News and Views on Tibet

Opinion: Tibetan Identity snubbed by China. Choeyang Kyi, the Tibetan Olympic Silver medallist is not Chinese

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Choeyang Kyi during the 2012 London olympics where she bagged a silver medal(Photo/China Daily)

By Tenzing Dhamdul

The 20 KM race for women in the Tokyo Olympics just got over and we witnessed our Tibetan kin Choeyang Kyi finish 7th in the race with her being seconds away from securing another medal. Choeyang Kyi is a Tibetan born in Amdo and yet when she shot into stardom when she won the Olympic silver medal in the above event representing China in London 2012, no one knew her as Choeyang Kyi but rather as Qieyang Shijie. The latter name used through the strict hard handedness of Beijing is a policy that is being implemented throughout Tibet and the other occupied lands by China whereby the names of individuals within these regions are being sinicized and transliterated to such an extent that it loses its original identity and meaning. These practices with particular reference to Choeyang Kyi here underlines the issue of how the Tibetan identity is structurally being destroyed from its roots, beginning from the name itself.

This red dragon that ventures across the world in the guise of liberating force (celebrating the liberation of Tibet this year where in fact is occupation in truth) encapsulates everyone at its path. The condemnation of Confucius institute and other forms of medium through which the communist led Chinese government disseminates its culture and influence to the world is to be taken notice. Modern day warfare and conquest are not the battle front. It has moved away, with the onus firmly being place upon soft war and propaganda.

Beijing implements this very form of conquest whereby the destruction of identity and bringing of Chinese homogeneity is kept at the fore. This practice is witnessed clearly in the many minorities occupied regions of China be it in Xinjian (Uyghur), Inner Mongolia, Tibet and even Manchuria, where the Han Chinese way of life is disseminated with the vision of Greater China being the goal. This vision of greater China has gained rapid pace with president Xi Jinping coming into leadership and has seen the further adoption of stringent policies in these regions. Yet the affected regions including Tibet has not stood silent and been a fence sitter but rather has taken matters into their own hands and challenged such policies in the form of protests even with their life being at a risk.

What is the Tibetan identity?

So, what truly is the Tibetan identity here? Does it only have a connotation in reference to the territory being the Tibetan Autonomous Region or does it extend beyond it and also includes the Tibetans in the provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan and also the larger Tibetan diaspora. Being a Tibetan I feel that the Tibetan identity does not confine itself in mere quantitative figures but is ever dynamic. It changes its shape and figures based on the outside actors but the true and inner essence of it remains the same. This essence is of a particular community sharing similar culture and tradition. For Tibetans the essence largely encompasses the geographical features in which Tibet is situated in and through this we can witness the parallels in the physical characteristics of Tibetans largely being the same. On top of this Buddhism and its evolved rituals also becomes a strong sense of identity indicator among the Tibetans though there is a prevalence of Tibetan following other religions as well with Islam and Christianity being among them. But what truly binds Tibetans together is the Tibetan language and it cuts across religion and creed. Hence, the notion of Pan-Tibet is very much prevalent here.

What is Pan-Tibet?

Pan-Tibet is currently the Tibet that the Tibetan diaspora and those in mainland discuss and talk about. It classifies Tibet as having three major provinces namely U-Tsang, Amdo and Kham. This notion can be traced from the 13th century when Tibet as a whole (mentioning these regions) was gifted to Sakya Drogon Chogyal Phagpa by Kublai Khan. Though this notion of Tibetan identity wavered with time it has come to the fore with the Chinese occupation of Tibet in both mainland Tibet and among the Tibetan diaspora with Tibetans within these regions clearly referring themselves as Tibetans above all else.

Beijing’s idea of Tibet

To shatter this unity and identity the Chinese communist government has gone into lengths by bringing various policies, the creation of 5 major provinces within Tibet where provinces namely Sichuan and Gansu have a high mixture of Tibetan and Chinese inhabitants indicates how they want to eradicate the local culture by bringing new elements in it. All of which culminate into the grotesque monster known as the Civilising mission where the message is of bringing development to undeveloped area but the under lying reality is the exploitation of people and their natural resources.

In Tibet this impact has been very strong on the mentality of the people as living under the duress of the Chinese communist for more than half a century they gradually started questioning their very identity. Tibetans of the past were largely rooted to their place of birth and never really had to think about what it meant to be a Tibetan in the modern term but the draconian actions of the Chinese government who refer the Tibetans as a Minzu (ethnic minority or nationality) has now led them to seriously ask what it means to be a Tibetan. From the time that the People’s Liberation Army stormed the capital of Lhasa and the Dalai Lama was forced into exile, the Tibetans never saw themselves as being Chinese as they cherished their own identity here and without anyone telling and guiding them knew very clearly, they were not Chinese. The notion of Pan-Tibet that was being forgotten, now with a clear adversary in China has come to the fore and Tibetans have become more united than ever.

Sinicization of Tibet

Exemplifying the character of a juggernaut, Beijing tried to counter new found Identity and unity of the Tibetans with very shrewd tactics and policies. With the most prominent being the Sinicization of Tibet. This process got much prominence from the cultural revolution when many historical landmarks associated with the Tibetans were destroyed. And it was further continued with the inculcation of Chinese language in the Tibet. Though there was a decline in such activity when China as a nation started opening up to the western world from the mid 1970’s, after the Tiananmen incident it once again reignited and they started implementeding these policies. I as a Tibetan can witness this even more strongly than ever now and the continuous self-immolations since 2008 truly speaks volume of what is happening in Tibet. 

Policies adopted and practiced by the CCP

Among all this when it comes to the issue of the Tibetan identity, I find two policies that truly hinders the development and nurturing of our unique Tibetan identity and they are of the harsh language policies enforced by Beijing and the transliteration of Tibetan names to Chinese characters. The imposition of the Chinese language be it in Tibet and other minority regions within China is well known as when Chinese language was made compulsory in the academic curriculum in Inner Mongolia it received region wide protest from all walks of life there. Tibet has been facing that the same predicament from years and they constantly continue to challenge this imposition be it in the form of protest. The Tibetan language is the binding source to all Tibetans and is what indicates to other they are different from other communities and becomes valuable when defining the Tibetan identity. So, when this very binding factor itself is challenged by the imposition of another language, Chinese Mandarin here, it very clearly shows us how Beijing is methodically trying to eradicate the Tibetan identity here.

The Choeyang Kyi conundrum and Tenzin becoming Ding Zhen

Now I want to focus on the transliteration of Tibetan names to Chinese and would like to call it as the Choeyang Kyi conundrum as this phenomenon engulfs all Tibetans under the current Chinese communist government. I knew this was happening but the full brunt of its impact that drastically erodes the Tibetan identity came to me when recently a Tibetan born in Kham, Tibet (now in Chinese occupied Tibet, Sichuan) was making noise in the famous, popular and trending MMA competition, UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) his name is Sonam Dhargyal but due to the transliteration of his name he is officially known as Su Mudaerji. I watched the UFC fight and the commentators were also going by his official name and though being a Tibetan with his name being transliterated he sounded more Chinese to even a Tibetan audience like me. What came in mind to me was if I was not a Tibetan and a regular spectator, I would truly associate him as a Chinese rather than a Tibetan.

Likewise, a similar incident comes to mind when a recent Tibetan nomad by the name of Tenzin born in Lithang, Kham (Sichuan) became a net sensation due to his natural smile. After becoming viral, various Chinese brands approached Tenzin to make him the face of their brand. Tenzin is a name associated with the current 14th Dalai Lama whose name is also known as Tenzin Gyatso and those who seek name for their child from the Dalai Lama starts with Tenzin (that is why one can see lots of Tenzin in the Tibetan community). What I found it though was how in Tibet (Chinese Occupied) Tenzin was spelled as Ding Zhen, this gives the international media and people an image of a Chinese individual rather than a humble Tibetan nomad. There was even a news about the exploits of Tenzin in the South China Morning Post and you guessed it he was spelled as Ding Zhen.

The impact of this transliteration can also be seen here in India and even among the intellectual society. When going through an article on “The Print” by Manoj Joshi on Tibet, who when discussing about reincarnations of the Panchen Lama uses the name Gyaincian Norbu. He is Beijing’s recognised reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama but what took me aback here was the usage of the transliterated name instead of Tibetan name Gyaltsen Norbu that has meaning and definition. This process that has led people from all walks of life to view Tibetans in a different light truly diminishes its unique and distinguishable identity.

Choeyang Kyi, Sonam Dhargyal, Tenzin, Gyaltsen Norbu are household’s Tibetan names with very beautiful meanings that is tied with to the very core of Tibetan identity. Yet the Choeyang Kyi conundrum that highlights the policy of transliterating the Tibetans names harms the very essence of being and plays a vital role in portraying the Tibetans to the world as Chinese and not Tibetans.


It is a fact that most of the mongoloid races look alike but names and culture tend to differentiate one from another but with the Chinese communist government going forward with this process of transliteration it not only associates the Tibetans with China but also may eventually lead to the loss of its unique identity. So, the question now is will we be able to preserve our unique identity amidst the Chinese adversity? With the situation having a resemblance of a David v/s Goliath situation, a positive outcome for the Tibetans (who is David) here would truly make the world a more colourful place, don’t you think so?

(Views expressed are his own)

The author has studied at Hindu College, Delhi University and School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He was a recipient of the Sikyong Scholarship in the year 2015. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *