Learning to be Tibetan (in China)


A review of Learning to be Ethnic: The Case of Tibetans in Minzu University, by Yang Miaoyan.

Since establishing the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has recognized the importance of recruiting ethnic minorities (shaoshu minzu 少数民族) to participate in its state-building programs. In fact, a mere month after he announced the founding of New China, Mao Zedong proclaimed that a large cohort of ethnic minority cadres (ganbu 干部) would be needed to “completely solve [China’s] nationality [minzu 民族] problem” (Meng Lijun, Xin Zhongguo minzu jiaoyu zhengce yanjiu 新中国民族教育政策研究 [A Study of New China’s Policies on Ethnic Minority Education]. Beijing: Science Press, 2010, p. 1). Mao’s initiative has been carried over to the present day, and the CCP continues to invest heavily in developing a comprehensive education system aimed specifically toward non-Han populations. Among its program of preferential policies (youhui zhengce 优惠政策) for ethnic minorities, the CCP has designated fifteen institutions of higher learning for non-Han students, the most prestigious being the Minzu University of China (MUC; Zhongyang minzu daxue 中央民族大学) in Beijing.

In her dissertation Learning to be Ethnic: The Case of Tibetans in Minzu University, Yang Miaoyan, herself a former MUC student, offers a fascinating glimpse into this institution and begins to untangle the wadded threads of influence that bind the ethnic identities of Tibetan students. Through a thorough and careful examination of the daily lives of MUC’s Tibetan students, Yang explores the malleability of Tibetan identity. Among Yang’s most significant findings is that the educational backgrounds of MUC’s Tibetan students, e.g., Tibetan language track (min kao min 民考民), Chinese language track (min kao han 民考汉), and national-level boarding schools (neidi Xizang gaozhong ban内地西藏高中班), influence the ways in which these individuals interpret, negotiate, and assert their Tibetan-ness.

Chapters 1 and 2 introduce the research, situate it within the fields of anthropology, sociology, and ethnic minority education, and develop a conceptual framework for the remainder of the study. Informed especially by Stephen Cornell and Douglas Hartman’s widely cited Ethnicity and Race: Making Identities in a Changing World (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2007) and several studies on ethnicity conducted by Richard Jenkins (pp. 36-46), Yang presents a triangular model that pinpoints three interlinked bases from which ethnic identities are built: the state, schools, and the individual (p. 47). The university campus is the arena wherein these agents meet and often collide. Yang’s field site is significant: unlike most other universities in China, MUC attracts ethnic Tibetans from the Tibet Autonomous Region, Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan. In other words, MUC is a site where a dynamic community of young Tibetans, once only an “imagined” trans-regional collective identity, is actualized.

In the following chapter, Yang describes her research methodology. Having studied at MUC for four years, Yang possessed a deep familiarity with MUC’s curriculum, and she had already established relationships with MUC’s faculty and some students before she conducted her dissertation research. In addition to the four years at MUC as a student, Yang spent an additional year on campus to formally gather data (p. 55). This research draws heavily on participant observation (e.g. attending class and social events organized by Tibetan students), semi-structured interviews with eighty-five Tibetan students, and a variety of official and unofficial documents (pp. 54-64).

After providing an overview of the CCP’s ethnic identification project from 1954 (minzu shibie 民族识别), the “Tibet Issue,” and education in Tibet in chapter 4, Yang explores the environment in which identities are constructed at MUC in chapter 5. At MUC, students construct their ethnic and national identities dialectically with the CCP’s discourse on ethnic theory (minzu lilun 民族理论), ethnic unity (minzu tuanjie 民族团结), and patriotism (aiguo zhuyi 爱国主义). In fact, one-third of MUC’s courses can be considered “political education” (103). Moreover, these identities are constructed in an environment where Han Chinese dominate—there are more Han students at MUC than any other ethnic group (p. 115)—and where Putonghua (i.e., spoken Mandarin) is given primacy over ethnic minority languages. For some Tibetan students, this environment activates and strengthens a once latent Tibetan identity (p. 173, p. 188, p. 215, p. 225, p. 263). However, the ways by which these students express and assert this identity vary according to educational background.

Chapters six through nine are respectively devoted to profiling min kao min Tibetan Studies majors, min kao min non-Tibetan Studies majors, boarding school (inland Tibetan school) graduates, and min kao han students. These four chapters follow the same basic layout. Readers are first introduced to these students’ pre-university experiences. Next, readers learn the ways by which each group of students expresses Tibetan-ness (e.g., clothing, abilities to communicate in Tibetan, social networks). Finally, Yang’s informants share their professional aspirations. These chapters, the core of the research, are filled with instructive and entertaining anecdotes, illuminating responses from Tibetan students, and excellent photographs of MUC’s campus, all of which are underpinned by Yang’s thoughtful analysis. According to Yang’s research, min kao min Tibetan studies students have accepted a “mission” to promote Tibetan language and culture; min kao min non-Tibetan studies majors express their identities outwardly by identifying and wearing “Tibetan” clothing and engaging in Buddhist practices; boarding school graduates who have spent many of their developmental years away from ethnically Tibetan regions “make up for lost time” by arduously studying Tibetan language and culture; and min kao han students tend to accept their Tibetan identity only when it is politically or socially advantageous to do so (pp. 262-266).

Before offering her concluding remarks, Yang demonstrates how Tibetan students promote Tibetan language and culture. Most notably, these students have coordinated the publication of several journals (pp. 240-247), organized cultural groups (pp. 247-250), and have operated a website that provides Tibetan subtitles for popular films (pp. 252-256). Through these projects, many of which were launched after the 2008 riots in Lhasa (p. 260), Tibetan students are able to create, control, and promote new and precisely “modern” (i.e., not “backward” luohou 落后) representations of Tibetan-ness.

Yang Miaoyan’s study of Tibetan students at MUC adds to the impressive list of manuscripts on ethnic minority education in China that have been produced by students of Hong Kong University’s Gerard Postiglione. Although recently a few excellent volumes on ethnic minority education in China have been published in English (see, for example: James Leibold and Chen Yangbin, eds., Multicultural Education in China: Integration, Adaptation, and Resistance. Hong Kong University Press, 2014.), far too few book-length manuscripts on specific case studies are currently available. Yang Miaoyan’s dissertation is a valuable and a much welcomed contribution to the field.

Timothy A. Grose
Assistant Professor of China Studies
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

Primary Sources

Structured and Semi-structured interviews
Participant Observation
Official documents from the Minzu University of China
Chinese social networking websites

Dissertation Information

Hong Kong University. 2014. 302 pp. Primary Advisor: Gerard Postiglione.

Image: Tibetan students dancing in departmental welcome party for first-year students. Photograph by author.

1 comment
  1. I am librarian working at Laval University, Québec, Canada and I would like to borrow or buy a copy of the thesis “Learning to be Ethnic: the case of Tibetans in Minzu University” by Yan Miaoyan. Could you tell me if it is possible? Thank You.
    Claudine Lussier

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