Kunbzang Tsering དཀུན་བཟང་ཚེ་རིང (PhD Candidate, La Trobe University)
During August 2020, several landslides occurred on the northeastern Tibetan Plateau, as a result of heavy rain. This disaster destroyed many homes and resulted in approximately 2,000 villagers being relocated to the county town. In this post, I will look at how local Tibetans used the Baima language to communicate amongst themselves during this crisis.
Who are the Baima People?
The Baima people (Baima ren) are classified as a subgroup of Tibetans. They live on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau and have a population of around 20,000 people. Administratively, Baima Tibetan Autonomous Township, consisting of four administrative villages, belongs to Pingwu County in Mianyang Municipality, in northern Sichuan Province.
The Baima language is the Baima people’s native language. Although it is in some ways close to Tibetan, it is mutually unintelligible, and thus considered a distinct language. Baima does not have a writing system; Baima people use religious scriptures written in Tibetan. Geographically, the township lies in narrow valleys, with abundant vegetation. Most Baima people engaged in agriculture.
Historical narratives regarding the origins of the Baima people are contested. Chinese scholars claim that the Baima people are descendants of the Di people during the Han dynasty (202AD-220BC), who were subsequently Tibetanized during 7th century (Yang 2001). Tibetan scholars, such as Dmu dge bsam gtan (2010), argue that the Baima people originated from Tibetan soldiers who were sent to guard the border during the reign of king Sontsanganpo (617-650), on the grounds that Bai in Tibetan refers Tibet or Tibetan (bod) whereas ma can be understood as soldier (dmag). According to my informant, the former view typically prevails amongst Baima people themselves.
The 2020 Landslide Disaster
In early August 2020, it began raining almost continuously in Baima Tibetan Autonomous Township. On the 17th of August, a landslide occurred, demolishing and burying households along the valley. After that, the debris plugged up the river channel and formed a dam near a few villagers, such as E Li Village. This natural disaster resulted in 1,134 houses being destroyed, including newly buildings which had been constructed specifically to attract tourists.
My information about the disaster comes from an informant in Pa Xi Jia team from Ya Zhe Zuo Zu village, consisting of 110 people. Although most of them are bilingual in Baima and Chinese, they primarily use Baima language in daily life.
On the night of the 16th August, the storm intensified, there were frequent blackouts, and mobile phone signals were lost. The next day, there were signs of landslides, as debris started flow through the valley.
Youths and adolescents voluntarily mobilized all villagers and gathered them into a household located in a relatively safe spot in the valley. Nonetheless, some people refused to leave their homes because they didn’t want to abandon their property. However, the organizers managed to persuade them in their own language.
According to my local informant, who participated in organizing the activity, there were some advantages to using their own language in the crisis. Firstly, youths and elders all understood it; and secondly, organizers knew how to use the language to convince people. Especially, as the flood of debris intensified, children and women panicked. Only their own language was able to comfort them in this situation.
Recovery and Relocation
On the 20th of August 2020, the weather began clear up, and some Baima people from the county town arrived at the village in order to provide assistance to locals. The next day, local people started undertaking relief work. Due to the lack of phone signals, yelling turned out to be the only way to communicate at a distance. My informant claimed that because Baima language has many rhymes, it can be understood at a great distance without misunderstanding.
On the morning of the next day, someone from another team yelled to them from a nearby slope, requesting their help. Young people from Pa Xi Jia team marched to the other team, which had been severely affected, to provide help. They tried their best to rescue property from the houses that had been partially buried in the mud.
That afternoon, they returned to their own team, and disinfected the accumulated sludge in the houses and in the irrigation ditches in the village. In the evening, they found that debris was floating on the lake, Tianmu Hu, near the village. Also, an unpleasant odor started to appear. Having experienced such natural disasters several times in the past, they were aware that the smell may be a sign of disease. After a short discussion, in order to avoid an epidemic, all villagers agreed to move to the county town temporarily.
A Language in Crisis
Locals currently face serious challenges regarding the preservation and transmission of Baima language. Before children in the villages start school, they are able to speak Baima. However, as soon as they enter kindergartens, where Chinese is the only medium of instruction, Baima children start to lose their ability to use their mother tongue.
To make matters worse, teachers in local schools see Baima students as trouble-makers. Often, teachers are very critical and even derisive towards Baima students. This stigma results in Baima students being reluctant to speak their language in public, and refusing to wear their traditional clothes.
My informant explained to me that although some institutions from the government provide them with help, there is still a long way to go to preserve the language for future generations.
Yang, Weijun. 2001. The Origin and Formation of Baima Tibetans. Sichou Zhilu. 1:38-40
Dmu dge bsam gtan, 2010. Bod kyi lo rgyus kun dga’i me long. Beijing: Minzu Publishing House.