Tibetan culture at a crossroads as young grapple with development

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 March, 2008, 12:00am

Tsewang, an ethnic Tibetan, is so assimilated into Chinese culture that she cannot even write her name in her native language. She speaks Tibetan with her father, but likes to watch Chinese-language television programmes.

'I can't write Tibetan,' the 22-year-old shop assistant said, as she wrote the Chinese characters for her name. Her shop sells amulets for religious worship but none carry the photo of Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, whose image is banned.

Coming to work in Chengdu's small Tibetan quarter allowed her to escape a life herding yak at her family's home in the north of Sichuan province , even though that meant living among Han Chinese.

'Of course I like Chinese people. I am Chinese,' she said.

To the government, Tsewang represents a success, a young person who has adopted Chinese culture and found opportunity in the economic boom. But those same policies, which repress Tibetan culture and religion, have contributed to the anger that has sparked riots against Chinese rule since last week.

Beijing hopes that development in lagging western areas will not only raise living standards for Tibetans but make them more willing to accept Chinese rule.

Yi, a waitress working at a cafe that serves traditional Tibetan food, left Garze in western Sichuan to find a job. Her parents allowed only her brother to continue his schooling - a traditional practice that traps many rural women in poverty.

She regrets her lack of education but said she had no choice. 'My handwriting is bad. I only finished middle school.'

Beijing has blamed the protests in Lhasa and other areas with large Tibetan populations on the Dalai Lama. On Wednesday, it called him a 'wolf in monk's robes'.

Despite the criticism in the official media, the Dalai Lama remains a living god to Jigme, a Tibetan Buddhist monk who is also from Garze. 'Do you like the Dalai Lama?' he asked.

Jigme heard of the disturbances in Lhasa through his mobile phone and by word of mouth. He understands only simple sentences in spoken Chinese and cannot decipher newspaper stories carried by state media.

He is as hungry for more information as he is for the bowl of noodles topped with yak meat that he wolfs down at a small restaurant.

'How many were killed? Were they Chinese?' he asked.

Beijing says 13 civilians were killed by mobs in Lhasa, but Tibetan rights groups say the death toll is at least 80. Young men like Jigme were among the main participants in the Lhasa protests, which degenerated into looting, burning and attacks on Chinese. However, one witness suggested a much broader part of the population was involved.

'As the crowds grew, women were dragging their children to get into the crowd,' said Susan Wetmore, a Canadian tourist who was staying in Lhasa's old city when the protests started. 'The women were just ripping up stones from the pavement. I would suggest there was quite a range of ages.'

Chengdu is an overwhelmingly Chinese city, but Sichuan's proximity to Tibet has caused mass hysteria - including rumours of Tibetans blowing up a bus and murdering Chinese - all denied by police.

Some residents say Beijing should have taken a harder line in its policies towards Tibetans, which they believe would have prevented protests.

'The government has been too relaxed on culture and religion,' said a journalist working for state media.

At prestigious Sichuan University, the administration has ordered Tibetan students to abide by an evening curfew following the protests. A university education offers chances for a better career and few are willing to risk that by defying the authorities.

Students at Chengdu's Southwest Nationalities University know the reward for working within the system: the chance to transfer to a school in Beijing. But they also see betrayal in students who join the Communist Party and act as class monitors.

'He's not ... real Tibetan,' one student said, referring to a classmate who is 'too Chinese'.

Disruptions have spread to other areas in China. Students at the Central Nationalities University in Beijing held a non-violent protest on Tuesday, while others at the Northwest Nationalities University in Lanzhou announced plans to hold a hunger strike to demand the release of arrested Tibetans.