School in China Is an Unlikely Wonder

Tensions between Tibetans and Chinese officials are escalating to dangerous heights in many areas. Among a host of issues raised by Tibetans in protest of their treatment at the hands of Beijing is the requirement that Tibetan children must learn Mandarin in school. The New York Times looks at a rare successful effort by Tibetans to preserve and teach their culture and language to their children, in an isolated mountain village in Qinghai:

“Tibetan language is the key to our culture, and without it all our traditions will be locked away forever,” said Abo Degecairang, 25, a ruddy-cheeked monk who is among the inaugural class of young men enrolled at the school, the Anymachen Tibetan Culture Center, which opened in September here in southeastern Qinghai Province.

More striking than its improbably isolated setting is the fact that the Chinese government allowed Rinpoche Tserin Lhagyal, 48, the school’s spiritual guide and soft-spoken founder, to set up an autonomous institution dedicated to promoting Tibetan culture and language. Although Tibetan areas of China are flecked with Buddhist monasteries, their mandate is to teach religious devotion through ancient texts and long hours of prayer. Nonreligious schooling is typically controlled by the state, most often anchored in Mandarin, although poverty and geographic isolation deprive many children of any formal education.

It was those young people whom the Rinpoche — a title bestowed on high-ranking teachers in Tibetan Buddhism — has sought out, eager to give them a future that he hopes will help preserve their heritage. Today, 30 shepherd boys, orphans and novice monks are learning the fundamentals of Tibetan culture, as well as Mandarin and English. Some are garbed in burgundy monks’ robes, others in jeans and trucker hats. A few arrived unable to read or write in any language, but the Rinpoche has faith that these challenges can be overcome, just as he succeeded in establishing this center despite the daunting political and financial odds.

February 2, 2012 12:42 AM
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