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Tibetan and Mandarin in Mingyong, Yunnan

April 18, 2011
The Driver

The Hilarious Driver who Took us from Shangri-La to Deqin. Photo by Tim Quijano.

Immediately upon arriving in Diqinq Autonomous Prefecture*, I began inquiring into the status of the Tibetan Language there. This region is 33% Tibetan, 28% Lisu, 16% Han, and 13% Naxi, with the Han seeming to stay around the urban areas. I asked the (Tibetan) driver of the van I had jumped in with a couple of groups of Northern Chinese tourists and a traveling worker from Zhongdian (the Shangri-La) to Deqin how many letters were in the Tibetan alphabet.

“I don’t know, I can’t read Tibetan. I’m too hanhua (too Han [Chinese]-ified),” he laughed, throwing up his hands.

He was literate in the Official language of China, but illiterate in his mother-tongue. I continued to ask about this, to find that it seemed to be a common situation for Tibetans in the area of all social strata, literate in Chinese but illiterate in their mother-tongue, Tibetan. Only recently have local schools begun teaching Tibetan classes in addition to the standard Han program (think electives). An older Tibetan man I spoke to, whom I would call very hanhua (Chinese-ified) later went off on me (as happens often in China) about how foreigners don’t understand China and how the Chinese government treats minorities great now. I never voiced my opinion to him as I have, unfortunately, had few constructive political conversation with locals in China, but he was convinced that I would blame all Chinese minority problems everything on the government because I was a foreigner. I agree that there are various sorts of affirmative action policies in China such as improved ease of admission into university, farming subsidies etc. I suggested that there is a lot of societal pressure to assimilate to Han culture in order to achieve success in modern society, which results in the loss of plenty of local cultural traditions. This is hard to disagree with.

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Surprised Child

A Student at the Mingyong Elementary School

Almost immediately upon arriving in Mingyong, I met up with Heather, and went to the local elementary school with her to take pictures of the students. When the students saw us, they went crazy, yelling and jumping around. I noticed the teacher speaking to them in Tibetan and a little bit of Chinese. I am guessing the kids were about 7 years old. I spoke to the teacher about the language used in the classroom.

“They understand Tibetan much better than Mandarin, so I tend to use both languages (shuangyu) with them.”

I was consistently surprised by the penetration of Mandarin in this village. It was much easier for me to communicate with the people here than it was for many other, much less remote, places in China. I only had a couple of misunderstandings with people, for example, people there call lights, ding instead of deng, but I believe that this is more of a Yunnanhua, or Yunnan dialect, influence than a Tibetan one.

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*Prefecture is the second level of the national hierarchy, under the province.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. allyson permalink
    April 24, 2011 00:21

    Immigrant communities in the US have the same problem–fluent, but not literate in their mother language. Aunt March deals with it in the classroom.

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