Newspeak & New Tibet, Part - IV
- - June 28, 2005 22:18
The Myth of China's Modernization of Tibet and the Tibetan Language, Part Four

By Jamyang Norbu

The history of the Tibetan language under Communist Chinese control falls into three fairly distinct periods:


Soon after the Chinese occupation army entered Lhasa , the “reform” of the Tibetan language become a priority program of the new administration. Tsering Shakya, in an article in Lungta , maintains that its efforts were focussed primarily on the creation of “…a new lexicon and terminology ( tha snyad). A new lexicon was required to translate the Communist propaganda and Marxist ideology that underpinned the Communist revolution in China .” The work seemed to have proceeded at a fair clip. In 1952 the first dictionary of new terminology was compiled for the purpose of translating official documents. In 1956 four volumes entitled tha snyad gsar bsgrigs (A Compilation of New Terminology) were published by the Nationalities Publishing House in Beijing .

Most of the new terms created were not direct translations or derivations from the English, German, or Russian originals, but rather from Chinese translations and borrowings of those terms. The translation process could get quite convoluted with words of European origin that had earlier been borrowed by the Japanese, then translated into Chinese from the Japanese (and there are many hundreds of them as Lydia Liu, professor of Chinese language and Literature at Stanford has listed) finally being translated into Tibetan. A term like Suweiai (Soviet) used to refer to rural Chinese communes is obviously a straight borrowing from the Russian. But such Chinese words as Gongh e (Republic) as a part of the name of the People's Republic of China , Gongchan (Communist) in Chinese Communist Party and Shehui Zhuyi (Socialism) are borrowed “foreign” words – from Japanese translations of European words.

Even ordinary words in the new Communist-fashioned Tibetan vocabulary often disregarded earlier Tibetan adoption of new words and instead laboriously translated them from the Chinese. Hence the new terms for train and motor-car (earlier rili and mota ) were now mekhor and langkhor. These are verbatim translations of the Chinese huoche (fire vehicle) for train, and qiche (steam vehicle) for motor car. Unfortunately the mistake the Chinese made of referring to the motor car as a steam vehicle has been passed on into the Tibetan translation. Propaganda jingles were composed at the time where such new words were used. One that I heard as a child in Kalimpong, in 1958 or thereabouts, was from a cousin of mine who had just come from Lhasa .

Dhokpo nganyi trom la do

Hatsi! Lang-khor mangbu du!

Let us two friends go to the market,

My Goodness! There are so many steam-vehicles (cars) here.

Tsering Shakya tells us that many of the people employed in the task of translating the new words “came from monasteries and the religious community”, and that this strategy was a covert means by the Communist to exploit the traditional educated elite and eventually undermine them. A tendency to use obscure and complex words and syllables derived from Buddhist philosophical terminology (often in quite inappropriate ways) rather than employing simple everyday terms has been a noticeable feature of the new translations.

Quite a few of the Tibetans involved were from outlying areas of Tibet as Batang and Amdo, where Chinese and hence Communist influence and ideas had arrived earlier. One such person was geshe Sherap Gyatso of Amdo, a former Guomindang agent whom the Tibetan government had earlier forbidden from bringing a Chinese delegation into Tibet , and who was bitterly opposed to the Tibetan government. He got his revenge in 1950 when he confronted the Tibetan delegation sent to negotiate the 17 Point agreement at a banquet in China and subjected them to a tirade of abuse.

In his autobiography, Jampel Gyatso, a writer and scholar from the Social Sciences Academy in Beijing , originally from Batang, claims that people from Batang were at the forefront of the modernization of Tibetan language and literature. Though that claim is certainly debatable, in point of fact many of the interpreters ( tungsi ) used by the PLA and the Chinese administration in Tibet were from Batang. Probably the most important Tibetan from Batang involved in the “reform” of the Tibetan language was Phuntsok Wangyal, the highest ranking Tibetan in the Chinese Communist Party and the Director of Propaganda of the 18 th PLA Corp in Tibet . In his recently published biography Tibetan Revolutionary, written by Melvyn Goldstein , we are told that Wangyal “…headed a research committee that translated news and directives into Tibetan”, and was involved in “… inventing new terms in Tibetan.” He was also responsible for bringing out a Communist weekly “newspaper” that was initially stuck up on the walls of the Barkor. Goldstein calls it the “proto-Tibetan ‘newspaper', once again ignoring all the other Tibetan newspapers that had existed before.

Under the bland academic writing Goldstein's biography of Phuntsok Wangyal is essentially a leftist hagiographical tract, albeit of a low-key kind. No serious attempt is made at dissecting Phuntsok Wangyal's character or analysing his motives for betraying his country and people. In fact there is a chummy feel throughout the book with Goldstein constantly referring to Phuntsok Wangyal as “Phunwang”, the pet name used by his family and friends. The reader is presented with a great revolutionary, nationalist, poet, scientist, friend of the Dalai Lama (who deems him a “sincere and dedicated Marxist”) and ultimately a martyr figure who, through the machinations of false Marxists, suffers eighteen years of terrible imprisonment -- essentially for the redemption of the Tibetan people. This is not a book of great subtlety. At the conclusion of a fairly generous review in the New York Review of Books , Jonathan Mirsky points out that Goldstein and his co-writers, … “fail to see the irony in Phunwang's faithful Leninist support for Chinese authority over Tibet, just when Marxism and Leninism have become increasingly obsolescent in China…” and “… what neither Phunwang nor the authors are willing to say in so many words is that Chinese chauvinism backed by violence, dominates Tibet.”

An examination of Phuntsok Wangyal's life and mindset is rewarding in understanding how in the name of “progress” and “reform” someone could bring himself to so casually inflict such tremendous damage, not just on a language but on an entire culture and society as well. Wangyal is the kind of model cadre, who having studied and embraced Communist ideology feels absolutely confident to pronounce (and act) on matters he has little knowledge about.

A bizarre but revealing example of this characteristic is provided by Phuntsok Wangyal's magnum opus, New Investigations into Celestial Bodies -- Liquid Water Does Exist on the Moon . (Foreign Language Press Beijing, 2002, available in the USA , free of charge, at the International Campaign for Tibet ). Wangyal wrote it after his release from prison, and it is fairly substantial at about 500 pages of closely-spaced small print. He claims it is a scientific treatise on cosmology, and though there are references to Copernicus, NASA, and some contemporary Western scientists, the intellectual “big guns” brought into play to “prove” that the moon holds deposits of liquid water are Hegel, Marx and Engels – or more properly their “dialectical methods”. The emphasis on “liquid” in the title is interestingly emblematic. It might be easier to prove that there are deposits of frozen water on the moon, but such reservations or compromises are unnecessary. Dialectics of this kind has the power to prove anything you want it to.

In conversations and interviews Phuntsok Wangyal consistently maintains that Marxist dialectics is the “mother of all sciences” and “the ultimate science of all sciences”. No matter how bizarre such thinking may seem to us now, it is in the grand tradition of Marxist scientific absolutism employed by Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, a semi-literate peasant from Azerbaijan and Stalin's master agricultural expert. Lysenko was the author of “The Great Stalin Plain for the Transformation of Nature”, which in effect produced Russia 's “Great Famine”. In China Mao's “Red specialists” and “barefoot scientists” led by China's own chief Lysenkoist, Luo Tianyu, ordered peasants to plough deep (sometimes down to ten feet), to plants seed closely like “the scales of a dragon”, besides many other lunacies, causing history's greatest famine and the death of 30 to 60 million people.

Phuntsok Wangyal's cosmological treatise is filled with strange, undecipherable charts and tables, like illustrations in a mediaeval alchemical tract, which seems to be more revealing of certain psychological truths about the author than scientific information about his theories. And one could perhaps make the case that there is need for some sort of psychiatric analysis and exposure of this man. Even after the official persecution and suicide of his wife, his own torture and imprisonment for eighteen years, Phuntsok Wangyal's devotion to Marx, Mao and Chou Enlai remains unshakable. This is how he affirms his faith. “No matter what happened, I had clung stubbornly to the belief that someday that details of my case would reach people at the highest levels. I knew Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai personally, and I believed that Wang Feng and others had lied to them about what I had done and what was happening to me. I hoped against hope that one day Mao and Zhou would realize that I was innocent and order my release.”

I must admit that I was only able to come to some sort of understanding of Wangyal's extraordinary dedication to Mao and Maoism, by recalling an earlier reading of a comparable account in political fiction. Arthur Koestler's masterpiece, Darkness at Noon, is based almost directly on Stalin's show trials of the 1930s, and describes the imprisonment, trial and execution of the old Bolshevik, V.S. Rubashov. The striking thing about the two reminiscences, despite the fact that one is fictional the other real life, is how Rubashov and Wangyal's loyalty to the party and leadership remain unshaken in spite of the fact that both are old partymen who have been cruelly betrayed by their leader, party and faith. In Rubashov's case he even ultimately confesses to crimes which he is well aware he has not committed. Wangyal does not confess but performs a more convenient sort of self-deception by blaming his incarceration on petty functionaries and not the Great Helmsman himself, whom “he idolized”, as the Dalai Lama mentions, approvingly, in Freedom in Exile . George Orwell, reviewing Koestler's novel, writes that he was convinced that Rubashov and those like him “had been rotted by the revolution which they served” and had become morally and mentally bankrupt by the “habit of loyalty to the party”.

Koestler also implies in his novel that Rubashov in power would be no better than those persecuting him now -- and I think one could safely extend the observation to Wangyal. Milan Kundera, writing of his childhood, observed “When I was a boy I used to idealize the people who returned from political imprisonment. Then I discovered that most of the victims were former oppressors. The dialectics of the executioners and his victim are very complicated.” Wangyal's fanatical self-righteousness remains intact after eighteen years of torture and solitary confinement. It is untouched by any regret, or clouded by the least of doubts that by guiding a hostile foreign invasion force into his own country he bears considerable responsibility for the genocidal devastation of Tibet and its culture, and the ongoing oppression and exploitation of his people.

Getting back to the issue of language “reforms”, it might be noted that from the conservative Lhasa-centric point of view, Phuntsok Wangyal, Jampel Gyatso, Sherap Gyatso, and others were essentially provincial intellectuals, with big chips (social, economic, linguistic) on their shoulders against the ruling Lhasa elite. And in spite of the lofty claims of “reform and progress” by these Tibetan Communists, there clearly was a substantial element of payback in their agendas. The only incongruity being that since Batang and especially Amdo had for long been under Chinese administration, whatever injustice or suffering our revolutionaries and their kith and kin might have experienced earlier in their lives were almost certainly inflicted on them by Chinese regimes and not by the Lhasa government.

One might also sense in Wangyal's academic posturing, a faint echo of the lifelong resentment that Mao, the country scholar, had of established Chinese writers and intellectuals of Beijing and Shanghai. It is a passing reflection, but the mantle of the provincial academic, the sophomore poet, or the failed intellectual, is one that Maoists, especially Maoist leaders, seem to assume uncomfortably well, from Pol Pot in Cambodia and Abemal Guzman in Peru, to Comrade Prachandra in Nepal.

Some Central Tibetans, even a few aristocrats such as Changlochen, were inducted into the language reform committee under Wangyal, but they seemed unable (or more probably it was not required of them) to provide the essential Tibetan quality, the cosmopolitan sparkle, as it were, to the new revolutionary language.

As could be expected, there was considerable resistance to the language “reforms” from a broad spectrum of Tibetan society, though it was confused and ineffective. An unexpected and forceful opposition came from the Panchen Lama, whom many Tibetans then considered to be a Communist puppet. In his “70,000 character report” of 1962, for which he was “struggled”, tortured and incarcerated for 20 years, the Panchen Lama does not hesitate to denounce the arrogance of unqualified Communist cadres in perverting and destroying an ancient language. Some excerpts from the report:

“Tibetan is a good language which has the capacity to express meaning and which unifies people. But in recent years, wanting to carry out “cultural revolution” and “unification” of the written language with the oral language”, those people who have a low level of Tibetan, whose pride is the size of a mountain or who are good at flattering and toadying, talked wildly and said, “they are not correct”, or “they are not perfect” about the thirty letters of the Tibetan alphabet and grammar which are the foundations of the Tibetan language, and about the standardization of characters carried out and the common written language composed by themselves to be infallible, these people reformed the language, which led to the loss of its capacity to express common things and things of depth and its communicative and expressive capacities.”

The Panchen Lama also points out the surprisingly arbitrary nature of the “reforms” where local cadres not only in the Tibetan capital but even “…in Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, Yunnan and other places all took their own dialect as the common oral language and wrote it down accordingly. This led to people outside the area in which that particular dialect was spoken not being able to fully understand the meaning. In this manner, the unifying nature of the Tibetan language was lost. The Tibetan language, which has the considerable merits of communicative and expressive capacities, unifying nature and ability to express common things and things of depth, which is a legacy created by over ten thousand scholars during more than one thousand years, has been taken by those foxes who called themselves lions, and toyed with at will and for no reason. This should definitely not have happened.”

The Panchen lama also appeared to have been worried about the dulling or (to use a more ingenious phrase) the “dumbing down” nature of Communist language policies, as these lines seem to indicate “… literate people are becoming illiterate in the area of understanding the meaning of words. This is not only a loss to the Tibetan people, but it is also a loss to the culture of the motherland.”

China's drive to “modernize” the Tibetan language, and the reasons underlying it, cannot be fully understood without an appreciation of Communist “reforms” of the Chinese language itself. After their takeover of power, the Communists in their drive to create a revolutionary new Chinese language, first imposed a drastic simplification of the written language by reducing the number of characters down to a mere three thousand. This from, let us say, the forty-nine thousand of the kangxi cidian (the great dictionary compiled by the order of the emperor Kangxi), though probably only five to eight thousand were probably used in general educated society. Furthermore many of the surviving three thousand characters, especially the more complicated ones, were stripped down and redesigned so that they were easier to memorize and write.

This in effect created two written Chinese languages, the old, complex yet sophisticated one which continued to be used in Taiwan and by overseas Chinese, and the new simplified one for the masses in the People's Republic of China. Of course the Communist party elite, Mao, Zhou, Kang Sheng, Guo Moro et al , got the best of both worlds, retaining their libraries of forbidden classics and occasionally composing verses in the old manner. Dennis Bloodworth of the Observer, reporting on China in the fifties, observed that “the ‘literate' young peasant or worker who has been given a limited education in Communist China in new basic Chinese is largely shut off from the deviationist writings printed in the more complex characters of the past, and is now enjoying the benefits of a closed-circuit Communist culture. The masses are back where they were when they relied on a small, literate elite to tell them what was what.”

Simon Leys in an analysis of this new language and the “revolutionary” new vocabulary, concluded that its essential purpose was “to anesthetize critical intelligence, purge the brain, and inject the cement of official ideology into the emptied skull; once hardened, this will leave not room for the introduction of any new ideas ... In politics, the citizens of the People's Republic are thus equipped with a mechanical and prefabricated jargon that is a substitute for thought, that excludes the possibility of thinking. The extraordinary effects of this robotization is nowhere better measured than in the writings of dissidents who have tried from the inside to oppose the regime. Their efforts were doomed from the start: they had no intellectual tools to mine the ideological fortress but the cardboard pickaxe that had been provided them by Maoist dialectics.”

George Orwell in describing the language of his totalitarian state in Nineteen Eighty Four , best explains the fundamental goals of Communist China's language reforms. “The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotes of Ingsoc (the official ideology), but to make all other modes of thought impossible .” (my italics).


With the advent of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), even the concept of a separate (though politically “reformed”) Tibetan language, came under attack. Under the master slogan of the Cultural Revolution “Destroy the old to establish the new”, the teaching of the Tibetan language itself appears to have been prohibited in many schools throughout Tibet, where these schools were not just shut down altogether. Tsering Shakya tells us that during this decade the very “existence of any separate Tibetan identity was utterly denied, and … all aspects of Tibetan life and custom were attacked. The Party imposed a total uniformity of culture and lifestyle throughout China. In Tibet, the only marker of distinction was the spoken language. Almost all publications in Tibetan language came to an end, except for Party propaganda and translations of articles from Chinese newspapers.”

A most informative and enjoyable book in this regard is Pema Bhum's Six Stars With a Crooked Neck: Tibetan Memoirs of the Cultural Revolution . The author does not give us the usual accounts of ideological struggles and the factional fighting but describes the effect of the campaign on Tibetan language and literature. Another special quality of the book is that Pema Bhum writes about this intensely political period largely from the perspective of his own childhood. He begins with the account of the confusion that predated the arrival of the now famous “Little Red Book”. The official title of the book was Quotations from Chairman Mao (in Chinese Mao Zhuxi Yulu ) and since the Amdo word for baby goat was “ ye-lo ”, word had spread of the coming of “Chairman Mao's Baby Goat”, though nobody was sure what it was, exactly. Finally when his older brother came home with the little red book, and furthermore there was nothing in the book about any goat, Pema (who was fond of baby goats) was understandably disappointed. Things get less funny as the story moves on. Pema tells us that Tibetan scriptures and texts were considered “poisonous weed” and burned, thrown into the river or ground for manure. “In time Tibetan pecha books were nowhere to be seen. People were allowed to behold only one book – a little red book called Quotations from Chairman Mao .”

Pema also describes how books printed in Tibetan by Chinese official publishing house, that had included several Tibetan cultural and literary classics, and even books on Tibetan grammar, were withdrawn and banned as “superstitious” and “old thought”. In 1971 major reforms were made in Tibetan grammar. Pema informs us that the traditional Tibetan punctuation dbu-khyud , marking the start of a passage was banned on all texts, including the shad which signaled the end of a phrase or a sentence. The “revolution” in the Tibetan language also included the erosion of other grammatical rules. I learnt from Professor Elliot Sperling, a leading Tibet scholar in the United States, that the bdag-sgra or “possessive/genitive” case was, for example reduced from the three variations kyi , gi and gyi to just one “ gi ”, with no regard for the final letter of the preceding word. “Imagine a ‘revolution' in English that eliminated the indefinite article ‘an'”, Professor Sperling explained to me “… and you were compelled to just use the article ‘a' in every case -- for example ‘a alley,' ‘a opening,' ‘a invention' -- in order to accommodate some party hack's notion of what the peasantry speak.”

Young Tibetans became increasingly more fluent in Chinese and even began to explain Tibetan words and concepts to each other in Chinese. They even began to swear in Chinese -- “by Mao” being a favourite. Even older Tibetan cadres who spoke Chinese with difficulty, felt compelled to address meetings (even of remote nomadic communities) in halting Chinese. Pema Bhum was required to act as a translator on few such occasions. At the conclusion of his book Pema Bhum tells us “ The Cultural Revolution lasted ten years, ten years during which Tibetan language instruction came to a hiatus in many Tibetan areas. A generation of Tibetan youth was barred from their due chance to study Tibetan language. As their ‘native' tongue began to change from Tibetan to Chinese, the Cultural Revolution came to an end.”


With the end of the Cultural Revolution and the advent of Deng's Liberalization policies, Tibetan language received a last minute remission from a near certain death sentence. Not only did the Communist Party's policies towards literature and language in China become more relaxed, but also even in “minority” areas as Tibet, the changes began to be felt. Tibetans started to write in Tibetan again, and literary journals, beginning with Tibetan Literature and Arts ( bhod kyi tsomrig gyultsal ) from Lhasa, and Cool Rain ( drang char ) from Xining made their welcome appearance in Tibetan society. Other journals followed.

Much has been made of this “liberalisation” in Tibetan letters by pro-Chinese Western scholars, and indeed even by some Tibetans in exile, frustrated at the intellectual sterility of exile society. Furthermore this change has been acclaimed as an indication of the sincerity and liberal direction of China's administration. Professor Perry Link of Princeton argues that Deng Xiaoping and the new regime made a “political calculation” in relaxing the Party's control over literary production. The new leadership cleverly used the “pent-up popular resentment at the Cultural Revolution”, and that “…literature and art were an avenue for channelling the resentment towards support for the new regime” The limits of the liberalization were clearly apparent in the kind of writing that emerged from Tibet. Short stories, novels or memoirs that might mention or describe the suffering of Tibetans under Chinese administration were all careful to limit censure to events of the Cultural Revolution and “The Gang of Four”, and even then qualify such partial criticism with expressions of praise or gratitude towards the Communist Party and the current leadership.

What must also be noted is that in spite of the claims of Han Suyin et al , no modern literature in Tibetan (even of a propagandistic kind) was produced for the first three decades of Communist rule. The Tibetan writer or literary worker invariably trotted out before visiting delegations of admiring Western Maoists or international dignitaries was a certain Rao-jia-ba-sang, (Rabgyal Pasang) who wrote entirely in Chinese. The first Tibetan modern novel Kalsang Metok ( Auspicious Flower ) by Jampel Gyatso, was written in Chinese in the sixties and was essentially a socialist realist morality tale of Cultural Revolution vintage. It was translated (or rewritten as the author claims) and published in Tibetan only in 1982.

The true regeneration of Tibetan language and letters from the eighties, must be credited to the efforts of such remarkable Tibetan scholars as Dhungkar Lobsang Trinlay, Mugi Samten, Tseten Shabdrung, and Horkhang Sonam Pembar who, under unimaginably harrowing and possibly even perilous conditions, somehow managed to hold on to their intellectual integrity, and when opportunity permitted, produced diverse works on Tibetan language, grammar, biography and culture. These in turn inspired the modern Tibetan poets and writers as Dhundup Gyal, Langdun Paljor, Jangbu, Tsering Dhondup, Tashi Palden and others. It should also be acknowledged that such figures as the late Panchen Lama, a few Tibetan officials in the Chinese administration and some local leaders provided, when they could, some support and encouragement. The present essay is not devoted to modern Tibetan literature, of which I have only limited knowledge. The reader will be well-served by reading Tsering Shakya's and Pema Bhum's works on the subject, many in Lungta , and also Tsering Shakya's forthcoming book, The Emergence of Modern Tibetan Literature.

Nevertheless as encouraging as the writings coming out from Tibet are, it should be borne in mind, as mentioned earlier, how restricted is the writer's ability to express his or herself freely. Present day Tibet with its tourists and karaoke bars is essentially a far more controlled society than the former Soviet Union in Brezhnev's time. There is no samizdat writing of any kind. Anyone attempting to produce or disseminate anything of the kind would be quickly exposed and punished.

Tibetans writing in Chinese appear to have somewhat greater leeway to express themselves. There are, of course, many more publishing houses in China than in Tibet, and many of these are private. In addition, the various provinces of China do not appear to apply censorship laws in a uniform way, or as rigorously as is done in Tibet. In 2003, a Tibetan woman writer Wöser had an anthology of her prose writing, Notes on Tibet published in Guangdong province. The book appears to have done very well, but then the censors in Beijing and Lhasa got wind of it and banned the book. The reasons given for the ban were the writer's “serious political mistakes”, “exaggerated” expression of faith in her religion, her reverence for the Dalai Lama and her sympathy for religious leaders disapproved by the party. Wöser has now been removed from her post in the TAR Literature Association and deprived of her income. The housing assigned to her has been confiscated. Her medical and retirement insurance has been suspended, leaving her without any social security. She is not allowed to apply for a passport to leave the country. All this is in addition to the tiresome interrogations, harassment and intimidation that she and her family must routinely endure from security personnel.

Until very recently, scholars, teachers and writers in China were regarded as “workers” and received salaries, housing assignments and benefits from their “work unit” as did artists, musicians, filmmakers and other “cultural workers”. But Tibetans were invariably paid far less than their Chinese counterparts and were on a lower rung of the academic or artistic ladder, even in Tibet itself. Dungkar Lobsang Trinlay, one of the most respected Tibetan scholars held a lowly position at the Beijing Minority Institute. Pema Bhum mentions that at the Northwest Nationalities Institute at Lanchou, the scholar Tseten Shabdrung did not even have a position as a lecturer while Chinese teachers who could not write a personal letter in Tibetan were given the title of professors and lecturers on Tibetan. “Most of the teachers in the Tibetan Language and Literature departments at the Northwest Institute and other nationalities institutes were Chinese” Pema mentions, “Since they had studied Tibetan briefly in the fifties and then become teachers, beyond some basic reading and comprehension skills they had neither the ability to write nor speak Tibetan.” Pema Bhum also recounts a number of funny anecdotes in this regard. “One of these ‘professors', Wang Yinuan, quoting from a song of the Sixth Dalai Lama: /Khyi rgan Rgya bo Zer ba / Rnam shes Mi las Spyang pa/, translated the phrase /Khyi rgan Rgya bo (‘old grey dog') into Chinese as ‘bearded dog'.”

I had a similar experience when doing some research on Tibetan opera. I came across a booklet on the Lhamo written by a Chinese scholar Wang Yao. This is how he summarizes the script of the play Pema Woebar : “ Once upon a time, there was a king named Mu-stegs rgyal-po meaning the ‘king of pearls'. He had a minister nicknamed ‘the Crippled Minister'.” In point of fact the king in the story is called Muteg Gyalpo or the Heretic king, and the minister is called Lunpo Kanggyok Bangchen or the Minister Swift-foot Messenger. Wang Yao did not even know the difference between mutig (pearl) and mu-teg (heretic); and kang-kyok (lame or cripple) and kang-gyok (fleet of foot). Wang Yao was reputed to be the leading Chinese Tibet-expert and was the first person from the PRC to attend the International Tibet Studies Conference, then held in New York City in 1982.

The inability of Chinese officials in Tibet to speak or read Tibetan (with a rare exception here and there) is a fact that has struck most visitors to Tibet, and is indicative of the real failure of its language and other policies. It is particularly glaring shortcoming, especially when we look back at other colonial administrations in recent history, such as British rule in India. Officers of the Indian Civil Service and the Indian Army were, on joining the service, required to study one or more Indian languages, and to pass a standard examination, usually set by an Indian pandit or munshi. On passing, the officers were rewarded with a raise in salary. Consecutive failure of the language examination would result in dismissal.

It is this relatively liberal outlook of many early British administrators, heirs of the English Enlightenment, that allowed even such an essentially exploitative colonial rule a redeeming and even revolutionary role in the rediscovery of Indian language, history and culture. Successive Muslim invasions, and the accompanying violence and vandalism had reduced Hinduism to “a folk culture and folk religion” (Nirad Chaudhuri) and obliterated Buddhism, even as a memory, from the consciousness of the country, by the time the British gained a foothold in the subcontinent. The pioneering scholar in India's great intellectual awakening was Sir William “Oriental” Jones, who founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal, which he desired to be open, adaptable and to have ‘but one rule, namely, to have no rules at all'. Jones himself through deep and immersive study of Sanskrit made some of the first translations of Sanskrit texts such as the Hitopadesa of Pilpai, the Shakuntala of Kalidasa and the Gitagovinda of Jagadeva. His greatest achievement was the discovery of the common origins of the Indo-European language pool.

The accomplishments of Jones's intellectual successors in India were no less astonishing. James Prinsip through deciphering the mysterious inscriptions on the great pillar of Delhi (the Feroz Shah Lat) and inscriptions at Sanchi, discovered Prakrit, an early vernacular form of Sanskrit. This led to the deciphering of other, hitherto incomprehensible (Buddhist) inscriptions, including the great edicts of Ashoka. In fact it was such inspired linguistic detective work and archaeological research that led to the discovery of nearly all the Buddhist holy sites in India and Nepal, that had been lost since the Muslim invasions. Prior to these discoveries, even Tibetan scholars had been unsure of the real location of Bodh-Gaya and some regarded the ancient city of Gaur (in Bengal) as the main candidate.

British scholarship gave Indian history a solid foundation it never had before. It was the cumulative labour not just of Jones and Prinsip, but also Charles Wilkins, Dr. Francis Buchanan, George Tournour, Henry Colebrooke, Monier Williams, Brian Hodgson , Alexander Cunningham, John Faithful Fleet, Max Mueller and other orientalists ( pace Edward Said) that drove this greatest single advance in the recovery of India's past and the re-discovery of Buddhism. Of course, there is no getting away from the fact that far too many British administrators were arrogant, insensitive and certainly racist. Lord Macaulay, regarded Indian culture as decadent and “worthless”, and did his best to undermine the work of the orientalists. Nevertheless, Macaulay (besides inflicting the Lays of Ancient Rome on generations of schoolboys), bequeathed India a central pillar of its legal system, the Indian Penal code, one of the most erudite, wonderfully encyclopaedic and readable legal tomes ever put together.

This profound cultural debt is something that Indians, Ram Mohan Roy, Tagore, Nehru and many others have never failed to acknowledge. When James Prinsip died in 1840, a subscription was taken up entirely among the Indian population of Calcutta for the building of a commemorative landing-stage and shelter along the Hooghly river, which is even now called Prinsip's Ghat. When the great Indologist of our time, A. L. Basham died, about twelve years ago, I remember reading in the Times of India how the professors of Calcutta University tussled with each other for the honour of carrying his coffin to the Sealdah railway station, from where it was to be transported to Shillong, in Northeast India for burial.

One of the puzzling things about Goldstein or Han Suyin's ecstatic tribute to Communist China for its language “reforms” in Tibet is the singular lack of names of those Chinese cadres and scholars who must have guided and administered what Goldstein and Suyin consider to be the great social and intellectual revolution in modern Tibet. It is a mystery. The only Chinese name I ever managed to pin down in this context, appeared in a book from 1976, The Chinese Literary Scene: A Writer's visit to the People's Republic , where the author is told in Beijing that “the government has been trying to encourage the development of the ethnic-minority languages, but the results have not been satisfactory” and that a Professor Yan Jia-hua, an authority on dialectology had been assigned to this task. But writers and scholars (many from inside Tibet) I questioned had never heard of this person.

We also have to bear in mind is that Tibet, prior to the Chinese invasion, was, unlike pre-British India, not a country that had been so ravaged by foreign invasions and internal collapse, that it had become disconnected from its historical and cultural memory. Whatever the charges against Tibet by the left: dirty, backward, feudal, theocratic and sexually depraved (Grunfeld), there is no disputing that in the essentials it was a “going concern”, unlike so many starving nations, debtor nations, bankrupt nations, immigrant-exporting nations, failed states, narco states, rogue states, and genocidal states in the world today. Tibet threatened none of its neighbours, fed its population unfailingly, year after year, with no help from the outside world, owed no country or international institutions a penny, maintained basic law and order without persecuting minorities (eg. Muslims) or massacring sections of its societies from time to time, as China does. Tibet required absolutely no outside intervention to save or resuscitate its culture and language.

(The fifth and final part will be posted in a few days)