Documentary Depicts 'Cultural Assimilation' of Tibetan Students in Coastal China

Trailer for "One Way Home" by Qingzi Fan. (1 min., 1 sec.)

In a Shanghai middle school reserved exclusively for Tibetan students, a political thinking teacher provides a stern instruction to her class: “We shall be dead set against the Dalai Lama’s conspiracy to divide our country.”

“He is a political prop,” she continues. “A prop used by who?”

“By the anti-China groups from the West,” the students respond in unison.

For more than three decades, the Chinese government has been sponsoring top Tibetan students to study in boarding schools like this in major cities throughout the country. To date, nearly 90,000 students have attended them — but they’re largely unknown even within China. A new documentary short titled One Way Home gives a rare glimpse into what happens in these schools and how they influence their students.

“It wasn’t clear to me initially that it was going to be a political film,” said 25-year-old Chinese director Qingzi Fan. “Yet the political agenda behind these boarding schools just stands there, staring at me.”

For her NYU News and Documentary Master’s project, Fan was granted unprecedented access to film in the Shanghai Gong Kang Middle School after gaining the trust of administrators while doing volunteer English tutoring there. From the beginning, though, the headmaster said that the school was a very sensitive subject and that there would be parameters on what she could film. She could not, for instance, film students saluting the flag and singing the national anthem in the morning; nor could she film whenever Education Ministry officials dropped by.

Fan felt though that what she was allowed to capture proved even more interesting. In one on-camera interview, an instructor said, “Bluntly speaking, what we do here is assimilate them culturally.”

The concept of “cultural assimilation” didn’t appear to have any negative connotations at the school. “They see it as a good thing that students are being culturally assimilated [with the Han Chinese ethnic majority],” Fan said. “They think they’re helping the students."

For the three years they study at the school, students aren’t allowed to return home or speak their native language while on campus. And at least ten hours each week are spent on political thinking courses, which include lessons extolling the values of atheism and the backwardness of religion — including Tibetan Buddhism.

For the students, the chance to study in cosmopolitan Shanghai is a precious one that greatly increases their odds of going to a good college; parents tend to be thrilled when they’re admitted. Coming from isolated rural backgrounds, students depicted in the film seem aware that this elite education can change their family’s fate. “If mainland Chinese don’t go to college, they can still start their own business,” says one young male student. “Where I’m from, if we don’t go to college, there is nothing for us to do but be a farmer.”

The majority of the school’s graduates will eventually return to Tibet and work in government — something the school strives for. “The students will be responsible for our country’s future security and stability,” said one political instructor. “It's essential to make sure their values and thoughts are led by orthodox ideology.”

In interviews throughout the film, students admit that they’ve been irreversibly changed in many ways — culturally and linguistically — but several appear determined to hold on to aspects of their heritage. One girl laments that the Tibetan language badly needs to be protected, and hopes to one day compile a dictionary to “preserve our dying language.”

At one point, a group of girls in their dorm room are asked about the contradiction between their atheistic education and their Buddhist beliefs. “Buddha is in our heart,” one replies. “They can restrict us physically, but not mentally.”

“She could be arrested for saying that,” another girl responds with a laugh.

“We will never relinquish our religion,” the first girl adds. “Possibly, we won’t become Communist Party members because of this.”

About the Author

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.