department of Education gives a more detailed explanation on the new policy. To lessen the impact on the analysis to a minimum level, the translation of the document and conference talk follows a principle to keep the form of words and sentences loyal to the original version.

Have a full understanding of The National Medium-and-long Term Programme for Education Reform and Development Planning and give priority to education development. Education is the footstone for national rejuvenation and social progress, the essential path to the development of a whole person, and where the expectation for a good living by people of all ethnic groups lies. Therefore, to enhance the education is imperative to develop our province. Giving priority to education development and improving the modernization level of education is decisively significant for the prosperity and harmony of Qinghai Province… Currently, the primary conflicts facing our education reform are: the poor education quality cannot meet the need of a economy-based society for human resources of diverse competence; comparative lack of resources cannot meet the people's expectation on quality education…( Qinghai programme, 2010)

Serving as a subtitle, the first sentence states explicitly that the making of the new reform is based on the recognition of the national policy. The citation of the top authority as source not only legitimates the current action, but also puts the local government in a safe position from criticism. Metaphors in the next sentence as a rhetoric strategy is adopted to emphasize the importance of education, such as education as "footstone" and "path", the effect of which is further strengthened by the parallel form of the whole clause. Meanwhile, the passage is filled with the use of economy related vocabulary such as "good living", "prosperity", "resources" and "economy-based society", the experiential value of which reflect the policy maker's understanding of the poverty and living quality of the region. Together with the inclusive pronoun "our" and the politics-loaded and abstract noun "harmony", these words convey a message that what is planned is for the local people's own benefit and the relational value attached reflects the government's expectation to maintain the social stability. With the necessity to reform clearly pointed out, the document proceeds to list the current problems to address and foreshadows the specific policy in different aspect in the coming text.

Education of ethnic minorities Carry out the ethnic policy and relevant laws and regulations; enhance the education of ethnic minorities by solving the particular difficulties and prominent problems encountered…make great effort to promote "bilingual education" reform and development. Firmly stick to the teaching and learning of national common language while keep learning the ethnic language. Use the national common language as the medium of instruction so that the ethnic students are generally proficient in grasping and using the national common language as well as their own ethnic language…Encourage the merging of ethnic and Han schools for the rearrangement and share of education resources…The aim by 2015 is to use national common language as the primary medium of instruction while the ethnic language as supplementary medium in primary schools, and to speed the education in national common language while adding the teaching of ethnic language in secondary schools…(Qinghai Programme, 2010)

While the subtitle suggests an all-round education policy for ethnic minorities, the content is largely on language policy in education. A salient feature in this text is the frequent use of imperative sentences with an air of authority and firmness embedded. In addition, within these verb beginning clauses, vocabularies applied to the description of the policy on two languages differ in schema. For national common language (Mandarin) education, vocabularies such as "firmly stick to", "generally proficient", "primary" and "speed" reflect the favour for promotion, while in terms of ethnic language teaching, words like "keep", "supplementary", and "add" shows a maintaining policy. According to Zhou (2004), the policy on minority language has shifted from an overt promotion to a covert degree through a historical course. Although "bilingual education" does not necessarily mean putting equal weight on both languages, the later explanation that the new reform is a "double strengthening of both languages" provided by the head of Qinghai Provincial Department of Education is inconsistent with the evident preference for Mandarin in this document.

Strengthening the education of national common language is to the fundamental interest of people from all ethnic groups and also out of the consideration for the next generation of ethnic minority…It helps the minority students to get into the modern life, be competitive in order to adapt themselves into the economy-based society and enjoy a better education with qualitative resources… The reform firstly accords with international practice. There are many countries in the world which adopt their national language as the medium of instruction while the ethnic language as supplementary language of instruction. Secondly, it is compatible with the national constitution, the law of regional national autonomy and other relevant regulations. Thirdly, it is for the benefit of the next generation of ethnic minority to be prosperous and wealthy. The standard Putonghua and Chinese character is our national common language and the main tool for communication among different ethnic peoples, which has irreplaceable function… It is a widely recognized fact that one cannot be open to the whole nation without studying Mandarin just as one cannot be open to the world without studying English. On the other hand, ethnic language is the culture carrier and communicational tool among minority members, the policy of which should also conform to the relevant laws. Therefore, "bilingual education" reform is not using one language to weaken another, but a "double strengthening of both languages". (Conference talk, 2010.10)

Opponent reaction from the ethnic minorities after the issue of the new reform grabs the attention of the authorities. Therefore, Wang, the head of the provincial department of education made a detail account and explanation of the document. His tactics, including the citation of international practice, presenting the compatibility to laws and placing the interest of people in the upfront, fall into what Van Djik (1997) summarized as "justification" or "force of facts" strategy. However, it is noticed that the mention of ethnic language policy is vague in reference to the law compared with the specific mention of regulations such as Constitution with the explanation of Mandarin education. This disproportional weight in explanation also echoes the favour to the promotion of Mandarin in the document. Nevertheless, Wang concluded the reform as a "double strengthening reform", which is inconsistent with the description of the policy itself.

The government's intention, from the above analysis, is to promote Mandarin beyond the mere level of learning it to using it as a medium of education in place of the ethnic language gradually, while the message for the public is strategically modified in order to be accepted. The tone of authority is firm not only in terms of the linguistic features appearing in the text, but also the specific time set to fulfil the goal. Meanwhile, considering Tibetans' emotion and defence of their ethnic identity, the central and local government have to stress the maintaining policy in ethnic language while most importantly to emphasize that the reform is "to your own good". Moreover, other documents (for space limit not included here) indicate the central and local government's detail support such as investment in developing bilingual textbooks, bilingual resources and training for bilingual teachers, which is likely to give incentives to the ethnic people in accepting the reform. In a long run, it seems that Mandarin may help to promote them into better universities in other majority areas and equip them with the necessary skills to be more competent in the employment market. Then, how come the ethnic people still interpret the reform as "eroding their culture" and accused it of "destroying their identity" while Tibetan remains its status in other areas such as government affairs and daily life?

Tibetan's Interpretation

It is undoubted that the use of language indexes one's identity. However, another important function of language manifests in its cultural and social value in terms of being treated as linguistic capital. Bourdier (1986) proposed that capitals exist not only in terms of economical form, but also in disguise of cultural, social and other capitals. Cultural capital is related to certain capabilities of using skills or possession of certain knowledge. Its existence can be in three forms, namely, in a person's disposition (habitus), in the cultural products and in institutional qualification (education). He also came up with the concept of "field" or "market", which can be understood as a place where a structure is formed because of the distribution of these capitals. Different markets, according to Bourdier (1977), may impose its own requirement or choice on the type of capital it prefers.

The Tibetan dominated province Qinghai has long been a comparatively backward area, education and economy wise mainly. The Tibetan students taking college entrance examinations are free to use Tibetan though the exam papers are in both languages at the same time. Meanwhile, the additional and also compulsory prerequisite to take the Level-3 Mandarin test for minorities (MHK), in some degree, is offset by the preferential policy, which set a much lower entrance standard for the minority students. Consequently, the guarantee of college enrolment rate is at the cost of the education quality, which is to the alarm of the central and local government. The market of the current education system legitimizes their use of Tibetan and the possession of this linguistic capital grants them the profit that the majority students are not entitled to share, such as the additional points as ethnic students in the examinations. In other words, to the ethnic minorities, the freedom to use their mother tongue in the education system is not only a matter of language right, but also brings them practical advantages. The current reform, to the Tibetan, is no more than a sign which predicts a near future when they will be levelled with the majority students in the same competition and Tibetan language are gradually losing its value in this market.

On the other hand, Tibetan graduates have been facing with tough challenges in job market. In Han dominated areas, standard Mandarin is a prerequisite almost for every candidate competing for a job. In theory, the job market seems to legitimate standard Mandarin as a cultural capital and the Tibetan graduates are supposed to be motivated by the legitimacy to improve their Mandarin through the reform. Then why the contrary result again? Undoubtedly, the threat to the ethnic identity is a ready answer at hand since the emotional factor in a given environment counts more than economical interest. Although Tibetan remain its official language status equally with Mandarin in government affairs, the shift from the ethnic language to the national language in education policy may reshape their identity since "It is through education that language and national identity are created, performed and above all reproduced."(Joseph, 2006:49) Another possible explanation is that in a comparatively short time, the minorities are not likely to improve their Mandarin to a competitive level as the majorities due to the current education status. As a result, their social mobility is still limited and their primary considerations are mainly towards serving their own communities. As the western areas of China remain the hub for the ethnic minorities, most of the graduates choose to go back and work in the local region. However, the favour of the national common language as reflected in the policy may extend the Mandarin-legitimated market into the ethnic minority areas and the profit from possessing Tibetan language as a cultural capital is further shrunk especially in the education industry.


A political discourse, as shown in the given case, has the authorities' intention expressed in a modified way in order to be more persuasive to its addressees, as Bourdieu (1992) pointed out that politics is also a field in which professional competence in writing and speaking political discourse is legitimized. In this particular case, the discrepancy or mismatch between the government's expectation and the ethnic minorities' ignorance of explicit economic support lies in the different capitals the two parties are concerned. Before a policy is drawn, the policy-makers made a thorough investigation and took the social and cultural factors into consideration, which was embedded in the text. The ethnic minorities' economical status, the regional development and the educational qualities are all on the agenda for improvement and most importantly constitute as the downright reasons for the language education reform. Promotion of Mandarin, according to the government, is supposed to be legitimized by the employment market and this cultural capital will be converted to economical capital in the future. However, in addition to the defence of their ethnic identity, Tibetans are concerning about the inequality brought by the risk of losing the value of the ethnic language as a cultural capital with the "intrusion" of Mandarin. Given the different concerns of the government and the ethnic minorities, where the language policy of education reform should be put between economical development and culture and identity maintenance is a question to think about.