Identity in Transition: Language Attitudes Among Amdo Tibetans

Jermay Jamsu

Georgetown University, United States of America


The “othering” of minority groups in China has played a pivotal role in the construction of the Han Chinese majority and the ongoing formulation of the Chinese 'nation' itself (Gladney, 1994). As China reimagines itself as a unified multiethnic nation, it reconfigures the identities of ethnic minorities in part by reconfiguring their language ideologies (Hillman and Henfry, 2006). One example of this reconfiguration is the hierarchical arrangement of varieties of Tibetan in Chinese state discourse – Lhasa as the most prestigious and dominant variety (Dwyer, 1998). With a combination of both qualitative and quantitative approaches, this study investigates Amdo Tibetan speakers' ideologies about linguistic diversity and its relationship to ethnic Tibetan identity in China. I examine how minorities in China (Amdo Tibetans) claim their own linguistic and ethnic identities in relation to other Tibetan groups (Kham and Lhasa Tibetans) while discrediting the identity configured by the Han Chinese state.

Data were collected by means of a web-based survey containing 50 questions divided into attitude and comprehension sections. The attitude section contained 38 questions exploring participants’ ideological positions on Tibetan language varieties and their relationship to the experience of being Tibetan. It also included questions asking participants to rate varieties of Tibetan (Amdo, Kham, and Lhasa, corresponding to the three main provinces of Tibet) using a number of positive and negative adjectives such as “beautiful, authentic, ugly” (Martinez, 2003; Sachdev and Hanlon, 2001). Additionally, one important and unresolved issue in Tibetan scholarship is whether these varieties are mutually intelligible. Accordingly, a comprehension section including three short news clips in each variety was designed, with the accuracy of respondents’ answers to comprehension questions taken as a measure of intelligibility. 18 Amdo listeners participated in the initial phase of data collection; additional data from 60 participants were collected over the summer and are now being analyzed.

Preliminary results show that on average Amdo participants understand the Kham news clip with only 65% accuracy, and the Lhasa clip with only 71% accuracy, compared to 92% for the Amdo clip. Their self-reported intelligibility level of the Kham and Lhasa varieties was even lower, at 55%. Despite this low level of intelligibility, however, the great majority of respondents believe that all varieties of Tibetan are equally important (27%) and authentic. Though the participants indicate their awareness about the historical significance of the Lhasa variety, an overwhelming majority (17 out of 18) do not perceive these Tibetan varieties to be hierarchically ordered. The varieties are more egalitarian. For these participants, part of being Tibetan is being able to speak any variety of Tibetan. Amdo Tibetans are becoming more conscious of their ethnic identity, and by identifying with all Tibetans in spite of linguistic differences, they are contesting state discourse about minorities. I argue that this new emerging Tibetan identity represents the transition of Tibetan people from a nationality to an ethnicity in a rapidly changing economic and socio-political landscape. This study thus has implications regarding the extent to which the state discourse and policy affect the identity of minority populations.

Session: Paper session
Attitude 4
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 09:00-10:30
room: 09