The Myth of China’s Modernization of Tibet and the Tibetan Language, Part Five
By Jamyang Norbu
Tibetans seem to have had a remarkable facility, not just intellectual or creative, but even organizational, when it came to dealing with issues of language. In the first three parts of this essay we discussed Tibetan efforts to coin and incorporate new terms for the technological products and political ideas they were encountering at the beginning of the century. But change and renewal in language is a constant and on-going process, and it might be instructive to go further back in history and see how Tibetans had managed all along, particularly in the creation of the written language. The first problem Tibetans most likely encountered was in the choice of alphabets over characters or ideographs. And it wasn’t so simple and obvious a choice as it may appear to us now.
Tang dynasty China was the most sophisticated and powerful country in the world, and in the 7 th century (when Tibet was shopping around for a script) was undergoing a period of unprecedented grandeur and might, and of brilliant cultural attainments, unmatched since in China. The Japanese were certainly impressed, even overwhelmed, and did not hesitate to embrace Chinese political and cultural influences. Although entirely unsuited for representing spoken Japanese they also adopted Chinese ideographic writing, burdening themselves and future generations “with the crushing weight of the most cumbersome of writing systems” as Edwin Reischauer, a leading American scholar on Japan has put it. Even after they created their own system of writing, the kana syllabary, “educated Japanese men continued to write in bad Chinese” leaving the women, or rather the ladies of the court, to write in the national language. Hence Japan’s first great literary achievement, The Tale of Genji (genji no monogatari) was written by the Lady Murasaki, and not by his Lordship, as might have been expected from a male dominated society. Most of China’s neighbouring states and kingdoms adopted the ideographic system in some form or the other, though such countries as Vietnam and Korea later switched over to alphabetic systems.
The Tibetan choice of an alphabetic system of writing (three years before Japan’s adoption of kana) specifically a Gupta Brahmi script, appears to have been made for practical, not pious reasons. Recent scholarship has revealed that the main impetus for the creation of the Tibetan written language was not for translating Buddhist texts, as Buddhist scholars have traditionally insisted, but for the purposes of political administration, and the maintenance of Tibetan imperial rule.
The very rapid development of this script in Tibet has led many scholars such as Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche and David Snellgrove to believe that prototype forms had been introduced earlier. Shangshung may have already developed the basic elements of a written language before Thonmi Sambhota’s journey to India to search for a writing system.
Tibetans also demonstrated their linguistic genius in the way they used the written language to translate Buddhist texts. By the early ninth century, the Tibetans had drawn up lists of fixed equivalents for the translation of Sanskrit Buddhist terms into Tibetan, and even compiled an official lexicon as mentioned earlier. In order to ensure absolute conformity they retranslated into Tibetan all the texts previously translated that did not conform to the new rules. From then onwards the conventional equivalents, carefully taught by one generation to the next, have been used unerringly up to the present day. Such a system ensures the precise and unalterable statement and restatement of unchanging religious and philosophical notions.
Tibetan success in the creation of a written language doesn’t appear to have been a one-off, a flash in the pan, either. The great Dongon Chogyal Phagpa, imperial preceptor to Kublai Khan, created a “universal” script in 1269 for the Mongol empire. The Mongols did have an earlier alphabet based on the Uigher script, but it was technically inadequate for transcribing sounds of spoken Mongol with precision, blurring distinctions between sounds and sometimes representing dissimilar sounds with the same symbol. The old Mongol alphabet was also unsuitable for the accurate transcription of Chinese. The new script created by Phagpa was much more precise in its rendering of the sound of the colloquial Mongol. It could also more accurately reflect the sound of other languages in the Mongol empire, including Chinese. Morris Rossabi, the historian and sinologist, maintains that “… the Phagpa alphabet appeared ideally suited to transcribe the languages, those with alphabets and those with characters, in Kublai’s domain, to serve as a universal script, and to contribute to the unification of the frequently antagonistic peoples under Mongol rule.”
In spite of the Khan’s great efforts to promote the new script, it never seems to have caught on with his subjects. In retrospect it appears that the “promotion” and not the “product” was at fault. Rossabi is clear about this: “The failures of the ‘Phagpa script ought not to be attributed to its technical inadequacies, but to the method by which it was propagated. Despite its virtues the Phagpa alphabet encountered strong opposition, in part because it was officially devised and sanctioned and imposed from above.”
Yet Phagpa’s great work does not seem to have entirely faded away into history. The linguistician Roy Andew Miller, tells us that the present Korean alphabetic script, hangul or hankul, “… is from the shape of its letters obviously no more than a transparent adaptation to the Korean language of the Phagpa alphabetical script of the Mongol Empire, and must have been quite as immediately apparent to the royal-court circles that promulgated the script from 1446.” Miller also mentions that “The overt graphic similarities between the shapes of almost all the Phagpa letters and those of the hankul script for identical or similar sounds are so startling that Western and Japanese students of Korean noticed the implications for the origin of Korean alphabetic writing decades ago.” It should be mentioned that traditional Korean scholars do not accept this theory, but the fact that Korea was for over a century under Mongol rule, certainly gave Koreans more than adequate opportunity to become familiar with the Phagpa script.
Yet, at the end of the day, no matter how brilliant the accomplishments of Dongon Chogyal Phagpa, Thonmi Sambhota, Situ Panchen and other pioneering Tibetan lotsawas and scholars or how significant the contributions of yesteryear, of Gergen Tharchin, Gedun Chophel, Shekar Lingpa and others to the development of modern Tibetan vocabulary, those achievements are all unquestionably of the past. And Dhondup Gyal, Tibet’s premier modern poet, cautions us:
A thousand brilliant accomplishments of the past
Cannot serve today’s purpose,
Yesterday’s salty water cannot quench today’s thirst.
In the withered tired and lifeless body of history,
Without the soul of today,
The pulse of progress will not beat,
The blood of progress will not run….
So getting back to the present: although we are told China has rejected Communism, especially on the economic front, it does not appear to have discarded its radical language policies in Tibet. The old Marxist class-struggle rhetoric and Ministry of Truth statistics still assert themselves. A Xinhua report of September 2001, quotes Gunqo Jamzen (Kunchok Jam-tsun?), a Tibetan linguist as declaring that “In old Tibet only slaves and lords were recorded in the vocabulary of the Tibetan language, with no details of ordinary people” and that “the term ‘democracy’ came into being in 1959, when a democratic reform (the violent extermination of traditional tribal and monastic leadership in Eastern Tibet) was launched in the region.” Dainzin (Tenzin) a Tibetan-language translator, said that he and his colleague translated 40 million or 50 million new words into Tibetan annually. “It is difficult to keep abreast of the new things and new words,” he said.
Whether they are actually translating 50 million words every year or not (The 22 volume Oxford English Dictionary contains only 500, 000 entries in total) what really appears to be going on (as was going on earlier) is the mechanical, noodle-machine translation, by a government bureau, the Tibetan Language Reform Department (Tib. bhod kyal-yik zuktrul lhenkhang Chi. zangyuan zhidao buyuan hui) in Lhasa of new Chinese words into Tibetan, regardless of the fact that the original word may have been English, French, Spanish or Arabic, and that it would make infinitely more sense for Tibetans to borrow or translate new terms directly from the source language. One could lay even money that Gunjo Jamzen’s and Dainzin’s fluency in non-Tibetan languages is limited to Chinese. The goal of the project now appears to be the creation of sinicized Tibetan language (and subsequently a sinicized thought process) where Tibetans are permitted to sample developments in science, technology, arts, and politics only in a pre-digested form, one that has earlier passed through the Chinese language intestinal tract.
Yet thankfully, few Tibetans in Tibet, even among those in the administration, reportedly use the new translations extensively, and the old borrowings and adaptations from Anglo-India, such as mota (automobile), kang-gari (bicycle), dakhang (post-office), passi (permit) and bijili (flashlight), still resonate in the conversation of the Tibetan people in Tibet, especially in Lhasa. Even when anxiously discussing the new Chinese railway line to Lhasa, the old terms, rili (train), chaklam (railway tracks) and tissing (station), are used. If you were in a restaurant or café in Lhasa you would have to ask for a gilas (glass) of tea or a mok (mug) of hot water.
Otherwise Tibetans just use Chinese terms as kong-kong qiche for the public bus service or siqi for chauffer or driver. Most Tibetans use the Chinese term, dianshi, for television and not the official Tibetan translation, sugthung nyen trin, though the contraction nyen trin appears to be used sometimes. The Chinese, diannao (electric-brain), is used for computer and not the literal Tibetan translation lokley (which anyway sounds awkward in Tibetan due to the alliterative presence of the two L sounds). Cell phones in Tibet are known by the Chinese term shouji (hand instrument) and not the Tibetan translation lakkher khabar (handheld telephone). An exception is the Tibetan word for cinema, loknyen, a direct translation of the Chinese dianying (electric image) which is generally used, even in exile, and has displaced to a degree the more charming beskop (bioscope).
Tibetans in Tibet now use a large percentage of Chinese terms in their everyday speech, in much the same way that citizens of former Soviet satellite states were compelled to use Russian. Of course, few East Europeans these days bother learning Russian. The language of choice now in Poland, the Czech Republic and other Central and East European countries is English, as is the case in distant Mongolia. The New York Times recently reported that young Mongols had even been converting to Christianity for the opportunity to study English.
Some years ago, Tom Grunfeld argued in the Tibetan Review that having Tibetan children in Tibet be educated in Chinese was no different than the Dalai Lama choosing to have children in exile receive an English medium education. Grunfeld, in his usual way, left out the most important element in this comparison, namely, choice. In India and China, as everywhere else, people want to learn English, not only for the obvious economic advantages it confers, but also to be able to participate in the greater cultural, scientific and political world. The increasing use of Chinese words and phrases in Tibet is entirely due to China’s political and economic stranglehold on that country, and in no way reflects a free choice that Tibetans have made in the matter. There is no doubt that when Tibet is independent Tibetans will overwhelmingly choose to learn English as a second language in preference to Chinese.
Hence it might appear that the natural direction for Tibetan vocabulary development would be to accept most technological and scientific terms in the English, German or French original or a Tibetan phonetic version or adaptation of the foreign word, as we did earlier with gari, rili, beskop and so on. The Japanese embraced foreign terms from their earliest encounter with the West, starting with arigato for “thank you” (from the Portugese “obrigado”).
The rapidity with which modernity and Western influence overwhelmed China in the late 19 th and early 20 th centuries obliged even the conservative Chinese intelligentsia to borrow many new terms straight from European languages as: amiba (amoeba), balei wu (ballet), beige (boycott, Cantonese original buigot), axun (ozone), balafin (paraffin), kafei (coffee), bailandi (brandy), kafeiyin (caffeine), keke (cocoa) and so on. Russian contributions were wide ranging from such weighty political nomenclatures as kangmintuang (Comintern) and kangmisha (commissar) to the humble shamowa (samovar).
Much of Chinese borrowing, as we noted earlier, was from Japan. But this was not limited to terms that the Japanese had earlier borrowed from the West, but strangely enough extended to Japanese kanji terms derived from Classical Chinese. The Chinese word for culture wenhua, despite its antiquity, did not carry any of the modern connotation of “culture” now associated with the word. In its earlier usage wenhua denoted the state of wen or artistic cultivation in contrast to wu or military prowess. The modern meaning of wenhua did not enter the Chinese language until after bunka, the Japanese kanji translational equivalent of “culture,” was borrowed back by the Chinese at the turn of the twentieth century. Similarly with such words as wenming (civilization, Jap. bunmei,) and wenxue (literature, Jap. Bungaku).
I mention this to reassure those Tibetans who become self-conscious and defensive about the fact that similar Tibetan terms are also relatively new creations. In like manner it might be pointed out that borrowing new words from the West is not necessarily a betrayal of one’s language or culture. Tibetans in the past readily accepted Chinese terms for the various vegetables and culinary items that came to us from China, as for instance, luopuo (radish, Tib. labuk), cong (onion, Tib. tsong), hong luopuo (carrot, Tib. gung-labuk) and all the leafy vegetables: baicai, qincai, jiucai, even retaining the correct Chinese pronunciation in these cases. The Chinese term cai (Tib. tsay) has now become a fully Tibetan word (although we have a native term for “greens” ngo), as have Chinese terms for vinegar (cu), chopper (caidao), chopstick (kuaizi) and so on. On this score no indignant Tibetan scholar has insisted on creating equivalent Tibetan terms. When it comes to food Tibetans (even rabid nationalists) have no problem with China or the Chinese language. And that is how it should be. In that enlightened spirit might it be argued that the fruits of Western technology, science and other branches of knowledge also be accepted on their own linguistic terms?
There appears to be some resistance to accepting such a solution, both inside Tibet as well as in exile. In exile in the sixties, some Tibetan intellectuals in officialdom (operating under residual Chinese influence) came up with such verbal monstrosities as me-shuk-phur-teng, (fire-force-fly-high) for rocket, suk-thong-lung-trin, (body-visible-air-transmission) for television, log tsi trul chas (electric-calcuate-machine-item) for computer. The latest mouthful in this regard is lok-trul-drawa (electric-machine-net) for internet. Somewhere along the road, native wit, sophistication and even the remarkable facility of the Tibetan language for convenient contractions seems to have deserted us entirely.
Resistance to borrowing or adapting new words from the West is also strong in the more traditional academic world. The great achievements of Tibetan lotsawas of the past in translating the entire corpus of Buddhist literature from Sanskrit to Tibetan, and creating a whole new vocabulary of philosophical and psychological terms, has been a constant and justifiable source of inspiration for those Tibetans who want to do the same for all new and foreign terms. And perhaps there is a case to be made for some measure of translation (of a manageable and sensible kind) over indiscriminate borrowing of new words from a foreign language. The Japanese success at adopting new English terms does have its ridiculous side, from the unnecessary toraburu (“trouble” problem) to such gems of Japlish as moga (modern girl), baijyon aapu (“version up” meaning to upgrade or improve), goruden kombi (“golden combination” a successful boy-girl act on TV) and lately Burapi, an abbreviation for Brad Pitt who is very popular with the ladies in Japan.
Yet it would be futile for traditional scholarship to envision an all-powerful academy for translating every modern term into Tibetan (and enforcing usage) as has been advocated from time to time. Most of us have in the past had to put up with some geshe la or the other declaring that Western knowledge could be contained in a few pothi (volumes), but thankfully, lamas and other traditional scholars these days are beginning to grasp the scope and extent of modern knowledge, not just in the many branches and sub-branches of science and technology, but in music, art, theatre, literature, politics, law, history and many thousands of other professions, fields of study and specializations. Most of these not only have substantial vocabularies of their own but often specialized dictionaries, that would probably take the entire Tibetan scholarly world (in Tibet and in exile) many reincarnations and never-ending labour to translate into Tibetan.
Then there is the principle of the thing. Does the development of language have to be top down? Should ordinary people not be allowed to come up with new words on their own? Should the creation of new words only be the task of officially designated “experts” (khelpa) as we have in Tibet right now? Traditional intellectuals in exile have often discussed these things, but, thankfully, nothing has ever come of such discussions. I can recall only one minor case of “linguistic imposition” ever taking place in Dharamshala. It occurred about a decade ago and involved Prime Minister Samdong Rinpoche, then speaker of the Assembly. Buying into Chinese propaganda that the Tibetan word for democracy was a Chinese creation, Rinpoche declared that the accepted word mangtso (people’s rule) was not suitable and that it had to be replaced by mungtso (majority rule). The earlier term could be translated as rule of the common people, the term mang having the exact meaning as the Greek “demos”, and the syllable “tso” meaning “ foremost, ruler or rule. Rinpoche’s version “majority rule” is a definition of democracy only in the crudest bullying sense.
The revealing fact about Rinpoche’s choice is how the “mung” syllable appears in the monastic context. For instance dra-mung is the term used for the “assembly of monks” while the term mung-cha refers to the tea served to the monk assembly during a service. Rinpoche’s views have been effectively discredited in writing by Tibetan intellectuals, but the new word “mungtso” has now become the standard term used in Dharamshala. Aspiring politicians there, it has been noted, are careful to lower the register of their voices to get the “mung” right, in “mungtso”, and not have it sound like the older (and somewhat higher) “mang” in “mangtso”. Such a vocal adjustment is probably no different from the one taking place in the USA where the Republican faithful now articulate the word “nuclear” as “new-kew-ler”, to conform to president Bush’s mispronunciation. Ridiculous as these may appear to be, both are legitimate, if trivial, examples of the corruption of language by power politics.
In “Politics and the English Language” George Orwell pointed out how the corruption of language was crucial to the making and defending of bad, oppressive politics. In his novel 1984, he provides us a whole treatise on how through the manipulation of language and through the distortion and elimination of words that might arouse intellectual curiosity or moral indignation, or evoke genuine emotional or spiritual feelings, you could keep a entire people in mental subjugation, unaware even of the fact that they were slaves. In essence, Orwell made it clear that there was an inextricable correlation between language and freedom.
I am convinced that all discussion and effort towards “saving” the Tibetan language and culture is meaningless if that purpose does not also embrace the struggle for Tibet’s political freedom, for Rangzen. At the very least such endeavours should acknowledge the fundamental necessity of Tibetan independence for the survival of the language -- otherwise all we are doing is working to preserve the local dialect of one of China’s many “colourful” minority people. I know His Holiness argues that preserving Tibetan culture is more important than fighting for independence, but I think I am right in assuming that what he means by culture in this context is religion. And yes, religion, especially organized religion can survive, even flourish sometimes under the patronage of emperors and tyrannies. However, I wouldn’t even count on that in present day China, considering the fate of so many Falun Gong practitioners, Catholic bishops and some of our own brave nuns and lamas.
Goldstein has advocated that Tibetans should give up political, military, and economic control of their country to China, upon which Beijing should allow Tibetans to live in “cultural reservations”. For those who think of culture in terms of rain-dance performances for tourists and research opportunities for anthropologists, such an arrangement might appear eminently convenient and desirable. But to those for whom culture is a life process, where tradition and faith meld with contemplation, expression and creation, then the primary requirement for a living culture (including a living language) is freedom. You cannot have a meaningful cultural life if you are not a free person. You do not have to live in a free country, here and now, but you must at least have the promise of freedom. And that promise, that hope, is basically the reflection of our own commitment, our will to carry on the struggle to achieve that freedom. So long as people haven’t given up altogether, so long as they are capable of even a seemingly trivial act of defiance, humming an anti-Chinese tune or repeating a subversive (probably off-colour) joke about the Communist Party, that promise holds.
Probably nowhere in Tibet is there a more policed, spied upon and altogether security-ridden place than the Tibetan capital. I have been told that Chinese security and military personnel there outnumber the native population and I have no reason to doubt this. Yet depressed as I invariably get when I receive any news from that city, my Lhasa friends and acquaintances assure me (to my perpetual surprise) that the Lhasawa haven’t entirely lost their “ing” (which might loosely be rendered as “hipness” or “coolness”) and that the sharp witty Lhasa tongue still has the capacity to puncture official pomposity and expose official lies.
The Political Consultative Committee (Tib. chapsil doetsok), the chief sinecure office for Tibetan puppets and collaborators, is called phagtsang or pig-pen by the people of Lhasa. One might at first just regard this as an appropriate, if somewhat crude, pejorative. The subtlety lies in the fact that the term phag or “pig”, spelt differently (but pronounced the same) means “noble”, as in the Sanskrit arya, and that two of the earliest and most prominent members of that office, Phagpala Gelek Namgyal and Samding Dorjee Phagmo, both had the “phag” syllables in their respective names because of their former religious standing. They were incarnate lamas. Another collaborator with a “phag” to his name was the official, Phagpala Khenchung, who was killed by an angry mob at the gate of the Norbulingka on the morning of March 10th 1959.
The writer Wöser , who I am told is from Derge in Eastern Tibet, points out this droll mocking quality of the city’s speech in her long poem “Secret of Tibet”
Yet, in small bars along the Lingkhor,
Plump pot-bellied officials get drunk every night.
Oh, let's be happily passive,
It is better than becoming an amchok.
Amchok means ear and refers to those invisible informers.
Such a graphic nickname.
Such Lhasawa humour!
The label is somewhat cleverer than the English translation would suggest. The Chinese term for “security” is anquan, reasonably close in pronunciation to amchok, especially when one is mumbling it under one’s breath to an indiscreet friend in a Lhasa pub. Note : George Orwell said “ A joke is a tiny revolution.”
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