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 -- For Tibetan children like Ngogyan Tenzin who are from ordinary families, "going to school" was something highly unlikely several decades ago.
In old Xizang, where the illiteracy rate exceeded 95 percent among young people, access to education was predominantly limited to the privileged aristocracy.
Hailing from Nyemo County, located over 130 km from Lhasa, capital city of southwest China's Xizang Autonomous Region, Ngogyan Tenzin is now a boarding student at Lhasa-Jiangsu Experimental Middle School, which provides both boarding and commuting options.
If he chose to commute between home and school every day, the round trip would take more than 4 hours by road. Therefore, he opted for boarding.
The result of a pairing-up aid program supported by the economically developed province of Jiangsu in east China, this school has about 3,000 students, with over 90 percent of them Tibetans, while the remainder have diverse ethnic backgrounds, such as Han, Moinba, and Lhoba, among others.
Many of the students come from farming and pastoral areas in the vast plateau region.
Thanks to the region's public education policy and transportation subsidies for boarding students from rural and pastoral areas, Ngogyan Tenzin's family does not have to pay education fees and only has to pay a small amount for his transport.
Known as the "roof of the world," the region's average altitude exceeds 4,000 meters, and its population density is as low as three persons per square kilometer.
In the bid to guarantee rural children equal access to education across this mountainous region, boarding schools have become crucial in providing solutions.
In fact, the boarding school system has long been established nationwide based on the needs of parents and students. In Xizang, the combination of high altitude, an extremely scattered population, and challenges related to children's commuting has made the implementation of boarding school options a necessity.
Latest statistics showed that the region has established more than 3,400 schools, with nearly 950,000 students. Among the almost 1,000 primary and secondary schools, 895 are boarding schools, and the number of boarding students in primary and secondary schools is approximately 410,000.
Like many other boarding and non-boarding schools across the region, Ngogyan Tenzin's curriculum encompasses a wide range of subjects, including Tibetan, Chinese, English, mathematics, history, geography, and arts. Tibetan's weight in the national college entrance examination equal to that of Chinese and English. As a second-year student in the junior high school department, he has made significant progress, seeing his exam results ranking improving from 48th in the mid-term exam to 25th in the final exam of the last semester.
Apart from his academic studies, Ngogyan Tenzin actively engages in a variety of extracurricular activities at school, such as different kinds of clubs, arts events and sports festivals.
Upon his enrollment, he enthusiastically joined the Tibetan calligraphy club.
Different from regular classrooms, this clubroom radiates with the opulence of Tibetan culture. Its door is decorated by a curtain featuring a blue mask from Tibetan opera, while the interior walls are adorned with vibrant traditional Tibetan curtains. Delicately carved tables and sofas in the room enhance the overall ambiance.
"I was thrilled to discover the Tibetan calligraphy club since I have been honing my Tibetan calligraphy skills as a hobby since I was nine years old. I now have a good grasp of five styles of Tibetan calligraphy," he said proudly, while also mentioning that he regularly goes to this club.
In stark contrast to the colonial-style residential school system established in certain Western countries during the 19th and 20th centuries, aimed at cultural assimilation, Ngogyan Tenzin's school operates under a different paradigm -- it is not an enclosed institution, nor is it under stringent military-style management.
After five school days, Ngogyan Tenzin usually spends the weekends with his cousin's family in Lhasa, reserving the longer summer and winter breaks for cherished reunions with his parents in Nyemo County.
"I look forward to both Fridays and Sundays, as I can visit my relatives' home on Fridays and go back to school to meet my teachers and friends on Sundays," the 15-year-old said.
During the five-day Shoton Festival holiday in August, a traditional Tibetan festival, he joined his cousin's family to celebrate the festival. "We visited Drepung Monastery in suburban Lhasa, where we watched the unrolling of a giant Thangka painting," he recalled. This sacred ritual is known as the "sunning of the Buddha."
The Shoton Festival, with its origins in the 11th century, was among the first items to be inscribed on the national list of intangible cultural heritage in 2006. Typical celebrations include tasting yogurt, picnicking, and attending traditional events such as Tibetan opera performances and horse racing.
Upon learning that boarding schools in the region were being demonized by some Western media and that his cherished place of dreams was being slandered as a site where "Tibetan culture, religion, and language were being assimilated," Ngogyan Tenzin was dumbfounded.
"School is like my second home and it should never be smeared with lies," he said. "It's a warm place that is bringing me closer to my dream of becoming a Tibetan linguist."
The plateau region has made significant strides in education over the past few decades. Since 2012, students there have enjoyed free board and lodging, and they are exempt from study costs from preschool to senior high school, spanning a total of 15 years. These measures have not only alleviated the financial burden on families but also eased parents' concerns regarding their children's education.
Tashi Sangmo and her older sister, Tenzin Chodron, have both benefited from this policy.
Tashi Sangmo was born to a family in the farming and pastoral area in Namling County, Xigaze City, located over 300 km from Lhasa. Her family depends on crop cultivation and yak herding for their livelihood. Their parents, who have only limited education experience, prioritized their children's education and sent Tashi Sangmo and her older sister to local boarding schools.
Tashi Sangmo embarked on her educational journey at a local primary boarding school in the township, followed by a junior high school in the county. The arduous journey to school, particularly during inclement weather conditions, posed significant challenges. She still vividly remembered a friend who had suffered injuries in a traffic accident while en route to school.
Her older sister, Tenzin Chodron, faced even greater hardships on her educational path.
"We never attended kindergarten. It wasn't until primary school that I first received education at the nearest boarding school," the 28-year-old recounted.
The distance between their home and the boarding school was hazy in Tenzin Chodron's memory, but what remained clear was the strenuous nature of the journey, which saw her leaving home early on Sunday mornings and only arriving at school by nightfall.
"We really appreciated our parents' unwavering support for our education, as many parents often urge girls to seek jobs or marriage after junior high school graduation," said the elder sister, who managed to go to university in central China's Hubei Province after years of studying in boarding schools, and is now working at an insurance company in Xigaze.
The younger sister has developed a passion for literature at school and is the president of the school's Tibetan literature club. Her Tibetan-language articles have been published in local newspapers.
The 18-year-old is now preparing for the national college entrance examination, slated for June next year.
"I'm eager to explore the wider world outside the small county. Receiving education here has broadened my horizons and offers me more opportunities for a better future," she added.
The number of commuting students at Lhasa-Jiangsu Experimental Middle School totaled about 30 in September. This number fluctuates based on changes in the needs of students and parents.
Tsering Norbu, 13, is among those who are commuting. He had previously been a boarding student at primary school, but now commutes every day between school and home after falling ill with gastroenteritis. Tsering Norbu's parents do not work in Lhasa, therefore, his grandparents need to accompany him on his daily commutes.
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)
The boy's personal experience tells him that there are advantages to both boarding and commuting options, but he evidently prefers the former option.
"When boarding at school, I can make more friends, become more independent and enhance my learning efficiency. Plus, I don't have to get up too early in the morning and it eases my elderly grandparents' burden," said Tsering Norbu, who is eager to resume boarding life on campus once fully recovered.
Jamba Yonten, a boarding school teacher in Lhunzhub County, made the decision to send his daughter, Namkha Lhamo, to the Lhasa-Beijing Experimental Middle School in mid-August, despite access to junior high schools in Lhunzhub. Every Friday afternoon, he waits outside the school gate to pick her up, taking his daughter to homes in either Lhasa or Lhunzhub.
Jamba Yonten (R) picks his daughter up after school in Lhasa, capital of southwest China's Xizang Autonomous Region, Sept. 10, 2023. (Xinhua/Jigme Dorje)
Having witnessed children engaging in early smoking and drinking due to the absence of parents too busy with work, the father firmly believes that stringent supervision at boarding schools is conducive to sound adolescent development. "The middle school years are a critical stage for children to get to know the world, and I hope she remains on the right path."
Jamba Yonten said that he has noticed improvements in his daughter since she started attending boarding school. She can make her own bed and do the laundry by herself. She even helps the adults do household chores. Her picky eating habits have also improved significantly. He attributes these swift changes to the disciplined yet nurturing environment at the boarding school.
Jamba Yonten also believes that boarding schools in the regional capital offer advanced campus infrastructure and facilities, qualified teaching staff, diverse elective courses alongside compulsory subjects, and rich cultural activities.
"There are many boarding schools in Europe and America, such as the famous Eton College. I don't understand why the Western media outlets specifically target our region's boarding schools?" Jamba Yonten asked.
Like other boarding schools across the country, Lhasa-Jiangsu Experimental Middle School places significant importance on families' involvement in school education. Activities such as parent committees and school open days are regularly organized, inviting parents to participate in the management and planning of their children's boarding lives and education.
Currently, the middle school boasts 60 classes, each of which has its own dedicated parent committee. During school open days, parents are encouraged to visit classrooms, canteens, and dormitories and to communicate with various school departments, according to Migmar Cering, a school official. The most recent school open day welcomed approximately 180 parents.
"Parents participate in a round-table conference with school representatives, and they are able to offer suggestions on various aspects of school life, while the school will make adjustment in accordance with their suggestions," said Migmar Cering.
In addition, parents are allowed to visit their children or deliver items to them at any time.
Deyung is an English teacher at a local boarding school and she firmly believes that allegations of so-called "forced assimilation" among Tibetan students are unfounded.
"We offer Tibetan language courses, and grades for Tibetan language are the same as Chinese and English in the national college entrance examination. We have many Tibetan teachers who communicate with students in Tibetan both in and outside class, and we have various activities and clubs centered on Tibetan language. We also attach importance to traditional Tibetan festivals," Deyung said.
The young teacher has observed a growing enthusiasm among her students for learning English.
"My many students recognize that English is a very important tool that can help them better understand this diverse world. So, is learning English a form of Westernization?" She asked.