Letter from Lhasa: My boarding school sojourn in Xizang

By: Xinhua
Updated: Nov. 16, 2023


Ngogyan Tenzin (R) practices Tibetan calligraphy at Lhasa-Jiangsu Experimental Middle School in Lhasa, capital of southwest China's Xizang Autonomous Region, Sept. 14, 2023. (Xinhua/Jigme Dorje)


LHASA, Nov. 16, 2023 -- During my visit to a few boarding schools in southwest China's Xizang Autonomous Region, a 15-year-old student read his favorite lines from his Tibetan language textbook to me in his ethnic language entirely unfamiliar to me.
Seeing my blank amazement, the student, Ngogyan Tenzin, kindly translated the meaning into Mandarin, which roughly translates to English as: "Continue your studies today. While you may not become a scholar in this lifetime, knowledge will still find you in the next."
These words come from "Sakya Legshad," the earliest poetry collection of philosophical aphorisms in Tibetan literature, dating back to the first half of the 13th century. The author Sakya Pandita is also the fourth of the Five Patriarchs of Sakya, a major sect of Tibetan Buddhism.
Tibetan Buddhism believes in reincarnation, asserting that although assets like money cannot be passed onto the next life, knowledge is an exception. The teenager loves the lines, and the wise words keep motivating him to learn hard.
Hailing from Nyemo County, Ngogyan Tenzin currently studies in Lhasa-Jiangsu Experimental Middle School, situated some 140 km away from his hometown.

Tsering Norbu (C) takes a class at Lhasa-Jiangsu Experimental Middle School in Lhasa, capital of southwest China's Xizang Autonomous Region, Sept. 14, 2023. (Xinhua/Jigme Dorje)
Today, school-age children in Xizang, including those in remote areas such as Ngari Prefecture, known for its high average altitude of 4,500 meters, have the option to either attend school as day students within their own prefecture or opt for boarding schools across Xizang. Ngogyan Tenzin, for instance, chose to pursue his education in Lhasa, the regional capital, where there are better educational resources.
Starting in the mid-1980s, China initiated a comprehensive reform on rural education by consolidating a considerable number of rural primary and middle schools. This effort aimed to bring together teachers and establish a more stable and higher-quality educational environment for children residing in remote rural areas.
In 1985, Xizang began implementing the boarding system for primary and secondary schools in its agricultural and pastoral regions.
Yanglha, who teaches the Tibetan language to senior high school students at Lhasa-Beijing Experimental Middle School, told me that she had been a day student before she entered college.
"I had to wake up very early in the morning and return home very late at night. Many of my peers would often get tempted by the sceneries during their over one-hour walk to school and ended up playing all day in the fields, leaving their homework unfinished," Yanglha recalled, adding that she still had to help her parents with farmwork or tending to their herds, leaving her with little time for studies.

Jampa Yonten (R) picks his daughter up after school in Lhasa, capital of southwest China's Xizang Autonomous Region, Sept. 10, 2023. (Xinhua/Jigme Dorje)
Fortunately, today's boarding students have fewer distractions, and their parents no longer need to worry about their safety during the commute to school.
In certain prefectures, I've observed that some teenagers, whose parents are often occupied with work away from home, may fall into negative habits like smoking and drinking. Jampa Yonten, a teacher at a local primary school and the father of Namkhang Lhamo, a seventh-grader at Lhasa-Beijing Experimental Middle School, expressed his confidence in the high-quality educational resources and the attentive supervision and discipline provided by boarding schools. He believes that these factors will ensure his daughter's well-rounded growth and keep her on the right path.
Nearly 80 percent of the teachers at Lhasa-Beijing Experimental Middle School are Tibetans. Most of the students here choose to attend the Tibetan language class and the subject accounts for one-tenth of the total scores of the "gaokao," or the college entrance examination for Chinese students.
A sixth-grader at the school told me that he attends two Tibetan language lessons every day, each lasting about 40 minutes.
More than 40 elective courses are offered here, including Tibetan calligraphy, poetry appreciation and classes in ethnic musical instrument Dramyen.

Students practice the "Xieqin," a traditional local dance, on the playground at the Baingoin County Sinopec Primary School in downtown Baingoin County, Nagqu, southwest China's Xizang Autonomous Region, Oct. 13, 2023. (Photo by Kong Linlin/Xinhua) 
Starting in September, more than half of the school's students joined in the annual art festival, which will continue until the end of the year. The festival features a diverse array of performances from traditional Tibetan operas to Shakespearean plays. At fashion shows, the students showcase their own creations -- designs ranging from contemporary and stylish to those rooted in Tibetan ethnic styles.
Days after my visits to the schools, I watched a mesmerizing Dramyen performance by students from a local vocational school. This happened quite serendipitously, during a spontaneous gathering of music enthusiasts at a local cafe. It was a delightful surprise.
On campus, the Tibetan boarding students are exposed to a multilingual environment that encompasses Tibetan, Mandarin and English. I believe this diverse linguistic exposure will broaden their cultural horizons and encourage new ways of thinking.
Tashi Sangmo, a high school senior boarding student, is a member of her school's Tibetan Literary Society. Her passion for literature extends to reading Tibetan classics like "Nangsa Obar" from her Tibetan textbook, as well as exploring the creations of ancient Chinese poets such as Li Bai and Su Shi, along with novels by Lu Xun, a renowned Chinese writer from the 20th century, all of which she studies from her Mandarin textbook. Interestingly, she also studied Shakespeare's "Hamlet" using Tibetan textbooks.

Students are pictured at the Baingoin County Sinopec Primary School in downtown Baingoin County, Nagqu, southwest China's Xizang Autonomous Region, Oct. 13, 2023. (Photo by Wang Wei/Xinhua) 
Driven by sheer curiosity, I decided to sit for two lessons during my stay at Lhasa-Beijing Experimental Middle School.
One of the lessons I attended was a Tibetan language class for high school sophomores, focusing on a chapter from "The Mirror of Poetry," a renowned work on poetic theory from ancient India. They were delving into topics like poetic imagery and relevant grammar rules. To my surprise, as a college literature major, I found these theories quite challenging to grasp.
The second lesson, which focused on Tibetan calligraphy for junior high school newcomers, was quite relaxing. The teacher lightened the atmosphere by remarking that one of the tone notes bore a striking resemblance to the Buddha's index finger, while another looked like a half-sliced egg. This humorous observation elicited shared laughter and a sense of delight among the teenagers and myself.
Being here, amidst these remarkable teenagers, I cannot help admiring them for their resilience against all odds, their unwavering dedication to the pursuit of knowledge, and their unbridled ambition for a brighter future.

By: Yao Yulin