2017 Student-Faculty Fellows Program: Guilford College

The Effects of Centralized Boarding Schools on Tibetan Families in Shangri-la

Mentor: Eric Mortensen (Religious Studies)
Students: Anna Kelly, Billie Dunn-McMartin, and Christopher Collins


An interview in progress, with special thanks to out translator Aten. Shangri-la Old Town. Photo by Eric Mortensen, 7.2017.

Project Abstract

Our project, The Effects of Centralized Boarding Schools on Tibetan Families in Shangri-la, is an effort to understand the effects new policies of mandatory centralized boarding schools have on the language, culture, and identity of Tibetans in Shangri-la (Ch: Xianggelila, Tib: Gyalthang). The broad scope of our project is the study of the centralization of education in relation to the diversity and cultural identities of the rural citizens in rural northwestern Yunnan. We seek to answer this question: in the context of mandatory boarding schools, how are ethnic identities being negotiated, performed, and maintained? Our focus lies in the effect that this new education system has, not in the practical nature of rubrics or measurements of “success” or comparison of the education systems in China and beyond. The evaluation of education is often simplified for the purpose of empirically measurable results; our project complicates this way of thinking by intersecting the role of education with the role of identity, thereby querying the role(s) of cultural and familial values vis-à-vis the state-controlled system. The maintenance of ethnic identity, and the coerced and tension-filled agency at play in the construction and performance of cultural identity by marginalized communities in the face of hegemonic state control, are issues with a global scope and are dynamics with acute and pressing importance today.

Following intensive ethics training prior to our departure for China, we continued to develop our field research skills through practical, hands-on experience, collaborating closely with our local partners in the town of Shangri-la and several neighboring villages (Nizu, Geza, and outside of Benzilan). Our partners ranged from teachers and administrators to students and their families. We endeavored to learn with and from, rather than of and about, people in Shangri-la. Our findings complicate our preconceptions about centralized schools and the way Tibetan villagers feel about the educations their children are receiving. Indeed, our findings suggest that the new centralized boarding school system, while mandatory, is generally appreciated for the potential positive educational outcomes it provides.

Our project focuses on four valuable career skills for the student researchers: 1) the ethical and respectful practice of fieldwork interviews, particularly involving children; 2) language skill development through study before our arrival and through interactions with the local people in China; 3) collaborative research in a group-synthesized project containing purposeful contributions from each team member; 4) building a final digital product using a number of marketable, technological skills including website design and content publishing using WordPress, SharedShelf, and Storymap.js to create stable, embedded, archived content and detailed citations, and to share photo, video, and sound recordings of our observations and experiences. Finally, following the ASIANetwork conference in 2018, we participated in the Guilford Undergraduate Symposium in April, 2018.

Anna Kelly

Teacher enjoying pupil’s drawing of “home.” Ringa School. Photo by Anna Kelly, 5.2017.

We spent our time in Shangri-la and the surrounding areas focusing on two tasks: getting to know what it meant to be a local in this increasingly tourist-oriented town and investigating all we could about the developing mandatory centralized boarding school practices in the area. To accomplish both objectives, we explored all we could in our home city, went on several excursions to neighboring towns, spent days hiking and trekking through the natural landscape, sampled all the local flavors, met countless new friends, and made photo and video memories to share. Every day we spent in Yunnan province was active; every day was a new adventure. Throughout our month in Shangri-la, I learned about the effects of mandatory centralized education on Tibetan families and explored the attitudes towards assimilation and family values of education, prosperity, and security. I tried to empathize with the families sending their children away at ages as young as seven in the hopes of a better life and I wondered what this meant for the future of their home villages. We observed the changing nature of displayed Tibetan culture as it pertains to the increasingly tourist-focused climate of Shangri-la and explored notions of authenticity in minority cultural development. I learned valuable fieldwork practice skills, including how to plan, conduct, transcribe, and analyze interviews; network with locals to find additional information or participants; and navigate cultural differences in professional and personal interactions. After participating in this project, I have made the decision to apply to graduate school in Religious or Theological Studies. This project helped me discover what it means to be active in the world of academia and what it means to create new knowledge, rather than simply study it. I am inspired to continue being a dynamic agent in my own academic life over the years to come.

Chris Collins

Students at the Luoji School. Photo by Chris Collins 6.2017.

In Shangri-la, we studied the region’s ethnic minority groups and their impressions on China’s education system. How has language use in families changed after the mandatory boarding school laws passed by the government? Being in Shangri-la gave me a new view of China, one where people struggle to balance the advance of modernity with the value of tradition. Though China has struggled with this issue for years, seeing it from the perspective of non-Han Chinese populations gave a new meaning to this complex balance of valuing minority cultures while pursuing economic stability. Going into our research we hoped to speak with a diverse array of people, both within and around the city of Shangri-la. Along the way, we discovered a variety of perspectives, popular agreements, common struggles and stories from our interviews. Through this experience, I was able to expand my knowledge of China, its people, and its culture. My perceptions of education in Asia were challenged, my experience surrounding interviews and fieldwork were built upon, and my mind was opened to future opportunities in exploring the intricacies of education systems in and outside the United States. In Yunnan I focused on documenting interview sessions, which involved voice recordings, photographs and video footage, provided consent was clearly given. Aside from seeing China through a new perspective, I also gained an appreciation for fieldwork and its time-consuming processes. While learning about China and its education system’s effects was our primary goal, I also developed a sense for what team research work involves. The chance to do field research in this setting further motivated me to pursue a graduate degree where I might do similar work. The entire experience of this research project fell along the path of my career goals and contributed to my need for practical work in my field. My major track involves international politics and environmental studies. While our fieldwork was not directly under the fields of politics or environmental work, it gave me a crucial experience in understanding research abroad while also providing an opportunity to develop a better understanding of China.

Billie Dunn-McMartin

Why are global issues of education and minority identity and experiences important? How can zooming in on the experiences of specific minority populations and their interactions with education systems affect our understandings of these issues on a global scale and impact our global perspectives? Our project made these topics more universally understood by not only looking at the Chinese education system, but the ways in which diverse identities are implicated and shaped through education; in this case Tibetan identity. The process of interviewing, from creating the questions to finding people both relevant and willing to be interviewed, to then conducting the interviews and documenting the information gathered, was the bulk of our project activities. We spent a lot of time thinking about questions and ways to improve our interviewing process. The ability to engage with other people and cultures in an open, critical, and non-invasive way is particularly relevant and meaningful to me as someone who wants to work in diverse spaces and with diverse communities. The heart of our project was the focus on a fundamental understanding of our surroundings: the land, the history, the culture, the people, and the religion in which we were working. Education is directly tied to systems of power, such as governmental systems and cultural systems. The intersection of these forms of power with minority identity and experience was a major focus of our group project. Despite providing much better educational opportunities to rural communities, the centralization of boarding schools creates a situation where rural communities are vacant of their youth. While this creates a lot of sadness and issues within the lives of the families, there was also a lot of positive sentiment towards the education that this generation is receiving, especially in comparison with previous generations. We will be sharing our project with the Guilford community and beyond through the Guilford Undergraduate Symposium (GUS) in which we will be presenting our final product as well as electronically sharing our product on a website hosted by Guilford and dedicated to expanding peoples’ views of Asia.

Chris Collins, Billie Dunn-McMartin, & Anna Kelly (from l. to r.). Photo by Eric Mortensen, 5.2017.