the publication of
Are We "Chinese"?
Thubten Jigme Norbu
It appears that having lost our homes and our country, we Tibetans are about to suffer a further insult: in a perverse twist to the tragedy that has befallen us we are being denied our very identity.
For centuries Tibetans and non-Tibetans have never had any doubts about who we are as a people and as a nation. Now we suddenly find ourselves being classified as "Chinese," and this by many who ought to know better. What is the basis of this? Simply the modern theory propounded in China to the effect that Tibetans, Mongols, Uighurs, and all others who find themselves living within the borders of present People's Republic of China are "Chinese". So often has this proposition been repeated that it is now taken as correct in more and more forums. But is it?
"Chinese" is an ethnic term, this much is undeniable. It refers to a particular group of people who are the heirs to a specific culture and native speakers of a specific group of languages. This means that there is a definite ethno-linguistic connection between the peoples thus identified. But those of us who are Tibetan or Mongol, for example, clearly don't fit into this definition, and yet we find ourselves being classed time and again as "Chinese." The reason for this is the purposeful dissemination of a new definition ''Chinese" which is meant to pervert its original meaning for political purposes and to create in the minds of people the idea that at bottom all of the peoples within the People's Republic of China are ethnically Chinese.
To phrase this in a simpler form, the rulers of the Peoples Republic of China have opted for the use of an ethnic term to express what ought to be a political reality (i.e., that the peoples whom we have so far mentioned are today under the rule of the Peoples Republic of China). The calculated result is that many people now mistakenly assume that this term expresses an ethnic reality (i.e., that the above-mentioned peoples are actually ethnically Chinese), an error which carries with it any number of further false assumptions. As "Chinese," one would have to assume that Tibetans, Mongols, and Uighurs speak Sinitic languages, have similar cultural heroes as the Chinese (i.e., Confucius, etc.), and follow life-styles similar to theirs as well. All of this is patently untrue, yet the myth that we are all Chinese is still being successfully bandied about.
As further substantiation for this linguistic perversion, the powers that be in China have entered upon the use of "Han," a synonym for "Chinese," to describe themselves. This further creates the impression that the term ''Chinese'' applies to us as much as to the Chinese. In reality this is simply an act of linguistic legerdemain, for the terms "Han" and "Chinese" have always meant the same thing, at least until recent decades, when China's rulers began to create a reality of their own. If we check any of the traditional Chinese lexicographic works, we will see that "Han" is simply defined as another term for "Chinese." And this is how the term has generally been understood by the Chinese themselves. Ultimately there is no basis to the postulation that the "Han" people are ethnically related to the Tibetans, Mongols, Uighurs, etc., and that they are just the constituent branches of an ethno-linguistic group known as the "Chinese" people.
It is ironic, in a sense, that Tibetans now face the prospect of having our identity assimilated into that of the Chinese. Ironic, for it is the Chinese who have ruled Tibet for the shortest time among all who have at one time or another dominated the country. The Mongols held sway over Tibet for over a century during the era of their world empire. Similarly the Manchus controlled Tibet for close to two centuries during their imperial period. But the Chinese only came to dominate Tibet in the 20th century. It cannot be doubted by anyone that Tibet manifested all that one would expect of an independent country during the period between the Manchu collapse and the Chinese invasion. We Tibetans had our own government, one which had declared itself (through the voice of the thirteenth Dalai Lama) to be independent, and which comported itself in a way fully commensurate with that declaration. Tibet maintained its own Foreign Office, postal system, currency, and full administration. So too, we held to a strictly neutral position, in World War II, in spite of both Chinese and British participation, and granted asylum to two Austrian mountaineers who requested the Tibetan Government not to return them to Allied detention. More to the point, when the Tibetan Government in 1919 (desiring to maintain neutrality and evenhandedness between the factions in China's civil war) ordered all Chinese out of Lhasa, including the Kuomintang representatives accredited to the Tibetan Foreign Office, the Chinese all complied according to accepted international norms.
The only foreign powers that ever really dominated Tibet before the Chinese were the Manchu and Mongol empires, huge entities in which several other states apart from Tibet were conquered and ruled. Within these empires Tibetans and Chinese were equally considered subject nations. These were clearly not, as historians well know, "Chinese" empires. Tibetans never considered Manchus or Mongols to be Chinese. For they were not. However, now the same distortions that the Chinese have been utilising to pervert the general perception of our history are being used to create the illusion that Tibet has been "Chinese" for centuries. For if the Chinese succeed in giving life to the myth that the Manchus and Mongols were "Chinese," then surely there can be no grounds for asserting that Tibetans themselves have never been anything but "Chinese."
It is up to us speak out as forcefully as we can against this perversion of language, for it is more than simply that. It is a device for denying us our rightful identities and for subsuming us in that of the Chinese. Sadly, though, we can see a growing number of people--journalists and others--referring more and more to the Chinese as "Han Chinese," and thereby tacitly accepting the new Chinese dictum that the Han are but one variety of Chinese, there being others (presumably "Mongol Chinese," "Tibetan Chinese," etc.). We must begin now, for the situation has been ignored for far too long. If we ourselves don't come forward to assert the truth regarding this issue assuredly no one else will do so. And if our national identity fades from history we will have no one to blame but ourselves.