Written by Bendi Tso

The replacement of the Mongolian language with Chinese in schools in Inner Mongolia has prompted protests in China as well as international condemnation. We have seen similar curriculum changes in Xinjiang and Tibetan areas across China. Most often, we see the prioritizing and privileging of Chinese language education system as a prerogative of the CCP. Nevertheless, the very idea of Chinese language education as central to the Chinese nation-building project is not new and can be traced as far back as the early Republican era. There is historical continuity in assimilating ethnic groups into the Chinese nation-state starting with the KMT regime all the way through to the CCP regime, albeit with evolving contours and changing agendas.

The development of modern education in Labrang and Chone (in today’s Gansu Province)—two historically important political and cultural centers for Tibetans in Amdo—demonstrates that the introduction of Chinese-oriented education started during the KMT regime not only as a form of state penetration into ethnic groups, but also as a response to the Japanese invasion to consolidate the frontier regions.

Labrang, the largest religious polity since the early 18th century, and Chone, the largest Tibetan secular kingdom since the beginning of the 15th century on the eastern Tibetan plateau, were officially incorporated into the KMT regime in 1927 and 1937 respectively. This territorial and political integration supported the systematic introduction and implementation of modern education to “civilize” Tibetans and to cultivate their new national identity as a part of the Chinese nation-state. The new regime saw Tibetans as “poorly educated and having meagre modern knowledge” (Kanlho Historical Accounts (KHA), 1991: 54). In 1927, The Association for the Promotion of Labrang Tibetan Culture was established at the request of the Education Bureau of Gansu to promote the development of culture and education within Tibetan communities (KHA, 1991: 54; KHA, 1984: 76; The Gazetter of Sangchu, 1999: 779). The first primary school was established in the same year in Labrang (KHA, 1991: 161). A year later, the Republican government took over the private school in Chone founded by the 19th Chone King (KHA, 1991: 62-63). The founding of these two primary schools served as a prelude to the Nationalist government’s management of the educational landscape in Labrang and Chone. By the end of 1947, there were twenty-two primary schools in Chone and twelve in Labrang (KHA, 1991: 79-80).

Considering the powerful symbolic connection between literacy and the imagining of the nation-state, the cultivation of students’ Chinese linguistic and national identity was realized through two school subjects: gongmin, referring to citizenship, and guoyu, meaning the national language. In 1941, Ten Resolutions on Frontier Education was passed by the Nationalist government which made Chinese language education compulsory (KHA, 1991: 72). Through this linguistic shift, the state expected to both construct and maintain students’ Chinese national consciousness and identity.

The KMT’s assimilation project was also a response to external aggression. Continued territorial encroachment by the Japanese starting in the early 1930s pushed Republican politicians and intellectuals to start planning the integration of the Northwest (including Gansu) into China’s national defence project. The Northwest became vital as a rear zone to extract resources, support the frontline armies, and resist Japanese aggression. In 1938, Labrang Vocational Middle School was founded to equip students with technical skills in animal husbandry and public health (KHA 1991: 59-60; KHA 1991: 165; The Gazetteer of Sangchu 1999: 789). Seven years later, another vocational school, the National Labrang Younger Monk Vocational School was set up for the monks of Labrang Monastery with the aim of “providing modern education to younger monks who could therefore undertake frontier-building project” (KHA 1991: 60; The Gazetteer of Sangchu 1999: 788). The fifth Jamyang Zhepa (1916-1947), the religious leader of the Labrang monastery, was appointed as the headmaster. In 1945, 100 young monks were recruited and the number increased to 142 the following year (KHA 1991: 61). Besides regular curriculum such as Tibetan language, citizenship, Chinese language, music and so forth, the vocational curriculum also included textiles and printing technology (KHA 1991: 61). Labrang was not the only place where monks were targeted in the wake of the implementation of modern education. As early as 1939, the Tsador Tsang Song Khenpo founded the Tibetan Buddhist and Chinese Language School in Chone Monastery, with the aim of “cultivating younger monks to learn Chinese language and scientific knowledge, and training them as Tibetan-Chinese translators” (KHA 1991: 74; The Gazetteer of Chone 1994: 551).

The impetus behind the establishment of schools in Labrang and Chone was beyond doubt: the promotion of modern education would help “civilize” Tibetans and cultivate their sense of national unity and belonging to resist Japanese aggression and secure China’s territorial integrity during the chaotic times of war. All of this demonstrates that Chinese projects of assimilation, manifested in this case through education policies and practices, can be traced back to the KMT regime. Compared with the CCP regime that followed, the penetration of the state into Tibetan areas during the KMT was admittedly limited. Some schools did not last long and in other schools, Tibetans accounted for a low percentage of students, compared with Chinese and Hui Muslims. Nevertheless, the early ideological framing and institutional setting of bilingual education informed and shaped the bilingual policies and practices of the CCP, revealing the ongoing exertions of the Chinese nation-state to incorporate different ethnic and cultural groups into a united, modern nation.


Bendi Tso is a Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. Her research interests include Indigenous knowledge mobilization, and linguistic and cultural identities on the Sino-Tibetan borderland. Her work has been published in Book 2.0 and two peer-reviewed edited volumes.



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