Basic but bilingual




Thirty-five children and two monks huddle in a make-shift wooden structure that provides only the barest protection from the cold mountain winds. 

The simple Tondashun School in Punzera, Yunnan province, consists of a kitchen, two sleeping areas and two 'classrooms', one of which houses two classes in a tiny space.

Here, students and teachers are proving that learning Putonghua need not necessarily mean leaving their own language and culture behind. Buddhist monk and teacher Lobsang Jiachu says bilingual education is key to the survival of the people and region.

'A basic education in Tibetan and Chinese will give the children the confidence and skills to fend for their families and to protect their culture against the tide of tourism that is flooding the region and the massive increase in infrastructure financed from within China and Taiwan,' he says. 

Many of the children - the offspring of subsistence farmers - previously were able to attend only Chinese-language schools. They were forced to drop out because their parents could not afford the fees. 

The Tundashun School, which is free, has attracted eager students from as far as 100km away. 

Just down the road is the White Horse Snow Mountain Tibetan Community School, founded by Lobsang Choeden, a monk who returned to China after studying in Bangalore, India. His goal is to make the children literate in

Tibetan, a medium not offered in nearby public schools, and a language Lobsang says fell into decline during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). 

The monk, who speaks no Putonghua himself, said that boarders spend extra time each day so that they would be fluent in Tibetan, Putonghua and English. The programme, which is free for the children of poor farmers, opened with just 16 students, but enrolment soon shot up to 60, despite adopting the Tibetan language as the main form of instruction. Even young nuns from a nearby convent were lining up to learn how to read and write Tibetan script. 

'In the future, I'd like to have 500 students,' he said, smiling. 'Possibly even a university.'

© Paul J. Mooney 2013